Login / Signup

Free Access

Not a subscriber?
Get a FREE 30-Day Subscription
(No credit card necessary)
Get Full Access Now!

Subscribe Your Way
Yearly, Quarterly, or Monthly
Subscriptions Available
Renew or Signup Now!

Leaning Into an Unknown Future

Commentary
Advent reminds us of the power in Jesus’ words to his disciples. God never denies us the light we need. As Joyce Kilmer wrote:

Because the way was steep and long,
and through a strange and lonely land,
God placed upon my lips a song
and put a lantern in my hand.


Still, sometimes it seems there’s no getting away from a bad thing. In the mid-1800s, Dutch immigrant pastor and community leader Albertus Van Raalte watched his little colony in western Michigan disintegrate under the ravages of disease and death. One Sunday morning, in the middle of his congregational prayer, he broke down. Sobbing and throwing his hands toward the heavens, he shouted, “Oh God! Must we all die?”

Certainly there are times when each of us goes through that agony. It’s one thing to experience trouble and torment when you’ve been living an ungodly existence. You know then that you’re getting what you deserve. But it’s quite another thing to be close to God and still to feel such pain and frustration each day. The specter of death bumps against us in the marketplace. And if we run for cover, it follows us right into the caves of refuge. Too often we wear Van Raalte’s tear-stained cheeks and swollen eyes, shouting toward heaven, “Oh God! Is there no relief?”

Because we know these pressures, there is something absolutely amazing about the strength and peace and confidence that are part of our return to Advent anticipations. We need to remember again the fundamental secret to living on the edge of cruelty and pain and spite and injury and death. We need to learn anew that only a God who has ultimate control over all these things can make life itself meaningful. Only a God who allows the miseries for a time -- as a parent might restrain a helping hand so that a child can grow through the struggles of development -- can finally bring all things into his larger plans for peace, joy and harmony.


Baruch 5:1-9
The book of Baruch, associated with biblical literature, is not found among Rabbinical sources of the Second Temple period, and emerged in Christian writings in the late second century. While it is included in early copies of the Septuagint, it was excluded from the Masoretic text, as well as from Jerome’s Vulgate. Probably of late Post-Exilic origin, Baruch found its way into Jewish and Christian devotional use because of its purported connection to Jeremiah’s friend and aid, Baruch ben Neriah (Jeremiah 51:59). Indeed, the text of Baruch declares it to be a reflection on the life of exiled Jews in Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem, along with prophetic words of restoration. It is this latter concept, prominent in today’s lectionary reading, that was picked up and promulgated by some early Christian writers, raising esteem for Baruch as scripture.

Today’s reading echoes themes from Jeremiah, but even more from Isaiah. It announces the redemption of God’s people, and the journey back to Jerusalem for reinstatement as God’s royal household among the nations of earth. On this basis the architects of the Common Lectionary selected today’s short passage to resonate with the themes of Advent longing for deliverance and the coming of the messiah.


Philippians 1:3-11
In spite of its brevity, Paul’s letter to the Philippians contains a number of notes about Paul’s changing situation and the people who are in and out of his social circle. Paul is “in chains” (Philippians 1:13) and around him are a number of preachers who testify about Jesus (Philippians 1:14-18), some for more noble reasons than others. Paul may have been depressed about his circumstances (Philippians 1:22-24), and maybe even thought at one time that he was about to die (Philippians 2:16-17), but he believes there is still a future ministry ahead of him in this life (Philippians 1:25-26). Recently the Philippians had sent their pastor or key leader, Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25-30), to bring a gift of food and clothes to Paul (Philippians 4:18), along with their warm wishes. Now Paul is sending this letter of thanks, and will soon commission his trusted associate Timothy to bring Epaphroditus home to Philippi (Philippians 2:19-30).

