Prepare the Way

Our adventure toward the manger continues today with a look at the very first chapter of Mark. Mark is accepted as the first Gospel that was written, so it will be interesting to look at the first words of the first words. What was important? How shall we start this story? Every journey begins with a first step and every story begins with a first word. What did Mark think would be the most important way to start the good news of Jesus Christ?

He begins with Isaiah, and then quickly pivots to John the Baptist.

Mark 1 (Common English Bible)

1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.”

This is a convincing and deliberate way to speak to the Jews of the time. Mark begins by presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of a well-known prophecy. Every hearer would have known Isaiah’s foretelling of the promised Messiah. Mark connects the preparation that Isaiah laid with John the Baptist’s call to prepare. This is to demonstrate that Jesus is the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

John’s preaching

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. 

Here we find the instructions for how to prepare to receive the Messiah. Change your heart. Change your life. Ask God to forgive your sins.

Sounds a little like Lent, doesn’t it?

But what better way could we possibly prepare ourselves for the incoming and indwelling of God-made-flesh?

Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 

OK, so John was a little strange in his appearance and habits. But the spotlight was never supposed to be on him. His announcement is loud and clear: there is one coming after me who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals.I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This might be a good day to put down the tinsel, set aside the wrapping paper, and really be about our Father’s work. It was his will to send Jesus so that we might be cleansed of our sins and saved.

How are you preparing? Have you stopped your Christmas preparations long enough to do some Advent soul-searching?

Today is the day. Ask God to come into your heart and take inventory. And be ready for a baptism of confession, repentance, forgiveness, and change.

Come, Holy Spirit! Make us ready.

Preparing by Jennifer Thompson

Good Tidings

Can you remember a time in your life when you had really, really, REALLY good news to share? I can remember racing home to my college dorm the night I got engaged. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents…they were the first call I made. Then ran up and down the halls and told my dorm-mates. Finally I settled down in my room and called my friends from high school, my grandparents, my sister, and my cousins. I spent a few hours sharing my good tidings. I couldn’t help myself!

Today we finish the passage in Isaiah that we began yesterday. In this section, we read of the good tidings of God’s return to redeem Jerusalem:

Isaiah 40 (New Revised Standard Version)

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

10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.

Here we see a sign of what the Messiah will look like. Good news! He comes with might to save his people, and tends to them like a caring shepherd:

11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

We tell this story over and over. Every Advent brings us back to these same good tidings. Why do we keep repeating the same story?

Paul R. Abernathy, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., puts it like this:

“We do not recount the record of our redemption simply to recall ancient biblical texts. No. We retell the story so that it takes deeper root in us. We retell the story so that we become the story, the church seasons becoming active verbs in our lives.

We retell the story so that we always ‘advent,’ being alert to the coming of Jesus to us.
We retell the story so that we always ‘christmas,’ being animated by the birth of Jesus in us.
We retell the story so that we always ‘epiphany,’ being awake to the revelation of Jesus in us for the world.
We retell the story so that we always ‘lent,’ being aligned to the death of Jesus for us in our dying to sin.
We retell the story so that we always ‘easter,’ being alive to the resurrection of Jesus for us and in us.
We retell the story so that we always ‘pentecost,’ being afire with the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

Advent, then, is more than a mere revival of a repetitious cycle. Advent signals the renewal of a spiritual journey that wends its way to the very gate of glory of heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal city of God.”
(“When Will It End?” The African American Pulpit 1 [Fall 1998], 6.)

May you ‘advent’ and be alert to God-With-Us in new ways this year. Go and shout the good tidings of Christ’s birth from your own mountaintop! And may the story take deep root in you until you BECOME the story.

Go, and tell.

A High Mountain in Germany by Jessica Spiegelblatt

Comfort

My best friend’s husband has just been released from ICU. He was diagnosed with COVID 19 and is slowly recovering. There are health issues remaining, and the long-term picture is unknown. How I long to comfort them!

A colleague from my last church is in the same situation. He has been sick for a month. What words of comfort can we give him?

Close to 1.5 million people have died worldwide, millions are infected, schools are struggling with remote learning, businesses are failing, families are separated, and the future, while hopeful, is still unknown.

We all long for comfort in this season. Where can we find hope?

