Monday, December 9

Isaiah 40:3-5

A few years ago, I slipped into a period of spiritual isolation. I felt distanced from God. Looking back, I see how a variety of factors created that condition: significant health challenges, overwork, frustrating professional matters, and a heightened sense of my mortality. The sense of isolation persisted so long, I wondered if it might be my new norm.

Nonetheless, daily life continued. Advent arrived, and I began reading the lectionary texts. When I read Isaiah 40, one phrase captured my attention: prepare the way of the LORD (v. 3). Try as I might, I could not escape it. Isaiah’s phrase became a personal word from God to me. The longer I pondered, the more I realized my spiritual isolation was a self-imposed condition. Without intending to do so, I had blocked God’s road into my heart and mind.

It was time to clear the path for God. Smoothing God’s road required real changes in how I lived. I started to take better care of myself. I ate a little more wisely, took up daily exercise, and placed some limits on how many hours I worked each week. I chose to enjoy the professional opportunities which came my way rather than focus on those which did not. Finally, I determined to embrace aging and soon discovered many positives to the experience.

Basically, I made peace with my life. The longer I practiced such peacemaking, the more I found myself sensing the presence of God. 

Mind you, I still have days when I must work at it. But now that I’ve tried to fill in the valleys, make low the mountains, and smooth the ground, I find it easier to spot God walking the road that leads into my heart.

Consider

Am I willing to identify ways in which I may be making it difficult for myself to sense God’s presence? Am I willing to ask others for help in this task?

Pray

God who spoke to and through Isaiah, help me smooth your way into my heart and mind. Amen.

Sunday, December 8

Isaiah 40:1-2

Does Isaiah think it strange when God tells him to speak comfort to God’s long exiled people? That’s not a prophet’s usual assignment. 

“Tell them enough is enough,” says God. “They are pardoned. It’s time to start a new life.” 

A young friend of mine slipped into addiction to hard drugs. She had been a star high-school athlete, a sharp student, and a steady Christ follower. Her addiction nearly destroyed her. Family members lost count of how many times she lied to them, stole from them, or nearly died from overdosing.

At age 30, she woke up one day and found herself lying in an alley. As she says, “I lay there staring into the night sky. Suddenly, I felt as if someone was near me. And that someone whispered, ‘Enough is enough. I’ve not forgotten you. Get up and go to people who want to help you. There you will find comfort.’”

“I was still an addict,” she adds. “Already, I felt the need for my next fix. But, almost to my surprise, I got up and walked not to my supplier but to a nearby faith-based medical clinic. I’d been there a few times before, but always lied about my need. That day, instead of saying I didn’t feel well and needed something for pain, I told them upfront that I was an addict. They took me in without a word of judgment. I’m still an addict. I always will be. But on that day, I started the struggle to get and stay clean. And it started with the promise of comfort.”

Whenever I read Isaiah 40:1-2, I remember her story and ponder the power of words that release and comfort. It’s past time to speak such words to the world at large and to those we know who need them.

Consider

When has someone spoken God’s comfort to you? How did you respond? What might your ministry of speaking comfort look like?

Pray

Lord, speak your comfort to me and help me speak it to others. Amen.

Saturday, December 7

Mark 8:27-30

Sometimes our most important conversations happen on the road. 

Jesus and the disciples are walking to Caesarea Philippi when he asks, Who do people say that I am? (v. 27). Maybe Jesus is simply gathering the latest information, checking the opinion polls while they pass another mile marker. Don’t we check the news after driving for a while? Some of the disciples respond like reporters, while others sound like eager students trying to impress the teacher with their answers. 

Then Jesus asks a more personal question that requires more than hearsay: But who do you say that I am? (v. 29). 

Scripture contains this conversation in four short verses, but how much time did those verses contain? Was there a lengthy silence before Peter’s response? Did more discussion occur before the definitive You are the Messiah (v. 29)? 

What do we say about the Christ we follow? Do we talk about the subject of our faith when we’re traveling with friends? Do we stay silent because our experience seems dated? If conversation about Christ does come up, are we surprised, or even speechless? 

We are on the road to Christmas, and we’re invited to have an important conversation along the way. We’re also invited to draw near to God in new ways and experience a Presence that we will want to talk about. 

Who do you say that I am? asks the One whose birth we await.

 How will we respond?

Consider

Describe who Jesus is to you.

Pray

God, may you give me the words I need to share what you mean to me. Amen.

Friday, December 6

Isaiah 9:6-7

When you read these two verses, do you hear background music in your mind? Does Handel’s rhythm make you accentuate certain words? Do you hear the Messiah’s four-part harmony as you pronounce the names this child shall be called? 

