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Everyone Gets Coal

Children's sermon
Illustration
Preaching
Sermon
Worship
For December 9, 2018:
  • Everyone Gets Coal by Chris Keating -- God’s message of salvation and redemption strikes at our culture’s anemic view of sin, calling us to reconsider what it means to prepare the way of the Lord. Both Malachi and John the Baptist remind us that the coming of the Lord is more terrifying than a lump of coal in our stockings.
  • Second Thoughts: Furtive joy (Spoiler alert!) by Tom Willadsen -- God’s intention for humankind is justice and peace. The track record through prophets and history and genealogy is toward a society where the poor and vulnerable are cared for.
  • Sermon illustrations by Dean Feldmeyer, Mary Austin and Ron Love
  • Worship resources by George Reed that focus on sin and the joy of being forgiven.
  • Freely Flowing Peace Children’s sermon by Bethany Peerbolte -- God faces our feet toward peace and we try to walk in the other direction. It isn’t until we repent and change direction that peace begins to flow freely.


Everyone Gets Coal
by Chris Keating
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6

“Every crook will argue: ‘I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is quite admirably arranged.” -- W. H. Auden, “For the Time Being.”

You better watch out, and you better not cry -- the messenger of God is headed your way. This is not some bug-eyed ghoulish-looking elf on a shelf, either. This is the real deal, the messenger of God who comes to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight paths which have been crooked too long. Malachi’s prophesy about God’s purifying redemption is echoed by John the Baptist’s plaintive cry in the desert. The Lord is coming, and it’s time to get ready.

John’s appearance in Luke is a bit like an opening scene of an epic movie. As the camera pans across a wilderness, Luke’s words crawl across the screen, setting the scene for the one who comes proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.

The second week of Advent heightens our expectation of Christ’s coming. The texts shift our attention to the coming messenger who declares God’s covenant of righteousness. It’s a promise that Malachi describes as both hopeful and terrifying. “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight -- indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming?”

In other words, don’t be surprised to see a big lump of coal in your Christmas stocking.

That’s hardly the sort of Christmas message our culture longs to hear. It seems we’ve adopted a rather domesticated view of sin which doesn’t fare well when compared to John’s untamed theology. Out in the wilderness, John calls things as he sees them -- he’s more than willing to name sin. Yet that runs counter to our preference. We’ve got no problem putting others on the naughty list; so long as we believe our name is on the right side of the ledger.

Perhaps it is time to take up psychiatrist Karl Menninger’s old question, “Whatever became of sin?” It’s relevant as we reflect on questions emerging from the ongoing special counsel investigation, the “desire” to forgive celebrities caught in scandal, as well as shifting perspectives of what counts as sin in our culture. In that sense, many people might share President Trump’s understanding of sin, “Why do I have to repent, why do I have to ask for forgiveness if I’m not making mistakes?”

In the news
Sin seems to be in season.

Thanks to a heavily marketed “Christmas tradition” that was introduced in the 2005 children’s book “The Elf on the Shelf” by Carol Aebersold and daughter Chanda Bell, families are discovering new ways of navigating the 24 days before Christmas. The mysterious elf -- sold separately -- appears as Santa’s scout. The visitor from the North Pole monitors children’s behaviors, rushing back to Santa’s workshop every evening to file his report. Each morning children race to see if they find where sneaky (some might add, “creepy”) flannel visitor’s new perch.

That is, of course, provided parents have remembered to move the pint-sized proctor.

Thankfully, this tradition came along after my kids were no longer the prime audience. I’m not sure I would have been able to keep up with all the rules associated with moving the elf. And, more to the point, do we really need to have an outsider keeping track of our holiday anxiety? Maybe someone will combine the tradition with a high-tech Christmas gift, such as a robotic room-mapping vacuum. The Elf-O-Vac could maneuver around the house and gain a much better view of the sorts of sins that could relegate entire families to permanent status on the naughty list.

Theologically, however, conflating Jesus and Santa Claus is dangerous, a reminder of how quickly our views of sin teeter on becoming trite. After all, it’s likely that despite all sorts of dire warnings, the only lumps of coal which will appear this Christmas will be novelty items or candy. (Considering coal’s skyrocketing costs that may be a good thing.) Jesus as Santa Claus tends to become synonymous with easy-peasy grace, a jolly savior whose ruby-cheeked demeanor offers more comfort than abiding joy.

All may have sinned, but few will not receive the coveted Harry Potter Lego set or Pokemon Shining Legends Elite Trainer Box, two of this year’s hottest toys.

This coheres with what theologian Paula Fredriksen notes as American preference to see sin in a way that minimizes personal responsibility. “Sin,” she writes, “is in the eye of the beholder, and our society is richly multiperspectival: we don’t have a single definition of anything, ‘sin’ included.” Fredericksen notes that when theological words like sin become co-opted into political discourse, the result is a distortion of its original meaning. “This is how gay marriage,” she writes, “an issue of social justice and law, becomes theologized by opponents as a ‘sin.’”

In the mid-1970s, Menninger, the pioneering psychiatrist from Kansas, aimed his considerable knowledge and medical influence at rehabilitating notions regarding sin -- a venerable word he believed was destined to be mothballed from society’s working vocabulary. Having slid from its theological perch into a mishmash of meanings including crime, sickness and individualized ethics, it seemed that sin was no longer a viable subject of interest.

In his reconsideration of sin, Menninger found support from a psychoanalyst Lawrence Kubie, who encouraged his colleague and proffered the following advice:

The concept of Sin has fallen into disrepute precisely because it has failed to help people to change and by failing has betrayed human aspirations and culture. Few people realize that the incidence of delinquencies among the "faithful" is at least as high as, if not higher than, its incidence among non-believers. We need you to make it clear that although the concept of illness is often misused as an excuse and as a device for escaping responsibility, such misuse does not destroy its potential values.

