Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Spirit of Christ

The Spirit of Christ
Isaiah 11:1-9
December 22, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent, our fourth Sunday to stand side by side gazing at the prophetic vision of Isaiah. While it is helpful to think about the context of these writings, set back in the distant past – some eight or nine hundred years before the advent of Christ, it can be distracting to get too bogged down in the history, and it isn’t always helpful to dissect a text. Sometimes, taking a scripture apart to try to get at “what it really means” is like taking a music box apart. Have you ever done that – taken apart something lovely, like a music box, in order to see how it is put together? When you have finished with it, you may know more than you did when you started, but the music will be lost.

So as we approach this reading, we know that the people of Israel have been in a place of despair, and that the prophet Isaiah’s words are given as correction and they are given as explanation, but most of all they are given as a word of hope and encouragement. Let’s listen for what the Spirit is saying to us in this reading from Isaiah 11: 1-9

Isaiah 11: 1-9
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6 The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7 The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 

As with the other texts from Isaiah we’ve looked at in previous weeks, this scripture is filled with poetic images. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Isaiah has painted word-pictures to help us see the future that he is seeing. He has shown us a light shining, dispelling the darkness taken us to a desert that is blooming, marched with us up the mountain to Zion, pointed out that long straight road that leads home, led us near the foundry of peace, where we can hear the clang of swords being beaten into plowshares.

Now, he shows us a forest laid waste, barren of life, the trunks of old growth trees chopped off, branches lopped away, huge stumps where once there was a verdant forest. The tallest trees were cut down, and the lofty laid low. Then fire raged through what had been a lushly wooded area. It annihilated the remnant. What was once a fertile and abundant place is now a wasteland, the ground covered in soot and ashes. The faint smell of smoke is everywhere as we scuff through the burned over land.

It is tragic to see, this place that once held such life and promise, now leveled, destroyed utterly. Isaiah sits down on a stump, a ruined old tree that once offered shelter and fruit. There, growing out of the ruin and decay, is a tender shoot, a sprout, out of the tree, with two small leaves… a branch, out of the still-living roots of that tree… In a generation, maybe two, or three, or more the house of Jesse will be restored.

This will happen through the coming of a leader who has God’s spirit – in Hebrew, that’s “ruach,” a word I like because it sounds like a rushing wind. Ruach -- God’s spirit-- a spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of discernment and power, the spirit of knowledge and reverence of God. 

This leader who has this spirit does not simply know about people and the world, he is in relationship to people and the world, his knowledge and understanding are borne of experience as much as of instruction. He embodies a spirit of justice, deciding in favor of the poor and the meek, and against the greedy and the wicked. Righteousness and faithfulness are such second nature to him that he wears them like clothing – on his sleeve, as it were.

Now, just as we are getting our eyes focused, with Isaiah, on this vision of this leader that is to come, he shifts the focus, and pans out wide, to the cosmos. God’s redeeming work is not just this one small green shoot, it is bigger, broader, higher, more expansive than we’d ever imagined. Now we see all of creation being renewed through the Spirit of God. Here is a wild timber wolf, a predator living in community with a lamb that was once on the dinner menu.

A lion snuggling up with a cow and her calf,   a leopard napping with the goat herd, the whole great yapping snuffling lowing bleating creation following a little child. Bears and lions have become vegetarians. Babies and toddlers can play with snakes, without fear, without danger. The poison of violent aggression is no more, not even in the animal kingdom.

Can you see it? Can you see what the Spirit of Christ will do?
Me neither.

All this week, the news feed and blogosphere and Facebook feed have been full of posts about this guy on Duck Dynasty, whose interview in GQ got him suspended from his job. The arguments have flown fast, about whether this multi-millionaire, who holds a master’s degree in education, should be praised or punished for what he said.