In the book of Isaiah, we find the incredibly beautiful words of comfort that we need right now. The nation of Israel was living in isolation. A virus of extreme apostasy had infected the people, leaving them weak and vulnerable enough to be captured by the Babylonians. They became long haulers who were scattered about in foreign lands.

They needed a Savior.

Isaiah 40 (New Revised Standard Version)

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

But then God declared that their term of isolation had ended. God would bring not only comfort, but redemption.

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

Where in your life are you lacking comfort? Aside from the pandemic, where are you crying out for redemption? Are there addictions, relationships, economic realities, or sinful behaviors that are making you cry out for relief? Where do you need to be healed?

These words are for YOU. God is preparing a way in your wilderness. He is flattening all the obstacles that are blocking your path. He is raising up a valley of help and resources to meet your situation. He is leveling your playing field.

What are you to do? Look. Follow. Be obedient to the changes that he is requiring. Listen to his words and HEED them. Only then will the glory of his redemption be revealed in your life.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

The mouth of the Lord has spoken! His words bring comfort. Open your ears and listen.

The Glory of the Lord is Revealed by Michelle Robertson

Tear It Open

And thus, Christmas begins. Thanksgiving is still in the fridge, wrapped in packages of foil. But for the most part, Christmas has begun in America.

This first week of Advent brings us back to the beginning. The beginning of the church year, the beginning of our journey toward the manger, and the beginning of our faith as we prepare for the Holy Child to be born.

But is it really the beginning?

The awesome blessing of these four Sundays of preparation is how we begin to look backward to the Old Testament to see how the prophets looked forward. In all truth, our journey to the manger begins in Genesis. But for today, we will settle into the lovely book of Isaiah, a common text for Christmas readings. If you are a fan of Handel’s Messiah, you know what I am talking about.

Jesus came to be our Emmanuel. He was born to be our “God With Us.” Isaiah lays the groundwork for the need and the desire for God to tear open the heavens and come down with a fiery presence. The longing and the waiting are beautifully expressed.

Isaiah 64: 1-5 (New Revised Standard Version)

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!

We can see in this passage why it was hard for people to receive Christ as Messiah. Born among sheep and shepherds, surrounded with the stink of cow dung as he slept on a bed of hay, Jesus was not what they expected. They expected a “defeating Pharaoh/parting of the Red Sea/slaying all the enemies” kind of savior.

When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

The mystery of God-in-flesh was still way ahead of them. Their expectation of God was based all in their past.

From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.

As we make our way to the manger this year, what are you expecting? What is on your list of hopes and dreams? Are you looking for a victorious military commander to plow through your adversaries with a flaming sword and a burning shield? Or are you looking for the gentle savior who will leave the flock to find you when you become that one little lost lamb?

Advent is a good time to assess and adjust our expectations. Christmas will likely be very different this year, but at the heart of every Christmas is the advent of the miracle of hope. No matter what your expectations are, hope is always needed. So welcome hope in, and tear open every place in your heart that needs a gentle Savior.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.

God With Us by Colin Snider

Be The 10%

Can you remember being told by your parents to say “please” and “thank you?” These two phrases are the beginning of learning manners and should stick with us throughout our lives. Unfortunately, they don’t. It can be frustrating and hurtful to do something special for someone and not receive a word of thanks for your effort.

Today is Thanksgiving in America, a time normally spent around tables laden with food made from family recipes that have been handed down for generations. This year, however, many are not gathering together due to the pandemic. Some of us are struggling with feeling any gratitude this year.

Jesus can relate.

Luke 17 (Contemporary English Version)

11 On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus went along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men with leprosy came toward him. They stood at a distance 13 and shouted, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

14 Jesus looked at them and said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.”

On their way they were healed. 15 When one of them discovered that he was healed, he came back, shouting praises to God. 16 He bowed down at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. The man was from the country of Samaria.

17 Jesus asked, “Weren’t ten men healed? Where are the other nine? 18 Why was this foreigner the only one who came back to thank God?” 19 Then Jesus told the man, “You may get up and go. Your faith has made you well.”

Only one thought to return with a word of thanks. Who knows what was in the minds of the others? Were they just so joyful to be healed that they couldn’t help themselves? Did they rush off to be reunited with their families? Remember that lepers lived in complete isolation. Imagine how life-changing this was for them. Thanks to the pandemic, I think we can relate a little to what isolation feels like.

But Jesus deserved their thanks. And he deserves ours.