Forty-five years later, Menninger’s question remains relevant. Sin is still around, but for most mainline Protestants, the last hundred years or so has witnessed a gradual privatization of sin. Some banished prayers of confession as “too negative.” Others allowed evangelicals to take the lead. In many cases we become less concerned about our behaviors and more focused on the sins of others.

“Little by little,” writes William Bradshaw, “we have become accustomed to, and stopped finding fault with sin -- our own and the sin of others. We as a society do what we want, find ways to justify what we are doing, and ignore the consequences.”

In this sense, President Trump’s “I’m not sure I need forgiveness” attitude mirrors a populist belief.

But sin has not gone anywhere. A short list of sin’s presence in the world could include child abuse, clergy sexual misconduct, mass shootings, mass incarceration, racial injustice, political scandals and more. There are, for example, signs which seem to suggest new developments in the investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election by special counsel Robert Mueller. Court filings are due later this week, including sentencing memos for Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, and Michael Flynn. If previous court filings are any indicator of future actions, the normally tight-lipped Mueller will use these documents to provide significant details about his investigation.

Or consider the indictment of four St. Louis, Missouri, police officers in federal court this week. The four officers were charged with beating an undercover police officer who was posing as a protestor last year. All four covered up their use of excessive force, prosecutors say, and expressed “excitement about using unjustified force against (protestors) and going undetected while doing so.”

Perhaps more of us will be getting coal this Christmas than we had assumed.

In the Scripture
Malachi is a reminder that God has not forgotten about sin. “My messenger,” as Malachi is translated, brings the long-hoped for promise of God. The prophet responds to those who have “wearied the Lord” (2:17), and who have committed various offenses regarding offerings (3:7ff). They have deceived God, and despaired of serving the Lord faithfully (3:14). Evil abounds.

But the messenger who bears witness to God’s promise will come soon. Malachi assures the readers that this may not necessarily be good news. Off stage, an alto voice is warming up to sing the piercing words Handel references in “Messiah.” “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

The messenger will bring the purifying presence of God -- a message that seems terrifying because of its intensity. The priesthood of Levi will be restored, and God’s justice and righteousness will be established. The words foreshadow our understanding of John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance. The righteous will be purified, so that their offerings will be pleasing to God.

That is our Advent hope -- the good news that God will come. But as Gene Tucker points out in “Preaching the New Common Lectionary,” (Abingdon, 1985) this is hardly the sort of festive tidings our congregations expect to hear at Christmas. It is instead a reminder of how the strong are judged, and weak are elevated, the hungry are filled and the rich sent away empty, just as Mary sings in Luke. Even the priests will be purified, so that the beauty and glory of God will be revealed once more.

In the Sermon
Unlike Santa, the coming messenger of God is less worried about handing out presents than with preparing a people. Malachi seems to be saying that there is much more to our Advent preparations than merely making a list and checking it twice. Nor is Advent merely a baptizing of last-minute shopping or quickly decorating the church. Here is the most promising opportunity to help congregations grasp what is at stake in our Advent preparations.

Advent becomes a time of faith formation. We ignore the truth that sin is deep within us, and that redemption comes through Christ’s purifying love. While we may deserve coal, Advent reminds us that God’s messenger bears better news.

In the days leading up to Christmas, my mother would often assign me to the task of polishing silver. We were not a silver-spoon family, at least not ordinarily. But Christmas called for the very best, including many prized family heirlooms my mother treasured. As she carefully brought out the serving pieces, she’d inspect them for signs of tarnish. As the blue polish stained my fingers, I imagined myself as some sort of servant indentured to the Lord of the manor. Mom conducted a second inspection at the end of the day. My work glimmered on the dining room table. It was hardly pure, and the silver polish was not fuller’s soap. But the experience was a reminder of what is involved in removing the accumulated crud and grime which often clings so tight.

In Advent, we polish and clean. We repent and begin again so that the good news of God’s glory might be revealed in our lives, and the offerings we bring become pleasing once more.



SECOND THOUGHTS
Furtive joy (Spoiler alert!)
Tom Willadsen
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

It’s the second week of Advent, a purple candle week, for those who pay close attention to the liturgical colors of the season. Next Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent is the Sunday for the pink candle. One explanation for pink that week is that Advent is too filled with excitement and anticipation; holding all the joy anticipated at the birth of the Messiah in the season of Advent would be too much. The pink candle on the third week is sort of a release on the lid of a pressure cookers. Mom used to do something similar for my brother and me on Christmas Eve. She would let us open one (1) present, of her choosing…and it was always a book. Still that was enough to keep my brother and me from climbing the walls and killing each other. In the mid ’70s it was called “détente” when the Soviet Union and the US decided to play nice: An easing of tensions, a reducing of energy.

(Before I forget and too much of Advent has passed, I recommend “If on a Winter’s Night,” a collection of Christmas and winter-themed songs by Sting. The same man who fronted the Police -- that Sting. His version of “Gabriel’s Message” is haunting and beautiful. It doesn’t go with Zechariah’s prophecy from Luke 1, but it is something that will feed your soul during Advent.)

Okay, so joy. It practically leaps off the page of the Philippians reading. Paul is very appreciative of the support his pals in Philippi have provided for him, especially as he’s been in prison. He is constantly raising prayers of thanksgiving to God for the church there. He calls them “shareholders” (Greek) with him in God’s grace. Paul prays that their love may overflow “more and more with knowledge and full insight.” (v. 9) Glory…praise…harvest of righteousness… it’s almost too much joy for Advent.

