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The Twelve Days of Christmas

December 31, 2017

New Philadelphia Moravian Church

 

The days between Christmas and New Year’s are always kind of “off”, kind of different from normal. Christmas is still lingering. Yesterday, as I was getting the golf cart out of the church garage to have it ready to be used this morning, I noticed that the Christmas lights that were on it for Christmas Eve were still burning. Their brightness had dimmed quite a bit, but it was still there. That’s what this week feels like.

The decorations are often still up but they always seem to look a little less  colorful and festive than they did last week. There are football games during the middle of the week! Many people take vacation days, school is out and almost everyone has a different schedule. No one seems to even know what day of the week it even is.

For me, that feeling has been heightened by the fact that Kelly and Zach and I  are just back from Winter Camp at Laurel Ridge. Zach was a camper (along with 35 other 6th to 12th graders plus a couple of college freshmen) and Kelly and I were the Deans and led the program. We had a wonderful time but it certainly wasn’t the way we would normally spend a Tuesday through Friday. Regardless, it was a great four days of fun and fellowship and even some learning. The program was all about the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The Twelve Days of Christmas are not the 12 days before Christmas but they are the twelve days starting on Christmas Day and ending on Epiphany (January 6). So that would make today the 7th day of Christmas. And on the 7th day of Christmas my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming. Most of our familiarity with the twelve days  of Christmas comes from the song- the one where the true love gives increasingly elaborate (and often strange) gifts for each of the 12 days. And the gifts are cumulative, so over the 12 days of Christmas, you get 12 partridges in 12 pear trees and so on for a total of 364 gifts. Despite the lack of any real relatability (who wants 3 french hens as a Christmas gift?) the song has become a Christmas tradition.

Kelly and I based our program for Winter Camp on the legend that the song was written as a secret catechism for Catholics in England. The theory is that it was a code to help young Catholics learn the basics of their faith at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in England. While it is only a legend and there isn’t really any way to prove  that that is why it was written or what it really means, it is interesting.

Each of the 12 days represents a basic point of Christian doctrine. “My true love” who gives all the gifts is God, the partridge in a pear tree is Jesus, the 2 turtle doves are the OT and NT, the 3 French hens equal faith, hope and love, the 4 calling birds are the 4 gospels, the 5 golden rings are the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the OT) the 6 geese a-laying are the 6 days of creation, the 7 swans a-swimming are the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, the 8 maids a-milking are the 8 Beatitudes, the 9 ladies dancing are the 9 fruit of the Spirit, the 10 lords a-leaping are the 10 Commandments, the 11 pipers piping are the 11 FAITHFUL disciples, and the 12 drummers drumming are the 12 points of doctrine in the Apostles Creed.

Sharing this with the kids at Winter Camp was lot of fun and led to some interesting discussions about what the basics of our faith and belief are. But sadly, since we were trying to cover 12 days of Christmas in 4 days, we didn’t have time to go into a lot of depth on any of the gifts. And we didn’t really get to talk much about the whole  idea that the song was written as a means of sharing faith in secret. Even if that is not really the reason the song was written, even if it is not really what the whole thing is all about, it is still fascinating to think about. Primarily because we rarely, if ever, have had to hide our faith, or practice it in secret.

We live in a time and place where we are free to live our faith and share our beliefs. But not all Christians do. In fact, over the 2 millennia of Christian faith, believers have frequently had to hide what they believed and who they were. Even going back to the very beginning itself. Our Gospel reading for today continues the story of Jesus’  birth and details the time when Jesus himself had to go into hiding for who he was.

It’s interesting how we take the very different Christmas stories from the gospels of Matthew and Luke and combine them into one narrative, even though that was not what the authors intended. We have the angels coming to visit Mary (in Luke’s gospel) and Joseph (in Matthew’s), to tell them that they will have a son and name him Jesus. Then we have Luke’s account of the journey to Bethlehem where there was no room in the inn so the baby was born and laid in a manger; the angels bringing good tidings to the shepherds; and Mary pondering all of it in her heart. In Matthew the wise men follow the star to Bethlehem and find the CHILD (not a baby) in the house (not a manger) and then leave by another way so as not to tip off Herod to Jesus’ whereabouts.

We put it all together in one beautiful story that we put on Christmas cards and in Nativity scenes. But we always end it with the Wise Men and we never include the less acceptable continuation of the story- Herod’s slaughter of all the children under two years old and the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into hiding in Egypt. It’s pretty obvious why we don’t include Herod’s murdering children in our Christmas celebrations. It is less obvious why we overlook the flight to Egypt. But I think I gained a better understanding of it as I considered the theory of the Twelve Days of Christmas being a secret catechism, being a secret way of sharing faith that has to be hidden.

We overlook Jesus having to hide in Egypt because we have never had to hide our faith. We have always been free to practice our faith out in the open. We have always been free to gather here and sing the hymns of faith and share the gospel and proclaim the good news that our Savior has been born. And while that is a great thing and a blessing we have that many Christians do not have, it also causes us to miss out on something.

In 2004, I had the chance to see first hand what it was like to have to be a Christian in secret. A colleague in ministry offered me the opportunity to join him on a mission trip to China. We were to spend 3 weeks teaching Chinese Christians how to teach the Gospel and the basics of Christian faith. We journeyed from the United States to Beijing then onto Shenyang, a city that I had never even heard of but it is the home of 8 million people. On our VISA applications, we listed the purpose of our trip as “visiting friends” since it was illegal to go there to share the gospel. When we arrived, we had to hang out in a tea shop until it was late enough to go to the “seminary” without attracting any attention. The seminary was actually a 3 bedroom apartment that served as a teaching facility for Chinese Christians who came from all over the region.