Meanwhile, in South Sudan, three thousand armed men surrounded a UN peacekeeping base, and fired into the crowd, killing eleven Dinka civilians who had sought refuge at the UN base. Aircraft sent in to evacuate peace workers was fired upon, wounding US service personnel who had come to help.[1]

North Korea sent a fax – yes, a fax, to South Korea last week, informing them that they would “strike mercilessly without notice” if South Korean demonstrators continued to burn effigies of the late Kim Jong Il.[2]

On Friday, roadside bombs in Iraq killed nine and wounded twenty-three.

A gunman opened fire at the Manila airport in the Philippines, killing a small-town mayor and three others, including a young child.[3]

We don’t even notice anymore, the violence and bloodshed is so frequent.
Where is the Spirit of Christmas?
Where is the Spirit of Christ?

We don’t see the lofty being brought low. The needy are still turned away, and the poor and the widow still suffer; children are still preyed upon. We wonder, at times, if God is really at work in the world. The answer, of course, comes to us over and over again, and is highlighted for us especially in this season of preparation.

Our questions find their answers in this green sprig, growing up from a stump. Our questions may find their answers in the birth of an ordinary child, celebrated mostly by an ordinary family, people we may not know or ever meet, but people who may be nurturing a child to speak out for the lowly, to care for the hurting, to seek righteousness. Our questions find their answers in our own lives, in the ways in which we are moved by the Spirit of Christ to care for the needy, to protect the vulnerable, to work for justice. Our questions find their ultimate answers in this child that is to be born the child of the prophecy of Isaiah, perhaps, the one whose birth we celebrate every year. It is he who comes with righteousness and faithfulness to rule with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and reverence.

His Spirit comes to us in the small sprigs of hope that spring up in unexpected places, tiny shoots in barren deserts. That Spirit of Christ is something more than a warm and benevolent feeling that fades away the day after we take down the Christmas decorations. It is a spirit of hope that prompts us to works of love.

I urge you to join me, this season, and in all the days to come, to walk and live in that Spirit of Christ, the Spirit that calls us to provide mittens to warm the hands of children, and to offer grace and mercy and food to those left out in the cold; the Spirit that believes it is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.

You very likely have heard a poem by Howard Thurman, about the true work of Christmas. He also wrote a poem called “I Will Light Candles This Christmas.” When Christmas Eve comes, and we gather for communion and candlelight, perhaps this poem will be ringing in our ears. Perhaps the Spirit will speak to you as you read these words:

I will light Candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.

The prophet looked ahead to that day, remembering the promise of hope given by God’s Spirit, made human in the Spirit of Christ: “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Beloved CommUNITY

Isaiah 2: 2-5
December 15, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Isaiah 2:2-5
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

When I turned in the sermon title, some weeks ago, I called it “Beloved CommUNITY.” I’d have done better to call it “Impossible Dream.” It doesn’t seem possible, does it, that this vision of the prophet could come to pass? It is a vision of God’s Shalom. The word “shalom” gets translated as “peace,” but when we were choosing scripture, and when we chose the words for the banners, we wanted other words, other words than “hope, peace, joy and love” that are used most years for the four Sundays of Advent. We wanted words that would make us stop, slow down and think. We wanted artwork on the banners that would do the same.

This text from Isaiah is easily brushed off as an impossible vision of peace –
swords into plowshares? spears into pruning hooks? Like that’ll happen!

No, this is not a text for us now, here, in 2013 in Sterling, Illinois.
This is a text for some far off future, a vision of peace that cannot happen any time soon.
After all, look at this sequence of events:
1. “The mountain of the Lord’s house”—that is, Zion—will be elevated and exalted (v. 2ab).
2. There will be a pilgrimage of all peoples to the holy mountain (vv. 2c-3a). That’s ALL peoples – all the nations, everyone in the world.
3. As they are marching to Zion they are singing glad songs, prayers that the God of Jacob may teach them God’s ways (v. 3b).
4. They are coming in order to learn God’s law “torah” – the covenant and commandment.
5. The one they worship will “judge between the nations,” literally, God will BRING JUSTICE among all people.[1]

It’s a nice thought, isn’t it, that someday there will be peace and justice throughout the earth? It’s more comfortable that way, to keep all this at arm’s length, an impossible dream for the future. Oh, sure, we would love to have this happen now, but it just isn’t realistic. It is too challenging for us to envision this happening right here and right now.