Pulling together these bits of information, a reasonable chronology surrounding the writing of Paul’s letter to the Philippians might look like this:
  • Sometime in the spring of 57 A.D. Paul arrived in Rome. While he was clearly a prisoner awaiting adjudication before Caesar himself, Paul was also a Roman citizen with rights and freedoms. And since the charges against him were sectarian (related to Jewish religious practices) rather than capital crimes, Paul was able to establish his own living circumstances within the larger palace precincts, while remaining under a type of house arrest.
  • Probably late in 57 A.D. or early in 58, Epaphroditus, who had been serving as pastor or congregational leader in Philippi, brought Paul a rather significant gift from that church (Philippians 2:25; 4:10). It may have included both money and supplies; in any case, it greatly enhanced Paul’s comfort in his limited circumstances.
  • Epaphroditus stayed on with Paul for some time, assisting him as a servant. Unfortunately, Epaphroditus became ill and nearly died (Philippians 2:25-30), and only very recently had returned to full health.
  • Paul believed that homesickness for Philippi and the congregation there might have contributed to Epaphroditus’ grave malady, and vowed to send him back home as soon as he was able to travel. Of course, a letter of appreciation and encouragement was a necessary part of all these things, so Paul penned Philippians, probably sometime in early 58 A.D.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians is the most joyful and uplifting note of the entire New Testament. Even in Paul’s confinement, he is filled with delight in his relationships, and amazed at what God is doing (Philippians 1). Almost without needing to do so, Paul reminds the congregation of the great example of Jesus, who gave up everything in order to express the love of God to us (Philippians 2:1-18). Another example of this selfless care is found in both Timothy and Epaphroditus, each of whom had sacrificed much in order to serve others, especially the faith community in Philippi (Philippians 2:19-30). More encouragement to serve follows, with Paul reflecting on his own changes of behavior and value systems once he was gripped by the love of God in Jesus (Philippians 3). A few personal instructions and notes of appreciation round out the letter (Philippians 4).

What is particularly significant in today’s lectionary reading, in the context of Advent, is Paul’s confidence expressed in verse 6: “…that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (NIV). In our Advent rehearsals of a darkened world, often in chains as was Paul, looking for redemption, the promises of God are real and confidence-producing.


Luke 3:1-6
If the portrait of Jesus in Mark’s gospel is that of the Son of God who arrives with great authority to overcome all other powers that demean, demoralize, demonize, dehumanize and diminish, and the portrait of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is that of the Messiah King who fulfills Old Testament prophecy, relives the life of Israel, teaches the life of discipleship, and rises to rule over all nations, the Gospel of Luke expands these themes for a more specifically Gentile Christian audience. Luke indicates in his introduction (Luke 1:1-4) that he spent time with eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry in order to gain additional knowledge beyond that which was otherwise available through the oral traditions of the apostles and the written proclamations of Mark’s gospel.

As with the other gospels, putting Luke’s name to it as author is a bit of a detective search, coupled with a reliance on the testimony of early Christian sources. From the gospel itself we become aware that the author is certainly well educated. He uses excellent literary Greek style and vocabulary, he knows history and current affairs, he is aware of geography and distances in travel, and he understands social customs in various places. He is also curious, and pursues investigative research because he believes that knowledge is a source of wisdom and insight. More than that, the author of this gospel shows a special interest in the sick and the culturally marginalized. More than any of the other gospels, this one resonates with moments when Jesus sees those who have been turned out by polite society, and shows how they matter greatly to God.

The introductions to both this gospel (Luke 1:1-4) and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 1:1-2) affirm their common authorship. Moreover, when probing who this writer was, and where he came from, there is a revealing testimony in Acts 16:6-12.

From a literary standpoint, what is interesting about this paragraph, beside the actual details of the travel itinerary, is the change in person from third to first as the narrative moves from beginning to end. It starts with a description of what Paul and his companions were doing, and how they got to Troas. But when this missionary troupe leaves that city, suddenly the narrative becomes personal: “we” traveled on to Macedonia because God had called “us” to preach there.

This indicates that the author of the book of Acts (and thereby the gospel of Luke) was someone living in Troas, who joined Paul’s missionary tour from that city. Other notes from Paul’s letters and testimony from the early church indicate that this “someone” was Luke, a doctor who may well have been called in to treat Paul for a recurrent malady. In Colossians 4:14, Paul called Luke “our dear friend … the doctor,” and in the greetings of Philemon 24-25 Luke is listed as one of Paul’s “fellow workers.”