When we finally were clear to go to the apartment, before we got out of the car, we were instructed to put on our hats and to keep looking down if we passed anyone on the stairwell. It was unusual for Americans to be in the part of the city. It was far away from any tourist places and our arrival would attract attention, possibly unwanted attention. Once we made it into the apartment, we didn’t leave for a week. We weren’t even supposed to look out of the windows because we would risk being noticed. We were joined by 25 Chinese Christians who were anxious to learn new ways to share  their faith with the people in the villages that they had come from.

We were only able to communicate through an interpreter, as they didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Chinese. But that really didn’t matter because what we shared was often shared without words- faith, hope, and love transcend language. The Chinese students traveled for hours on crowded trains to get there. If we had been discovered, I would have just been expelled from China and sent back to the United States. But the Chinese students would have likely faced lengthy prison sentences.

Think about that for a second- imagine being so committed to your faith that you would risk going to prison just to learn more. It is something that I had often read about but until I spent time with people for whom it was a very real possibility, I had never really grasped its importance. It helped me to see how much I take my faith for granted. And how much most Christians in our world take our faith for granted.

When we have the freedoms that we do, the freedom to practice our faith openly and to worship anywhere and everywhere, then we also have the freedom to NOT practice our faith, to not worship. And that is a freedom that we exercise far too often. In the midst of our freedom, our faith has become a faith of convenience. We practice it when it is convenient, when it fits our schedule, when it doesn’t require too much sacrifice on our part.

I recognize that I am preaching to the choir a bit on this one. After all you are here on New Year’s Eve. Maybe I should have preached this on Christmas Eve. But even the best of us, even the most committed among us, are guilty of taking our faith for granted, of practicing a convenient faith. But our God isn’t a God of convenience. Our God is a God of commitment.

God is so committed to us, that he became one of us. As Paul writes “though he was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  That is commitment.

And it is something that we should not lose sight of during these 12 days of Christmas, or ever. God is so committed to us that he became one of us. He put aside his divinity to assume our humanity. He then gave himself over to death in order to bring us over to eternal life. That is the level of commitment that our God has to us. He  literally gave all that he is for us and to us.

It is really hard for us to understand that level of sacrifice. That’s why I’m glad  that the account of the flight to Egypt appears during our Christmas celebration. It reminds us, at the one time of year when it is the easiest to be a Christian, that it isn’t always so easy to practice our faith. There have been times, ever since those days right after Jesus was born, when it is downright dangerous. And there have been people who have made great sacrifices to share their faith, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. Whether it is fleeing from their homes to the safety of anonymity or teaching the basics of faith in secret codes or risking imprisonment to learn how to teach others about Jesus, Christians have always made sacrifices for their faith, for their God, for their Savior.

So as we stand in the middle of these 12 days of Christmas, as we watch the old year pass away and a new year enter in, the questions are “What about us? What sacrifices will we make for our faith this year? How will we serve our God? How will we share the good news of salvation?”

I think that the answer to all of these questions comes is the same- to stop making our faith a faith of convenience, to stop having church be something that we do only when we don’t have anything better to do. Jesus’ ministry to us was first and foremost a ministry of presence. He came to us so that we might be able to come to him, so that we can draw closer to God. During 2018, I think that we should all commit  to doing the same. We should all commit to a ministry of presence rather than a faith of convenience.

That means being here. Being at church, being with our brothers and sisters as we worship, as we serve, as we learn, as we play, as we come together in the name of our Lord and Savior. It means giving of ourselves, not just when we feel like it, or when we don’t have anything better to do, but always. It means making the sacrifices for our faith necessary to make our faith part of our lives, every single day.

On the first day of Christmas, our true love gave himself to us. What are we  going to give to him?

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A few pictures from our 2017 Lovefeast services taken by our church member, Denise Hunt:

 

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This remembrance is personal. However, it is my hope that
my memories of Christmas may remind you of your own. Remember
a classic novel is set in a particular time and place, and deals with
particular people, yet it tells a universal story. WNG

Several years before my dad’s death we drove down east in late December to attend a family funeral. It was one of the last trips I made with my dad, just the two of us, and I really enjoyed it. We left Winston-Salem about lunch, drove to the little Eastern North Carolina town, attended the funeral at 4:00 p.m., greeted the few family members dad still remembered, and stopped for supper at burger joint. Then, as darkness fell, we pointed the car back up the road to Winston-Salem. The road was completely different after dark. On the way down, we drove through one little town that was so drab we hardly noticed it. On the way back, the same little town had switched on its Christmas lights, and it was transformed. We were treated to some of the most lavish and colorful decorations we had ever seen. As we passed through the business district, we saw numerous depictions of the Elves hard at work. There were snowmen, and snowflakes, and the reindeer leapt from corner to corner. Santa Claus himself occupied a place of honor in the main square. As we drove, dad delivered a running commentary on the abundance of beauty added to that drab little town by all the lights. Then, he stopped in mid-sentence, and said:

“Wait a minute, Worth! There is no nativity! They did not set out a single angel, shepherd or wiseman, not one, much less three; and the Holy Family has been left completely out. It is as if Jesus had never been born! I am afraid that this town has lost the true gift of Christmas in the wrappings.”

Then, always on the lookout for his next great sermon idea, Dad quickly added, “Worth, that would preach: ‘Don’t Loose the True Gift of Christmas in the Wrappings!’”

Now, please notice, that my dad did not say that the true gift of Christmas must be enjoyed without the wrappings, he simply said we should not loose the true gift of Christmas in the wrappings! At my house, when I was a boy, we always enjoyed the wrappings. For instance, we always put-up a Christmas tree, visited Santa Claus, exchanged gifts, and gathered for a big family meal.