After all, it would require that people – all people – come together as one people, and that they be prepared to give up conflict and disagreement. It would demand that each one of us be peacemakers, for there is no other way to find unity unless that unity begins within our own souls. Realistically, it can’t happen, this unity of the beloved community.

But it can.
It can happen, because Jesus came, the prince of peace.
It can happen, because God’s covenant and commandment came in human form, in a baby born to lead us in the way of peace. It can be born within us, and among us.

It begins when we take our own swords and spears and place them into the foundry of God’s mercy and love. Unity begins when we lay down our weapons – even if those weapons are words, or political positions, or opinions, even if – especially if – those weapons are the “facts” we use to bludgeon others. Unity begins when we promise that we will study war no more, that we will be drop-outs from the school of conflict. Unity begins when we enroll in God’s classes, when we begin studying for citizenship in that beloved community, the one made whole, brought together, in Christ Jesus. Instructed in him, we will study – focus – dwell – on God’s torah, on God’s covenant and commandment.

And what is God’s law? Jesus said it. The greatest commandment is this:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

So, people of God, as we come streaming up the mountain, to come into God’s presence, as we go marching into Christmas, to gather around the manger in the candlelight, we look to that reality of God’s presence. Then Jesus comes among us as the Word incarnate, to teach us God’s law and covenant. What is the law that we are to learn? The great commandment, which brings God’s shalom.

Because shalom is not just the absence of war.
Shalom is unity, wholeness, the justice of love that only God can give.
Shalom begins within us, and spreads out from us.
There is no better time than this season to be reconciled to God, and to be reconciled to one another. There is no better time than this season to seek the unity that comes from inner peace. The vision of shalom is of wholeness, of unity, of being made one in Christ, who is coming to be born anew.
May his peace and unity be born in us again and again and again.  


[1] Adapted from Gene M. Tucker, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on Isaiah

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hope of the World

Isaiah 35: 1-10
December 8, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL

Three years ago, on December second, the forest of Mount Carmel caught fire.
The fire began on the outskirts of the northern town of Isfiya and spread through the Carmel Forest. The fire burned rapidly, and became an inferno. Mount Carmel forest, one of the most beautiful and historic places in Israel, was utterly devastated, burned beyond description. A year the Jerusalem post reported: “The Forest Reawakens: The first flowers of the season can now be seen covering the slopes of Mount Carmel, reminding us once more of nature’s enduring capacity for renewal…These first blooms from the scorched earth have emerged from bulbs and tubers buried deep in the ground, where they have remained secure and untouched by the flames. Cyclamen, narcissi and sea squills peep out from among the trees in both burned and undamaged areas, and in some parts of the woodland grassy plants are already struggling back to life.[1]

None of the news reports I read harkened back to the 35th chapter of Isaiah, but they seemed like a contemporary fulfillment of the prophet’s words: the desert rejoicing, as new life springs forth from desolation. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Isaiah, Chapter 35:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.  Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.  

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God's people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sometimes, the selected Scripture reading for the day is so rich in imagery and poetry that it seems important to simply sit quietly with it, to let it soak in like a gentle rain, and drench us with hope. This reading is one of those selections. Every line bursts with beauty and every word hums with hope. It’s believed that this chapter of Isaiah, along with the one before it, was written at a time when the people of Israel were in exile. God had made them a great people, just as Abraham and Sarah were promised. God had given them a land, just as Moses and Miriam and Aaron had been told. God had given them judges, but they were not satisfied, and they demanded a king. God gave them a king, a whole series of kings, some of them good and wise, some of them, as is the way of kings, selfish and tyrannical.

But things had not turned out the way they wanted. The people thought they knew what was best for them. They adopted the ways and customs of other cultures. They did not keep covenant with God. They strayed away from God’s steadfast love, and their connection, their prosperity, their identity had eroded to such a point that they were in exile. They sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept. “How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?”

