Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let ev'ry heart prepare him room,
And heav'n and nature sing,
And heav'n and nature sing,
And heav'n, and heav'n and nature sing.
Joy to the earth! the Savior reigns;
Let all their songs employ,
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sin and sorrow grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders of his love,
And wonders, wonders of his love.
~ Isaac Watts
When I was a kid my favorite memory of Christmas day was when the grandiose pipe organ would begin to belt out the notes to “Joy to the World.” I remember vividly the echo of the celebrative cadence that would bellow off the stone walls. The entire congregation would take in a collective breath before echoing out the melody. Hearing the congregation belt out the words to this tune left me with goosebumps and chills. The organist would bellow out those notes with all the force she could muster and each refrain would linger in the room even after she would finish the melody line. There was something about this song that held such a powerful reminder for me of the Christmas season and over the years it is one of the hymns that I look forward to most during the holidays.
As I have grown up the reminder of how I felt with that song still resonates with me. It is an invitation to take a collective breath. We have a reason to celebrate this today! Jesus, the promised and longed for Messiah has come. Jesus enters into our humanity with the greatest gift of all and we cannot help but echo back the joy of this holiday season and carry the message forward.
No matter how you are gathering with friends and loved ones today, whether zoom, phone, or with those closest to you, my hope is that you would take even the slightest of moments and “Repeat the Sounding Joy” of Christmas this year. May a message of hope, love, peace, and joy reverberate off the walls of your spirit in such a way that it leaves you with goosebumps.
Loving God, stir in our hearts a collective voice that rejoices in the birth of your Son, Jesus that the world may know of the hope born to us this day. Invite us to encounter the world this year with the newness of your spirit that we may find a way to bring peace on earth. Amen.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Well into my adulthood, we always celebrated Christmas Eve with my big extended family on my dad’s side. After candlelight services, my family of six, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would gather at one of our homes. After the food was put away and the dishes were done (which took forever from a child’s perspective), we would all cram together as best we could into the room with the Christmas tree. Before we could open gifts, there would be a program. Someone would read the Christmas story from Luke, we would sing several Christmas hymns (always including a verse or two of Jeg er sa Glad), and then the kids each would be asked to stand up and recite their Christmas program parts from that year. Always at the end of this, my dad would announce that he, too, had a piece and would proceed to stand up and say his line from so many years’ previous: “Let’s all be little lights for Jesus.” This was always accompanied by his pointer finger held high, demonstrating the light.
This is a very different Advent season, and there’s no doubt Christmas will be different, too. In the dark of December, and in the depths of what's been a difficult year, how we can we, too, be little lights for all those we encounter: family, friends, teachers, colleagues, and one another?
Help us to have courage in the dark and help us to be lights for Jesus. Bring us hope, and remind us that after this long darkness, there will be light. Amen.
Song: “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam”
When I was six years old, our family went to Nunda, South Dakota for Christmas with my grandparents. My grandpa was a Lutheran pastor who, after retirement, was asked to temporarily serve this tiny farming community. Nunda was very small, with a downtown that had a mercantile store, a gas station, and silos along the rail line. The church, however, served a larger farming community that converged at the old white church for Sunday services and community gatherings.
I remember that Christmas well. Grandpa informed my two older sisters and me that we would be singing a song at the Christmas Eve service. I was the youngest, and the only song I really knew how to sing with my sisters was “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam,” not a Christmas song, but Grandpa said it would be fine.
My grandpa was quiet and didn’t pay much attention to us kids during the holiday. He was either in his study or in his chair, surveying the chaos that was part of a large family gathering. At dinner I sat next to Grandpa. The lights were dimmed, we all held hands, and Grandpa prayed. It was a prayer of thanks, a prayer of love, and a prayer about Jesus, the light of the world. He prayed that all of us there would spread that light and he thanked me and my sisters for doing that at the Christmas Eve service.
After the prayer he squeezed my hand, bent down and winked at me!
May the same prayer my grandfather prayed that long-ago Christmas Eve bless you and yours this Christmas and always. Amen.
Ordinarily our Christmas season does not bring to mind the story in Matthew (14:16-21), of the loaves and fishes. To me the two are linked in my heart forever. For several years I had the privilege to coordinate 35 churches for Loaves and Fishes Too at the Dorothy Day Center in downtown St Paul. Each day a different church would arrive with the supplies and volunteers to prepare an evening meal for three hundred guests, most of whom lived on the street or were living in homeless shelters. In the traditional Christmas story Epiphany comes with the arrival of the Three Wise Ones bringing exotic gifts for the New King. Of course, at Christmas time each church not only served the meal but arrived with gifts as well for their guests, not so exotic but needed things like hats, mittens, socks and toiletries.
