Friday, December 31, 2010

Guest Sermon..."Making Christmas Last!"

Rev. Robert D. Shofner, Jr.
St. John's UCC Boonville

Well, my friends, eight days after Christmas. Are we still having fun?

I read that between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that the average American will gain six pounds. I've acquired the official holiday diet. Here are the rules. They might help you out next year, so save them.

Number one - if you eat something, and no one sees you eat it, it has no calories.

Number two - if you drink a diet soda while you eat a candy bar, the calories in the candy bar are cancelled out by the diet soda.

Number three - if you eat with someone else, the calories don't count if you don't eat more than they do.

Number four - food used for medicinal purposes never counts; things like hot chocolate, toast and Sara Lee cheesecake.

Number five (this is Debbie's favorite) - if you fatten up everyone else around you, then you look thinner.

Christmas time is a magic time. Everybody smiles more. They make the attempt to be friendlier. People seem to be happier. And yet an amazing thing happens just days after Christmas. The atmosphere changes from "Ho-ho-ho" to "Ho-hum." Why doesn't Christmas last?

There are a lot of factors. Relatives go home. Decorations come down. Presents get returned. Diets start. But there's one factor that many people miss. The music stops. When we want to sustain the spirit of Christmas into this new year ... carry the songs of Christmas in our hearts all year.

Did we know that there were songs at the very first Christmas? There are at least five songs recorded in the first two chapters of Luke. Mary sang a song. Zachariah sang a song. The angels sang a song. The shepherds sang a song. Simeon sang a song. Let’s look at three of them.

Mary was a young teenager. And of all the women God could have chosen to be the instrument by which He would come to the earth, He chose Mary. I bet she had no idea what she was getting into!

Mary's response to that awesome responsibility was to sing. Luke 1:46,48,49, "Then Mary sang, 'My heart is overflowing with praise of my Lord. My soul is full of joy. For He has taken notice of His humble servant girl. . . . People will call me happy because of the great things the mighty God has done for me. He shows mercy to those who reverence Him.'"

We can call this song, "Amazing Grace," because Mary gives us four great example of grace in her song.

First, she says, "He notices me. He knows me." She sings, "He has taken notice of His humble servant girl." Then she says, "God loves me. He's done great things for me." She says, "God forgives me. He is a God of mercy." Then she says, "God wants to use me. I'm just a humble servant girl, but He wants to use me."

When we want to keep the spirit of Christmas alive in our hearts all year, then we want to remember these four truths that Mary sings in her song.

First, God knows us. He knows every single thing about our lives ... the good, the bad and the ugly. He knows the heartaches, the stresses, the pain, the problems, the pleasures, the joys, the sorrows. He knows it all. In our society today, in order to get noticed, we have to be weird, or a criminal, or do something unusual or real special. What about the average person? The decent person, who's just out there trying to do the right thing in life. Does anybody notice that person? God does. God knows us.

Not only that, God loves us. Christmas says that we are worth coming to earth for. And we want to know that we matter to God. We really do.

And God wants to use us. God used Mary, just a humble, poor, peasant teenage girl. Yes, God uses even teenagers. And when God can use Mary, He can use us.

So, what do we do to keep Christmas alive? We keep the song of Mary in our heart. Amazing grace.

There's a second song. The song of Zacharias. Zacharias was an old man of about 80 years. He was the father of John the Baptist. And when he heard about the coming of Jesus, this is what he sang. Luke 1:68,69, "Let us praise the Lord. He came to the help of His people and set them free. He has provided us a mighty Savior." We can call this song "The Amazing Gift." He sings, "What an amazing gift God has given us. God has come to visit us! He came to the help of His people." This tells us that God is not only with us, He's for us! And that's Good News.

It says He came to set us free. What does Jesus set us free from? From worry, from guilt, from fear, from bitterness, from misunderstanding and meaninglessness in life. From the fear of death. Zacharias said, "What an amazing gift. God has sent us a Savior." What's that? It means somebody who came to help us, because we all need help.

A letter to Santa Claus. "Dear Santa. There are three boys in my house. There is Jeffery; he is two. There is David; he is four. There is Norman; he is seven. Jeffery is good some of the time; David is good some of the time; Norman is good all of the time. I am Norman."

Fact is, we're not Normans. I'm not, and neither are you. None of us does good all of the time. So we all need help. We all need a Savior. The Bible says, "For unto you is born a Savior." Unto you. You, personally. Unto you is born a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. That's an amazing gift. Verses 78&79, Zacharias sings, "God will bring the rising sun (S U N ... he's giving an illustration of light) to visit us, to give light to those who live in darkness and the shadow of death. And to guide us in the way of peace."

Now, notice that word "visit." God has come to visit us. He came down to earth. The infinite became the definite. God became like us.