One can go two ways with the Malachi reading. Maybe the messenger mentioned in 3:1 is Zechariah, the formerly mute priest, father of John the Baptizer. (I confess that “John the Baptizer” is awkward, but where I grew up among a kaleidoscope of Protestants, it was helpful to distinguish the guy kitted up in burlap who ate bugs this way. Otherwise it would like “Tom the Presbyterian” or “Mike the Methodist.)

The joy that I spoke of earlier is kind of between the lines in the Malachi reading. The people have returned from exile, rebuilt the temple and gotten complacent. Their lack of zeal has wearied the Lord -- we see this in 2:17, the verse immediately prior to this day’s Hebrew scripture lesson. The messenger of the covenant in which Malachi’s audience delights is coming in power and might. The messenger is bringing judgment. Could the messenger foretold by Malachi be Zechariah, or his son, John?

And there’s always Isaiah to fall back on, as Luke does in the gospel reading. Luke 3 is almost a second beginning for the gospel. The forerunner has been born, Mary has sung her song (sort of a cover version of Hannah’s back in 1 Samuel) and the Messiah has been born. The shepherds have returned to their flocks. Mary has had a few quiet moments to ponder in her heart what the meaning and significance of her new baby may have. He’s been dedicated at the Temple and he’s even gotten a little sassy with his parents after dropping out of the caravan (topical reference!) back to Nazareth and hanging out with the scholars at the Temple. (A member of my church is of the strong opinion that Mary and Joseph were negligent parents!) But he was a good boy after returning home. His mother, again, treasured him in her heart.

Fast forward about 18 years, and John the Baptizer emerges as an adult in a specific time and place. This is where Mark begins his gospel, with the words of the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptizer out in the wilderness.

Take a close look at the familiar words of Isaiah. The first two verbs “prepare” and “make straight” are imperatives, commands. Isaiah or John the Baptizer are speaking directly and forcefully. The next verbs, however, are passive “be filled,” “be made low,” “be made straight” and “made smooth.” Of course, we need to hear and heed the prophet, but also we need to remember that it is the Lord who’s doing a “new thing” (Isaiah again). That’s a message our over-stressed parishioners may need to hear in the midst of baking, shopping, wrapping, decorating…it’s not up to us to make Christmas happen. And don’t make too easy an equation between all the stuff that surrounds the holy day with what exactly makes the day holy in the first place. How would Advent be different if we could only focus on what the Lord has promised, and how the Lord is keeping those promises?

The joyful thrust in Zechariah’s prophecy, the psalm-like reading for this day, is based on the Lord remembering. Pick it up at 1:72 [NRSV]:

Thus he has shown the mercy
promised to our ancestors,
and remembered his
holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our
ancestor Abraham,…

There is a deep joy in the words of Zechariah’s prophecy. And that deep joy has very deep roots in history. Perhaps this is the arc of history that bends toward justice that Dr. King, a modern day prophet, spoke about.

God’s intention for humankind is justice and peace. The track record through prophets and history and genealogy is toward a society where the poor and vulnerable are cared for, where nations in danger are rescued.

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break
upon us,
to give light to those who sit in
darkness and in the shadow of death
to guide our feet into the way of peace. [Luke:1-78-79, NRSV]

The closing words of Zechariah’s prophecy may hold something for people who are facing the Christmas season for the first time after the death of a loved one.

Many communities hold Blue Christmas services designed for people who do not find the holiday season -- this year or any year -- to be filled with joy. Yes, we talk of light shining in the darkness. In the northern hemisphere Christmas falls on one of the darkest days of the year, that is a day with little daylight. The brightest light casts the darkest shadows. Today’s lectionary readings point toward joy -- though my colleague Chris Keating is writing about sin, last I knew he planned to be against it.

What does joy look and feel like to a nation who is wallowing in defeat, or a people returned from exile, but having grown complacent? What is joy in those contexts?

I’ll close these thoughts with an experience that was truly eye-opening to me. And I ask, preemptively, for you to forgive the pun; there is no other way I can describe this experience:

One summer day while I was taking a week-long intensive class at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary I had “Donna duty.” Donna was a blind member of the class (I have changed her name), and she needed someone to lead her and her dog to and from class, and to and from lunch each day. I was fortunate that my day fell on a sunny, breezy, pleasant day.

I had never spent time with a blind person before. The first time I spotted a stick on the path, and led Donna around it, I realized how profoundly different her experience of a sunny day was from mine. I described the day, the clouds in the sky, and asked how she experienced a sunny day. She had been blind since birth, so “light” and “darkness” meant nothing to her. She could tell, however, when the sun went behind a cloud because she could feel the change in temperature.

Think about all the passages of scripture that contrast light with darkness. There are a lot of them during Advent. How does a preacher help someone blind since birth experience the hope of “the dawn from on high breaking in?”

That was the question I held in my mind as we arrived to class. (But not the Advent part, just the light darkness contrast, it was July when I had Donna duty.) We began with a guided meditation focusing on a single candle, lit in an otherwise dark room. Each time the reader mentioned “light” I substituted “warmth.” That one, subtle change, made me experience this meditation in a completely different way!

When you read passages about the light shining in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it, substitute “warmth” for “light.”

You will find that sighted worshippers will also experience these words differently. Doesn’t “warmth” convey security more effectively than “light?” Linus’s security blanket didn’t light up!

Yes, Christmas comes at a dark time of year, but it also comes at a cold time of year, for those in the northern hemisphere. Yes, light that is too intense and heat that is too strong can do great harm. But on a Sunday when joy is beginning to emerge in this season of preparation, I’m confident “warmth” will help worshippers feel more secure, beloved and joy-filled than “light.”