The second year I coordinated we worked hard as a staff to enhance each volunteer's experience to see beyond the generous charity they offered to understand that the giving was a gift to each person who was fortunate enough to be the giver and volunteer. In the fall before the Christmas season an idea was hatched and shared with many of the churches who embraced the idea and made it a reality. We would give the “Gift of Giving” to those guests of ours so that they could experience what we experienced every evening. Churches were invited to be involved in multiple ways – donations were collected to build a store of simple gifts from which our guests could choose and send to their family and friends. Volunteers signed up to person the store assisting guests in choosing, wrapping, and getting “UPS ready” the packages, money was donated for materials and postage. Guests were given a shopping time slot and the only thing the guests needed was up to three addresses for up to three gifts.
It was a huge success as hundreds of guests were able to send gifts to family and friends. Packages were mailed all over the United States, to Europe, Africa, Central, and South America. I was honored, and as I said, privileged to be a part of the “Gift of Giving." It had a dimension rarely seen in charity, the dimension of dignity and the partnership in the joy of giving.
Help me to be a “wise one” during this season of giving. Show me the ways I can give, not exotic gifts, but share the gifts of the spirit you have given me with all those I travel with in this most blessed time – the Christmas Season.
“Lord of All Hopefulness” ELW #765
For me, Advent has been time in the liturgical year that’s too busy to appreciate fully. End of semester tests and papers to write, Christmas programs to memorize, gifts to buy and wrap, budgets and annual reports to finalize – all due during December. And yet, Advent calls us to put aside some of our busyness and be calm.
Isn’t this a good year to take time for calm remembrance of the past and anticipation for the future when we can all see one another in-person again? I definitely want to remember the joys of family and church gatherings and the hopefulness of all the times of being together to come. I want to remember visiting my grandmother in the nursing home and hearing my mother singing “Jeg er så glad hver julekveld” (ELW #271). I want to remember my dad calling me up to recite my Christmas program Bible verse for the congregation he was serving in interim. (No warning; it was kind of a trauma!) I want to remember all the drives to my parent’s home with our dog bouncing around in my lap in joyous expectation of the treats to come. I want to remember Dinner Church and church council meetings that close with all holding hands in prayer.
The hymn “Lord of All Hopefulness” has been my unending earworm these past months. The words of this hymn lead us to a calm assurance throughout the day. Hopefulness and joy, eagerness and faith, kindliness and grace, gentleness and calm, God’s bliss, God’s strength, God’s love, God’s peace – all these words help us recognize our relationship with God. We just have to allow ourselves to take a breath, listen, be calm and live in the hopeful promise of our Lord to be with us always.
Loving Lord, you know our fears and weaknesses in all days. Lead us to the hopefulness and the joy of celebrating the birth of Christ. Help us to be the hopeful and faithful people that your presence offers us so freely. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
“I don’t care if the house is packed,
Or the strings of light are broken.
I don’t care if the gifts are wrapped,
Or there’s nothing here to open.
Love is not a toy, and no paper will conceal it.
Love is simply joy that I’m home.
I don’t care if the carpet's stained,
We've got food upon our table.
I don’t care if it’s gonna rain,
Our little room is warm and stable.
Love is who we are, and no season can contain it.
Love would never fall for that.
Let love lead us, love is Christmas.
Why so scared that you’ll mess it up,
When perfection keeps you haunted?
All we need is your best my love,
That’s all anyone ever wanted.
Love is how we do, let no judgment overrule it.
Love I look to you, and I sing...
Let love lead us, love is Christmas”
My friend Jessi McKinnon with her husband Brandon and our friends Brad and Caity were going to perform this song with me live on December 4th but because of the rising numbers of COVID19 we decided to forgo our plans. The song was a part of a set of songs that aren’t your traditional standards for the Christmas season: “White Winter Hymnal”, “Winter Song”, and “Love is Christmas”. Did you notice that preceding “Love is Christmas” would have been another Sara Bareilles song called “Winter Song”? Written in the mournful key of Bb minor, the singer grieves over a loved one that’s far away, unable to be close to her during the lonely winter months, “This is my winter song. December never felt so wrong, ‘cause you’re not where you belong; inside my arms.” In the midst of this sentiment, the line “Is love alive?” is reiterated over and over throughout the song as if she’s waiting for the answer she wants to hear but only hears the negative. I imagine she hears a faceless voice answering, “No, love is dead and nowhere to be found” but she believes the opposite, “NO, love IS alive. I know it”. The song ends with her continuing to ask “Is love alive?”.