Now, what did God come to do? What did Jesus Christ come to do? Look at what Zacharias says, "He will send the sun to visit us, to give light to those who live in darkness, and to guide us in the way of peace." He says, "God sent Jesus for two reasons. To light up your life, and to direct your life." Jesus said, "I am the light of the world." What does that mean? Let me be as clear as I can be. When we don't have Christ in our lives, we're living in the dark. We're missing out on so much that God has planned for us. He's the light of our lives. And all of a sudden things take on new meaning and significance and we finally realize why we're here on this earth! And He came to guide and direct our lives. So when things are confusing and we don't know which way to go and we're discouraged and depressed and everything seems dark, Jesus says, "I'll guide you."

There's a third song we want to remember ... that's the angels' song. Luke 2:13,14, "All at once there was with the angels a great company of the heavenly host, singing, 'Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth, His peace to men on whom His favor rests."

We can call this song, "Amazing Glory." Heaven and earth came together. God came down to visit us. And the angels could see the whole plan unfolding. Jesus Christ came to earth to give peace to those whose hearts were open to Him. Peace on earth.

Where do we need peace on earth? Everywhere. Even right here in the fait town of Boonville, in the great state of Indiana. The Bible says, "Glory to God in the highest." How do we glorify God? How do our lives bring glory to God? Jesus said, "By your relationships." Peace among all people. Be a peacemaker, that brings glory to God. Treat other people the way Jesus would. Be kind, be loving, be patient. When we make peace with God, then we get the peace of God in our hearts. And when we are at peace with God, then we can be at peace with other people. That will make Christmas last.

Let's wrap this up and make it practical. Three steps to make Christmas last.

Number one - remember God's grace. When we want Christmas to last, we want to remind ourselves all year how God is so good to us. Remind ourselves daily, "God knows me, God loves me, God forgives me, God wants to use me." That's what Mary sang. She remembered the grace of God.

Number two - we receive God's gift. We accept Jesus Christ as our personal Savior. Can we imagine getting a gift and never opening it? How about if you bought me a present, and I took it home and put it under my tree, and about a month from now, you come over and say, "Hey, Bob, how did you like my gift?" And I answer, "Well, I'm sure I'm going to like it, but frankly, I just haven't had time to unwrap it yet." You'd think that was kind of strange. You'd say, "Why haven't you unwrapped it?" "Well, I intend to. One of these days I'll get around to accepting your gift. But right now I'm just a little busy." That just doesn't make any sense, does it?

Yet we know people who live Christmas after Christmas after Christmas and never do receive the gift that God sent them. They miss the very reason we celebrate. They celebrate Christmas after Christmas, but they never unwrap God's gift to them, Jesus Christ. "Yeah, well, one day I'll get around to it. One day when I'm not so busy I'm going to open up my life and I'm going to say, 'Thank you, God. Jesus, come into my life. Be my Savior. Help me live the kind of life that you want me to live.'" That doesn't make any sense.

So, we remember God's grace ... we receive God's gift ... and ...

Number three - we reflect God's glory. Now, for us to reflect God's glory is kind of like trying to capture Niagara Falls in a tea cup. Awesome task. But let's think about this.

What can we give Jesus for Christmas? Well, we think, He's God. He's got everything. What do we give the God who has everything? We give Him our life. Because He doesn't have it unless we give it to Him.

He gave His life for us. And the greatest gift we can give God this year, in gratitude for what He's done for us, is to simply pray, "Jesus, I want to live everyday of my life this next year, 2011, in your will. I want to be the kind of person you want me to be, I want to live for your glory.”

How about another present? Tell God, "Father, in this coming year, help me to bring one other person to know you." That would be a great gift for Jesus!

Will Christmas last for us? We can make it last forever when we say "Yes" to Christ ... when we receive God's gift ... when we reflect His glory ... and when remember His grace. That God loves us, God forgives us, God wants to use us. That we matter to God ... that we count.

Several years ago on the day before Christmas, I was delivering large boxes of clothes, food and toys to some sad homes of the poverty-stricken areas of New Haven, Connecticut. I stood with such a box in the vestibule of a ten-story building ... one of those high-rise slums that our enlightened government built for its down-trodden masses. And as I was seeking the location of the apartment to which the box was to go, I noticed a little African-American boy standing next to me ... his eyes wide with excitement at the sight of all that food and those toys.

"Gee," he gasped, "Where ya taking that? To my house?"

"No, I think not," I replied. "This is for a little girl named Rhonda White."

"Oh," he replied. "I know where she lives ... she's in my class."

He led me to the elevator, and as we rode up together, he asked, "How come Rhonda gets all that stuff?"

"Well, she's been very sick ... and her family is very poor."

"I had the measles last month! Does that make me count?"

"No, I'm sorry ... I'm afraid not."

Dutifully, he led me down the hall to the proper door, and then he said 'goodbye' and left. But a moment later his little face reappeared around the corner, and he called out:

"Hey, mister! If you decide that I count, remember that I live in number 807!"

God has decided he counts. He counts, you count, I count. That's what Christmas is all about!

Let's come to our Lord in prayer.

Lord, You have brought us here to this place at this time so that You could say to us, "You matter to me." Open our hearts that we may receive the greatest Christmas present ever, the gift of your Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May this new year we face bring to our minds the songs of Christmas ... the song of Amazing Grace ... the song of Amazing Gift ... the song of Amazing Glory. And as we journey on in our lives, help us sing to you these songs in our hearts, that the meaning of Christmas will see us throughout the year.