Then came the prophet, Isaiah. How their hearts must have pounded as they heard these words: the desert shall rejoice and blossom… it will rejoice with joy and singing…

There is hope! That which is parched and devoid of growth will burst forth with glorious beauty, with crocuses and green-ness and splendor! That which was dead and barren will spring up to new life. The dry land will become a spring of water, and where there was dead brown grass there will be rushes, and cat-tails. Where once a small brown lizard skittered across cracked ground, there will be a pool, where ducks paddle and dragonflies buzz.

Not only will the created order be restored, not only will the land be healed, but humanity will be restored as well: blind eyes will see; deaf ears will hear; speechless tongues will sing for joy; the lame shall leap like a deer. The hope spreads out across the barren desert, blown by the wind of God’s grace, transforming what was desolate and inhospitable into a sanctuary of beauty, an oasis. Hope emerges like a bubbling spring, unexpected, refreshing, continuing.

But God is not finished yet, no, God always has more in store than we imagine: a road will appear, a highway in the wilderness, a road so straight and so clean and so safe that no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. That road leads away from sadness into hope. It leads from desperation to salvation. That road leads home.

In this season of Advent, while we are waiting for Christmas, it may be difficult to imagine a world without hope. So many signs of hope are around us, so many songs of rejoicing are being sung. Bright-eyed children gaze in awe at the multicolored lights, poke at the wrapped gifts under the tree, and laugh in delight at television Christmas specials. Here at the church, the decorations are up, the mitten tree is lit, the banners proclaim hope, and we’ve welcomed people into the building to see the annual presentation of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

We are ready for Baby Jesus to come to us, bringing joy and toys and candy and family and carols, bringing angels and shepherds and sheep, and the most wonderful day of the year. But we know there is more to Christmas than lights and gifts and cocoa. We say that Jesus is the reason for the season. And he is. But there is even more to Christmas than Baby Jesus. That baby in a manger is God with us, the love of God in human form – not just on Christmas, but through all eternity.

There is wonder there, in that manger. He takes weakness and makes it strong. He touches what is dead, and it springs to life. He has come and is here and is coming and that wonder unfolds all around us and within us. We lose sight of that, as we grow older. The older we get, the more complicated our lives become. Layers build up, like geologic formations, covering up the simple joy that childhood Christmases may have brought.

Maybe hope seems to have dried up, in the parched deserts of our grief.
Maybe hope has been covered up by the sands of sorrow.
Maybe hope grew for a moment, long ago, then withered over time.
Maybe hope lived within us once, but as we became more sensible and cynical, it migrated away like a threatened species.
Maybe hope grew up, gave up, and died.

Maybe hope just seems as far away and impossible as it must have seemed to those exiles, weeping in Babylon. So maybe it just isn’t realistic to think that this one little baby is really going to change anything in this weary old world. Maybe it isn’t very sensible to think that this infant in a manger is going to tip the balance of the cosmos.
But hope says otherwise.

Hope says that God is restoring all of creation – all at once!
Hope says that the lame will walk and the blind will see.
Hope says that mourning will be turned into dancing and that those who cry themselves to sleep will awake singing joyful songs. Hope says that in Jesus Christ, God bursts into the world, wailing, red-faced, wriggling – a baby! In Jesus Christ, God appears in human weakness, fragile, but comes bringing power, and mystery[2], bringing a new world --the hope of a new heaven and a new earth.

That hope is not some far-off dream, some distant prophet’s vision. That hope is real and alive and being born in us, right here and right now. That hope is blossoming up like a crocus in the snow, affirming that God has come to be with us, one of us! Hope opens our eyes and our ears so that we can see the angels and hear them singing. Hope lifts us up from apathy and despair, and makes us leap for delight to see what God is doing, and can do, and will do, with us, if we are willing.

Hope restores the weary and transforms the whole cosmos. It comes to us in small and quiet ways, in the tiny hand of an infant wrapped around a finger, in the distant cry of a baby, shattering the night, ringing across the centuries to awaken us, to rouse us from sleep, to jar us from apathy, to awaken our humanity and call us into service. Hope pushes one tiny tendril, a leaf, a vine, up through the ground, and the mountains of Carmel, ravaged by fire, bloom again.