The famous melody that surrounds this beloved passage has helped us memorize it. But we also love these verses because of what the words mean. We understand the truth that this child we cannot live without is born to us because the zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this (v. 7). This son is given to us because God’s joyfully enthusiastic desire makes it so. In this line we discover the more-than-generous heart of our Creator.

We know the difference between giving what feels like a required transaction and offering a present that excites us just to think about it. Gifts that engage the imaginations of both the giver and the receiver elevate us all. The gifts that reflect thoughtful creativity are the ones we remember and share wholeheartedly. 

Jesus points out that if we who are not divine know how to give good gifts, how much more is God able to give (Lk 11:13). He tells his disciples this so that they will trust in God’s generosity to provide the Spirit that they will need. 

Jesus knows the giving heart of God that Isaiah also proclaims to the people. In this season of giving, may we drew nearer to the Source of all generosity, the one who gives zealously. 

Consider

What gifts will you give zealously this year?

Pray

God, we need to live with your lavish generosity. We need to see what is possible when we give like you do. Be with us as we share this season. Amen.

Thursday, December 5

Isaiah 9:1-5

If you take a tour of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, New York, be sure to see the basement. Known as the “Great Northern Depot of the Underground Railroad,” the church once harbored runaway slaves there as they made their way to freedom. 

During this part of the tour, the guide will often turn off the basement lights and ask visitors to imagine what it must have felt like for those who had to wait for hours in the dark. When they heard footsteps, how did they know whether this person would be taking them to the next stop, bringing them supper, or returning them to the place from which they had escaped? 

Isaiah reminds us that God is always leading people out of darkness into the light. God makes the way glorious. God’s liberating acts of love become the model and the motivation for the work of Christ’s Church. Those who experience God’s freeing love start sharing the love that frees others. 

Whenever I stand in the Plymouth basement, I give thanks for the way that this earlier congregation acted boldly on their understanding that God wants to set all people free. 

And I also pray that God’s love will free all current congregations, as it did earlier ones, to share Christ’s liberating light in a world where darkness still binds too many.

Consider

How could you share the gift of God’s light with the world this season?

Pray

God, may your light change us into people who will learn to love as you do. Amen.

Wednesday, December 4

Micah 5:1-5a

Our congregation has been talking this year about the relationship between our faith and our jobs. We’re asking, “How does our faith enrich our work?” and “How does our work challenge our faith?” 

At the end of one listening session in which a group of lawyers had discussed the most difficult aspects of what they do, we asked, “What could the Church do to help all of us find our purpose and pursue it, whatever our job descriptions are?” 

One attorney explained that what the Church offers is a needed perspective. In the trenches of whatever work we do, the Church shines the light we need when the way is dim. It grounds us in the way of seeking justice.

Micah is speaking to a people under siege; they are in the trenches of battle. But their challenging situation will only be the prelude to their story. The prophet offers a needed perspective to those who are tempted to despair. In the middle of their struggles, Micah brings the vision of a leader who will rise from their small clan of Judah and change the storyline, restoring the people and leading them in the way of peace. 

How could you offer the gift of perspective to someone you know who is entrenched in a challenging situation this season? What might you say or do to remind them that there is more to their story than the pressure they feel? What hope could you bring to anyone who feels under siege? 

Consider

Think about people in your community who face intense pressure at this time of year. What encouragement could you offer them today?

Pray

God, your story is larger than we see. In times of pressure, when our circumstances are difficult, may the church be a source of your light and perspective, grounding us in the way of peace. Amen.

Tuesday, December 3

Jeremiah 33:19-26

When I was reflecting on these verses in Jeremiah, the Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire. Breaking news from Paris kept drawing my attention from the Scripture to the television screen. I moved from God’s assurance that the divine-human covenant could not be destroyed to feeling deep sadness as I watched this iconic house of God continue to blaze. 

As the hours passed, reports focused on how much of Notre Dame and its treasures would survive. Experts speculated about the extent of the damage. Religious leaders discussed what it would mean to the world to lose this holy place that had become a spiritual home to so many. Along with factual information about the fire, another conversation emerged as this story unfolded. This one raised the theme that Jeremiah asks his readers to consider. In a world in which even the most formidable structures can break, or burn, or disappear, does any unshakable reality exist for us? Is there any solid foundation we can stand on that will never be moved? Using Jeremiah’s words, God invites us into a covenant relationship that no one can break.

The journalists covering the Notre Dame fire offered their microphones to the grieving, who tried to explain that though this loss was painful, their faith is not tied to structures made by human hands. Outside the burning cathedral, the choirs that formed to sing their faith illustrated this truth. Anthems that were usually heard inside the sanctuary now filled the streets surrounding it. 