As I look back on those days, I don’t remember Christmas tree lots like we have now. We may have had them, but in my family and neighborhood, either people put up an aluminum tree with colored lights, like the one in the window of Thalhimers on 4th Street, or they went out in the woods and cut a Christmas tree of their own. Dad used to know a farmer named John James, whose daughter, Virginia Barber, is still a member of this church. We used to go to the James’s farm, and Mr. James would hook his tractor to a tobacco sled, and my dad and I would climb in, and Mr. James would pull us all over his farm, until we spied just the right tree, always a cedar, and then dad would hop out with an ax, and, quick as a wink, or two, or three, or ten—-anyway pretty quick, we had a tree of our own to take home and decorate.

My mother made a big deal of decorating the tree. She had exactly five boxes of Christmas ornaments, each containing a dozen, single-color, glass, Christmas balls in gold, silver, red, green, and blue. We also had boxes of icicles made from tin foil that we bought at the drugstore. The icicles had to be tin foil, not tensile, because tensile was too light and did not hang properly. We did not have lights; but mom always popped pop-corn, and we would string a little of that, and eat a little of that, and string a little of that, until we could drape the tree with a garlands of white. My grandmother always used snow from an aerosol can on her tree, but mom would not permit it on ours. Dad bought a can one year, but mom pointed out that it said “Flammable,” right on the can, and she would not take the chance.

We had the wrappings. We had a Christmas tree, and I was permitted to visit Santa Claus, too. Back in the day, there may have been more than one department store Santa in Winston-Salem, but the only one I ever saw was in the Sears and Roebuck Store that was located on 4th Street, across from Modern Chevrolet. We usually parked dad’s 1953 Plymouth Suburban station-wagon in the lot on Four-and-a-Half Street, and entered the store through the upper entrance. I can still remember the smell of the hot nuts, fudge, and candies that wafted-up the those stairs to the parking lot as we walked down them. And I can still remember the long walk to the back of the store. We walked past the jewelry counter, and the toy department, and the housewares, and the hardware, and the garden supplies, and at last, there was Santa, seated on his elevated throne, usually at the end of a long line of kids my age. Most kids sat on his lap; but even as a youngster, I never did want to do that. I much preferred to keep my feet on the ground, shake-hands with the old gentleman, and speak to him face to face. I was always careful not to ask for too much, because, I knew, as my mother often told me, that Santa Claus had to keep something for the other children. When Clyde Manning proofed this sermon, she old me her mother simply told her and her sisters not to be greedy.

Santa was the bringer of gifts, but not the only bringer of gifts. My uncle Paul, my dad’s brother, usually brought a gift by for me, and my Aunt Ella Mae, my cousin Robert’s mother, always gave me something. Both Robert and I were deep into the cowboy life, and, I suppose, Aunt Ella Mae wanted her boys not to grow up to be cowboys. Anyway, one year, she surprised Robert and me with a different kind of gift. She put the matching gifts under the tree at Granny’s, and marked them “From Santa.” We were initially delighted to get something extra. Then we tore open the packages to discover a matching pair of dolls, both named, “Betsy Wetsy.” All of our aunts and uncles roared with laughter, and they kept laughing until tears streamed down their faces. The rest of that episode is a blank for me; but, several years ago, my cousin Robert sent me a picture of us holding those dolls. Both of us are dressed up as cowboys. His flashy little suit, complete with chaps and a vest, was embroidered with the name of “Hop Along Cassidy.” I am dressed more conservatively in a cowboy shirt, jeans, boots, and a black hat. Both of us are wearing a pair of chrome plated-pistols. He is clutching his Betsy Wetsy to his chest with a look of chagrin on his face. I am holding mine down by my side, either by a leg, or by the hair of her head, I don’t remember, and the look on my face is one of pure disdain. Today, a Betsy Wetsy will fetch quite a sum on eBay. Despite my shame I have been tempted to go on over to 10 West Devonshire, and sneak into my old back yard, and see if I can find the shallow grave where I put her after she met a tragic and violent end, on December the 26th, 1956.

When I was growing up, I received gifts, and I gave gifts. In those days, my mother always gave me enough money to buy my father a gift, and my father always gave me enough money to buy my mother a gift. Year after year, I bought mom a nice handkerchief, and I bought my dad a pretty nice tie. Then, one year, I saved up my allowance and went to the drugstore without supervision. I bought my dad a bottle of “Old Spice,” and my mother a bottle of “Midnight in Paris.” Interestingly enough, several years ago, when I had to empty my mom’s house, I found that empty bottle of “Midnight in Paris,” still in the original box.

I have to mention one more thing. The traditional Christmas family gathering. In those days, when I thought I would always be A member of the youngest generation, we went to my grandmother’s house for Christmas Dinner and there were no empty chairs. I was an only child, but I had five aunts and uncles, on my mother’s side alone, and more first cousins than I could reliably count. We had special guests, too. I particularly enjoyed the years that my dad brought an old bachelor preacher named J. George Brunner to eat with us. Dad always asked Mr. Brunner to say the blessing, we enjoyed his blessings, because they were like a preview of good things to come. He always took time to thank God for every single item on the heavily laden table, one at a time, “O Lord,” he prayed, “Thank you for the turkey and dressing, and for the ham with pineapple slices and cherries, and for the green-beans, and for the mashed potatoes with lumps in them, and for real butter, and for the coconut cake, and the chocolate fudge tunnel cake….” His prayer went on much longer, for the feast was abundant and diverse, but you get the picture.

When I was growing up, our Christmas never lacked for wrapping! However, there was no danger that we would loose the true gift of Christmas in that wrapping.

Take the songs we sang. I don’t remember that we ever sang “Jingle-Bells,” but it seems like we were aways singing carols like, “Away in a Manger,” “Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night.” Indeed, my first solo was part of a trio. Steve Calloway, Lenny Canada and I played the Three Wisemen, and we sang, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.”