If we concluded our song set with that question, it would have been a dismissal ending to a performance meant to uplift the spirit. So, we decided to answer her question with “yes, love is alive. Love is Christmas.” Although love seems to be gone and we’re in for a long run of darkness and isolation, Love is here with us. We may be in a time of grieving in our lives, having lost the ability to mill around in your favorite restaurant, have a drink with our friends at the local pub, or gleefully shop for Christmas gifts at the outlet mall, but that doesn’t mean love is unattainable. It doesn’t mean that we can’t find joy, hope, and goodness in our homes. We can soothe our aching hearts knowing that although our lives may be different it doesn’t change our value and our love for one another. “I don’t care if the house is packed, or the strings of light are broken. I don’t care if the gifts are wrapped, or there’s nothing here to open. Love is not a toy, and no paper will conceal it. Love is simply joy that I’m home.” Love is simply joy that I’m home.
Will you pray with me…
“God, I’m so glad that love can be found right here in my home. Keep my eyes open to see your love everywhere around me. Give me the grace to grieve what I’ve lost, and give me wisdom to know that’s not the end. Amen.
"The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners" (Isaiah 61:1)
The Israelites waited for their promised Messiah for centuries. Can you imagine what that must have been like? To keep thinking that the Messiah was surely coming now, that these signs surely pointed to their salvation, that God was surely about to keep God’s promises … only to be let down again and again and again. How in the world did the Israelites hold on to their faith?
Waiting is so hard. Every Christmas season is a challenge, but it is usually because children are excited and we have so much to do and there is a buzz in the air. This year is different, though, isn’t it? This year we wait for a cure. We hope for time together with family that we have missed for nine long months. We hope that we will not become sick, or that those we love will survive. We wait and wish and hope, but God seems distant.
Now, it has been our turn to be the brokenhearted, the bound, the captives. Not for centuries, but for months. Fear makes time seem to stand still, and this has been a frightening period for us. But like the Israelites, we know that God is holding us during these challenges. We know that God is close to those who are sick and in mourning and fearful. We don’t understand why some of these challenges happen, but we trust in a God who has held God’s people for centuries.
We wait for a while longer. But while we wait, we trust in the God that has been promised.
God, you have held your people for thousands of years. You have bound the brokenhearted, freed the captives, and released the prisoners. Help us to trust that you hold us during this time as well. Help us to hear your good news as we wait. Amen.
Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright, ‘round yon virgin mother and child, Holy infant so tender and mild, Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.
Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight! Glories stream from heaven afar; Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia! Christ the Savior is born! Christ the Savior is born!
Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at Thy birth, Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
This song has always been my favorite Christmas song, especially in high school when our choir put on a Madrigal Dinner and Christmas concert. Both my junior and senior year this was our closing song. The feeling of walking out of the dinner space, singing quietly and joining together holding hands at the end has stuck with me for years. Even as I sing it throughout Advent and the Christmas season, that memory continues to shine through others.
Music can do that - provoke memories. Memories are also built through the traditions of doing them over and over again every year. What traditions do you have from when you were younger? What traditions did you continue with your own family? What traditions have you added or changed?
To me, traditions are a huge part of my Christmas memories. Growing up we would travel to Aurora, Colorado every other year for Christmas break. My grandparents lived in Colorado where we would spend an entire week around Christmas cross country skiing, swimming at the hotel, playing games, reading books, and just being together. We always celebrated on Christmas Eve and not on Christmas Day. We would attend a Christmas Eve worship service, come home for our supper of rice, butter, cinnamon and sugar, and milk. Clean up ALL the dishes, and then be allowed to open presents. I know that is the only way the adults got the kids to help clean up dinner! That had to be the night we cleaned up the fastest, don’t you think? Another piece to the tradition was that one person would have an almond in their rice bowl. You had to eat your rice until you found the almond- and then if you had it, you got an extra small gift!
As I have grown up and created a family of my own with our own traditions, we like to include things like visiting Bentleyville in Duluth, decorating the tree together, baking cookies, having our kindness elves visit, and getting to unwrap a book every night for bedtime throughout the month of December. My hope is that my boys will have a lot of great memories around Christmas beyond just what gifts they are receiving each year. They will remember how we spread kindness and thought of others instead of only ourselves. How we enjoyed spending time with each other and showing one another we care. Maybe they will even choose to carry on some of these traditions and memories with their own families someday.
Heavenly Father, help us remember that silent night so long ago and the miracle you brought to Earth. Continue to guide us in sharing the love you provide for us and allow us to sleep in heavenly peace. Amen.
Over the years I have shared the following prayer with my congregations. I do not know its author or what publication it was originally printed in, but these words are especially relevant today.
A Prayer for the Season:
(One of my favorites)
There are things I need this Christmas, Lord, special things that can’t be wrapped with silver and tied with gold. I need them more this year than ever before because I am feeling frustrated and lonely in the middle of multiple choices and perpetual changes, in the midst of too much fear and too little faith.
I need the gift of concentration, Lord, so that I may be able to stay with one task at a time without being overwhelmed by all that needs to be done.
I need the courage to see and hear and touch others with a tenderness that transcends those feelings of separation we all carry around inside us…like wounds in need of healing.
