As I'm writing this, we are just a month away from the beginning of Advent. It won’t be long before we’ll be seeing Christmas greenery on our neighbors’ doors, holiday commercials and movies on television, and Christmas cards in our mailboxes. Are you ready? Neither am I! But it will be here, just the same. One of the challenges we face as people of Christian faith is keeping our focus in the right place during the Advent season. The word “advent” connotes the coming of something important. In the case of our Christian Advent season, we are anticipating the arrival of God incarnated – God, made flesh – in the person of a tiny baby whose name was Jesus. Rather than a time of pre-celebration of Christmas, Advent is meant to be a time of waiting and preparation. Our Orthodox brothers and sisters even undertake a “nativity fast” during Advent, abstaining from much of the food and drink that we take for granted as part of our celebrations leading up to Christmas Day.
Years ago, I heard a story about a little boy who is now a young man. This boy had learned from someone at church that because Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, the baby Jesus should not be placed in the family’s creche or nativity scene until Christmas Day. So, he went home and took the baby Jesus out of his family’s manger scene and hid it. He hid it so well that no one could find it, and he refused to divulge its location until Christmas morning, when he returned the baby Jesus to his place in the manger. I can’t think about “looking for Jesus” or “seeking Jesus” without remembering this story, which always makes me smile. Sometimes it is the youngest among us who actually “gets” what the Advent season is all about.
During worship in the month of November, we’ll be looking at three gospel stories about people who wanted to see, touch or know Jesus. The first is from Luke’s gospel; the story of Zacchaeus, a tax collector despised by his peers but loved and called into repentance by Jesus. The second is Mark’s telling of the woman who sought merely to touch the garment of Jesus to receive healing, but who was called out and recognized and blessed by Jesus. The third story is from John’s gospel, about a Pharisee who comes under cover of darkness to have a conversation with Jesus. Then on the last Sunday in November, which is Christ the King Sunday, we’ll look at a parable of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel often referred to as “the judgment of the nations,” in which Jesus makes clear what it really means to love and serve him.
It’s my hope that as we consider these stories of real people who sought and encountered the Jesus who walked among them as God-made-flesh, our hearts will be made more ready for the season of waiting called Advent.
With prayers for your journey,
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17, NRSV)
A pastor friend of mine who works in another state recently shared an experience that occurred during the Lord’s Supper at his church. In the congregation he serves, communion is taken by small groups gathering around the table in turns and passing the communion elements to one another. This pastor encourages each person, as the elements are passed, to say, “This is the Body of Christ” and “This is the Cup of Salvation,” or other appropriate words of welcome and grace. Young children are included in this, so that they learn the practice and the language of the Lord’s Supper.
On a recent Sunday, it so happened that a four-year-old girl was positioned to pass the communion bread to a 90-year-old who was standing beside her. She knew she was supposed to say something as she passed the bread. This little girl looked at the wizened elder beside her and pronounced, “You are a child of God.” As my pastor friend described it, “Everyone melted.” “This child had heard herself called this so many times, that it was what she wanted to say at the table, because those words meant something to her.” The pastor saw this as a testimony to the fact that what we do and say in regard to the children in our midst, really does matter. Not only does this little girl already know herself to be a child of God, but she understands that it’s true as well for those of us who are no longer “children,” no matter how old we may be.
The 16th century reformer Martin Luther, who struggled so mightily with the concept of grace, is said to have placed his hand on his head every morning to remind himself of his baptism; to remind himself that his salvation came only from the grace of God in Christ, and not through any worthiness of his own. One of the greatest of the Protestant reformers needed to remind himself each day that he was wholly dependent upon God, as a child is dependent on the care and discipline of a loving parent. When you and I acknowledge the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, we begin to understand the glorious privilege of being grafted onto the Body of Christ as part of the family of God. We are received into the family, not because we are worthy, but because we are needful, and willing to acknowledge that need before God.