ILLUSTRATIONS

From team member Dean Feldmeyer:

Forgiveness In Excelsis
One of the youngest teens ever tried as an adult in California, for the fatal shooting of a pizza deliveryman nearly 24 years ago, should be paroled from prison, a state panel recommended Wednesday.

Tony Hicks was 14 when he killed Tariq Khamisa during a botched robbery that a group of San Diego gang members and wannabes had concocted. He was prosecuted under a state law that just weeks earlier had lowered the age at which teens could be tried as adults.

Hicks, now 38, cried as he was grilled Wednesday about the murder. “I was an angry, selfish, violent young man,” he responded. “I had no respect for authority.”

On the day he was sentenced in 1996, Hicks begged for forgiveness before receiving a prison term of 25 years to life. The initial plan had been for him to remain in a juvenile facility until age 24 and then be sent to an adult prison.

But because of a change in policy, Hicks was moved at 16, “with some of the most hardened adult offenders in the state,” according to Superior Court Judge Joan Weber, who sentenced Hicks. She recently wrote to the parole board supporting his release. “I accept his contrition and remorse,” Weber said.

Even more important, however, is that two of his biggest supporters who are pushing for his release are Tariq Khamisa’s sister, Tasreen, and his father, Azim, who have repeatedly visited Tony Hicks in prison. Both say they have forgiven Hicks for fatally shooting Tariq in 1995.

-- Perry, Tony, "California parole panel backs release of inmate serving time for a murder he committed at 14," Washington Post, Nov. 28, 2018

* * *

Forgiveness In Excelsis 2.0
Five years ago on the last Sunday of November, 20-year-old Jordan LeBeau was shot and killed during an armed robbery in Sioux Falls. The five people who orchestrated that life-changing day were all convicted for their role in the crime.

Carolyn LeBeau, Jordan’s mother: "I was mad every day, every day for that first year," she said. "I couldn't get over the anger, and I just prayed to God all of the time, it was like, take this anger away. I just thought 'I'm going to be angry for the rest of my life.' I believed that, I thought, 'there's no way, I'm just so mad.'"

That would define her mood for the next year.

Then, just two weeks before the first round of sentencing hearings began, Carolyn felt a big shift.

"Then it was just like wow, it was like God took my anger away, and it was after that that he put it on my heart that I needed to forgive these people," she said.

Given the circumstances, even the thought of forgiveness seems impossible, but Carolyn went even further saying she felt compelled to publicly express her forgiveness in the courtroom, directly addressing 17-year-old Trevor Kruthoff, the man who shot and killed her son.

"I just told him different things about Jordan and Morgan," she said. "Then I told him that God commands me to forgive you, and I forgive you, and I referenced Collations 3:13, and then there were three more."

Over the next few months of court hearings, Carolyn passionately shared her forgiveness...

On the final sentencing hearing, Carolyn hugged Doug Scholten, who had ties to the incident that resulted in Jordan's death, in the hallway of the courtroom.

A year later when he was released from jail and sharing his cautionary tale with a group of high school students, Carolyn was in the audience when he said that hug is the first time in his life he has ever felt true forgiveness.

* * *

Forgiveness In Excelsis 3.O
We can all imagine suffering a wrong so grievous that it would be impossible to forgive. Certainly, Reverend Anthony Thompson knows exactly what that feels like.

His wife Myra was one of the nine people murdered on June 15, 2015, at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Not long ago, he shared his story at the same church where his wife was killed.

Two days after the shooting, Reverend Thompson reluctantly went to the bond hearing for the murderer, Dylann Roof. He had no intention of saying anything. In fact, he told his family members who were present to keep their mouths closed.

When the judge asked if anyone would like to speak, Reverend Thompson felt the Holy Spirit was prompting him to get up and address Dylann. As he approached the podium he had no idea what he was going to say. He stood there and looked at the young man who had murdered his wife just 48 hours earlier. "As I looked at him," he recounted, "it was like no one else was in the room."

Then it happened. Reverend Thompson spoke words of healing rather than vengeance. "I forgive you, and my family forgives you," he said, "and you need to confess to God and repent."

Reverend Thompson recalled, "As I spoke those words I felt the anger, bitterness and loneliness leaving my body. I felt this peace like none other. I realized that was the peace that passes all understanding. God's peace is real. But you are not going to get it until you forgive somebody."

-- Shorter, Keith, "FIRST-PERSON: Hatred, racism, forgiveness" Baptist Press, Nov. 27, 2018

* * *

What About The Unrepentent?
Asked by Anderson Cooper about his understanding of sin and forgiveness, President Donald Trump made these remarks:
  • "I try not make mistakes where I have to ask forgiveness.”
  • "I think repenting is terrific."
  • "Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness, if I am not making mistakes? I work hard, I'm an honorable person."

-- Nothstine, Ray,"Trump: 'Why Do I Have to Repent or Ask for Forgiveness If I Am Not Making Mistakes?'" The Christian Post, June 23, 2015

* * *

Convicted!
In the opening paragraph of his book Whatever Became of Sin?, Karl Menninger, one of the founders of the famed Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, tells a funny but very significant story.

On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

Then, without any change of expression, he would resume his still stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then, again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’

The effect of this strange accusatory pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie. They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

One man, turning to another who was my informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?’

Quoted from: PJ's Spiritual Meanderings -- "Whatever happened to sin?"

* * *

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism
Oh, they know how to sin. They just don’t know how to define it.

This, or something like it must most certainly be the opinion of those who are required to deal with the current generations who are moving into early adulthood in America.

Having, in large part, rejected traditional church and religion, many of them have adopted a posture that they describe as “spiritual but not religious,” which often means that they think about “spiritual” things from time to time.

Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, using the results of the “National Study of Youth and Religion” have defined this “spiritual but not religious” posture as ”Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a phrase that, they say, describes the beliefs of younger American adults and, in fact, may be the dominant cultural religion of our time. Here’s what it looks like:

1. There is a God who created the world.
2. This God wants us to be good.
3. The main goal of life is to be happy and feel good about one’s self.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in our lives unless we need something.
5. Good people are rewarded when they die.

“Essentially, what people are trying to do is work God into their debt. They think that if they offer him the payment of a good and moral life then he will owe them one later on.” Asked to define that good and moral life and they inevitably use the word, “nice.” They describe God as nice, Jesus as nice. Failure to be nice is met with a simple, “Oops, my bad.” And a commitment to be nice the next time. They believe that God wants everyone to be nice to each other. “They don’t desire intimate relationship with God, but want to ensure that when hard times come God will be obligated to bail them out” because they have been nice to each other and themselves.

-- Webbon, Joel, "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" The Response Church May 12, 2014

* * * * * * * * *

From team member Mary Austin:

Luke 3:1-6
Where are your wounds?
The story is told that Allan Boesak, the noted minister who fought forcefully against apartheid in South Africa, often said that God will ask us one question when we get to heaven. “Jesus, at the pearly gates, won’t question us about how well we carried out our religious obligations. He’ll only ask us to show our wounds, the wounds that are the outward sign we’ve spent our lives imitating him. What if the only question Jesus asked on entry to heaven was: show me your wounds.” And if we say that we have no wounds, Jesus will ask: was nothing worth fighting for?
John the Baptist has found the thing worth fighting for. All of his harsh words and unusual actions are in service to the One who will come after him, to paving the way for God’s coming messiah.

* * *

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6
A Message from God
Rosalie Giffoniello was lying on bed, wondering what she should do with her summer when all of a sudden she heard a thump. As she recalls, “I lived alone. I had no pets. What was that?” She got up to look, and a book ad fallen, “down the entire flight of stairs from an upstairs bookcase. Go figure.” The book was, Something Beautiful for God, about the life of Mother Teresa. She adds, “And inside the book was a letter that Mother Teresa had written to me six years earlier. I’d written to her asking if I should come to Calcutta to volunteer in the orphanages. Were there any special need students there? And she had written back, “Yes. There are many special need students here. Please come. God Bless You. Mother Teresa, MC.” Her letter was written on this old typewriter where some of the letters are lighter and some are darker, and I had that letter. I’d put it in that book in the upstairs bookcase, but I never went. Now you might think I'm exaggerating, but my husband was a scholar he had thousands of books. I don’t collect books. If I like a book, I give it away. He kept his books. To this day, we’re still best friends. I had just one book on that shelf and, because it had the letter of Mother Teresa in it, I never gave it away. That’s the book that fell off the shelf, down the entire flight of stairs, and into the living room. So I went to Calcutta. What was I supposed to do?”

Coincidence? A nudge from God? It felt like the latter to Rosalie, and she went to Calcutta that summer.

* * *

Luke 3:1-6
Messenger of Truth
John the Baptist brings the truth about God and their lives to the people who come out to see him. School cafeteria manager Stacey Truman is also a messenger for the kids who attend the school where she works. Long before they get to school, Truman grabs a black marker and a bunch of bananas. “Truman patiently writes messages of hope on each banana with a black marker: “Not all those who wander are lost,” she’ll write on one. "If you can dream it, you can achieve it," she'll print on another. On she goes (“You get what you give” and “Never give up”), until she’s filled several trays with what students call “talking bananas” -- a lunch choice offering both positivity and potassium. Truman, 35, who has worked in Kingston's cafeteria for nine years, honed her banana-writing skills on messages that she'd tuck into lunchboxes for her two daughters, Mackenzie, 10, and Kayleigh, 7. Last month, she decided that the kids at Kingston might find the idea appealing as well.”

Truman has an impact on the school beyond her job description. “Although only about 10 percent of Kingston’s 540 students put bananas on their trays each day, many more have found Truman’s daily words of wisdom delightful, said the school’s principal.”

“Truman’s own childhood didn’t include “talking bananas.” Her parents divorced when she was 9, she said, requiring her and her two sisters to move into their grandparents' house with their mother. “It was really hard, I wanted to give my daughters a better life than what I lived through and experienced,” she said. "Writing on a banana is such a simple thing, but it has an impact”… To see the kids' faces light up when they choose their bananas is my reward,” said Truman. “And now, kids who bring lunches from home are coming in with talking bananas from their parents. I really love that.” Always on the lookout for new ways to entice children to select more fruits and vegetables, she is now thinking of expanding her produce scribblings.” Citrus is next!

Like John the Baptist’s words, Truman’s messages have a lasting impact.

* * * * * * * * *

From team member Ron Love:

Malachi 3:1-4
Messenger / Evangelism / Testimony
The Hebrew word koh, meaning “Thus,” is often used to introduce direct quotations. This can be seen most clearly in the Old Testament in the use of what is usually referred to as the “messenger formula.” In the world of the Old Testament, very few messages were sent in written form. Most messages were sent orally from the sender to the receiver by way of a messenger. The messenger would repeat exactly, word-for-word, the message that the sender wanted to convey to the receiver. And, to emphasize that the words that the messenger was about the speak were not the words of the messenger, but the words of the sender of the message, the messenger would begin by saying, “Thus says…,” and then the name of the sender of the message would be inserted. In Hebrew, “Thus says…” is Koh ’amar…, the same word, koh, as is used in Numbers 6:23.