Mostly, Lord, I need the gift of love that lit the sky two thousand years ago…that kind of love that embraces shepherds and kings…the kind of love that came to the stable and stayed through the cross…the kind of love that says “Thy will be done.”
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.” Matthew 1:23
Memory of Reading Scripture at Family Service
The year was 1993 my Dad passed away in January. I was happy for him, as he had for most of his life, battled physical illnesses. Our children were 15 and 12 and I put much into my work to provide for my family’s future. This was one of the lessons that I learned from my Dad. He almost literally worked himself to death and was totally disabled when I was 15.
We were busy with our kids’ school, sports and church activities. Gatherings with family and friends was the norm and appreciated. Life went on “normally”, but my grief would rise up as I reflected on my father’s passing, especially when we gathered for the holidays.
For Christmas of 1993, I agreed to read the Christmas story at the family service. I thought no problem, I’ve read many times. I always believed it was a privilege to read scripture and was happy to do it. I think my suppressed grief finally hit me as I read this beautiful story and thought about my Dad. I broke down and cried. The promise of Emmanuel, God with us, had touched me deeper from that moment on.
This year I have often thought about that year. I am trying to stay positive as we have a pandemic to cope with. I miss our gatherings with friends and family. For the first time in our lives we will not be together with our children and grandchildren for Thanksgiving. I am grieving all that this pandemic has done to us individually and collectively. Thanks to technology, we are keeping the threads connected, but this pandemic has made those threads fray a bit.
I am holding onto that promise of “God with Us” and hope that all of you will be able to hold onto that promise as well. Peace. Blessing and healing to all of you and may the year 2021 bring us to an end of this pandemic.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. Matthew 5:14
If you an early riser, you are well aware that sunrises this time of year happen at about 7:15 am and sunsets around 4:40 pm – that’s a short amount of light. When I wrote this devotion in November, meteorologist Paul Douglas reminded us in his morning forecast, “On December 22, daylight hours will slowly begin to increase. It’s a small glimmer of hope." Amid Advent, we look forward to the celebration of the birth of Jesus. St. John reminds us in John 8:12, of the word spoken, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
I LOVE the lights of Advent and Christmas, be it candles, electric lights, or the light shinning from the happy faces of loved ones; all are reflections of God’s love for us.
One of my most vivid memories of Christmas was from the first year that my mom’s circle at First Lutheran Church in Duluth, MN served dinner on Christmas Eve at the Union Gospel Mission. Most of the ladies brought their husbands and a few brought their kids. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I didn’t anticipate making a memory that would stay with me and change me the way it did.
In the mid-70’s the people the mission served were mostly men and everyone called them “bums” or “winos.” No one really talked about where they lived, just that they could be found downtown in the alleys around 1st Street. They were the lowly of our society. As the adults got the food prepared, we youth set up the dining room then scurried back to the kitchen when it was time for the people to come in. Our pastor gave a Christmas message, then the most frightening bunch of men I had ever seen got to their feet to retrieve their plate of food from the window. It was also the youth’s job to go out and fill coffee and water pitchers, and bus abandoned plates. I remember the smell. I remember the eerie quiet noise of silverware on plates as the room ate their food. Then someone began to play carols on the old piano and the quiet was replaced by singing. This wasn’t a Hallmark movie so the voices were off key and the smell of unwashed bodies hung in the room, but the spirit of Christmas was present. A man approached me and thanked me for the food then said, “God bless you.” I wished him a Merry Christmas. Emboldened, I spoke to a few more. They no longer looked frightful, just haunted and sad. But there were a few smiles and more “God bless you’s” as they returned to the cold December night. We went home after that to our own dinner, gifts and the candlelight service at church. I don’t remember what gifts I received that year or even who was gathered at my house.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Luke 1:52-53
These lines from the Magnificat tell us that the lowly are blessed and the hungry will be filled. Jesus himself entered the world in the lowliest of places and spent most of his ministry hanging out with the “bums” and “winos” of his time. In the midst of Advent, this time of waiting, in the midst of a pandemic, of separation, I hope to keep the memory of the Union Gospel Mission to help me appreciate all that I have rather than what I can’t have, this year.
Holy God, Word made flesh, we pray that your joyous light touch our lives this Christmas season. Amen.
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given...and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6.
Christmas 1984 was my best ever! John and I had been married over 13 years and were the parents of a nine year-old and a six year-old. Although we felt truly blessed by God, we felt that our family was not quite complete. We prayed for another child and left the outcome in God’s hands. On July 26, 1984 our third daughter was born. We couldn’t have been happier. She was truly an answer to many prayers. In November of that year one of our pastors asked if we would like to play the parts of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus at our Christmas Eve service. We were so honored! When the pastor cradled baby Jillian in his arms and raised her in the air our eyes filled with tears of joy! All babies are God’s miracles, but the greatest miracle is God’s son, our Savior, Jesus Christ!