How would your days be different, if you started each one of them by reminding yourself that you are – before and above all else – a child of God? How would your relationships with others be different if you reminded yourself daily that every person you encounter – no matter how broken or imperfect – is also a “child” who is deeply desired in the family of God? “Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said. “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
With prayers for your journey,
Several times over the years, my husband and I have hosted foreign visitors in our home. Most of our visitors have come to us through Rotary exchanges or sponsored educational programs. One of our guests was a gracious young man from India. I can’t recall his name at the moment, but one particular interaction we had with him continues to stand out in my memory. We were taking a walk together on a lovely day in the town where we lived, and the subject of church came up in our conversation. Our visitor didn’t seem particularly religious, and while his conversation was polite, he didn’t show a great deal of interest in the topic of where we attended church. In fact, he’d never heard of Presbyterians. But when I happened to mention that I’d grown up in a Baptist church, his face lit up and he stood up straight, and said, “Ah! Baptists! Printing Press!”
Our guest told us that Baptists had brought the printing press to India. While I’ve since learned that this is not exactly true (it appeared much earlier), what is correct is that a Baptist mission in Serampore in West Bengal was well-known for its printing operation in the early 1800’s. The Serampur Mission Press was founded by British Baptist missionaries William Carey and William Ward. Over the course of its thirty-year operation, it printed more than 200,000 books, which was a significant number for that time. In addition to religious works – including translation of the Bible into 25 different Indian vernaculars – the Serampur Mission Press published textbooks for schools. In fact, this was its major activity and what it’s most remembered for by many in India. While the printing of Bibles goes hand-in-hand with evangelizing, this mission press had a broad cultural vision of what was possible. It played a role in helping to educate Indian citizens toward achievement of their potential in every facet of life.
The writer of the New Testament book of James reminds us that action to meet human need must accompany any claim we may have to a Christian faith: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James 2:14-16, NRSV
James goes on to say that “faith without works is dead.” In other words, work that helps to meet the needs of others serves as evidence of a personal faith in Christ that is alive and real. Just like the Baptists who are remembered in India for helping to advance education, Hebron Presbyterian Church is involved in ministries that will have far-reaching consequences in the nation of Niger. Among these is Hebron’s Niger Child Education mission, which provides scholarships for children to receive a quality education in a Christian setting. This will be our 3rd year to provide these scholarships. Many have given generously to this mission, and we are grateful. I invite you to consider supporting this education ministry through Hebron Presbyterian Church. You can pick up a brochure at the church, or contact our office at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our goal is to have scholarships secured by mid-September for the coming school year in Niger.
A few nights ago, I woke up with a clear phrase in my head. It was, “no eye hath seen nor ear hath heard.” I knew this was part of a verse from the Bible, but I had to look it up to remember where it’s located. It’s from 1st Corinthians 2:9, where the apostle Paul is writing to the early believers at Corinth about the wisdom of God.
As it is written, Paul says, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him…” Paul is actually referencing a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah: “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” (Isaiah 64:4) Paul goes on to say that the unimaginable things God has prepared for those who believe in him are “revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depth of God.” (2:10).
While Paul wasn’t specifically talking about Heaven in this passage, I’ve heard these verses from 1st Corinthians used to refer to the promise of our future heavenly home as believers in God in Jesus Christ.
What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart
conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.
Do you ever wonder about Heaven? Apparently, a lot of people do. Several months ago, I put out a query on my Facebook page: “What do you wish you knew more about, from the Bible?” Of the dozen or so responses, half were about Heaven or “eternity.” Any of us who believes there is Heaven, hopes to get there; and any who believe there is life beyond this earthly one we see, wonders what that life will be like. For some, the idea of Heaven and eternal life is completely joyful and comforting. For others, it is somewhat unsettling and worrisome. It’s hard to imagine what we can’t imagine! It’s hard to picture what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived. Even if we know that being in the presence of God will bring us eternal joy, we wonder what we’ll do in Heaven, and how we’ll exist, there.
I’m not sure why God placed those particular words in my mind that night. I had gone to bed with a prayer about my sermon that coming Sunday, and with thoughts about what it means to be responsible for preaching the Word. The other phrase that followed in my mind when I woke that night was, “to do no harm to the Gospel.” It’s interesting that in the verses preceding 1st Corinthians 2:9, Paul talks about what it means for him to be a faithful preacher of the Gospel; to avoid lofty words and to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I am pondering two preaching series in the coming months; one on Revelation and the other on Heaven. I ask for your prayers, as we continue on this journey together of exploring anew “what God has prepared for those who love him.”