There are other things we can create from family recipes. We can share memories by letter or by phone. We can show off our tables by ZOOM and Facebook. We can encourage one another that next year will be different. We can leave food at a neighbor’s house who is struggling financially or dealing with COVID 19. We can flood the food pantries with financial donations.

We can give thanks to our Maker that we are alive to grumble and complain about everything!

I know it is cliche to “go around the table and say what you are thankful for,” but do it anyway.

I am thankful everyday for YOU. When you read, comment, and especially when you share these devotionals, you are helping God’s word spread throughout the world, which is the only reason I do this.

When it’s my turn around the table today, I will be thanking God for his Word and for all of you who turn to it every day.

Thank you!

Let Us Give Thanks by Karen Warlitner

A Love/Hate Thing

I hate running. But I love the way running makes me feel when it’s over.

I hated practicing my bassoon. But I loved being able to play all the right notes in a concert.

I hate math. OK, that’s where it breaks down. I still hate math.

I think Paul may have had a bit of a love/hate relationship with his church in Corinth. He desperately loved them, but he hated their sin. When they were sinful, he acted like a betrayed father who has just discovered contraband in his favorite son’s bedroom. Disappointment abounds when someone or something you love lets you down. The people in that church often let Paul down.

But he never stopped giving thanks for their faith, their ministry, and their testimony.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (Common English Bible)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving for the Corinthians

I thank my God always for you, because of God’s grace that was given to you in Christ Jesus. That is, you were made rich through him in everything: in all your communication and every kind of knowledge, in the same way that the testimony about Christ was confirmed with you. 

The result is that you aren’t missing any spiritual gift while you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also confirm your testimony about Christ until the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and you were called by him to partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Think about your own love/hate relationships. Maybe you hate cleaning but love a clean house. Perhaps you hate cooking but love to sit down to a well-prepared meal. Do you hate the way your in-laws voted, but love the way they feel about your kids? Do you hate your adult child’s reckless behavior in the midst of a pandemic, but love him with all your heart?

Do you hate the sin, but love the sinner?

Give thanks for it all. Give thanks in spite of the things you don’t like. Focus on the good and be grateful. God is faithful to us in spite of our many failings. May we be that faithful to one another, and may love and thanksgiving abound as we gather around the table or the ZOOM call tomorrow.

I thank my God always for you.

Thankful by Michelle Robertson

Bread of Tears

Have you ever been down about something and then instantly felt better when you learned that a friend experienced the same thing? When you’re upset, it feels good to know that you’re not alone. A brief exchange of “yeah, me too” can result in a healing catharsis. I recently had a conversation with a colleague who was responding to a crisis with calm assurance. His response aligned with my perspective on the issue. It greatly lessened my anxiety to know I was not alone in my thinking.

I had a catharsis this morning when I read Psalm 80. We have just turned the church calendar over and this is the first week of the new year. Readings are now coming from Year B, in case you are keeping track.

This Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. Our worship would normally be filled with lights, carols, acolytes, special readings, Advent wreath candle lighting, etc. as we prepare for Christmas. But many of our sanctuaries are still closed, or operating at half-capacity with a lot of Covid modifications, including no singing. Nothing feels the same.

I don’t know where the psalmist was when he penned these words, but emotionally, he was right where we are this week:

Psalm 80 (New Revised Standard Version)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

This is a poignant prayer for right now. We long to be restored and saved.

In the next line, the psalmist responds to what he perceives is God’s anger against the nation of Israel. Do you relate to this? Do you think the pandemic and all of our nation’s issues are a result of God’s anger?

O Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.

I don’t think that God is punishing us, but I have felt as though we have been eating a steady diet of bread made of tears. I just wish we could push back from the table and leave. I know that this will end…of that, I am sure. But how long, Lord?

Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Friends, God’s face is already shining on us. Even with the rising numbers, we are seeing advancements in medical science. Hope is at hand. Our race toward a vaccine, combined with staying home, is bringing us closer to the end. The God of hosts is in the process of saving us. And guess what? We’re one day closer to the end of this thing.

God’s Face Will Shine by Kathy Schumacher

Darkened Sun

It was announced last week that Utqiagvik, Alaska, has seen their last sunrise for over 60 days.

Known as “polar night,” this happens every winter because of the tilt of the Earth’s axis. The tilt makes it so that none of the sun’s disc is visible above the horizon in towns located in the Arctic Circle.