A good example of how the messenger formula works can be seen in Ezra 1:1-2:

1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:

2 “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah….” (NRSV)

* * *

Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 1:68-79
Redemption / Protection
The Hebrew verb shamar means “keep watch over” is. Most English translations render the verb as “keep,” which is an acceptable translation. Possible translations of the verb shamar include “keep,” “watch (over),” “preserve,” “guard,” “protect.” In the first line of the Priestly Benediction, Numbers 6:22-27, an appeal is made to Yahweh to “bless” the people of God, yes, and in the act of “blessing,” to “keep,” “watch over,” “guard,” or “protect” the people of God.

* * *

Luke 3:3
Evangelism / Salvation
The word atheism means “without God.” The atheist is the person who says that there is no God.

Carl Sagan was one of the world’s most famous atheists. Sagan was an astronomer who and narrated and co-wrote the award-winning 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. At the time, Cosmos was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. The program has been seen by at least 500 million people across 60 different countries. Sagan summed up atheism when he declared on the program, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

Isaac Asimov, another famous atheist. He wrote or edited more than 500 books. Asimov wrote science fiction and, along with Robert Heinlein and Arthur Clarke, he was considered one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during the twentieth century. Asimov once said, “Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”

* * *

Baruch 5:6; Luke 1:72
Faith / Redemption / Prayer / Deliverance
Ernest Borgnine (1917-2012), ever since he was a boy growing up in Connecticut, faith and prayer have been a part of life. His grandmother taught him a little prayer in Italian that began with the words Signore, ti ringrazio per il giorno che mi hai datto, which means “Lord, I thank you for the day you have given me.” Borgnine repeated this prayer every morning and every evening.

Prayer continued to be part of Borgnine’s life. During the ten years he served in the Navy, which included serving as a gunner's mate in World War II, and in the postwar years as he labored in warehouses, attended acting school, appeared in plays and television dramas and movies.

It was especially important to him during a lonely moment in 1951 when he was desperate for work. He'd heard that a film company was casting, so he showed up for a screen test. But there were forty people ahead of him, and so the casting director said, “Go and lose yourself for a couple of hours.”

With only fifteen cents in his pocket, he walked down Fifth Avenue and came to Saint Patrick's Cathedral. He climbed the wide stone steps and sank down in a back pew. He prayed, “Please, Father, I need the work. If You can possibly help me, I would appreciate it very much.”

He got the part. It was Ernest Borgnine's first movie, The Whistle at Eaton Falls. That movie launched his movie career, during which he was in 147 films. He also appeared on 63 television programs, often making more than one appearance on the show.

During this career, Borgnine had never forgotten the prayer his grandmother taught him. It has stayed with him. Over the years, he added to it a prayer for those close to him. Until the day of his death he continued to maintain the daily routine of morning and evening prayers, from which he said he felt refreshed and derived a sense of inner peace.

* * *

Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 1:68-79
Peace / Redemption / Deliverance / Mercy
The early church father Marius Victorinus provides a timeless explanation on why Christians need not worry about the present, for hope lies in the eternal. Marius Victorinus, was a Roman grammarian, rhetorician and philosopher, who was a teacher of rhetoric in Rome until the Roman authorities prohibited him from teaching after he converted to Christianity. In his late years of life, in 355, he converted from being a pagan to being a Christian. In his commentary he wrote:

“Do not be anxious about anything. This means: Do not be concerned about yourselves. Do not give unnecessary thought to or be anxious about the world or worldly things. For all that is needful for you in this life God provides. And it will be even better in that life which is eternal.”

* * *

Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 1:68-79
Peace / Redemption / Deliverance / Mercy
During World War II, Norman Rockwell longed to use his artistic abilities to support the war effort. It was his desire to put on canvas the “big idea” for which we were fighting, but a void remained. Suddenly, at 3 a.m., on July 16, 1942, Rockwell sat bolt upright in bed. He had his big idea. President Roosevelt in his State of the Union Address pronounced the “four essential human freedoms” that summoned the nation to armed conflict. Rockwell would portray in oil each of these freedoms, translating the spoken ideology into commonplace scenes everyone could understand.

“Freedom of Speech” portrayed a man standing in rough work clothes, speaking openly at a New England town meeting. “Freedom of Worship” depicted a group of people in prayer, each of a different faith. “Freedom from Want” placed a family around a Thanksgiving dinner table. “Freedom from Fear” pictured two children being tucked into bed, safe and secure, while the father held an evening newspaper, the headline reporting the bombing of Europe.

* * *

Luke 3:1-6
Evangelism
Pisgah United Methodist Church is a rural church that sits on the edge of a cotton field, opposite the city of Florence, South Carolina. The pastor of the church is Rev. Josh McClendon. In his November 2018 monthly newsletter, he wanted to encourage his congregation to become actively involved in evangelism. He began his well-written article by discussing how “Jesus maintained close fellowship with his spiritual family.” This would be Jesus’ disciples, and for us today the congregation we affiliate with. Yet, we must realize that Jesus moved beyond the walls of the church. McClendon wrote:

At the same time, though, he purposefully logged hundreds of miles and countless hours in “unchurched” territory: marketplace’s and public spaces, the workplaces and homes of “sinners” and gentiles, the hang-outs and agnostics and atheists and deists. In other words, he valued the fellowship of believers as a haven from the world, as a set-apart body bearing witness to the kingdom of God. But he also prized his mission to bring that witness to whomever he met.

Rev. McClendon concluded with this challenge:
it’s worth thinking about the balance between our life within the Church and our life “outside” of it.

* * *

Baruch 5:6; Luke 1:72
Deliverance / Mercy
On July 18, 1965, a jet plane, piloted by Jeremiah Denton, that was engulfed in flames, came crashing to the ground. This began the ordeal for seven and a half years of captivity in Hoa Lo Prision in Hanoi, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. In that flaming wreckage, one horrifying chapter of the Vietnam War closed for Denton, only to have an equally horrifying chapter begin.