Faith is a reality and a relationship that transcends our temporary, breakable world. On difficult and painful days, Jeremiah wants us to remember that.

Consider

When has the unbreakable nature of God’s covenant given you hope?

Pray

Holy God, when so many things fall apart, may I hold onto the realities that never will. Amen.

Monday, December 2

Jeremiah 33:14-18

When does gift giving become the least spiritual part of this season for you? It happens to me when I trade interesting questions for lesser ones. When time is short, I stop wondering, “What unexpected gift would bring them joy?” I start asking questions like: What’s expected? How much should I spend? Is it in stock? Did I give them that last year?

Whenever the act of giving seems to diminish our spirit instead of breathing life into it, God wants to help. When God gives, relationships deepen. The gifts God offers shine with creativity and inspire us to enjoy the act of giving, too. To draw closer to God is to learn new ways to share. 

As Jeremiah describes the way that God keeps giving, hear the echoes of that divine creativity through which God began the world and and nurtures it. Listen to the passage and recognize the imagination that sparked the details of everything in creation. God envisions raising up righteous leaders and establishing justice. God seems to prefer ongoing works and continuous creations to abrupt gestures. This God who forms land and sea causes a righteous Branch to spring up for David
(v. 15). God offers us steadfast love that endures forever. That love is
the catalyst for every other gift with which God sustains us. 

Gift giving could be the most creative thing we do this month, if we let God teach us how to give. What would we present if our Creator’s delight inspired us to try something surprising or new? What beauty could we add to the world if we asked what could enrich a relationship, or strengthen a community, or make someone’s life better? What might we wrap up for Christmas if we decided to make this year’s gift giving a spiritual activity we pursue with God? 

Consider

Spend time today seeking God’s response to your gift list. Who might God add to it? What gift ideas might God suggest for the people you’ve included?

Pray

God, help us know that the love you give us so freely grows more abundant when we share generously, too. Amen.

Sunday, December 1

Jeremiah 33:10-13

Faith lets us see more than what first meets the eye. Whatever our lives look like on this first day of December, faith shows us the possibilities as well as the problems. Letting God be our vision doesn’t mean denying the challenges we face. Obstacles exist. Pain is real. Loneliness is hard to shake. 

But like an artist pointing out what others have missed about the masterpiece, our Creator delights in broadening our vision. We need this divine Advent gift when our concerns outweigh our celebrations. When tasks appear longer than the hours we have to complete them. When demands and expectations overwhelm our good intentions. 

The Messiah is bringing us the broader vision we need, wrapped in the writings of Jeremiah. The people fixate on the waste and desolation they see around them. They recognize their lack of what they need to thrive. But as they focus on what’s missing, God widens the lens so that the gladness and restored relationships that are on their way become part of the picture. The promise of bright fields, love without end, and a shepherd caring for the sheep grows visible when God is picturing the work in progress. 

These weeks before Christmas give us an annual opportunity to check our spiritual vision. Each time I visit the optician, my lens prescription changes. Each Advent, when I examine my capacity to see God’s possibilities in the world around me, I realize how much correcting I need. 

Consider

What changes might God prescribe to help you envision God’s possibilities for the world more clearly?

Pray

God, help me open the promising gift of your vision that you offer to us all. Amen.

Saturday, November 30

Luke 24:30-32

I must admit that I sometimes use this story to make me feel better about myself. How in the world did these two not know they were traveling with Jesus? I tell myself that if this happened to me, of course I would know it was Christ. But in reality, I would probably be as clueless as these two. Perhaps I would spend hours listening to him talk and only realize at the last second that I’d spent the day with Jesus Christ. Then I’d look back and question how I could miss the obvious, just as our two clueless friends in this story must have done. 

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus feel their hearts burning as they listen to the resurrected Christ speak words of Scripture. When King Josiah heard words of Scripture, he was also profoundly moved. The psalmist found God’s word to be their guiding force and light in life (119:105). 

The Bible is not just any story. It’s our story. In Scripture we find a love story between our Creator God and humankind. In Scripture we read of God’s interaction with humanity and learn how we can be in relationship with God. The Bible is the foundation of our faith. While we might not weep and tear our clothes when we hear it as Josiah does, and though we may not feel our hearts burning as the two from Emmaus do when Jesus leads them in a mobile Bible study, God continues to speak to us through God’s word. May we never stop seeking and listening to what God wants to tell us. 

Consider

What is your favorite passage of Scripture? What do these verses reveal about God?

Pray

Loving God, thank you for your word and all the ways it reveals your love for us. Amen.