I told you that we did not have lights on our Christmas tree; but we always had them at the Christmas Eve Candlelight Lovefeast. I always loved it when the preacher, always my dad, held up his candle and told us how Jesus had said, “I am the Light of the World.” And then he would invite us to lift up our candels says, “And Jesus said, ‘You are the light of the world…’”

Then there was Christmas morning. In those days, we always had gifts under the tree; but we never opened them until dad took down his big Thompson Chain Reference Bible, in the King James Version, and read the Christmas Story. He had read it the night before, at the lovefeast, but he always read it a second time, just for our family.

More than sixty years have come and gone since my first Christmases. John James’s farm is a golf course, and Granny and Pop are gone, and dad is gone, and most of my aunts and uncles are gone. Even one of my cousins is gone. Others who have lived as long as I have have even more vacant seats around the Christmas table. However, despite all these changes, for some of us, hopefully for most of us, the true Gift of Christmas is still as longed for, appreciated, and treasured, as it ever was. For though we know we can never return to those long ago Christmases of yesteryear, the True Gift of Christmas continues to give us hope, for today and tomorrow. As we grow older we see that night is coming, but beyond the night, there is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. This makes us bold to believe that we are moving toward a future that is even more special than our past, a future in which every person we have loved and lost, has some part to play, and the part they play, and the part we play, will never be diminished. That hope is possible, because the true gift of Christmas, the child of Bethlehem, grew-up to become not just a man, but the Man, the Son of Man and Son of God who showed us the Father by showing us Himself. Then he died for our sins, and rose again to give us a future and a hope that is beyond our wildest expectations. My dad always read the Christmas story from Luke chapter two, twice, on Christmas Eve, and again on Christmas Day. The rest of the year, he often used a different version of the Christmas story. It is found in John 3;16. Do you know it?

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that 
whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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Harbinger of Hope December 3, 2017- Advent 1 New Philadelphia Moravian – Rev. Joe Moore

Over the last two weeks, Worth has covered the topic of hope pretty well, actually he has covered it exceptionally well. So well that I am hesitant to delve into the same topic. But it just so happens that today is the first Sunday of Advent and, as I said to the kids when we were lighting the candle on the Advent wreath, the theme for the first Sunday of Advent is hope. So I don’t really see how I can avoid it. I hope that you are ready for one more sermon on hope.

I imagine that many of you were kind of expecting it. Because more than any other season, Advent and Christmas are times of tradition, times of expectation, times of anticipation. I’m sure that most of you came to church this morning anticipating that we would sing Hosanna because that is the tradition for the first Sunday in Advent in the Moravian Church. It’s just one of those things that we expect this time of year.

Among the many traditions and expectations of the season, there’s another event that happens every year about this time. Usually around Thanksgiving or the first Sunday in Advent, what I like to call the “Harbinger of Hope” appears. That’s a good word, isn’t it? “Harbinger”- it means a person or thing that announces or signals the approach of another. And that is what the “Harbinger of Hope” does. He comes to lay the groundwork for the big event, to get things ready for the major arrival, to signal the approach of one who is greater than he, to herald the arrival of the big guy, to “prepare the way.” But it’s not who you think. If you were paying attention to the gospel lesson, you are probably are thinking that the Harbinger of Hope is John the Baptist. But it’s not. However we will get to him later.

The Harbinger of Hope that I am talking about is the Elf on the Shelf. Have you seen these guys? They are elves who make an appearance in homes between Thanksgiving and Christmas to scout out who is being naughty and who is being nice. Santa’s “scout Elves” hide in houses to watch over events. Once everyone goes to bed, the elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa the activities, good and bad, that have taken place throughout the day. Before the family wakes up each morning, the elf flies back from the North Pole and hides.

We have one of these elves in our house. I wanted to bring him to church so that you all could see him, but one of the rules is that if one of the family touches him, he goes back to the North Pole and never returns. His name is Jingle and in addition to spying and hiding, he creates a fair amount of mischief. But he still qualifies as a Harbinger of Hope.

When Jingle, the Elf on the Shelf, appears, the hope and anticipation that Christmas is soon to follow, arrives with him. He signals the approach of one who is greater than he, he prepares the way, he gets us ready for the arrival of Santa Claus. When you see the Elf on the Shelf, you know that Santa Claus is coming to town. For all of those who have been good this past year, he is a sign of hope. And for those who maybe haven’t been quite so good, he is also a sign of fear. Because when you see the Elf on the Shelf, you had better hope that you are ready for who is coming next, for the one who comes after him. And if you are not, you know that it is time to get ready. It’s actually kind of nice to know what’s coming, to have the chance to get ready, to prepare for the one who is to come.

John the Baptist plays much the same role for Jesus as the Elf on the Shelf plays for Santa Claus. John is Jesus’ “harbinger of hope” He is the voice in the wilderness that Isaiah prophesied would come to herald the coming of the Lord, the Messiah. John the Baptist told the people, all the people who would listen, to get ready, to prepare the way of the Lord; to make a straight highway in the desert, to lift up the valleys and bring down the mountains, to level the uneven ground and smooth out the rough places. Because the glory of the Lord is about to be revealed, He is coming.

For the people that heard Isaiah’s prophecy and for those who saw John the Baptist as the fulfillment of that prophecy, the thought of the coming of the Messiah was a great cause for hope. They had long been persecuted, held captive, forced into slavery; their lives were defined by being oppressed, defeated, hated. They were waiting, they were longing, for the one who would come and save them and set them free. So they listened. They listened to that voice in the wilderness calling them to prepare the way of the Lord.

They listened to the wild man, clothed in camel hair, eating locusts and wild honey. They listened as he called them to confess, to repent, and to be baptized. They knew that it was necessary, they knew that it was what they needed to do to prepare, to be ready when He arrived. They knew it, but do we?

Confession and repentance aren’t really what we like to think about when we are celebrating Advent. We would prefer to save that stuff for Lent. Hope, peace, joy, and love- these are the things we like to think about, to focus on during this season of preparation. It’s much more fun, it’s much easier to prepare to receive those things that Jesus brings into the world than it is to look at ourselves, to confess our sins, to repent from our sins, and to go and sin no more.