Creator God, may the miracle of life and the miracle of salvation that is ours in Christ be ever fresh in our hearts and minds at Christmas and all year long. Amen.
"Away in a manger, no crib for His bed,
the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head.
The stars in the heavens looked down where He lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay."
This Christmas carol, also known as Luther’s Cradle Hymn, was the first Christmas carol that I learned as a child. I loved the song because being raised on a farm, I could relate to the setting of the song. My folks were dairy farmers, and in the winter when all of cows were in the barn, along with a few stalls of my dad’s draft horses, the barn was a warm place to be. All the animals ate hay and grain. The heat of their bodies warmed the building and as young children, my siblings and I, played in the feed aisle or climbed up on the horses backs to stay busy while my parents and extended family did chores and milked cows.
Warmth has seemed to me to be part of understanding the love of God. As a child I felt the warmth of being in the barn was part of the baby Jesus’ experience while He was in His manager in the barn with His mother, Mary. As I grew older, I found that friendship, love, and relationships in general, generate a type of warmth. So I pray that during this cold season of winter in Minnesota, we will feel the warmth of your love as our Savior and from others around us who love the Lord and his people – that we care for one another and show the love of God to those around us and to those who we don’t know or see but who are part of our family in Christ.
Dear Heavenly Father, please help us during this time of Advent and Christmas as we seek to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are seeing the effects of the corona virus and struggling with the challenge of how to show your love of our friends and neighbors both in our community and around the world. Give us strength to provide the warmth of your love to everyone we meet, and to those beyond our neighborhoods that are suffering during this time. We ask that you bless this world during this time and give us the opportunity to show your love to all people. Amen
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” John 8:12
For me, as I’m sure for most of you, Christmas lives in memories. I was the first grandchild born on both sides of my family. Being first came with certain perks, like the undivided attention of my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. This attention paid off particularly well at Christmas. Well, most good things come to an end at some point. About five years after I was born, my aunts and uncles decided that maybe they should have their own children, and my parents decided that I could use a sibling, so there was an explosion of children in my family. After that, our holiday family gatherings became what I can only describe as “utter chaos.” Funny how those things later become the great memories of Christmas past.
The cares of the world, of course, do not cease at Christmas, and for all of us, there are people we love who will no longer join us around the Christmas table. Sometimes, it seems, Christmas can even amplify feelings of sadness and loneliness. This Christmas will be a particular challenge for all of us. Because of the pandemic, traditions will be altered and families may be separated. And for all of us, we will not be together in the same way as a church.
During these past few months, we have all had to make unexpected adjustments in our normal life, including our church life. And we have had to reimagine what it means to be a church. It has been challenging, particularly for our staff. But we have discovered, once again, that challenges often bring opportunities, and that the church is more than just a building or a place. One of my favorite authors is Minnesota novelist William Kent Krueger. There is a line in his most recent novel, This Tender Land, which I particularly like. Comparing one of the characters in the novel to a jewel, he says this: “The beauty isn’t in the jewel itself, but in the way that the light passes through it.” So it is with the church. Although our church building will be dark this Christmas, the light will still pass through it, shining through the lives of our members. That’s what the first Christmas was about — light, light shining into the darkness through the birth of a child — a child who would be the light of the world. May your Christmas be filled with light and joy.
Gracious and Loving God, as we celebrate this Christmas season, we remember a child, a child born to bring light into an often dark world. And we remember those who have been the lights in our lives. Help us to reflect that light in this season and throughout the year. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
1968 was my very favorite Christmas. My parents had retired to the lake near Park Rapids. It was terribly cold that Christmas Eve Day. An unbelievable minus 30 degrees. My wife and I had promised my folks that we would visit them. So foolishly, our family of five started out for Park Rapids. We got as far as Becker when the car actually froze en route! Fortunately, we were able to coast to a filling station just before closing. The people there took pity on us, and not only fed us cheese sandwiches, but the mechanic thawed out the engine and we were soon back on the road.
At the cabin, the setting surrounding Big Sand Lake was absolutely breathtaking in its winter beauty. The snow on the fir trees glistened silver and the snow crackled with every step. The smell of burning birchwood from my folks' fireplace permeated though the forest. That night dad decided that it was too cold to go to the community church so we sat around the fireplace and listened on the radio to the crew of Apollo 8 reading from Genesis as they circled the moon. It was truly a night to remember and I believe we all felt very close to God that Christmas Eve.
God of traveling mercies, be with us as we gather with loved ones this holiday season. Amen.
“Oh Holy Night
The stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.”
Imagine…traveling Christmas Eve, just mom and dad, ready to give birth, with no family, no friends, or bestie to keep you in ice chips. Nowhere to stay when things got dicey like a clean hospital room with fresh sheets. Was Mary comfortable? Was Joseph going to faint? Will the baby be warm enough? As many of you know, the birth of a child changes everything. Especially a first-born child. There were no self-help books to reference or Wikipedia to ask how to calm a screaming infant!