And the people said, “Amen.”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Meaning of Advent...

The Season of Advent
Anticipation and Hope

Dennis Bratcher

The Colors of Advent The Spirit of Advent Evergreens and The Advent Wreath
Celebrating Advent An Advent Reflection Music for Advent

Advent is the beginning of the Church Year for most churches in the Western tradition. It begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas Day, which is the Sunday nearest November 30, and ends on Christmas Eve (Dec 24). If Christmas Eve is a Sunday, it is counted as the fourth Sunday of Advent, with Christmas Eve proper beginning at sundown.

The Colors of Advent

Historically, the primary sanctuary color of Advent is Purple. This is the color of penitence and fasting as well as the color of royalty to welcome the Advent of the King. Purple is still used in some traditions (for example Roman Catholic). The purple of Advent is also the color of suffering used during Lent and Holy Week. This points to an important connection between Jesus’ birth and death. The nativity, the Incarnation, cannot be separated from the crucifixion. The purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world, of the "Word made flesh" and dwelling among us, is to reveal God and His grace to the world through Jesus’ life and teaching, but also through his suffering, death, and resurrection. To reflect this emphasis, originally Advent was a time of penitence and fasting, much as the Season of Lent and so shared the color of Lent.

In the four weeks of Advent the third Sunday came to be a time of rejoicing that the fasting was almost over (in some traditions it is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for "rejoice"). The shift from the purple of the Season to pink or rose for the third Sunday Advent candles reflected this lessening emphasis on penitence as attention turned more to celebration of the season.

In recent times, however, Advent has undergone a shift in emphasis, reflected in a change of colors used in many churches. Except in the Eastern churches, the penitential aspect of the Season has been almost totally replaced by an emphasis on hope and anticipation.

In many churches the third Sunday remains the Sunday of Joy marked by pink or rose. However, most Protestant churches now use blue to distinguish the Season of Advent from Lent. Royal Blue is sometimes used as a symbol of royalty. Some churches use Bright Blue to symbolize the night sky, the anticipation of the impending announcement of the King’s coming, or to symbolize the waters of Genesis 1, the beginning of a new creation. Some churches, including some Catholic churches, use blue violet to preserve the traditional use of purple while providing a visual distinction between the purple or red violet of Lent.

This does not eliminate any sense of penitence from the Season. With the focus on the Advent or Coming of Jesus, especially in anticipating His Second Advent, there remains a need for preparation for that coming. Most liturgical churches incorporate confessional prayers into the services of Advent that relate to a sense of unworthiness as we anticipate His Coming. It is appropriate even in more traditional services of worship to incorporate confessional prayers as part of the anticipation and preparation of the Season.

With the shift to blue for Advent in most non-Catholic churches, some churches retain pink among the Advent colors, but use it on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It still remains associated with Joy, but is sometimes used as the climax of the Advent Season on the last Sunday before Christmas.

Red and Green are more secular colors of Christmas. Although they derive from older European practices of using evergreens and holly to symbolize ongoing life and hope that Christ’s birth brings into a cold world, they are never used as liturgical colors during Advent since those colors have other uses in other parts of the church year (see Colors of the Church Year).

The Meaning of "Advent"

a-o.jpg (9283 bytes)The word Advent means "coming" or "arrival." The focus of the entire season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ in his First Advent, and the anticipation of the return of Christ the King in his Second Advent. Thus, Advent is far more than simply marking a 2,000 year old event in history. It is celebrating a truth about God, the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation might be reconciled to God. That is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. Scripture reading for Advent will reflect this emphasis on the Second Advent, including themes of accountability for faithfulness at His coming, judgment on sin, and the hope of eternal life.

In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, that He is present in the world today, and that He will come again in power. That acknowledgment provides a basis for Kingdom ethics, for holy living arising from a profound sense that we live "between the times" and are called to be faithful stewards of what is entrusted to us as God’s people. So, as the church celebrates God’s inbreaking into history in the Incarnation, and anticipates a future consummation to that history for which "all creation is groaning awaiting its redemption," it also confesses its own responsibility as a people commissioned to "love the Lord your God with all your heart" and to "love your neighbor as yourself."

The Spirit of Advent

Advent is marked by a spirit of expectation, of anticipation, of preparation, of longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world, first expressed by Israelite slaves in Egypt as they cried out from their bitter oppression. It is the cry of those who have experienced the tyranny of injustice in a world under the curse of sin, and yet who have hope of deliverance by a God who has heard the cries of oppressed slaves and brought deliverance!

It is that hope, however faint at times, and that God, however distant He sometimes seems, which brings to the world the anticipation of a King who will rule with truth and justice and righteousness over His people and in His creation. It is that hope that once anticipated, and now anticipates anew, the reign of an Anointed One, a Messiah, who will bring peace and justice and righteousness to the world.

Part of the expectation also anticipates a judgment on sin and a calling of the world to accountability before God. We long for God to come and set the world right! Yet, as the prophet Amos warned, the expectation of a coming judgment at the "Day of the Lord" may not be the day of light that we might want, because the penetrating light of God’s judgment on sin will shine just as brightly on God’s people.

Because of this important truth, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Season of Advent has been a time of fasting and penitence for sins similar to the Season of Lent. However, a different emphasis for the season of Advent has gradually unfolded in much of the rest of the church. The season of Advent has come to be celebrated more in terms of expectation or anticipation. Yet, the anticipation of the Coming of the Messiah throughout the Old Testament and Judaism was not in connection with remembrance of sins. Rather, it was in the context of oppression and injustice, the longing for redemption, not from personal guilt and sin but from the systemic evil of the world expressed in evil empires and tyrants. It is in that sense that all creation groans for its redemption as we witness the evil that so dominates our world (Rom 8:18-25).

Of course, there is the problem of longing for vindication from an evil world when we are contributors to that evil. This is the power of the images of Amos when he warns about longing for the "Day of the Lord" that will really be a day of darkness (Amos 5:18-20). Still, even with Amos’ warning the time of Advent is one of expectation and anticipation, a longing for God's actions to restore all things and vindicate the righteous. This is why during Advent we as Christians also anticipate the Second Coming as a twin theme of the season. So, while some church traditions focus on penitence during Advent, and there remains a place for that, the spirit of that expectation from the Old Testament is better captured with a joyous sense of expectancy. Rather than a time of mourning and fasting, Advent is celebrated as a time of joy and happiness as we await the coming of the King. (see Can We Sing Christmas Carols During Advent?)

There will be time enough during the rest of the journey through the Church Year to remember our sins. It begins in Epiphany when we hear about the brotherhood of the Kingdom, and realize our failure to effect it. Then as we move toward and through Lent we realize that the coming of Jesus served more to lay bare our own sin than it did to vindicate our righteousness. There will be time to shed Peter's bitter tears as we realize that what started with such possibility and expectation has apparently ended in such failure.

It is only as we experience that full cycle, beginning with unbridled joy in Advent that slowly fades into the realization of what we have done with and to the Christ, that the awful reality of Good Friday can have its full impact. And in that realization we can finally be ready to hear the Good News on Resurrection Sunday! That is the journey that the disciples took. And so there is value in taking the same journey beginning with the anticipation and joy of Advent!

So, we celebrate with gladness the great promise in the Advent, yet knowing that there is also a somber tone as the theme of threat is added to the theme of promise. This is reflected in some of the Scripture readings for Advent, in which there is a strong prophetic tone of accountability and judgment on sin. But this is also faithful to the role of the Coming King who comes to rule, save, and judge the world.

Because of the dual themes of threat and promise, Advent is a time of preparation that is marked by prayer. While Lent is characterized by fasting and a spirit of penitence, Advent’s prayers are prayers of humble devotion and commitment, prayers of submission, prayers for deliverance, prayers from those walking in darkness who are awaiting and anticipating a great light (Isa 9)!

The spirit of Advent is expressed well in the parable of the bridesmaids who are anxiously awaiting the coming of the Bridegroom (Matt 25:1-13). There is profound joy at the Bridegroom’s expected coming. And yet a warning of the need for preparation echoes through the parable. But even then, the prayer of Advent is still:

Come, O Come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel!

Evergreens and The Advent Wreath

The beginning of Advent is a time for the hanging of the green, decoration of the church with evergreen wreaths, boughs, or trees that help to symbolize the new and everlasting life brought through Jesus the Christ. Some churches have a special weekday service, or the first Sunday evening of Advent, or even the first Sunday morning of Advent, in which the church is decorated and the Advent wreath put in place. This service is most often primarily of music, especially choir and hand bells, and Scripture reading, along with an explanation of the various symbols as they are placed in the sanctuary.

Advent WreathThe Advent wreath is an increasingly popular symbol of the beginning of the Church year in many churches as well as homes. It is a circular evergreen wreath (real or artificial) with five candles, four around the wreath and one in the center. Since the wreath is symbolic and a vehicle to tell the Christmas story, there are various ways to understand the symbolism. The exact meaning given to the various aspects of the wreath is not as important as the story to which it invites us to listen, and participate.

The circle of the wreath reminds us of God Himself, His eternity and endless mercy, which has no beginning or end. The green of the wreath speaks of the hope that we have in God, the hope of newness, of renewal, of eternal life. Candles symbolize the light of God coming into the world through the birth of His son. The four outer candles represent the period of waiting during the four Sundays of Advent, which themselves symbolize the four centuries of waiting between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Christ.

The colors of the candles vary with different traditions, but there are usually three purple or blue candles, corresponding to the sanctuary colors of Advent, and one pink or rose candle. One of the purple candles is lighted the first Sunday of Advent, a Scripture is read, a short devotional or reading is given, and a prayer offered. On subsequent Sundays, previous candles are relighted with an additional one lighted. The pink candle is usually lighted on the third Sunday of Advent. However, different churches or traditions light the pink candle on different Sundays depending on the symbolism used (see above on Colors of Advent). In Churches that use a Service of the Nativity, it is often lighted on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the final Sunday before Christmas.

The light of the candles itself becomes an important symbol of the season. The light reminds us that Jesus is the light of the world that comes into the darkness of our lives to bring newness, life, and hope. It also reminds us that we are called to be a light to the world as we reflect the light of God's grace to others (Isa 42:6). The progression in the lighting of the candles symbolizes the various aspects of our waiting experience. As the candles are lighted over the four week period, it also symbolizes the darkness of fear and hopelessness receding and the shadows of sin falling away as more and more light is shed into the world. The flame of each new candle reminds the worshippers that something is happening, and that more is yet to come. Finally, the light that has come into the world is plainly visible as the Christ candle is lighted at Christmas, and worshippers rejoice over the fact that the promise of long ago has been realized.

The first candle is traditionally the candle of Expectation or Hope (or in some traditions, Prophecy). This draws attention to the anticipation of the coming of an Anointed One, a Messiah, that weaves its way like a golden thread through Old Testament history. As God’s people were abused by power hungry kings, led astray by self-centered prophets, and lulled into apathy by half-hearted religious leaders, there arose a longing among some for God to raise up a new king who could show them how to be God’s people. They yearned for a return of God’s dynamic presence in their midst.

And so, God revealed to some of the prophets that indeed He would not leave His people without a true Shepherd. While they expected a new earthly king, their expectations fell far short of God’s revelation of Himself in Christ. And yet, the world is not yet fully redeemed. So, we again with expectation, with hope, await God’s new work in history, the second Advent, in which He will again reveal Himself to the world. And we understand in a profound sense that the best, the highest of our expectations will fall far short of what our Lord’s Second Advent will reveal!

The remaining three candles of Advent may be associated with different aspects of the Advent story in different churches, or even in different years. Usually they are organized around characters or themes as a way to unfold the story and direct attention to the celebrations and worship in the season. So, the sequence for the remaining three Sundays might be Bethlehem, Shepherds, Angels. Or Love, Joy, Peace. Or John the Baptist, Mary, the Magi. Or the Annunciation, Proclamation, Fulfillment. Whatever sequence is used, the Scripture readings, prayers, lighting of the candles, the participation of worshipers in the service, all are geared to unfolding the story of redemption through God’s grace in the Incarnation.

The third candle, usually for the Third Sunday of Advent, is traditionally Pink or Rose, and symbolizes Joy at the soon Advent of the Christ. It marks a shift from the more solemn tone of the first two Sundays of Advent that focus on Preparation and Hope, to a more joyous atmosphere of anticipation and expectancy. Sometimes the colors of the sanctuary and vestments are also changed to Rose for this Sunday. As noted above, in some churches the pink Advent candle is used on the fourth Sunday to mark the joy at the impending Nativity of Jesus.

Whatever sequence is adopted for these Sundays, the theme of Joy can still be the focus for the pink candle. For example, when using the third Sunday to commemorate the visit of the Magi the focus can be on the Joy of worshipping the new found King. Or the Shepherds as the symbol for the third Sunday brings to mind the joy of the proclamation made to them in the fields, and the adoration expressed as they knelt before the Child at the manager. If used on the fourth Sunday of Advent, it can symbolize the Joy in fulfilled hope.

The center candle is white and is called the Christ Candle. It is traditionally lighted on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. However, since many Protestant churches do not have services on those days, many light it on the Sunday preceding Christmas, with all five candles continuing to be lighted in services through Epiphany (Jan 6). The central location of the Christ Candle reminds us that the incarnation is the heart of the season, giving light to the world.

Celebrating Advent

Advent is one of the few Christian festivals that can be observed in the home as well as at church. In its association with Christmas, Advent is a natural time to involve children in activities at home that directly connect with worship at church. In the home an Advent wreath is often placed on the dining table and the candles lighted at meals, with Scripture readings preceding the lighting of the candles, especially on Sunday. A new candle is lighted each Sunday during the four weeks, and then the same candles are lighted each meal during the week. In this context, it provides the opportunity for family devotion and prayer together, and helps teach the Faith to children, especially if they are involved in reading the daily Scriptures.

It is common in many homes to try to mark the beginning of Advent in other ways as well, for the same purpose of instruction in the faith. Some families decorate the house for the beginning of Advent, or bake special cookies or treats, or simply begin to use table coverings for meals. An Advent Calendar is a way to keep children involved in the entire season. There are a wide variety of Advent calendars, but usually they are simply a card or poster with windows that can be opened, one each day of Advent, to reveal some symbol or picture associated with the Old Testament story leading up to the birth of Jesus. One unique and specialized Advent calendar that can be used either in the home or the sanctuary is a Jesse Tree. (We have available an online Advent calendar with devotionals for each day of Advent as well as Christmas through Epiphany Day: NazNet's Advent and Christmas Celebration). All of these provide opportunities to teach children the significance of this sacred time, and to remind ourselves of it as well.

In congregational worship, the Advent wreath is the central teaching symbol of the season, the focal point for drawing the congregation into the beginning of the story of redemption that will unfold throughout the church year. For this reason, members of the congregation are often involved in lighting the Advent candles and reading the appropriate Scriptures each Sunday. While in some churches it is customary for this to be done by families, it can also be an especially good opportunity to demonstrate the unity of the entire community of Faith by including those without families, such as those never married, divorced, widowed, elderly who live by themselves, or college students away from home.

Small Things and Possibility: An Advent Reflection

We live in a world in which bigger and better define our expectations for much of life. We have become so enamored by super size, super stars, and high definition that we tend to view life through a lens that so magnifies what we expect out of the world that we tend not to see potential in small things. But as the prophet Zechariah reminds us (Zech 4:10), we should not "despise the day of small things," because God does some of his best work with small beginnings and impossible situations.

It is truly a humbling experience to read back through the Old Testament and see how frail and imperfect all the "heroes" actually are. Abraham, the coward who cannot believe the promise. Jacob, the cheat who struggles with everybody. Joseph, the immature and arrogant teen. Moses, the impatient murderer who cannot wait for God. Gideon, the cowardly Baal-worshipper. Samson, the womanizing drunk. David, the power abusing adulterer. Solomon, the unwise wise man. Hezekiah, the reforming king who could not quite go far enough. And finally, a very young Jewish girl from a small village in a remote corner of a great empire.

It never ceases to amaze me that God often begins with small things and inadequate people. It certainly seems that God could have chosen "bigger" things and "better" people to do His work in the world. Yet if God can use them, and reveal Himself through them in such marvelous ways, it means that He might be able to use me, inadequate, and unwise, and too often lacking in faith that I am. And it means that I need to be careful that I do not in my own self-righteousness put limits on what God can do with the smallest things, the most unlikely of people, in the most hopeless of circumstances. I think that is part of the wonder of the Advent Season.

I am convinced that one of the main purposes of the incarnation of Jesus was to provide hope. While most people today want to talk about the death of Jesus and the Atonement of sins, the early Church celebrated the Resurrection and the hope it embodied. It was a proclamation of a truth that rang throughout the Old Testament, that endings are not always endings but are opportunities for God to bring new beginnings. The Resurrection proclaimed that truth even about humanity’s greatest fear, death itself.

Both the season of Advent and the season of Lent are about hope. It is not just hope for a better day or hope for the lessening of pain and suffering, although that is certainly a significant part of it. It is more about hope that human existence has meaning and possibility beyond our present experiences, a hope that the limits of our lives are not nearly as narrow as we experience them to be. It is not that we have possibility in ourselves, but that God is a God of new things and so all things are possible (Isa 42:9, Mt 19:26, Mk 14:36)

God's people in the first century wanted Him to come and change their oppressive circumstances, and were angry when those immediate circumstances did not change. But that is a short sighted view of the nature of hope. Our hope cannot be in circumstances, no matter how badly we want them or how important they are to us. The reality of human existence, with which the Book of Job struggles, is that God's people experience that physical existence in the same way that others do. Christians get sick and die, Christians are victims of violent crimes, and Christians are hurt and killed in traffic accidents, bombings, war, and in some parts of the world, famine (see The Problem of Natural Evil).

If our hope is only in our circumstances, as we define them to be good or as we want them to be to make us happy, we will always be disappointed. That is why we hope, not in circumstances, but in God. He has continually, over the span of four thousand years, revealed himself to be a God of newness, of possibility, of redemption, the recovery or transformation of possibility from endings that goes beyond what we can think or even imagine (Eph 3:2). The best example of that is the crucifixion itself, followed by the resurrection. That shadow of the cross falls even over the manger.

Yet, it all begins in the hope that God will come and come again into our world to reveal himself as a God of newness, of possibility, a God of new things. This time of year we contemplate that hope embodied, enfleshed, incarnated, in a newborn baby, the perfect example of newness, potential, and possibility. During Advent, we groan and long for that newness with the hope, the expectation, indeed the faith, that God will once again be faithful to see our circumstances, to hear our cries, to know our longings for a better world and a whole life (Ex 3:7). And we hope that as he first came as an infant, so he will come again as King! (See The Second Coming)

My experience tells me that those who have suffered and still hope understand far more about God and about life than those who have not. Maybe that is what hope is about: a way to live, not just to survive, but to live authentically amidst all the problems of life with a Faith that continues to see possibility when there is no present evidence of it, just because God is God. That is also the wonder of Advent.

Music for Advent

Traditional Songs for Advent

(Full lyrics for these can be found at various places online, such as The Cyber Hymnal)

Christ, whose glory fills the skies

Come, thou long expected Jesus

Comfort, comfort ye, my people

Creator of the stars of night

Day of wrath! O day of mourning, Part 1 (English translation of Dies Irae)

Go, labor on! Spend and be spent

Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding (English translation of Vox clara ecce intonat)

Hark! The glad sound

Hark! The voice eternal

High o'er the lonely hills

Hosanna to the living Lord (for the first Sunday of Advent)

Let all mortal flesh keep silent (English translation of Σιγησάτο παρα σαρξ βροτεία)

Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates (for the first Sunday of Advent; two versions)

Lift up your heads, rejoice (for the third Sunday of Advent)

Light of those whose dreary dwelling

Little children, Advent bids you (for the fourth Sunday of Advent; Second Advent)

Lo! He comes, with clouds descending

Lord Christ, when first thou came to men (two versions)

O Come, Divine Messiah

O come, O come, Emmanuel! (English translation of Veni, veni Emanuel)

O Day of God, draw nigh

O North, with all thy vales of green

O very God of very God

O Savior, rend the heavens wide

O Word, that goest forth on high

On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry

Rejoice, rejoice, believers!