In the Hanoi Hilton, along with seven hundred other Navy and Air Force airmen, he suffered isolation, malnutrition, disease, and torture. He, like the others, endured the trauma by shouldering some very basic principles -- patriotism, fellowship, memories of family and a faith in God. It would be hard to say which was most important, for each sustained the dignity of a man’s humanity and self-worth.

Denton recounted his ordeal confined in the Hanoi Hilton in a book titled When Hell Was in Session. Denton wrote, “Those not subjected to the prisoner-of-war experience may have trouble understanding how real the presence of God was to most of us.”

Of the many stories he recounts, one is how the soldiers maintained a sense of community. While all the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, they were able to maintain a sense of community by tapping a coded message on the wall of their cell. One solider would receive the message from his neighbor, and then on the opposite wall he would pass that message along to another neighbor. Each tapped message would end with the letters “GBU,” which means “God bless you.” The final message of the evening always ended with the letters “GNGBU,” which means “Good night, God bless you.” Denton went on to write, “Christians of all denominations lost old prejudices and found brotherhood; Christians and Jews were reconciled; and most of us lived in awareness of God’s love.”

* * *

Malachi 3:1
Messenger / Testimony
Kenneth Taylor wrote The Living Bible (TLB), which was published in 1971. In 1972 and 1973 it was the best-selling book in America. Taylor paraphrased the scriptural passages from the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible that was published in 1901. Paraphrasing means Taylor took a passage of scripture from the ASV and restated it in his own words. Taylor offered this reason for writing his own version of the Bible:

The children were one of the chief inspirations for producing the Living Bible. Our family devotions were tough going because of the difficulty we had understanding the King James Version, which we were then using, or the Revised Standard Version, which we used later. All too often I would ask questions to be sure the children understood, and they would shrug their shoulders -- they didn't know what the passage was talking about. So, I would explain it. I would paraphrase it for them and give them the thought. It suddenly occurred to me one afternoon that I should write out the reading for that evening thought by thought, rather than doing it on the spot during our devotional time. So, I did, and read the chapter to the family that evening with exciting results -- they knew the answers to all the questions I asked!

Taylor wrote The Living Bible each day as he rode the commuter train to and from work.

The Living Bible is easy to read, and if it helps an individual spiritually, then it questionably may have its place, because it is imperative to realize that in so many instances it desecrates the original intent of the scriptural passage when it was paraphrased by Taylor. For example:

1 Kings 18:27
(NRSV) At noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.”

(ASV) And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud; for he is a god: either he is musing, or he is gone aside, or he is on a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth and must be awaked.

(TLB) About noontime, Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder than that,” he scoffed, “to catch the attention of your god! Perhaps he is talking to someone, or is out sitting on the toilet, or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”


* * *

Baruch 5:7
Deliverance
It was my first day as a Virginia State trooper. I was working the evening shift, and nothing occurred during my eight hours of patrolling the streets of Page County. So, a few minutes before eleven I returned to the barracks to sign-out, thankful that my first day was a quiet day. I then got a radio call for a hit-and-run accident. By two in the morning I located the culprit. Our confrontation took place on a hill. As he stood on the street a few feet below me, he was still taller than I was. I wondered how I would ever get this scoundrel into my patrol car. After announcing that he was under arrest, he quietly walked over and got in the back of my car.



WORSHIP
by George Reed

Call to Worship:
Leader: Blessed be the God of Israel, who has looked favorably on us.
People: God has raised up a mighty savior for us.
Leader: God has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors.
People: God has remembered the holy covenant,
Leader: The dawn from on high will break upon us.
People: It will give light to guide our feet into the way of peace.

OR

Leader: God calls us to stand together in the light of righteousness.
People: Together we will let God’s light shine on our lives.  
Leader: God’s grace always comes with and before the light.
People: We rejoice that God’s grace is offered us.
Leader: God invites us to leave the way of destruction.
People: With God’s help we will walk the pathway of life.

Hymns and Songs:
Hope of the World
UMH: 178
H82: 472
PH: 360
NCH: 46
CH: 538
LBW: 493
W&P: 404

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
UMH: 196
H82: 66
PH: 1/2
NCH: 122
LBW: 30
ELA: 254
W&P: 153
AMEC: 103

Blessed Be the God of Israel
UMH: 209
H82: 444
CH: 135
ELA: 552
W&P: 158
Renew: 128

Savior of the Nations, Come
UMH: 214
PH: 14
LBW: 28
ELA: 263
W&P: 168

Dear Lord and Father of Mankind
UMH: 358
H82: 652/653
PH: 345
NCH: 502
CH: 594
LBW: 506
W&P: 470
AMEC: 344

Amazing Grace
UMH: 378
H82: 671
PH: 280
AAHH: 271/272
NNBH: 161/163
NCH: 547/548
CH: 546
LBW: 448
ELA: 779
W&P: 422
AMEC: 226
STLT: 205/206
Renew: 189

Open My Eyes, That I May See
UMH: 454
PH: 324
NNBH: 218         
CH: 586
W&P: 480
AMEC: 285

Trust and Obey
UMH: 467
AAHH: 380
NNBH: 322         
CH: 556
W&P: 443
AMEC: 377

Refiner’s Fire
CCB: 79

Open Our Eyes, Lord
CCB: 77
Renew: 91

Music Resources Key:
UMH: United Methodist Hymnal
H82: The Hymnal 1982
PH: Presbyterian Hymnal
AAHH: African American Heritage Hymnal
NNBH: The New National Baptist Hymnal
NCH: The New Century Hymnal
CH: Chalice Hymnal
LBW: Lutheran Book of Worship
ELA: Evangelical Lutheran Worship
W&P: Worship & Praise
AMEC: African Methodist Episcopal Church Hymnal
STLT: Singing the Living Tradition
CCB: Cokesbury Chorus Book
Renew: Renew! Songs & Hymns for Blended Worship

Prayer for the Day/Collect
O God who comes among us to save us:
Grant us the wisdom to understand your message
that we are loved even in our sins;
through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

OR

We praise you, O God, because you are the savior of the world. You come to guide us from the path of death and destruction to the way of life. Help us to be wise enough to see your love in calling us from the sin that destroys us. Give us the grace to give up our foolish ways. Amen.

