20th Day of Advent: Pasted-on Smiles and Half-Hearted Merry Christmases – A Reflection on Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sing, Daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The LORD your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”
I will remove from you
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,”
says the LORD.
— Zephaniah 3:14-20

For some, Christmas is “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” The time spent with family and friends singing carols, giving gifts, baking cookies, trimming trees, and celebrating the birth of a tiny baby thousands of years ago. For others the pressure of the season, the expectation of joy is a burden too heavy to bear. Too heavy to muster up that illusion of happiness. For some, the year prior had produced too much brokenness, so feigning happiness during Christmas becomes an exercise of pasted-on smiles and half-hearted Merry Christmases.

Wednesday saw a report of a suicide/homicide in New Jersey, where a mother set her home on fire and closed herself and her three year old son in her bedroom while the house burned around them. There are stories like this all around the country.

Something in people snaps during this season and the pressure to be happy and filled with Christmas cheer becomes too much. And unfortunately we are too busy or too intimated to help these people who are hurting and to walk beside them when they need us most.

I’ve been thinking about this woman today. What was going on in her life where she thought suicide was her only way out? Did she lose her job and feel hopeless in our down-turned economy? Had her husband left her or passed away months earlier? Had she been battling depression for years and this year was the last straw? I have no idea. But for many, the Christmas season is not a time of joy, and we often do not know how to sit with others in the midst of their struggles. This is especially true when we may be caught up in the joy of the season.

However, as Christians, we have good news to share. Perhaps more now than ever, people need to hear this good news that God has come among us to bring about restoration to the world. To bring us love, hope, peace, and joy. The world is a dark and broken place, but God dwells with us in the midst of a broken and hurting world. And as Christ’s followers we should be this same presence to others.

There are people all around us who are hurting. They have pasted-on smiles and are half-heartedly wishing us a Merry Christmas. Will we look beyond the veneer of holiday cheer? Will we be bold and patient enough to sit with others in the midst of dark times? Will we be there to guide them to the true advent light–Jesus, the light of the world. Will we show them that there is a Comforter and Restorer who walks with them, who is offering them joy this Christmas?

A reflection by Angie Rines.

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Angie is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Angie tweets from @AngelaRines and blogs at http://angierines.wordpress.com

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13th Day of Advent: Malachi’s Messiah

I believe that prophesies are frameworks–outlines that could reach their fullness in a number of different ways. The Creator makes different choices than we would, even with our own ideas. As time passes, the unwelcome words of prophets ferment into wishful thinking. The bias is in the hearer: we are only human.

Malachi’s Messiah is a force apart, purifying Israel. The Golden Gate, next to Al-Aqsa mosque, is bricked-over as if to symbolically preclude Malachi’s messiah. But Malachi was not the only prophet talking about the need for a Messiah. Yet by the time Jesus came, and even in the centuries since, he was rejected by so many. The Messiah had turned from a force for accountability to a virtual super-hero: Captain Israel. I’m not joking… there is a Captain Israel comic book. It’s just as silly as it sounds, by the way.

Jesus has no laser vision but his gaze will burn our faults. Christ’s arms had no super-human strength to break the cross that he hung upon, but his divine heart kept them pinned there as a testimony to his commitment. Indeed, Malachi’s description is directly in-step with the Jesus we know: a refining fire for all those whose pride has bound them. He is a force of justice for widows, the cheated, and the foreigner.

However, now more than ever, we are enamored with instant solutions. Perhaps this lust for ease undergirds the myths of redemptive violence that permeate our country–the idea that we could explode and shoot our way to a solution. We might also delude ourselves that grace works automatically, without our need to actively accept and live through grace each day. We should be older and wiser by now: nothing of quality was ever achieved quickly.

The refinement Jesus brings to us is challenging, sometimes even ugly, and requires our commitment. Jesus offered to share a yoke with us, not pull us in a wagon. We have to daily undertake the work of realizing what it means to have a Messiah like Jesus and how we are going to be the body of Christ that day. The fruits of our sweaty labor are beautiful, though, beyond what can be portrayed in books.

In the mean time, Christmas is a good time to remember that everyone begins as a child. Christ reminds us again and again throughout the Gospel how important it is to understand ourselves as children of this Kingdom.