And of course, the conception was a little hazy - for Joseph anyway. Imagine having all these thoughts swirling around in your head. Who do you turn to for answers?
You put your trust and faith in the Lord. All of us have gone through tough times, divorce, death of a loved one, addiction, loss of job, and now, we are all trying to fight a pandemic by staying home and staying safe, while caring for ourselves and our loved ones. Put your trust and faith in the Lord. There is no other way to make it through this journey we call life.
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act. Psalm 37:4-5
Heavenly Father, we thank you for all the wonderful moments in our lives and trust that you will guide us through the moments that are hard. In this Advent season, show us the magnitude of your Love, so that we know we are never alone. Amen.
1In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David….
~ Luke 2:1-4
My entire life, my family has gotten together Christmas Day and my family has read the Christmas story as part of our meal, gifts and fellowship. I have been blessed with great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles all with a strong faith in Jesus. That we all believed and that Jesus was part of each of our lives was never something that was questioned. Also getting together on December 25th was also never questioned – it just always happened.
As each generation passed away, and now we face a year of a pandemic with so few left in the generation before me… this tradition is gone for the first time. For the first time, I won’t even see my parents during the month of December let alone, aunts, uncles and cousins (it just isn’t safe for my parents to make the short trip back from Mesa).
The blessing is that my brother and sister and their families will be able to join mine for a smaller Christmas gathering. God bless technology for allowing my parents to join us via Zoom, but it is not the same.
To help support myself that this is a joyous season, I have been leaning on preparing for the month of December and trying out some traditions of my Danish Ancestors. As I do this, I am reminded how my grandmother and great-grandmother would be smiling down at me for taking this on!
Yes, this season is about Jesus and what God has blessed us all with. No one can ever take that away from us! I have witnessed these blessings from god through my own family. But even with these blessings, creating Joy to overcome the losses of this upcoming season is not always easy.
Lord God, this coming Christmas with the cold weather comes the cold of not being able to partake in gatherings of family and friends that so help warm our hearts during this time of year. Bring new experiences to warm our hearts this year. Let us find joy in new opportunities and inspire us with creativity in the days ahead. In Jesus name I pray, Amen
“A voice cries in the Wilderness prepare the way of the Lord..!” Isaiah 40, vs.3
Advent was an exciting time at our home when I was growing up, especially because we knew what was coming next! The preparations were beginning, putting up the Christmas tree, the lights, and the amazing smells of Scandinavian Christmas cookies being baked. First, however, was the advent wreath on our dinner table. Those of us who were able read the appropriate devotion and assisted the younger ones to light the correct candle or candles each week. The excitement grew for the four of us old enough to know what we were preparing for as the other two children were too young yet to understand what was happening. Before Christmas packages could be unwrapped on Christmas Eve, we were expected to put on a little skit about Christmas. The skits were fun as we sang songs and tried to re-enact the Christmas story. Truth be told, there was a lot of giggling as we sang familiar Christmas carols to support the story we were recounting. One of the more memorable skits was when my brother showed-up with “holey” (holy) underwear on his head as a turban!
Preparations together as a family was the key to great fun! It was a time to pause and to enjoy one another. In this time of COVID, it is sad to think families may not be able to gather to prepare as we did in the past or even in the way we usually do. Our households are all now located far apart, and it is not a good idea to bring everyone together. This makes us sad. However, no matter where we are, we can still prepare our hearts during ADVENT! We will have to commemorate our Savior's birth in a more quiet contemplative manner. Though we can still celebrate and rejoice if we can just focus on this EXCITING news, the birth of Jesus! We can give thanks that we are healthy, we have a home, food to eat, and hopefully in most cases, one another to keep us company!
Dear Lord, we pray for those who are alone during this stressful time, those in nursing homes, the homeless, those who are imprisoned, and those who have lost loved ones during this season. We reflect on our good fortunes and our good health even in these less than normal times. We thank you Lord that you are always with us in good and bad times. We ask for your help to prepare our hearts as we recall all of the blessings you bestow upon us daily. Please give us the ability to adapt to this new reality as we look forward to a time when we can all be together once again. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” - Psalm 119:105
When I was a child my mother would set up an Advent wreath in the middle of our dinner table every year at the beginning of the Advent season. I loved that we would light the candles as the weeks passed and brought us to Christmas Day. The excitement would build until us kids were giddy with anticipation. I loved this ritual so much that I continued this tradition with my own children. However, as a parent, it became more of a stressful experience as we lighted each candle, counting off the weeks until Christmas. I felt the pressure of shopping, finding the perfect gift for each person, staying within the budget, decorating the house and tree, baking cookies, writing cards, preparing holiday meals. All of this was in addition to my work and caring for my family. Over the years I stopped setting up the Advent wreath. It had lost its wonder for me.