Hope lifts up the down trodden, energizes the weary, enlivens each one of us.
Hope wraps itself around those who mourn, enfolds those who weep and gently, gently turns them--  turns US!-- to follow that road.
That road leads to God made manifest in Jesus Christ, who was and is and is to come.
He is coming to us, to meet us on that road,
to drive away our sorrow and sighing,
to fill our hearts with gladness,
to transform the world,
to transform me, to transform you,
to lead us home.

[2] Christine Roy Yoder, Journal for Preachers. “An Interpretation of Isaiah for Advent Preachers: Hope that Walks” p. 21

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A King Like No Other

This first Sunday of December marks the first Sunday of Advent, the four-week season of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas season actually begins on December 25, and lasts for 12 days - until Epiphany on January 6. Our Advent series for worship focuses on the prophetic visions and images in the book of Isaiah. To help us in our focus, we commissioned a series of banners, created by artist Linda Von Holten. You can see more about the banners and Linda's artwork on our church website at

A King Like No Other
Isaiah 9:2-7
December 1, 2013, First Sunday in Advent
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Isaiah 9:2-7
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Darkness is heavy. It weighs down on us, sometimes, like a physical presence.
You can imagine that the darkness of Isaiah’s time, around a thousand years before the birth of Christ, was much darker than any darkness any of us have ever experienced. The only sources of light, in the night, would have been small oil lamps or fires. If you were poor, the same oil you could burn in a shell or a hollowed out rock was the oil that provided necessary fats in your diet, so you weren’t burning the midnight oil much.[1]

Shepherds or nomadic people built watchfires, to keep the wolves away, to provide warmth, to push back the darkness. People went to bed when it got dark, and they didn’t get up until sunrise. They didn’t go out at night unless there was some kind of emergency – say, to rouse the neighbors if the house was on fire, or to fetch the midwife, if somebody was having a baby.

Early civilizations worshiped the sun, thought of themselves as people of the light. Darkness was not a good thing. It was threatening, frightening, dangerous and seemingly invincible. But we need darkness, it turns out. Scientists who study these things are increasingly concerned about light pollution, and what the ability to have endless daylight is doing to the human animal. We have in our bodies circadian rhythms that respond to the cycles of night and day. Our bodies are made to sleep at night, and when we disrupt that cycle, we suffer. There is even research that suggests that night owls (and I’m one of them) tend to be more devious and deceitful than morning people.[2]  (Hey - I’m working on it!)

The loss of true night darkness also means the loss of certain human experiences. Did you ever camp out in the wilderness, or drive out to the prairie, in the middle of a dark moonless night, and look up at the stars? There is something about that, lying on our backs, looking up at the endless night sky spread out like velvet and sprinkled with the bright jewels of the milky way, something that gives us a sense of perspective. And we are losing that experience. Because of light pollution, two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye.[3]

We need darkness.
We need darkness because it gives us an appreciation for light. We need night, because it prepares us for day. If you have ever walked out in the country on a dark night, alone, you will immediately know what it means to see a great light. If you have ever spent a long wakeful worried night, you know what it feels like to finally sleep, and wake to a glorious dawn. If you have ever groped your way through the unlit corridors of depression, grief, or anxiety, you know the feeling of lightness when you finally experience relief.

This promised king, in the prophetic voice of Isaiah, is a light shining in the darkness. He shatters the yoke of oppression, stills the pounding boots of thundering warriors, burns the blood-soaked garments of war. He is the lord of all the heavenly hosts.

He is … a helpless infant. 
He is the hope of all the nations, and he is a tiny mewling swaddled baby. Normally, such a child would be born in a palace, and be schooled in all the kingly arts, coddled and cared for as a valuable state asset, controlled and perhaps manipulated by regents until he came of age. He would be crowned king in a glorious ceremony, celebrated as he ascended the throne, guarded day and night.

But this is a king like no other.
He comes in the darkest season, a tiny, flickering light, a candle lit and shining bravely in the night. He does not drive away the darkness, but illuminates it, so that we can find him. In this season of waiting and preparation, in this time of his coming, we watch for him. Through the descending gloom of the long nights of winter, we await his advent. In the most unexpected places, we encounter him. In the bleak midwinter of grief and sorrow, his light reflects on the iron-hard ice, and melts our gloom.

In the shadows of our sadness, in the gloomy passageways of our hopelessness, we hear his infant cry, and we see his light. At this table, we meet him. If this child were born today, would we see a king? We would, if we seek him. We would see a king like no other, the great light shining, the light of a new dawn, a new day, a new life, a king who is both God and human, a king who humbles himself, even to the point of death, taking on the form of human likeness and meeting us where we are, inviting us, over and over again, into the light of love.

“Arise, shine; [the prophet said] for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses' arms." (Isaiah 60: 1-4)

Lift up your eyes and look around, this Advent season, and you will see that the king is coming, a king like no other, and he invites you to come into the light, to the brightness of his dawn, to the warmth and comfort of his presence, and to the bounty of his table.

We who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. He is coming, and he is here, shining in grace at this table, the light of love waiting to be kindled in us again.

[1] history of light

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rewinding the Year with Scripture and Song


The festivals and seasons of the Christian year (or liturgical calendar) offer a way to order the annual life of the church according to the life of Christ and the events of salvation history. Maybe the liturgical year it is something you have noticed, and wondered about, or maybe it is something that you’ve never paid much attention to. But we cycle through seasons of the year inside the church, just like outside. This Sunday, which is Christ the King Sunday, marks the end of the church year, and next Sunday is the beginning of the new year: the first Sunday of Advent. To mark this change, and to perhaps help us to experience the liturgical year more deeply, this worship service is shaped like the church year – in rewind! You’ll see, as we move through worship, that we will have readings and music that lift up a particular day or Season. You will notice that some seasons focus more on certain texts or ideas. So have fun with this, see what new things you can learn, and enjoy the service as we rewind the church year and get ready for the new year! 

(Note to readers: much of this information came from the website of the PC(USA) -   
For the children's time, we talked about the seasons and how they change, and each child received a bookmark decorated with ribbons of green, purple, red and white. Our table, as you can see above, was adorned with stoles of the seasons. Each of the four readers wore a stole as well, and the stoles corresponded to the season they discussed.  All songs come from the Presbyterian Hymnal.)

Christ the King

At the conclusion of the Christian year, the church gives thanks and praise for sovereignty of Christ, who is Lord of all creation and is coming again in glory to reign (see Revelation 1:4-8). Its color is WHITE, the color we use for celebrations – weddings, the Lord’s Supper, and funerals. The scripture readings and music are those which lift up the reign of Jesus Christ over all of creation and the church. This festival is celebrated on the last Sunday of the Christian year, a week before the season of Advent begins.

Call to Worship        Colossians 1:15-20
Leader: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.
People:  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything.
Leader: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
ALL: Let us worship God!

Opening Song:                      Come Christians Join to Sing

Ordinary Time
Ordinary time is actually two different seasons – the period between Christmas and Lent, and the period between Pentecost and Advent. The term “ordinary time” may sound like it refers to something that is everyday and uninteresting, but it is actually a term referring to “ordinal” or numbered Sundays. Usually the scriptures and music in this season focus on the stories of Jesus and the Epistles of the New Testament. The color for ordinary time is GREEN unless it is pre-empted by a special day or ceremony.

Matthew 4: 18-23
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.  As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Song:                                                         Amen, Amen


Pentecost is the day when we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit descending in a mighty rush of wind and flame to inspire the church’s proclamation of Christ’s rising and to empower its mission and ministry to the world. Easter is a season of 50 days ending at Pentecost, because it is based on the ancient Jewish festival of the Festival of Weeks or Shavuot. The Festival of Weeks later came to be called Pentecost (“50th day”) by Greek speaking Jews. The color of Pentecost is RED. On Pentecost we sing and celebrate the Holy Spirit, and we read scripture about the Holy Spirit, such as this one from Romans 8, our call to confession.