A reflection by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from@Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

12th Day of Advent: A Very Mumford Advent – Luke 4:18-19

In Advent we reflect on two realities. We remember the anticipation of the first coming of the Messiah and the birth of Jesus. However, at the same time, we also anticipate the second coming of Jesus and the fulfillment of his Kingdom here on earth. When Jesus began his ministry, he began with these words from Luke, chapter 4:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

This is what Christmas is! It’s not about a cute baby in a wooden manger, or tinsel trimmed-trees, or eggnog and Christmas cookies. It is the God of love breaking into our world–breaking into our humanity–and living among us. It is about this God of love coming to set us free. Jesus was born to die. Jesus was born to set us free.

And when I hear Mumford and Sons sing in their song “Sigh No More”,

Love–it will not betray you, dismay or enslave you,
it will set you free, be more like the man you were made to be.

I think to myself, this is what the Christian life is really about. This is what Jesus’ life here on earth is about. This is what Christmas is really about. When we invite Christ into our lives–when we allow him to work–we become all that God made us to be. We are set free from our sins and from the things that ensnare us and hold us in bondage. And that only happens through the love of God at work in our lives.

But it does not stop there.

This love. This God living among us. This freedom.

It is not meant to be kept to ourselves. It is meant to be shared. And Mumford and Sons sings of this eloquently in Awake My Soul:

In these bodies we will live, in these bodies we will die.
Where you invest your love, you invest your life

So where will you invest your love this Christmas?

Will you invest it in the rush of the season, the giving of gifts, the baking of yet another dozen cookies?

Or will you invest it in something more–in something that lasts? Will you share with others the real joy and meaning of Christmas?

Will you take time to experience this for yourself, once again?

A reflection by Angie Rines.

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Angie is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Angie tweets from @AngelaRines and blogs at http://angierines.wordpress.com

11th day of Advent: John and Oscar – Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

In the third year of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, when generals were ruling over El Salvador, and rebels (armed by the US) were planning a coup, and priests who stood with the poor were called terrorists and communists, the word of God came to Bishop Oscar Romero in the wilderness of a civil war.

Both Oscar and John the Baptist spoke an unpopular truth that upset those in power.  In the scripture above, Luke didn’t just throw in all those hard to pronounce names to try and stump the scripture reader. He was framing the world into which this prophet John was preparing the way. In the midst of these oppressive leaders, John was not only speaking words about the change he knew was coming, but he being those words made flesh. John’s weapon of choice was the waters of Baptism; Romero used the bread and the cup.

Romero went into the town square, proclaiming that God was present with the poor, calling on the government and church to repent, and he served the bread and cup as the ultimate protest against the oppression of the poor. Romero knew that the body and blood, when embodied by the people, empowered them to make paths straight, fill valleys, lower mountains and hills, and smooth over rough places… how? Romero believed that God was present in the bread and cup, was present in the poor themselves, and that all flesh would see the salvation of God.

Said another way, Romero framed the plight of a people being oppressed with the perspective of a Christ who suffered and died and defeated death. Romero could confidently serve the bread and cup in defiance of those standing around them with guns pointed because he knew how the story ends: all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Do not be confused… this is not a “it doesn’t matter what happens here on earth because everything will be okay in heaven” theology. This is the theology or life perspective of “I know how this is all going to end—love defeats death—so I am going to live then ending now. I am not only going to speak words about the change I know is coming, but I am going to be those words made flesh.”

In the words of Oscar Romero:

Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.

Again, don’t be confused… this is not a history lesson about events that happened over 30 years ago. This is as true today as it was then. Advent is not all love, peace, joy, and candles on Christmas Eve.  Advent is a chance again to prepare for the persecution that is coming when we welcome this revolutionary, table turning, bread and cup-serving Christ child into our lives again.

There is no real peace without justice. Oscar and John stood up to corrupt governments and churches that preached “peace” that was dependent on the oppression of the poor and the silence of mass graves. “Peace” was maintained by the US-assisted Salvadorian government through kidnapping, torturing, and killing those who preached about what real peace looked like.

In Romero’s words:

It is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.

Sounds a lot like today. We hear propaganda like “freedom isn’t free”, while those who speak about what real freedom and peace look like are condemned as troublemakers and sometimes terrorists. Many of our churches that are “thriving” are maintaining their growth on the backs of the poor—proclaiming “peace” where there is no justice, while those who stand with the poor are sacrificed by those same churches in order to maintain that “peace”.