Prayer of Confession
Leader: Let us confess to God and before one another our sins and especially our failure to own up to our sins.

People: We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. And our biggest sins are the times we overlook our sins while spotting the sins of others. Open our hearts and minds to look closer at our lives so that we may confess our sins and allow your forgiveness to move us do better. Amen.

Leader: God does love us even in our sins and desires to help us live better lives for our sake and the sake of those around us.

Prayers of the People
Blessed are you, O God, who comes to lead us in righteousness.

(The following paragraph may be used if a separate prayer of confession has not been used.)

We confess to you, O God, and before one another that we have sinned. And our biggest sins are the times we overlook our sins while spotting the sins of others. Open our hearts and minds to look closer at our lives so that we may confess our sins and allow your forgiveness to move us do better.

We give you thanks for your grace that renews us and restores us to our right minds. We give you thanks for those who have shared your love and grace by forgiving us and calling us to live better lives.

(Other thanksgivings may be offered.)

We pray for one another in our need and, especially, for those who dwell in the darkness of guilt and shame.

(Other intercessions may be offered.)

All these things we ask in the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together saying:

Our Father....Amen.

(Or if the Our Father is not used at this point in the service)

All this we ask in the Name of the Blessed and Holy Trinity. Amen.

Children’s Sermon Starter
Show the children a bullseye target. Put a hole in the bullseye and several other holes as well. Ask them what they can tell from the target. One hit was on and the others we off. Make sure one is outside the target area altogether. Talk about how this is one way we talk about sin. It is missing the mark. We try to do what is right but sometimes we miss. We aren’t as nice as we could be or we act selfishly. God wants us to hit the mark but God loves us even when we miss. God forgives us so we can try again.


CHILDREN'S SERMON
Freely Flowing Peace
by Bethany Peerbolte
Luke 1:68-79

Peace on earth is all fun and games until we realize we are part of the problem. We want the great oppressors of the world to be brought into equity with the lowly, until we see we are not always in the lowly category. We, too, need to repent and turn our feet toward peace. Luke 1:68-79 shows us this week that God can point us in the right direction. It’s a solid use of metaphor. If you have ever been in a marching band, you know marching with your feet facing one way and your shoulders facing another is a difficult task. It is what we try to do with God’s peace, though. God faces our feet toward peace and we try to walk in the other direction. It isn’t until we repent and change direction that peace begins to flow freely.

This lesson includes an interactive opener that will let the kids move, have fun, and learn about repentance. If you have a larger group of kids you may want to pick a couple to help demonstrate with you instead of having the whole group do the activity.

Say something like:
I want us to go for a little walk over to that wall (or pick a point to your left to walk toward). Will you come with me. Stop! Look at your feet and point with your hand which way your toes are facing (they should point in the direction they were going) Good. Now let’s walk back the other way. Stop! Which way are your feet facing now? Hmm... I think I’m seeing a pattern. Anyone else think they see it?

Let’s try this. I want us to point our feet toward the congregation and now we will try to walk back to that wall, but keep your feet facing front (walk toward first wall/spot). That was harder than the first walk. Maybe if we turn our head and shoulders to face the way we are going it will be easier. Keep your toes pointed out to the congregation but turn your shoulders and head to face the direction we want to travel (walk back to where you started). No -- that made it worse. Let’s sit down and rest.

The easiest way to move was to go the way our feet were pointing, right? Maybe that is why in our verse today the writer asks God to “guide our feet in the way of peace.” If our feet are pointing toward peace that is the easiest direction to move.

This week for Advent we are talking about peace. Usually when we think of peace we think of calm, happy people who get along. There is no arguing or fighting. We all want to live in a peaceful home and community, right? However, peace takes a lot of hard work, too. The hardest part of the work is repenting.

We don’t hear the word repent very often, mostly in church. The Bible says we should repent, so we need to know what the word repent means. Let me explain with a story.

I had a friend in school who did not like to do homework, and because of that she always failed her math tests. Each time she failed she would tell her parents she was sorry for not doing her homework. My friend would promise to work harder the next time, but guess what, she kept avoiding her homework. One day, though, my friend passed her math test! I asked her how she did it and you know what she said? She said she decided to do her math homework that month. I asked her why she changed, and she told me she was really sorry for not doing her work and decided to make a change.

That change my friend made is what it means to repent. Saying sorry sometimes isn’t enough, especially if we don’t plan to do anything about feeling sorry. We can say we are sorry over and over but until we are willing to change we will keep making mistakes. Those mistakes can take away from peace. Every time my friend refused to do her homework do you think her parent’s felt peaceful? No, they probably felt frustrated or angry. My friend was not helping bring peace into the world, but when she did repent and make a change she was making peace possible.

It’s like our walk. God guides our feet toward peace but sometimes we choose to go in another direction. That makes our walk difficult. If we repent and change to go the direction God wants it is easier. Let’s say a prayer asking God to help us be peacemakers.

Hi God, We want there to be peace around us. Help us to follow the path you want. Help us repent and change when we feel sorry for our mistakes. We love you and want to help make the world more peaceful. In Jesus name, Amen.


* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Immediate Word, December 9, 2018, issue.

Copyright 2018 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to The Immediate Word service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons and in worship and classroom settings only. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.

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