Because many doctors in that world started their professions as slaves who functioned as assistant apprentices to other doctors, some have speculated that this may also have been Luke’s background. It might help explain his constant attention to the oppressed social outcasts encountered by Jesus. Some legends also tell of Luke’s painting skills, but like other tidbits of information we might glean, this is speculation at best.

If we note the first-person testimony as it dips in and out of the narrative of the book of Acts, we find that Luke is with Paul when Paul makes his final visit to Jerusalem (Acts 21:17), around mid-54 A.D. Then, when Paul finally sets sail from Palestine to Rome, two years later, Luke again identifies himself as a member of the traveling group (Acts 27:1). These years, when Paul is in Palestine under arrest, would likely be the occasion during which Luke was able to interview those who knew Jesus personally.

As with Matthew’s gospel, Luke’s is also clearly built upon Mark’s gospel, and has the same broad outline of Jesus’ activities and teachings. Luke’s use of Mark is much more selective than was Matthew’s, however. Only about 55% of the Markan text is incorporated into Luke’s gospel, and it comes mainly in three sections:
  • 3:1--6:1 (John the Baptist, temptations, call of disciples)
  • 8:4--9:50 (teachings, healings, sending disciples out)
  • 18:15--24:11 (teaching, Jerusalem entry, the Passion)
There are several things that Luke, like Matthew, add to Mark’s initial story of Jesus. First, in a personal introductory note, Luke speaks to his specific intended audience, a man called Theophilus. While this is likely the official name of an actual individual, it is also possible that the term was a nickname or pseudonym for a person whom Luke wanted to protect, because he was in a position of government leadership that could be compromised if he was found to be associating with this suspiciously regarded branch of Judaism. “Theophilus” might also be a generic term used to indicate Christians generally, since it means “God’s friend.” In any case, this person appears to be a recent Gentile convert to Christian beliefs, possibly through Paul’s preaching on one of the mission journeys where Luke was a partner. The designation “most excellent” (Luke 1:3) was often used as a formal manner of address for Roman officials, and this may indicate that Theophilus was a local or regional ruler.

As does Matthew, Luke also augments Mark’s narrative with birth stories (Luke 1--2). Luke not only tells us about Jesus’ miraculous appearance, but also shares the earlier events that precipitated his cousin John’s divinely-initiated conception. Together these things focus on the preparation that took place to ensure Jesus’ appropriate arrival and setting. Luke wants us to know that Jesus came into this world with a divine mandate and under heaven’s clear planning and purpose. With great drama the stories unfold, accompanied by the marvelous songs of Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon, all of whom speak of the reversal of fortune that will be brought about by this wonderful act of God.

Luke ties the events of Jesus’ life directly to historical circumstances in the greater Roman world. He reports that Jesus’ birth occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus and the governorship of Quirinius (Luke 2:1-2). Later he mentions that the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry took place in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s rule (Luke 3:1). The connection with Caesar Augustus is particularly striking, since Augustus was the great ruler who brought about the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Luke makes evident, particularly through the song of the angels to the shepherds, that even in those times of relative international calm, the greater gift of divine peace was needed by humankind, and could be brought only through Jesus.

Also unique to Luke’s presentation is the strong emphasis on worship and song and prayer. The gospel itself begins and ends in the Temple, where people are gathered for times of public devotion. At the coming of Jesus, a number of songs are sung (by Mary, Zechariah, the angels, and Simeon). Prayer also forms a key element of Jesus’ teachings, with an even greater emphasis brought to it than noted by Mark (see especially Luke 11:1-13).

Perhaps the most striking and clearly Lukan focus in conveying the message about Jesus, is his recognition that God has special care for the poor (noted in Mary’s song, identified in the offering brought by Joseph and Mary at Jesus’ circumcision, asserted through the record of Jesus’ pronouncements of woes on the rich and blessings on the poor, and insinuated in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man), the sick (notably the number of demon-possessed who are healed by Jesus, and also the lepers who are cleansed and the paralyzed who are restored to mobility), the marginalized (shepherds, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans, and the blind), and women (Mary, Elizabeth, widows, the hemorrhaging woman, Mary and Martha, and the crippled woman).

Luke leans into this transforming message in the introductory notes of today’s lectionary reading, where he uses Isaiah’s anticipations and John’s heralding to announce the coming of Jesus. In a world where the lost and the last and the least have been sidelined, marginalized and ignored, someone has come to see and seek and save.


Application
There is a powerful scene in Herman Melville’s great epic, Moby Dick, where Captain Ahab stands peg-legged on the deck of the Pequod during a violent storm (chapter 119). His obsession with the white whale has carried the craft and crew to exotic and frightening locales, and now it seems as if divine providence might be unleashing furious anger against this ill-fated quest. But Ahab is a fighter, and with clenched fists, amid the lightning bolts and against the raging thunder he yells a taunt at the Creator who chastens his cause: “I now know thee, thou clear spirit, and I now know that thy right worship is defiance.”

Yet even Captain Ahab, torn by his demons and captured as much by the whale as he seeks to capture it, knows that there is a need greater than victory and a power more tenacious than brutal force. He falls to the deck in a tormented confession:  “But war is pain, and hate is woe. Come in thy lowest form of love, and I will kneel and kiss thee…” He almost pleads with God to stop the awful battering of antagonistic powers, and descend in kind humility so that the passions of love might be reborn and rekindled again.

This, of course, is a marvelous bridge between the bellicose prophecies of the Old Testament and the juxtaposed incarnation of Jesus that emerged out of them. God did indeed come down, like God had done in the times of Moses and the Pharaoh. But this time God chose the suckling child rather than the plague blasts as the means of arrival and encounter. We who marshal our forces for good or for evil are suddenly caught up short -- the one who could “rend the heavens” and “set twigs ablaze” and “cause water to boil” and “cause the nations to quake” and make “the mountains tremble” slipped in as a helpless child, and the world knelt to kiss him on a starry night in Bethlehem.
This is the language of Advent, the renewed language of confidence in God, the crisis of these times, and the anticipated next act of divine intervention in human affairs. But it all begins with the faithfulness of God upon which our own faith and faithfulness can be pinned.

Advent is, for the church, a solid hook in the vast, uncharted chaotic voids of space, allowing us to tether and take our bearings from at least one point which is neither shifting with the currents nor dependent on our own powers to establish it. Advent is the place where Archimedes can set the fulcrum of his lever and move earth and the planets in a meaningful way because there is a critical unmoved position from which everything else is to be measured. Advent is that date on our calendars which was penned in by God, not us, indicating a promised encounter that we might often doubt, but which cannot be erased from the pages of time.


Alternative Application (Luke 3:1-6)
What difference does my life make for others around me? What difference does anyone’s life make? It’s always a question related to parenting. Parents make choices that affect the manner in which their children form their identities. Harry Chapin put it well in his song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” When he was a young father he was too busy making a living to be bothered by his son. But when he was finally old enough to enjoy time with the family, his son had learned to be too busy for him!

Of course, the other side of the story is just as true. Maurice Boyd remembers the impact one incident had that sealed the impact of his father on his life forever. His father worked in a shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland. During the Depression work dried up. Times were tough, and for three years his father was out of a job.

Then one of his old bosses at the shipyard approached him. The important man would find work for Mr. Boyd. He would guarantee it, no matter how much worse things got. All Mr. Boyd would have to do would be to buy a life-insurance policy from the man. It would work to their mutual benefit: the boss’s income would increase, and Mr. Boyd’s work income would be guaranteed!

It was a great deal except for one thing: it was illegal. Maurice Boyd remembers his father sitting at the kitchen table with the whole family surrounding him. There at the table his father counted the cost. He reviewed their desperate financial situation. He ticked off the outstanding bills, and the money he ought to be making, could be making, if only he’d say yes to his boss.

His father wrote it all down on a sheet of paper: the gains and the losses; what he could make and what he could lose. Then he wrote down a category that Maurice Boyd will never forget: integrity! What did it matter if he gained the cash to pay the rent, but lost his ability to teach his children right from wrong? What did it matter if he gained the dignity of a job, but lost it each morning when he looked at himself in the mirror, and knew that the only one reason he can go off to work instead of someone else is because he cheated? Says Maurice Boyd: “He discovered that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent, and that one way you can keep your soul is by refusing to sell it. He realized that whatever else he lost, and God knows he lost enough, he didn’t have to lose himself.”

John the Baptist shouted that message to the crowds from Jerusalem who came to see his odd ministry at the Jordan River. The hardest thing to do in life is to maintain our integrity. Sin has entered the human soul precisely at this point. We are not, most of us, evil people. We’re rather nice, aren’t we? There’s much that we do that’s good, and fine, and noble, and kind, and wise, and no one can deny that.

But here’s the problem: whatever else sin might do in our lives, it first and foremost perforates the lines of our hearts, and lets us tear off a piece here and a piece there, till we find ourselves segmented, fragmented, torn apart in separate snippets of self. It isn’t that we become blackened by sin in one large stroke. It isn’t that we turn into some hideous monsters of greed and cruelty. It isn’t that we dissolve the Dr. Jekylls of our personalities into dastardly Mr. Hydes. Instead, we keep most of our goodness intact, but we make small allowances in certain little areas. We cheat on our taxes a little, maybe… Or we turn our eyes from the needs of someone we could help… Or we compromise our communication till we speak from only our mouths instead of our souls.

The fragmentation of our lives makes us less than we should be, less than we could be. It makes us less than the people God made us to be. It is precisely because we and our world have lost our integrity that the great prophet of God must come and set things right.

New & Featured This Week

The Immediate Word

Thomas Willadsen
Christopher Keating
Dean Feldmeyer
Mary Austin
Ron Love
George Reed
Bethany Peerbolte
For December 16, 2018:
  • Joice Again! by Tom Willadsen -- Rejoice! I can’t hear you, rejoice!! Joice again. “Joice” isn’t a verb in English, but “rejoice” is. Oh, and rejoicing is commanded. Just take a look at the Philippians reading.

Emphasis Preaching Journal

Bill Thomas
Bob Ove
Mark Ellingsen
Bonnie Bates
Frank Ramirez
Ron Love
Zephaniah 3:14-20
Wow, how can things get any better. God has not only taken our punishment, he has turned back our enemy. What more can we ask. We shouldn’t have to fear anything. God says this to Jerusalem. Can this apply to America also?

Isn’t it love that takes away our worry? When we were little kids we didn’t worry about anything as long as our parents were near us. God is bigger and more powerful.

David Kalas
My wife, who thrives on organization, has a motto: “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” It’s an expression of her passion for keeping a room, a house, or a garage orderly. But I think the principle extends still further. It goes beyond just physical spaces. For what is true of cupboards and closets is even more profoundly true of a human life.

StoryShare

David O. Bales
Contents
“A Rainy Road To The Jordan” by David O. Bales
“A Freshman Experience” by David O. Bales


A Rainy Road To The Jordan
by David O. Bales
Luke 3:7-18

CSSPlus

Arley K. Fadness
“...but one who is more powerful than I is coming..” (V. 16a)

Good morning girls, good morning boys!

My, it’s so fun to see you today.  Happy Advent! Know why I (say, sing, shout, chant) Happy Advent? (children may respond)

Advent means “a coming.” Something or somebody is coming. Just around the corner. Know what it is? (children respond)

Yep. It’s Christmas, and John the Baptist is here to help. (show sketch)

The Village Shepherd

Janice B. Scott
I've had many reports of the Remembrance Sunday service held at Dickleburgh (in Norfolk, England) this year, mostly about the preacher. Since Dickleburgh has a historic connection with the Americans from the time of Second World War, they always invite the American Air Base at Mildenhall in Suffolk to join them for the service, and always invite the current American air force chaplain to preach.

SermonStudio

Robert S. Crilley
On the Sunday afternoon following Thanksgiving, when I was in seventh grade, it began to snow. It started slowly and undramatically -- much like any number of other snows I had experienced growing up in Detroit. The sky turned the shade of dirty wool and the flakes danced through the wind as in one of those glass balls that you invert. Little by little the sidewalks whitened, and soon the neighborhood was alive with the rasping sound of shovels. Before long the roads were filled and you could no longer see the curb.

Special Occasion