But the hope we find in this Advent time of waiting and preparing can be found in the very words made flesh by John and Oscar:

John the Baptist quoting Isaiah:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

Bishop Oscar Romero blessing the bread and cup:

We receive here the body of the Lord who offered himself for the redemption of the world. May his body and blood given for us nourish us in such a way that we, too, may give our body and blood as Christ did, so we may bring justice and peace to our people.

Immediately after speaking these words, Romero was shot dead by the government; John the Baptist was eventually beheaded by the government. They were both guilty of speaking truth to those in power, telling the oppressed something the powerful didn’t want them to hear:

Freedom is free.

Real peace is only possible with justice.

Love conquers death.

And this was all made flesh by a little baby whose blood would be the seed of freedom.

A reflection by Andy Oliver.

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Andy is the Communicatons and Technology Coordinator serving Reconciling Ministries Network. Andy tweets at @HeyAndyOliver and blogs at http://about.me/andyoliver

5th Day of Advent: A Prayer of Unity and Deliverance from 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

My Creator, I want to pray from my heart for my colleagues in distant places. I have never seen all of them face to face but I know them by their marks around this strange brain we call ‘the Internet’.

Though we can deliver our words instantly, God we need your divine guidance as we work toward common goals. Our work draws us deep into our callings, even through difficult stages. Often, the scent of distraction is too much for us and we become lost not only to each other but to ourselves.

This Advent season, give us a collective beginning. Make us a community. Shape each piece of that community to interface with each other, on the one hand, and to fit with our working communities, on the other, so that we can become true bridges. Take that special part of ourselves, that oft forgotten soul element, and shape it to know you better.

As we continue through this Advent journey, bless each step we take to get closer to our Messiah – an unexpectedly compassionate figure in our shared culture who, nevertheless, grew to be a source of courage and inspiration for all of society. We thank you for raising Jesus, and none other, to begin the ministry that we continue today.

We ask you to help us not to be short-sighted as we look to the future, because we are not simply fire-keepers–we are all blessed with your fiery Spirit of Pentecost which was the definitive victory over despair. We became one that day because Jesus was able to become one with his Creator.

Please send your spirit into us. Make us thankful and contagiously joyful. Bless us through each other with a love that comes directly from you. In your sweet name,

Amen.

A prayer by John Daniel Gore

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JD is a Methodist missionary living in Bethlehem and serving in Palestine. JD tweets from @Xavier_Phoenix and blogs from xavierphoenix.wordpress.com

4th Day of Advent: Hope

Watch for this: The time is coming’—GOD’s Decree—‘when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, “GOD Has Set Things Right for Us.” –Jeremiah 33:14-16, The Message

Anyone who knows me knows that the season of Advent is my favorite time of year. I put up my tree early in November, and it doesn’t come down until February. I listen to Christmas music before it’s even on in the stores. I buy eggnog the second I see it in the grocery store. I keep my eyes out for that perfect gift way before the last minute. The Sundays in Advent are probably the best worship services of the whole year.

There is so much I love about this season. I’m one of the few that love the dwindling daylight. I love the darkness coming at 5pm on my commute home. For some, this season speaks of hurriedness and running from one event to another. To me, it speaks of something more.

Quietness.

Silence.

Peace.

The closing of one year.

The hope and anticipation of the coming year.

Advent is about waiting. Waiting for Christmas. Waiting for the coming Messiah. Waiting for the coming hope. It is in the slow, unhurried darkness where we have time to contemplate. Time to wait. To hope. Waiting for hope and the coming of a new day was illustrated to me most clearly this year through experiencing my first hurricane this past October. As Sandy arrived in NJ, the strongest point of the storm came through during the
evening. I sat in my little apartment as winds blew hard against the walls that protect and guard me from the outside elements. I hoped the walls would hold up this time too.

As trees creaked and fell, and as the power went out all around me and darkness surrounded me, I prayed for a new day and the rising of the sun more than I ever had before. As I write this, I am looking at a mailing for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy and other disasters. And their catch phrase is “Out of Chaos, Hope.”

More than anything else, many of us need hope. Hope through the storms of life. Disaster. Divorce. Disease. Disruption. Death. In the midst of this darkness, we can push it away with hurriedness, distraction, one more event. Or we can sit in it and wait expectantly, with attentiveness, for hope to break through.

Christ broke into our world.

Light in the midst of darkness.

The hope of all nations.

God has set things right for us.

A reflection by Angie Rines.

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Angie is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Presbyterian Church in Morristown. Angie tweets from @AngelaRines and blogs at http://angierines.wordpress.com