It reminds me of a lost verse from one of my favorite Christmas hymns, Angels from the Realms of Glory. “Sinners wrung with true repentance, doomed for guilt to endless pains; justice now revokes the sentence, mercy calls you break your chains.” Doesn’t really fit the Christmas mood, does it? No wonder it’s a “lost’ verse that you won’t find in either the red or blue hymnals. It was in the old 1923 black hymnal but it has wisely been left out of the more recent versions. Who wants to sing about that on Christmas?

Yet they are an essential part of our Advent preparation. There are really two types of preparation during Advent. The first is physical- we decorate our homes and  our church, we buy and wrap gifts, we trim candles and hang stars. The second is spiritual preparation.  And it is something that we often overlook. That’s why it is good to have John the Baptist, the Harbinger of Hope, to remind us to prepare not only our bodies, but our souls as well.

We spiritually prepare for the coming of Jesus into the world and into our lives by first doing the thing that we don’t like to do- to consider our sins, our faults, our shortcomings, all the ways that we have failed and fallen short of God’s glory. Then we confess our sins, we acknowledge the wrongs we have done and the good that we have failed to do. Then we repent from those sins, we turn our backs on them and strive to  not do them anymore.

We need to remember that an equally important part of our spiritual preparation  is recognizing that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit already. When  we confess and repent, we also receive the assurance that our sins have been forgiven. The penalty has been paid. Jesus has made recompense for our sins. In a way, he has prepared the way for us, rather than our preparing the way for him. At least when we are only focused on preparing the way for Jesus to enter into our own lives.

But our Advent calling as Christians is much larger than just preparing to receive Jesus in our lives. That may sound strange to hear, but I believe it to be true. As Christians we are called to prepare the way for Jesus to enter the world- not only our world, but the WHOLE world. This is where Hope, Peace, Joy and Love come in. These are not just the qualities that Jesus brings into the world, they are also the qualities that he expects us to bring into the world.

It may seem like a daunting task, bringing hope, peace, joy and love to the world. They aren’t things that we always have, or more accurately, they aren’t things that we always feel. Even during Advent and Christmas, when we are supposed to be filled with them, when they are supposed to be at the forefront of all that we do. Let’s face it, sometimes we are just going through the motions, doing what we are supposed to do, just because it is the “most wonderful time of the year.”

But it’s difficult to offer hope when you aren’t feeling hope, it isn’t easy to bring peace when you aren’t peaceful, it is impossible to share joy without being joyful, it is hard to give love when you aren’t receiving love. But do it anyway.

I’m not discounting those negative feelings. I’m not saying that they aren’t real or that they don’t matter. Because they are real and they do matter. Life is hard and pain is real. But you aren’t alone in your pain, you aren’t alone in your life. That’s what this time of year is all about. It is about welcoming God into our world and into our lives. It is  about welcoming God made flesh who dwelt among us, who felt the pain that we feel, who knows what it is like to feel hopeless.

Remember how Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” as he hung dying on the cross. Jesus knows what it is like to feel hopeless. Remember how Jesus was persecuted by the very people he came to save, he knows what it is like to not have peace. Remember how Jesus wept as he saw the lack of faith when his friend Lazarus died, Jesus knows what it is like to lack joy. Remember how Jesus was denied, not once, not twice, but three times by Peter. Jesus knows what it is like to not be loved. So if you are not feeling what you are “supposed” to be feeling this Advent, if you are struggling to find hope and peace and joy and love, remember that Jesus  knows how you feel. You are not alone.

But as difficult as it is when you don’t feel the way that everyone says you are supposed to feel, even when you know that you aren’t alone in those feelings, that you have a Savior who has felt the same way, it is essential that we do what he did. It is essential that we be who God has called us to be and and who the world needs us to  be.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was profoundly influenced by the Moravians. As he struggled with his faith, he asked a Moravian friend, Peter Boehler, how he could preach faith when he wasn’t sure he had faith. Boehler replied “Preach faith until you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” The same applies to us. We can bring hope and peace until we have hope and peace, we can share joy and love until we have joy and love. In other words, fake it until you make it. But not really. Because we do have those things, even if we don’t always see it or feel it or know it.

We have already received Jesus, we are recipients of the hope, the peace, the joy, and the love that he brings. They are part of our identity as his followers, they are part of who we are as Christians. We have them and we are called to share them. And this Advent and Christmas at New Philadelphia provide us with plenty of opportunities to prepare the way of the Lord, to make a straight path on which he may come.

The offerings and activities of the 12 Days of Service, as we feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, as we care for the sick and the prisoner, as we work and pray for and serve the least of these, are all ways of bringing hope and peace to our neighbors and community, to our world. Our wonderful Advent worship services and our Christmas lovefeasts share the joy and the love that we have with our friends and our families.

Like the Elf on the Shelf and John the Baptist, we are Harbingers of Hope. We are preparing the way of the Lord. We are the hope and the peace and the joy and the love. So let us use what we have and be who we are so that we can make straight in  the desert a highway for God, so that we can lift up every valley and bring down every mountain. Let us tell the world that their penalty has been paid, their debt is forgiven. For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.

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The apostle wrote to the church in Ephesus, telling them that he remembered them in all his prayers. The substance of his prayer for them was simple and revealing.

  • He did not ask God that members of the church might have an easy life.
  • He did not ask God to inspire members of the church to tithe a portion of their income to God’s work.
  • He did not even pray that God would make the church a strong, growing, dynamic and attractive gathering of saints.

He asked simply that God might open “the eyes of their hearts” so that they might know the hope to which God had called them. Obviously hope is a powerful concept, the seed of many great things.

The ancient Greeks understood the dynamics of hope. You remember the story of Pandora. According to Greek mythology she was the first woman. The head of the God’s Zeus gave Pandora a beautiful box with instructions not to open it under any circumstance. Impelled by her curiosity, which had also been given to her by the gods, Pandora opened it, and all evil contained therein escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the box, but the whole contents had escaped, except for one thing that lay at the bottom, the one thing that we really need to make life bearable: hope.

Very few people in the history of the world have believed the story of Pandora to be literally true. Yet, most people would agree about the importance of hope.

Let me give you an example. Some years ago I was asked to serve on a committee to help our local school system to define a list of character traits to be taught our children under the umbrella of “Good Citizenship.” More than a dozen parents and educators spent hours and hours discussing traits we thought should be included on the list. We finally adopted more or less the same list of eight character traits proposed by our State Legislature: 1. Respect, 2. Integrity, 3. Kindness, 4. Good Judgment, 5. Responsibility, 6. Courage, 7. Self-Discipline, and 8. Perseverance.

As we finalized the list, I suggested that we add one more characteristic of Good Citizenship: Hope. Of course, by that time, everybody in the room knew I was a pastor; and I suppose that made many people suspicious. Maybe they thought the character trait, hope, introduced by a pastor was too religious, for my suggestion was voted down. However, when we stood to vote, every non-white parent and educator in the room voted with me. They voiced their approval, too. One woman rich in the wisdom of motherhood said:

“If our children don’t have some hope of success in school, and some hope for a better life when they have finished school, then nothing else will matter to them.”

She went on to say that it was a lack of hope that drove our young people, red and yellow, black and white, to drugs and promiscuous sex, and led them into lives of crime and violence. Powerful!

Obviously, hope is not just a religious concept. Everybody needs hope, no exceptions! Thus hope can be an educational strategy, and hope can be a political strategy. In his book, The World Is Flat, Hot and Crowded, Thomas Friedman that the Muslims who become Jihadists are those who live in countries where there was no hope for a better life. They choose martyrdom and the hope of Paradise over a life of poverty and hopelessness. Friedman says that if we are to defeat the Jihadists we must help them discover hope for their own lives. Wow, imagine that, hope is a strategy in the war on terror!

Hope is a medical strategy, too, especially for those who are seriously ill. If people believe that their illness is unto death, they either give-up the fight and become despondent, or they reconcile themselves to the inevitable, and make the best of the time they have left. However, if they have even a slim hope of beating the disease that has attacked them, then they fight back, and their attitude helps their doctors help them.

I trust that you can see, in almost any situation in life, real hope is a very good thing, for it inspires effort. By contrast, false hope is a very bad thing, for false hope is the source of much disappointment, pain and anguish in the world.

Counselors who treat people with situationally induced depression (as opposed chemically induced depression) say that it is the gap between what people hope to gain from a situation and what they actually gain that sinks them down in depression. For instance, a woman hopes for a 10% raise and gets 4%. She can’t help but be a little disappointed and discouraged, especially if the men in her office received the higher rate. Or what about this? A man hopes to marry a woman he has secretly admired for years; but he never lets her know how he feels. Then, one day, she shows up at church with a diamond on the fourth finger of her left hand. Oops! It was Frankie Valley who asked: “What becomes of the broken-hearted? They had a hope that has now departed?” I could go on to touch on all the things children want for Christmas, but never get, things as simple and as expensive as an Apple Watch or a Google Plus. When I was young, at the start of catalog season, I always asked my parents what they thought Santa Claus could afford this particular Christmas. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was trying to avoid a gap between what I hoped for, and what I received.

Now, at this juncture, I would be less than honest if I did not point out that some people think that religious hope is the source of a great many of the worlds ills, whether personal, economic or political. In his book, The True Believer, Eric Toffler mentions two kinds of hope. He makes a distinction between “hope that is just around the corner,” which he regards as good, and right, and true, because it often “spurs people to action,” and “hope that lives in the far distant future,” which he regards as ultimately dangerous, because it robs people of their desire and ability to act in the present. To illustrate Toffler used the example of slaves, and other politically oppressed peoples, who accept their miserable present and pin all their future hopes on the pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-by that the people in power dangle before their eyes. Obviously, Toffler agreed with Lenin who said, “Religion (and by extension religious hope) is an opiate for the masses.”

Now let’s talk about religious hope. The New Testament teaches that as Christians we have two kinds of legitimate hope, hope that is just around the corner, and hope that lives in the far distant future. Both are rooted in the same action by the same actor. The action is the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the actor is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians 1:19 the apostle is talking about hope for the here and now, when he says that he wants us to know “what is the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us who believe.”

Then in Ephesians 1:20-21 the apostle is talking about hope for the far distant future—a future beyond the grave that was revealed in Christ when:

(God) raised Jesus from the dead and made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.

As Christians, by faith, we believe that we have a surplus of legitimate hope. If we read the New Testament carefully we discover that our surplus of hope reveals itself in four stages.

I. The first stage of hope is the stage of false hope. This is the stage of idolatry. In this stage people people put their faith in God’s of their own making. St. Paul says that idols have no real existence. Jeremiah said that idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field. They cannot talk. They cannot walk. They have to be carried everywhere they go. They cannot do us good, and they cannot do us harm. The idols we make for ourselves today are more dangerous. They cannot do us good, and they can do us harm.

II. The second stage of hope is stage of no hope. No hope is better than false hope. In Ephesians 2:12 those who do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus are said to be “without hope, and without God in the world.” People who reject God are forced to live with “the benign indifference of the universe.” It is the best they can hope for; but no hope is better than false hope.

III. The third stage of hope is the dawn of real hope. Real hope dawned when Jesus came into the world to reveal God, and God’s future for humankind. In John 5:39 Jesus spoke to the Jews saying, “You search the scriptures, because in them you think you will find eternal life, and they are they which testify of me.” When Jesus said this, he already knew he would have to prove it. He knew he had to lay down his before he could demonstrate that he had the power to take it up again. During the final week of his ministry, Jesus set his face steadfastly toward Jerusalem, knowing he would be rejected by his own people, and then crucified, killed, and buried by the Romans. Unbelief says that the cross was the bad end of a good man, but faith declares it to be a road traveled once, for all, by our now victorious Savior, for on the third day, Jesus was raised from death, showed himself alive to his disciples by many proofs, and ascended to the right hand of the majesty on high, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and far above every name that is named, in this age, and in that which is to come.

The resurrection of Jesus has implications for all humankind. In 1st Corinthians 15:20-23, St. Paul says that Jesus:

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam (the man of the flesh) all die, so also in Christ (the man of the Spirit) shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

IV. The fourth stage of hope is spread of hope to all people. This spread of hope is the work of the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament the Holy Spirit is variously called, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God. We are talking about the mystery of the Trinity. In Ephesians 1:13, the apostle writes that the Holy Spirit is “the guarantee of our (heavenly) inheritance until we receive possession of it.” And in Romans 8, St. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is not just the guarantee of our inheritance until we receive possession of it, but the means by which we attain possession of it. He writes:

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him, But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

The Holy Spirit gives us hope for the Far distant future. He also give us hope for the present age. In the letters attributed to him, Paul uses the word “hope” forty-eight times.Two-thirds of the time he is talking of the hope of eternal life that is laid up for us in Christ. This understandable, for this is the hope that cannot be shaken. However, one-third of the time, Paul is talking about the same things we hope for in the here and now. The apostle talks about the hope we have for our family and friends, and the hope we have that others will think well of us. He talks about the hope that God will supply our financial needs, and bless our plans, and comfort us in our weakness, and heal our diseases. In Ephesians 3:20 Paul reminds us that, “by the power at work within us (God is able to do) far more abundantly than all we can ask, think, or imagine.” No wonder the late James S. Stewart, the great Scottish Presbyterian preacher said that:

The central business of preaching today is to tell men and women that the same power that took Jesus Christ out of the grave is available to them, not just in the moment of death, but in the midst of life.

Paul never says that God will deliver us from every situation in life; he does say that God will delivers us through every situation in life (read 2nd Corinthians 11:16-29), and make us stronger for each (“..suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character and character produces hope…” Romans 5:3-4) until we come at last to the final trial, and he will deliver us through that one, too, lifting us from this world into the world to come.

Postscript:

St. Paul himself had tasted God’s power in the Midst of life. In 2nd Corinthians 1 he wrote:

8   For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. 9 Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; 10 he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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I am planning a short series on “Times and Seasons,” and this morning I want to talk to you about time. The young live with the myth that they have unlimited time. All mature human beings know that we have limited time available to us. Psalm 90 declares that:

The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;

In speaking of seventy or eighty years, the Psalmist is talking about what we might call a normal life, lived chapter by chapter through birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, ups, downs, illness, and death. Some people do not have a normal life. Children die of childhood diseases; teenagers and young adults die in accidents they thought could not happen to them; men and women who have barely achieved middle-age die from from various causes, often through no fault of their own. When people die before their time, we say that their lives are like an unfinished symphony, or a painting that has been put away before all the details of it have been drawn-in and properly colored. We are sad, but we know, too, that they have had their time. Their time is past, and it will not come again.

We fear death, but the ancients were terrorized by something worse. They were terrorized by the endless cycle of existence. They thought no event, and no life was unique, but each repeated itself endlessly, like the sun that rises and sets, and the season that recur year after year. According to Thomas Cahill, the idea of time with a beginning, a moveable middle that some have called “the eternal now,” and an end is one of the gifts of the Jews. The idea is rooted in the God who has created, sustains, and will perfect the whole created order as we know it. Christians say that the history of salvation has a similar movement. The center of salvation history past was Christ on his cross, his body, broken for us, and then, Christ, risen from the dead, his ressurection the sign of his vindication before God, and the guarantee of the new life beyond the bounds of time, for all those who have faith in him. The center of salvation history present is the Holy Spirit, at work in the world, at work in our lives, enabling us to believe in Jesus Christ, and calling us into the church, which is Christ’s body in the world; and then sending us back out into the world, to be Christ’s hands and feet, always busy, until he comes. The center of salvation future is Christ coming back for his church on earth, or, our being called home to him in death, which are but two-sides of the same coin. Either event brings to an end time as we know it personally.

The gospel lesson from Matthew 25 fits nicely into this understanding of time and salvation history. Jesus told the parable about a Master and his servants, but the parable is obviously about Jesus and his disciples. Do not overlook how Jesus says, “It will be.” In saying, “It will be,” Jesus is speaking of a future time when he will no longer be with his disciples, bodily, and they will be left alone to serve him in his absence. Jesus said “it will be as when a Master was going on a journey.” The Master called his his servants to him, and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two talents, to another one. He gave to each according to his ability. Then the Master went away. The five talent man went “at once”, don’t over look the phrase, “at once,” and traded with his five talents. He made five talents more. The two talent man also went, though perhaps not so quickly, and made two talents more. The one talent man was not so bold. Knowing his Master to be a hard man, who sometimes took what was not necessarily his to take, he went and hid the one talent the Master had entrusted to him in the ground. When the Master returned, he asked his servants for an accounting. He was pleased with the work of the five talent man, and with the work of the two talent man. He praised each of them using the same words and saying:

Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.

Then the Master heard the report of the one talent man. He was very disappointed. He said:

You wicked and slothful servant! By your own confession, you knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed. So why didn’t you invest my money with the bankers, so that, at my coming, I could have received what was my own with interest?

Then the Master ordered the man’s one talent be taken from him, and given to the man who had ten talents; and he ordered the worthless servant himself be cast into outer darkness, where men will weep and gnash their teeth. Do not jump the the conclusion that this “outer darkness” is hell and nothing but. In this case, the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” may also be associated with the regret we experience when we realize we have wasted our time and opportunity. What did the poet, John Greenleaf Whittier say:

Of all the sad words of tongue and pen,
The saddest are these, “It might have been.”

And perhaps you will recall the name of Horace Mann the great 19th Century American educator and politician who promoted universal public education . It was Mann who wrote:

Lost – yesterday, somewhere between sunrise and sunset, two golden hours, each set with sixty, diamond-studded minutes. No reward is offered, for they are gone forever.

In his book, “Today Matters,” John C. Maxwell, tries to communicate the value of the time we thoughtlessly waste. It was Maxwell who wrote:

To know the value of one year… ask the student who failed the final exam. To know the value of one month… ask the mother of a baby born a month too soon (Who must wait to bring it home.)To know the value of one week… ask the editor of a weekly newsmagazine. To know the value of one day… ask the wage earner who has six children.To know the value of one hour… ask the lovers who are waiting to meet. To know the value of one minute… ask the person who missed the plane. To know the value of one second… ask the person who survived the accident. To know the value of one millisecond… ask the Olympic silver medalist.

No wonder Jesus encouraged his disciples not to waste the time available to them. In John 4:35 Jesus said: “Do not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest.’ I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest.”

We Christians do not compete for the silver, nor do we compete for the gold. We do not even compete against each other. We compete against the relentlessness of time. And we compete simply to hear the word of the Lord:“Well done, good and faithful servant, you have been faithful in a little, I will set you over much; enter into the Joy of your Master.”

Now, if we know that time is precious, how then should we live?

First, we must let go the past, all of it. In Philippians 3:13 St. Paul wrote:

This one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

We certainly need to let go of our sins and failures. Too many of us sit around trapped by our past, reciting the liturgy of “woulda, shoulda, coulda.” As Christians, we must remember our sins and failures, so that we can use that knowledge, but we must remember them as if they happened to somebody else. In 1st Peter 2:24 the apostle writes that “(Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” When we give our sins and failures to him, we are free as never before.

We also need to let go of our successes. Billy Graham said that God will not take our sins and failures and unless we also give God our successes. Too many people sit around reliving our “glory days,” when God wants us to live in the now. It may be that God wants to say to us what Robert Burn’s Rabbi Ben Ezra said to his wife: “Come grow old with me; the best is yet to be.” It occurs to me that is exactly what God said to Abraham and Sarah, who were the Father (and Mother?) of all who have faith. Many of you will remember the name of Lib Green. You will not be surprised to remember that Lib and her husband Gene lived long and full lives, dedicating much of it to God’s work at New Philadelphia. It may surprise you to learn that, in 2017, thanks to an annuity that Lib set up before her death, she was our single largest donor. It may be so for years to come.

Second, we must bloom where we are planted, and make the most of the opportunities we have. God holds us responsible only for the time, talent, treasure and opportunities he has entrusted to us. God does not hold us responsible for the time, talent, treasure and opportunities God has entrusted to others. If you think you could handle more responsibility than you have before you right now, blessed are you. All you have to do is prove yourself faithful over a little, and God may give you the opportunity to be faithful over much.

Third, we must follow a plan. That plan is a lot simpler than most people imagine. In Ephesians 2:10, the apostle said that “God has created us in Christ for good works that we might walk in them.” John Wesley spelled this out for the early Methodists saying:

Do all the good you can; by all the means you can; in all the ways you can; in all the places you can; at all the times you can; to all the people you can; as long as ever you can.

That is about perfect! I would add only, that you should do good “as soon as you can.” Not only is time our most precious commodity, but many good intentions have died in delay.

Fourth, once we have put the plan into action, me must not give up! The best advice I ever received was from a dying man. He called me to himself and said, “Worth, never give up, never give up, never give up.” As I have grown older, and as I have piled up almost thirty years doing one task in this one place, I have come to think that Galatians 6:9 may important counsel believers can ever receive. Therein St. Paul writes, “And let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” (In the Bible the heart is the seat of the mind, emotions and will!)

Fifth, take a long view. Human beings have a life of very limited duration. It maybe that God has called us to start something that God will call upon someone else to finish. St. Paul understood this. In 1st Corinthians 3:6 he wrote, “I planted, and the preacher who came after me, Apollos, watered; but it was God who gave the growth.” As I have drawn nearer to the time of my own retirement, the long view has become more and more precious to me. I am confident that someone will join you to continue the work that we have done, and I hope and pray that together you will do more and more. I am not yet ready to retire, but at 68 I am certainly thinking about it. I was thinking about it this on Saturday as I finished my walk. I went by the front desk at the downtown YMCA. As I passed by, looked at the jar of inspirational sayings and Bible verses they keep at the desk, and I spotted a one green slip of paper down deep in the jar. It was the only green slip I saw. Since my name is Green, I thought it must be for me, so fished it out. It was from 1st Corinthians 3:7: “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who gives the growth.” Some people would call that coincidence. I wonder what the mathematical odds of that would be? And what about this? The New Testament text for Sunday, November 19 was also 1st Corinthians 3:7! Coincidence? It is hard for me to think that.

So, in conclusion, only one question need be answered: “When do we start ?” Well, according to Jesus, the five talent man went “at once,” to trade with his money. And in 2nd Corinthians 6:2 St. Paul gives us good advice when he quotes the prophet, who speaks for God, saying:

At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation. Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, today is the day of salvation.

With this in mind let us do all the good we can; by all the means we can; in all the ways we can; in all the places we can; at all the times we can; to all the people we can; as long as ever we can. And let us begin, as soon as we can. Let us begin today. What are your options?

Finis

Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.

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