Savior of the nations, come! (English translation of Veni Redemptor gentium)

Sleepers, wake!

The advent of our King

The day is surely drawing near (for the fourth Sunday of Advent; Second Advent)

The King shall come when morning dawns

The Lord will come and not be slow

The world is very evil (English Translation of Hora novissima)

Thy kingdom come! on bended knee

Thy kingdom come, O God

Wake, awake, for night is flying

Watchman, tell us of the night

When shades of night around us close

Modern and Contemporary Songs for Advent

(Full lyrics for some of these can be found at various places online, such as The Cyber Hymnal; others are fully copyrighted and can be obtained only from publishers)

At the coming of the Lord

Be Immanuel in me

Before the starry universe

Breath of heaven (for the fourth Sunday of Advent)

Child of wondrous love

Come, our Lord (also a song for Eucharist)

From David's city

Have mercy

Hear the prophets talking

I need a silent night (for the third or fourth Sunday of Advent)

Immanuel, Immanuel

Light a candle

People look east

Prayer for God's presence

Prepare us

The Advent candle shines with hope

There's a voice in the wilderness crying

This is my song (tune Finlandia; for the fourth Sunday of Advent)

To a maid engaged to Joseph (for the third or fourth Sunday of Advent)

Veiled in darkness Judah lay (for the fourth Sunday of Advent)

We have a hope

Welcome to our world (for the fourth Sunday of Advent)

When will the Savior come?

Advent Songs Sung to Christmas Tunes

(Full lyrics for these can be found at various places online, such as The Cyber Hymnal)

The King shall come when morning dawns (using tune Antioch, Joy to the World)

Watchman, tell us of the night (using tune Mendelssohn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing)

The people that in darkness sat (using tune Christmas, While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks)

Lo, He comes with clouds descending (using tune Regent Square, Angels from the Realms of Glory)

Of the Father's love begotten (using tune W Zlobie Lezy, Infant Holy, Infant Lowly)


(Music and arrangement scores for these are fully copyrighted and can be obtained only from publishers)

Gabriel's Oboe

-Dennis Bratcher Copyright © 2010, Dennis Bratcher All Rights Reserved
See Copyright and User Information Notice

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Bits and Bytes with the Bagleys

~ Bits & Bytes for Bagley Backers - November 2010 ~
Wesleyan Bible Colleges in Africa

The Wesleyan Church in Africa operates six Bible colleges located in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Zambia, Swaziland, and Mozambique. These colleges serve as the cornerstone of the church's efforts to equip men and women for ministry in the church. This past month we had the privilege to attend the annual graduations at Emmanuel Wesleyan Bible College in Swaziland and Xai Xai Bible College in Mozambique.

Mozambique 182

The role of the Bible colleges in the development of the African church is more critical than ever. With the rapid growth of the church in Africa currently being experienced the need for well-trained theologically-sound leaders is greater than ever. Even though great things are being accomplished, our schools face very significant challenges. Consider the following:

  • This past month 9 students graduated from Xai Xai Bible College and 8 from Emmanuel Wesleyan Bible College.
  • In the past seven years over 100 students have graduated from Xai Xai Bible College and are actively serving in ministry.
  • Pilgrim Wesleyan Bible College (Zambia) has a record enrollment of 32 this year. (Recent PWBC graduate Evariste Mazeaza and his family from Congo are in the photo at the top of this newsletter.)
  • Faculte Wesleyenne de Theologie (Congo) has no classrooms or library, but meets in a church and has two faculty members with earned doctorates in theology. They have an enrollment of 11 students.
  • The facilities of Gbendembu Wesleyan Bible College (Sierra Leone) were heavily damaged in the civil war and are in the process of being rebuilt by the church.
  • The Wesleyan Bible College of Liberia is working to build a multi-story building in Monrovia to house its classrooms, offices and library.
  • Faculty at over half of the colleges failed to receive their salary at some point this past year because of budgetary shortfalls.
  • All of the colleges are under African leadership, though there are GP missionaries at three schools (PWBC, EWBC, and Xai Xai).

In This Issue

Our Event Calendar

Nov. 21 -- Truro, NS - Central Nova Wesleyan Church

Nov. 28 -- Maple Ridge, NB - Maple Ridge Wesleyan Church

Dec. 5 -- Fort Fairfield, ME - Community Wesleyan Church

Jan. 4-7 -- Jacksonville, FL - The Gathering

Jan. 7-8 -- Jacksonville, FL - Leadership Council

Jan. 16 (PM) -- Pickens, SC - Pickens View Wesleyan Church

Jan. 23 -- Hillsborough, NC - Hillsborough Wesleyan Church

Jan. 29-30 -- Painted Post, NY - Victory Highway Wesleyan Church

Feb. 3 -- Departure for South Africa

Support Team

We are very grateful for all who have made a commitment to become part of our regular prayer and/or financial support team. If you haven't done so, you can join the team by clicking the link below. Thanks!