Call to Confession   Romans 8: 26-27
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 

Prayer of Confession (sung): Spirit

Silent prayers

Assurance of Pardon      Romans 8: 28-31
Leader: We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.  And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. 

People: What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! Thanks be to God.

Easter: The Resurrection

Easter isn’t just a Sunday — it’s a season. One day out of 365 is hardly sufficient to celebrate the great mystery of our faith — that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Easter lasts seven weeks, spanning the 50 days from the Sunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday.
The season of Easter is intended to be a joyful time for celebrating the presence of the risen Christ in the church. During this season, the scriptures focus on the resurrection of Jesus, and on the post-resurrection events described in the Gospels. It’s appropriate to sing Easter hymns throughout the season. The color for Easter is white – the color of celebration.

Matthew 28:1-8
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, "He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Easter song:                          Jesus Christ is Risen Today

The season of Lent is a time of prayer, fasting and self-examination in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of the Lord at Easter. It is a period of 40 days — like the flood of Genesis, Moses’ sojourn at Mount Sinai, Elijah’s journey to Mount Horeb, Jonah’s call to Ninevah to repent and Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. Sundays are not counted in this reckoning of the time, because every Lord’s Day is a celebration of the resurrection. In the early church, Lent was a time of preparation for the celebration of baptism at the Easter Vigil. In many communities of faith it remains a time to equip and nurture candidates for baptism and confirmation and to reflect deeply on the theme of baptismal discipleship. The scriptures during this time help us to reflect on our discipleship and to accompany Christ on his journey to the cross. The color for Lent is purple, the color of penitence.

Matthew 20: 17-28
While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised." Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, "What do you want?" She said to him, "Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom." But Jesus answered, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?"They said to him, "We are able." He said to them, "You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father." When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many." 

Lenten Song:                                    What Wondrous Love

There is no better response to the wondrous love of God expressed in Jesus Christ than to offer our gifts – our time and talent, and our offerings. Let us bring our offerings to God.

Prayer of Dedication


Epiphany is the celebration of God’s presence in the world in Jesus Christ. In particular, we celebrate the revelation of God’s promise and purpose to the nations of the world. The magi came from the East to worship to the Christ child, and God’s covenant of grace is extended to all who believe the good news of Christ Jesus. The symbolism of light reminds of the star that guided the magi, and of the bright dawning of God’s self-revelation in Christ. Epiphany hymns and scripture tell of the visit of the magi to see Jesus, and its color is white.

Matthew 2: 1-12
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: "And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.' " Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, "Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage." When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Epiphany Songs:                                     We Three Kings  

The Season of Christmas extends for 12 days – from Christmas Day to Epiphany. Since at least the fourth century in Rome, Christians celebrate the incarnation and nativity of Jesus Christ on December 25. The season between December 25 and January 6 (Epiphany) has become an occasion for the church to celebrate and give thanks for the arrival of God’s Word made flesh which even death could not extinguish. Its color is white.

Matthew 1: 18-23
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. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."

Christmas Song:                               Joy to the World


Advent” means “coming” or “arrival.” During the season of Advent, we celebrate Christ’s coming into the world and watch with expectant hope for his coming again. In its historical origins, the season of Advent was patterned after the season of Lent, a six-week period of penitence and preparation for Easter. The four weeks of Advent present an opportunity for communal discernment and personal examination, as the church prepares to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord and looks with hope for Christ’s return. Scripture and songs focus our attention on prophecy and preparation. The color for Advent is purple, the color of penitence.
This year, our observance of Advent will focus on the prophecy of the Messiah from the book of Isaiah, and the many names and descriptions of the Savior. Our celebration of Advent each will lift up a different aspect of the prophecy and fulfillment we find in Jesus Christ.

Closing Song:                                    Prepare the Way