Think of it….more than two months without sunlight.

Mark 13 (English Standard Version)

24 “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

32 “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. 

No one knows the day or the hour when Jesus will return. No one knows when this world will end and we will begin our new life with the Lord together. Jesus instructs us to be on guard and keep awake. What does that mean?

34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake.35 Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows,[c] or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.”

I think it means to stay awake to the needs around you. Be alert to opportunities where you can serve the poor, the marginalized, the hungry, and the needy. You don’t know how many more chances you get to be Jesus to others.

I think it means to seek forgiveness from those whom you have hurt. Today. This hour. You don’t know how many more chances you have to do that.

I think it means to forgive those who have hurt you, even if they haven’t sought your forgiveness. Withholding forgiveness is a burden YOU carry in your heart. Let it go. You may not have another opportunity to unburden yourself.

I KNOW it means to repent. Get right with Jesus this instant. Clear yourself and cleanse yourself of the stink of sin. You do have an opportunity to come to Jesus and confess.

And what I say to you I say to all: stay awake.

Stay Awake by Becca Ziegler

The Rock

A recent trip to a place called Dinosaur World was highlighted by a stop at a gem-finding place. It is one of those venues kids love, where you purchase a bag of dirt and pour it into a sluice box. Water runs through the box and washes away the dirt to reveal the hidden gems. Rose quartz, red jasper, amethysts, and other beautiful stones emerge with each washing.

We are like that in a way. Each time we go before the Lord to confess our sins, we are washed in the sluice box of his forgiveness. The beauty of our potential is revealed through repentance. We emerge from this experience as humbled, forgiven people.

Today’s psalm uses a beautiful image of God as the Rock of our salvation. It is fitting. In the bag of rocks at the gemstone place, each gem is a small piece that was broken off from a bigger rock. To realize that God is our Rock is to acknowledge that he is our stronghold, our place of origin, and our constant source of strength and rescue. We are made in his image.

We are invited to come before our Rock with joyful shouts and singing.

Psalm 95 (New King James Version)

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord!
Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;
Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.

God’s greatness is our hope. Everything in heaven and on earth is his.

For the Lord is the great God,
And the great King above all gods.
In His hand are the deep places of the earth;
The heights of the hills are His also.
The sea is His, for He made it;
And His hands formed the dry land.

There is nothing for us to do but bow down and worship.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.
For He is our God,
And we are the people of His pasture,
And the sheep of His hand.

Where in your life do you need to go before the Rock and find his salvation? Are you feeling broken, separated, small, or fragile? Do you need forgiveness to wash over you like a gentle tidal wave?

Let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. In HIS hand is everything we need to make it through one more day.

The Sea is His by Michelle Robertson

Imprisonment

Let me tell you about my friend Lisa. Lisa is the co-author of a book on grief that we wrote together several years ago. (Mourning Break) She is actively engaged in prison ministry. Her dedication to the women in the Georgia state prison system is incredibly admirable. She visits them, writes emails to them, prays with them, prays FOR them, and has helped one write a book on devotionals from prison. With all the ways that she is a true Barnabas who supports and encourages others, she is first and foremost obedient to what Christ has called ALL of us to do.

In this passage in Matthew, Jesus explains how we all will be evaluated at the end of our days. The king in the story has separated the people into two groups: those who are righteous, who are positioned on the right, and those who ignored his call, whom he placed on his left.

Matthew 25 (Common English Bible)

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

This clearly is the standard by which the world will be judged. Those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and gave the cool cup of water to the thirsty will inherit the kingdom. Taking care of the sick and visiting people in prison also enable believers to receive all the good things the father has to bestow upon his people.

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

I think about my friend and her prison ministry when I read this passage. Jesus explains that when we do loving and caring things for others, we are doing them for Christ himself. Can there be a higher goal in life than to do acts of beauty and kindness for Jesus?

You may not have a way to visit someone in prison like Lisa does, but you probably know someone who is imprisoned by their situation, their defeat, their hopelessness, their poverty, or their choices. Can you make a difference? Can you reach out in non-judgmental love and offer a plate of love, a cup of justice, a coat of warm acceptance, or a handshake of welcome? (OK, maybe a wave from six feet away…)

Take this scripture to heart. In a world that is imprisoned in despair, be a Lisa. And when you do, you’ll be serving Christ himself.

You Welcomed Me by Mark Poblete