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An easy to print version of this email can be found here.

Growth Continues in Mozambique

At the Xai Xai Bible College graduation Mozambique National Superintendent Graca Nhathelo made an impassioned plea to the graduates to back up their theological training with holy living as they assume their posts of ministry. "Your education means nothing, if the truth is not demonstrated in the way you live," he told them.

Rev. Nhathelo also spoke briefly of the continued growth of the church in Mozambique. The national board had set a goal of planting the Wesleyan Church in all ten provinces of Mozambique and made plans to do so. Five years ago they sent two young missionary church planters to Nampula province and in those five years have planted 33 churches. (GP missionaries, Jim & Karen Pickett, were sent to assist the Mozambican church in this outreach.) Long range plans included ministry to Niasa province, but it happened much sooner than planned. Several converts in Nampula were young men from Niasa who had come to Nampula looking for work. Following their conversion they returned home and this past month Rev. Nhatehlo and missionary Orai Lehman visited six churches the young converts have planted in their home province. In Matthew 16:16, Jesus said, "I will build my church . . . " and He is continuing to do so in Mozambique.

Graca Graca2

Graca Nhathelo makes a point at graduation and later chats with Bob.

Prayer Requests

Please help us pray for the following needs:

  • Pray for the recent graduates from our colleges that God will help them as they transition into ministry roles and that their ministry will bear much fruit.

  • Please pray that God will give Rev. Graca Nhathelo and the national board of Mozambique strength and wisdom as they give leadership to the rapidly growing church in their country.
  • Please pray for the staff of our Bible colleges as they look for ways to enable our schools to be financially stable and that they will have courage to take initiative to address pressing issues.
  • We will be in North America for three months before we head back to Africa. Please pray that God will help us to make the connections we need to make during this time and that He will help us find the remaining amount of faith promises we need before we are deployed.
  • All our missionary staff at Zimba Mission Hospital in Zambia are scheduled to come home for home ministries in the coming year. Pray for God's help in provision as we look for ways to cover the bases in their absence.

Praise Points

  • Thank you for praying that our daughter Tracy would find employment. She is now working at Walmart, and although it is not her ideal job, she is receiving a pay check again.
  • Tickets have been purchased for us to return to Africa in February and our schedule for our time on the field is already getting filled up. Praise God for faithful and sacrificial supporters whose giving has helped make our deployment a reality.
  • Praise God for a dedicated team of Africans and missionaries working sacrificially at our African Bible colleges. Their ministry is multiplied many times over as their students go out into their places of ministry.
Bob & Brenda Bagley |

Simos Family Ministry Update

Giving Thanks...

During this Thanksgiving season, we are truly thankful and amazed at how God has worked. We sold our business, Josh transitioned to being home full time, Toni took on a job outside of the home, sold our house, found an amazing house to rent, sold a vehicle, God provided us with another vehicle and God has provided us with 55% in pledges from people like you! Plus, we are thankful for God's blessing of health! Wow! That's a lot of reasons to be thankful! We are so humbled to be used by God in this ministry. We hope to be at 75% by January 2011 which would allow Toni to be home and keep us on target for departure June 2011. Please join us in prayer for this departure date. We also need others who will stand with us. Please contact us if you are able and willing to partner with us by pledging financial support. We are so thankful for you, our brothers & sisters in Christ who make it possible for us to go! You mean so much to us!

Kinsey @ FCA

Elle @ Recess

Well actually; Elle hasn't had recess lately, she's not been playing outside anyway. We found out a couple of weeks ago from her teacher that Elle was volunteering to stay in during her recesses to help with the special needs children at her school. She loves it!

Gabe @ Church :)

Gabe has been a real trooper!
Always listening when I'm speaking at various churches (no matter how many times he's heard it), but certainly always happy when we're back at our home church where he can be with his friends.

Thank You Partners!

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Freedom Intl Ministries
Team Update

The Hilgemans are living in Santiago, learning Spanish and preparing to move to San Pedro in June 2011. They will begin Village Ministry in July 2011.

The Mitcheners, now a family of 3
with new baby Noah!, are busy with deputation in Virginia.

Summer 2011 Mission Trips As mentioned, the Hilgemans will begin Village Ministry after arriving in San Pedro. Village Ministry will start with 10 weeks of a VBS-like ministry starting the first week of July and running thru the first week of September. We need teams to fill those 10 weeks to assist in this ministry. Please contact us if you are interested in more information.

Fun note:
Like a Rock!
Our ol' Chevy Astro Van is still going!
1/4 million miles and counting!!
(funnier yet, it registers 100 mph)
We truly thank God for keeping our vehicles running!

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Josh & Toni Simos
290 S Peru St
Cicero, Indiana 46034

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