Recently while quarantined for two weeks, I decided to clean out an old metal file cabinet with four drawers, which I have had for many years. Now that I am retired I knew I needed to do some purging. These drawers held notes from classes taken years ago, files of information about topics and activities of past interests, speeches, lesson plans, projects from elementary school, awards, licenses, legal documents, work reviews, some photos and so much more. It brought back a flood of memories, good and bad. As I sorted documents into various bags for recycling or shredding or for keepsakes, I thought a lot about my life. I am aware of my blessings and accomplishments, but this exercise also reminded me of my failings. I know that not all of my life choices worked out as I had hoped. I remember that I am human, not perfect, and in great need of Jesus. Jesus makes me whole, forgives me, heals me, celebrates me.
I have been trying to imagine what Christmas will be like this year, with Covid 19. It will not be a perfect Christmas, at least not by previous expectations. I trust that Jesus will guide me in my decision making as he has always lighted my way. I am going to find some mismatching candles and holders for an imperfect Advent wreath. As I focus on the light, I will reflect on what makes Christmas perfect, and once again discover the wonder.
Wondrous God, light our pathways, shining your light in the dark corners. Teach us how to carry this light to others. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
..."and this will be the sign to you: You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger."
A very long time ago I went on a college-sponsored trip to Israel and saw all the usual things tourists see in The Holy Land. Since I was a student, I didn't have a lot of money to buy souvenirs but when we were in Bethlehem, I did get a set of small nativity figurines carved from olive wood. These figures are roughly-crafted and are crudely made. Some of their eyes are a little crooked and they wobble a bit, but I can't part with them because they were a sentimental purchase. All these years my nativity figures have never had a stable.
When Marty and I first met and we were putting up his Christmas decorations, he pulled out a little stable that a family friend had crafted for him from a walnut tree that had grown in our yard. The stable was quite rough, but cleverly crafted. There were no figures or animals to go with it though. I took a deep breath when I saw Marty's stable because I could tell that my nativity figures would fit quite perfectly with it.
I own a beautiful sparkly jeweled ceramic nativity set, but most years it remains in its box. The little rough walnut stable with the crudely crafted olive wood figures is just too sentimental. The Christmas story is all about imperfect persons in a less than desirable setting, but it, like my little nativity, is just perfect.
During this Christmas season may we see your perfection in our imperfection.
Thank you for our own very beautiful stories that show your work in our lives.
Scriptures: Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 13:11-14
After reading these verses from Isaiah, did you hear and see the sense of anticipation... especially in the new life that is coming? And in Romans 13 that tells us it is the moment to wake from sleep?
What is it that are we anticipating? I remember back as a child the sense of excitement as Christmas was coming. I've seen it in both my children and grandchildren. What was under the tree for me?!? At the age of seven I got my electric train, which I still have. The anticipation and wonder of putting the track together, hooking all the cars to the engine, then turning it on and watching the train round the tracks, over, and over again. What fun!
Advent is here! What kind of anticipation and enthusiasm do we experience with Advent? Do we anticipate Christmas---the birth of Jesus? Do we anticipate that Jesus is here with us each day? Do we expect real things to happen? Do we anticipate that Jesus will come again?
So, what should we do? Paul writes in Romans 13:12 that we should, "lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light." We need to turn from any of those things that would pull us away from our relationship with God and live with a genuine sense of anticipation and enthusiasm about what God will do in our lives, and through our lives to touch others.
Gracious Lord, you choose to come into our lives. Breathe into us a new sense of anticipation of what you are doing in our lives and how we can live our lives serving you with a new sense of zeal. Breathe into us with your hope. In Jesus name. Amen.
CHRIST THE KING Sunday, the last Sunday of the church year just 4 Sundays before Christmas. Hymn 855, Crown Him with Many Crowns, "Awake my soul and sing of him who died for thee and hail him as thy match-less king through all eternity." Now we turn back and the next Sunday is the First Sunday in Advent, four Sundays before Christmas, and God retells his story, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost. The Gospel of Matthew commissions us to go and tell God's story and so it seems that the church fathers created this worship guide to make sure God's story is heard every year.
So how does one prepare to listen to God's story? It is a powerful story that pulls us in, and we become part of the story. One of the texts for Christ the King Sunday is Ephesians 1:15-23, Paul's prayer for the congregation in Ephesus. For me, it's a great bridge for entering into the Advent season.
We pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. AMEN
In my life's journey God's story has never changed, but the way we uplift and support the story with traditions, has changed. For example, worship times. Christmas Eve was always dedicated to the Sunday School, now it tends be the main worship setting replacing Christmas Day worship. For me it used to be quieter, now it's very noisy. It seems like Christmas is more about Black Fridays and sales. The world is also constantly changing, confronted with new conflicts and challenges. This year, the virus has destroyed our way of life. A new word has been added to our vocabulary, pandemic. Our politics has divided us and attacked our democracy, creating fear and distrust. Anger and fear separate us and attacks our hope.
But the advent season is here! I am glad because we can still light a candle. If you have a hymnal and turn to page 18 you can find all the texts. You will notice that a majority of the OT texts are from Isaiah which begins with a harsh word from God, about our sin, admonishing us to learn to do good, and seek justice. Perhaps we should begin Advent by acknowledging our sin. The text listed in 2:1-5 for me says God is in charge, war is not the answer, and swords should be beat into plow shares. The second week, Isaiah 11:1-10, emphasizes God's kingdom as a peaceful kingdom. The third Sunday's text is a message of hope, 35:1-10, "he will come and save you." The last Sunday before Christmas, Isaiah 7:10-16, centers our hope, telling us that a young woman shall bear a child, "and shall name him Immanuel." This was God's sign for the future that shapes his kingdom. Announced by the angels to the shepherds, a baby has been born whose name is Immanuel which means, "God is with us." God's gift of love to us and the world.
I feel the Advent season is not about our traditions, or our families. While they are important and have meaning, this time is all about reminding us Christmas is all about God and his love for us. It is his love that grabs us, creates hope and spills over into the lives of others. Yes, we are also sinners, but God never deserts us. I see it in the lives of those who care for us at Riverview, in those who risk their lives caring for us when we are ill...and the list goes on I see God's footprints when I wear my mask as a gift to those around me. Did you know that Joy to the World is listed as an Advent hymn? My prayer is just that, that joy will enter each of us. Let the earth receive her King.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” Luke 2:8-14
I didn’t grow up with any sort of Advent practices or traditions. Of course, we always had the day sometime after Thanksgiving where we lugged out the old toilet brush Christmas tree, that my dad so affectionately named. You know the kind, the old “fake” tree that looked ragged and had color-coded branches that you had to match to the tree to make it look at least a little like a tree. We would decorate with all my mom’s knickknacks and of course, set up the nativity.
This week we started the process of decorating for Christmas at our home. A tradition that involves lugging up all the boxes, the Christmas tree, and making space in our house to set up things near and dear to us that we have gathered and collected over the years. One of the most cherished things for me is this nativity that my mom used to set up every year. Complete with all the characters from the story, and has been my tradition to set up every Christmas. Each year, as I place the pieces in the nativity, I am reminded of the care that my mom took to set the pieces in place, to tell the story, and how often we were told not to touch it.
It seems healing this year to pull all of those items out of the boxes, and to set up our own toilet brush of a tree, though they have greatly improved since the ’80s. This year, Weston helped to set up my mom’s nativity. Watching an eight-year-old lovingly place all the pieces, making sure that they all had a birds-eye view of baby Jesus can sure tell the story again. It was an opportunity to talk about my memories of the season, and to start new memories with him.
This season, as you explore what Advent means to you, I pray that you would be reminded of the Good News that surrounds you. May you find great joy and make new memories that keep you with a birds-eye view of the manger.
Let us pray…
Loving God, we pray for this community gathered here and their journey through this Advent season. Help us create memories with all around us, memories that focus us back to the manger and to you. In your name. Amen.
Heavenly Father, help us to reflect the light of Christ now and throughout the whole year. Amen.
As a kid, Advent was always one of my favorite seasons. My family had an Advent wreath that would be placed in the middle of the table all through the season, and each night at supper we would read from an old Advent devotional book. My brother, sister, and I would get to take turns doing two big jobs: lighting the candles with the special long lighter and extinguishing them with a special little candle snuffer. There were three of us and only two prized jobs, so each night was a little bit of a fight to remember who had done what the previous night.
After the roles for the evening were established, we would light the appropriate candles for the night, read the little reading/reflection and prayer, and then there would be a song to sing. I can still feel my adolescent self-cringing as we awkwardly sang an acapella verse of whatever Christmas song was chosen for the night. Then we would eat supper and at the end of the night the candles would be extinguished.
Now I have my own three kids, but lucky for Teddy (6) and Stanley (4), their baby brother Ben isn’t old enough to fight them for the two prized roles of lighting and extinguishing candles. This season I’m excited for my family to light the candles, read the devotions and prayers, sing a verse or two of a song, share a meal together, and then extinguish the candles. I’m also excited for you to be joining us in this tradition. So welcome to Advent. Thank you for coming on this journey with us. Will you join us in singing a verse of one of my favorite Advent hymns, O Come O Come Emmanuel:
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.
Let us pray…
Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. As we journey through this season of Advent together fill us and this whole world with your joyous light, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
To the Writers
of this devotional: