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Advent Devotion

Matthew 3:1-6

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

A lonely voice is carried down the centuries by a dry desert wind: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!

The voice prophesied by Isaiah is growing louder, clearer. Its source is coming into view. It is John the Baptist, calling out to the people of Israel. The years of waiting made the people nearly forget about God’s promise to send a Savior, someone who would redeem the people from their lives of misery, sin, and oppression. But John the Baptist is here to refresh their memory. You might have forgotten, but God hasn’t! A Savior is on the way.

John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus Christ to come. He invites the people to be baptized in preparation for Jesus’s arrival. The people confessed their sins and were washed clean.

Like John and the people he baptizes, we can prepare for Christ’s coming. We can confess and repent of our sins. We can ask God to make us clean, fit to be in the presence of our Savior.

Prayer: Lord, would you point out the places in me that are a mess? The places that are making it hard for me to encounter you? I confess those sins to you. Make me clean. Prepare my heart to welcome you. Amen.

Join us for Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at 5:00 pm

Image may contain: candles and fire

Some familiar Scripture. Some familiar songs. All tell the same story of hope and promise to a world that seems to be unfamiliar with both.

The Christ candle’s light that shines for us here
tells out the good news that God has come near!
God came, a poor baby, in one time and place,
to show all creation the wealth of God’s grace.
– The Candle of Hope, Gillette

Our doors are open. You are invited.

 

Advent Devotion

Luke 1:5-25

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

The punishment for Zechariah’s unbelief seems disproportionately harsh: no voice for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy? Really? This punishment comes from a God who says it’s enough to have faith as small as a mustard seed (Matthew 17:20). Zechariah doesn’t outright reject the angel’s message, after all. He doesn’t laugh the way Sarah does when she overhears that she will bear a son in her old age (Genesis 18:12). He just asks how he can be sure the angel is telling the truth, a fair question to put to any stranger who promises to fulfill the deepest desires of your heart. So why is Zechariah prevented from speaking for the better part of a year?

Perhaps we can see Zechariah’s silence not as a punishment but as a gift. As the child grows in Elizabeth’s belly, he is given space to reflect quietly. He won’t run off at the mouth, crowding out the Spirit inside him with his own blathering. He’s saved from saying stupid things, from bragging about his encounter with the angel, from broadcasting his skepticism.

Rather than questioning the silence God imposes on Zechariah, we might consider adopting a habit of quietude ourselves this Advent. In a season of stimulation—lights! music! sugar!—we need to carve out space to reflect and prepare. In these final days before Christmas, find a quiet corner. Turn off the Christmas station. Set aside your phone. Open your Bible and listen. What is the Spirit saying to you?

Prayer: Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening. Help me to quiet my buzzing thoughts. What do you want me to hear? What invitation are you extending to me today? Amen.

Advent Devotion

Micah 5:1-5

Now you are walled around with a wall;
    siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel
upon the cheek.

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

    If the Assyrians come into our land
and tread upon our soil,
we will raise against them seven shepherds
and eight installed as rulers.

Our ears aren’t accustomed to hearing prophecies. We sure hear a lot of promises—campaign promises, wedding vows, promises from brands that buying their product will improve our quality of life. But those promises are so often broken that we start to think promises hold no real weight. And we might think the same is true of prophecies. They won’t possibly come true, will they?

Don’t let your skepticism about promises color your hearing of this prophecy: from Bethlehem will come someone who will rule, not the way those promise-breaking politicians do, but like a shepherd. He won’t say one thing and do another. He won’t disregard his constituency. No, this leader cares for his people the way a shepherd cares for his sheep. He’ll stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.

The people who heard this prophecy for the first time worried about the same things we do: what to eat for dinner, how to make amends with their mothers, whether their homes and land would be secure. And the prophecy can bring us the same comfort—comfort that we will live securely and in peace. The same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, fulfilling Micah’s prophecy, will come again to reign as Prince of Peace. Come, Lord Jesus!

Prayer: Prince of Peace, I am eager for you to return. Some days, both the world and my life seem out of control and beyond repair. But I am trusting you to keep your promise to come and rule like a good and gentle shepherd. Amen.

Yoga

Yoga for the People

If you’re looking for new ways to pray, clear your mind, and heal your body, then don’t forget that SCRC hosts yoga twice a week. You can join other members of the community and congregation on Wednesday evenings at 6:15 pm and Friday mornings at 9:00 am. The practice is led by Claudia Collins and is free for everyone (but we are taking donations).

Advent Devotion

Daniel 6

It pleased Darius to set over the kingdom one hundred twenty satraps, stationed throughout the whole kingdom, and over them three presidents, including Daniel; to these the satraps gave account, so that the king might suffer no loss. Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom. So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him. The men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.”

So the presidents and satraps conspired and came to the king and said to him, “O King Darius, live forever! All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions. Now, O king, establish the interdict and sign the document, so that it cannot be changed, according to the law of the Medes and the Persians, which cannot be revoked.” Therefore King Darius signed the document and interdict.

Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously. The conspirators came and found Daniel praying and seeking mercy before his God. Then they approached the king and said concerning the interdict, “O king! Did you not sign an interdict, that anyone who prays to anyone, divine or human, within thirty days except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions?” The king answered, “The thing stands fast, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be revoked.” Then they responded to the king, “Daniel, one of the exiles from Judah, pays no attention to you, O king, or to the interdict you have signed, but he is saying his prayers three times a day.”

When the king heard the charge, he was very much distressed. He was determined to save Daniel, and until the sun went down he made every effort to rescue him. Then the conspirators came to the king and said to him, “Know, O king, that it is a law of the Medes and Persians that no interdict or ordinance that the king establishes can be changed.”

Then the king gave the command, and Daniel was brought and thrown into the den of lions. The king said to Daniel, “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!” A stone was brought and laid on the mouth of the den, and the king sealed it with his own signet and with the signet of his lords, so that nothing might be changed concerning Daniel. Then the king went to his palace and spent the night fasting; no food was brought to him, and sleep fled from him.

Then, at break of day, the king got up and hurried to the den of lions. When he came near the den where Daniel was, he cried out anxiously to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God whom you faithfully serve been able to deliver you from the lions?” Daniel then said to the king, “O king, live forever! My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths so that they would not hurt me, because I was found blameless before him; and also before you, O king, I have done no wrong.” Then the king was exceedingly glad and commanded that Daniel be taken up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. The king gave a command, and those who had accused Daniel were brought and thrown into the den of lions—they, their children, and their wives. Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.

Then King Darius wrote to all peoples and nations of every language throughout the whole world: “May you have abundant prosperity! I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion people should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel:

For he is the living God,
enduring forever.
His kingdom shall never be destroyed,
and his dominion has no end.
He delivers and rescues,
he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth;
for he has saved Daniel
from the power of the lions.”

So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.

Don’t mistake Daniel 6 for a children’s story. This is the gruesome stuff of nightmares—a sinister plot to trap Daniel in his singular devotion to the God of Israel, a pit full of hungry wild beasts, and in the end, the mauling and death of whole families, including children, by those lions.

The story reminds us of the risks of following God, of the very real consequences of dogged faithfulness in the face of a cruel, power-hungry world. It reminds us that to be a Christian is a political statement and a political act. The fragrance of Christ is threatening to people who reek of selfish ambition and corruption. Daniel’s insistence on “smelling” like the God of Israel nearly got him killed by people who couldn’t stomach the aroma.

But he didn’t get killed. And that part of the story reminds us of God’s faithfulness to us when we are faithful to him. God has promised that he will be with his people, so he doesn’t shut the mouths of the lions from a distance. He sends his angel to keep Daniel company. In the Bible, angels are more than messengers, delivering God’s words like celestial mail carriers; they are understood to represent God. It’s as if God himself is with Daniel in that den. The Lion of Judah tells those lions of Babylon who’s boss.

What encouragement for us when we feel like we’re surrounded by bloodthirsty lions—whether it’s a competitive work environment, a mental soundtrack that tells you you’re just not measuring up, or an illness that threatens to sap all your strength. God, who delivers and rescues, is with you always.

Prayer: Living God, your kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world. You invert the usual power systems and provide a different set of rules to live by. Living in your kingdom can put me at odds with the world around me, but I trust that even when I feel under attack, you are with me. Amen.

Advent Devotion

Jonah 3:1-5

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Let’s play a word association game: I say, “Jonah.” You say, “_____.”

If you said “whale,” I don’t blame you. That’s the first thing that pops into my head, too. If you said “sackcloth,” bonus points for you! Because the story of Jonah doesn’t end in the belly of the fish. The story of Jonah is actually about calling the city of Nineveh to repentance, and that’s exactly what happens. The story doesn’t end until the people listen to Jonah’s message about God, repent of their wrongdoing, and turn to what’s right.

And their change only happens once Jonah listens to God, repents of his wrongdoing, and turns to what’s right—namely, bringing God’s message to Nineveh. It’s a good reminder that we’re capable of standing in the way of others’ obedience. Once we obey, they can, too.

Thankfully, Jesus, who also spent three days in a dark, dank place, was obedient. His obedience, even to the point of death on a cross, has made it possible for the rest of us to be obedient, too.

When we abide in Jesus, we don’t have to scorn Ninevah and run the other way. We can proclaim Jesus so others can follow, too.

Prayer: God, search my heart and point out the places where I haven’t been following you. I confess that I have fallen short. Help me, like Jonah and Jesus, to be obedient. To where or what are you calling me? I want to follow. Amen.

Advent Devotion

2 Samuel 5:1-5

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

King and shepherd: the two seem like polar opposites. Kings sit on thrones. They wear expensive clothes and talk to important people. They are calculating and political and oversee whole nations. Shepherds, on the other hand, stand on the hillsides. They wear clothes that can get dirty, and they talk mostly to sheep. They are cautious and patient and oversee a single flock.

David, though, was both. He was a shepherd whom God chose to be king. A quick review of world leaders might suggest that actually, a shepherd would make the best kind of king. A shepherd is humble and cares more about people than about power. David carried his shepherding spirit into his reign as king.

It’s an honor for David to be called both “shepherd of my people Israel” and “ruler over Israel” because he’s not the only shepherd-king in Scripture. In John 10, Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, the one who knows all of his sheep and lays down his life for them. And he is also king, the one who is victorious over the powers of sin, death, and evil.

Prayer: King Jesus, I praise you that you have the heart of a shepherd! How wonderful that you are both mighty and gentle, both self-sacrificing and victorious. Would you bring a spirit of gentleness and self-sacrifice to the political rulers in power today? Amen.

Advent Devotions

1 Samuel 16:1-15

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you.

It’s hard not to love the story of an underdog. Like so many people in Jesus’s family history, David is an unlikely pick. He’s not the firstborn. In fact, he’s the baby of the family, the last of Jesse’s eight sons. In his life thus far, he hasn’t been much of a hero. When Samuel anoints him, David hasn’t defeated Goliath. He hasn’t created complex battle strategies. He’s an unknown farm boy.

Yet it’s David, the underdog, whom God chooses to lead his people. God subverts expectations, choosing a young shepherd, not an experienced politician.

God has a habit of subverting expectations. David was an unexpected choice, as was Israel as a whole. If you wanted to bless the world, would you work through a tiny people group, often dominated by other nations?

And when you finally came to save your people and express your love for the whole world, would you come in the flesh as a member of that underdog nation? Would you be born as a baby, vulnerable and unknown? Would you work as a common tradesman, acquiring none of the experience or accolades of a political victor? Would you submit to humiliation, persecution, and even death at the hands of a powerful empire?

In Jesus Christ, descendant of Jesse and David, God’s love for the whole world is shown. Jesus is the one anointed to be king, not just of Israel but of all people. In the greatest subversion of expectations, God makes himself the underdog and triumphs over sin and death.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord, for working in ways contrary to what I expect. Thank you for showing me the way of humility and self-sacrifice, in both your birth and your death. I rejoice that you rose from the dead and reign in glory, and I await your return. Amen.

Advent Devotion

Ruth 3:1–4:12

Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.”

So she went down to the threshing floor and did just as her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet, and lay down. At midnight the man was startled, and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman! He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.” He said, “May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman. But now, though it is true that I am a near kinsman, there is another kinsman more closely related than I. Remain this night, and in the morning, if he will act as next-of-kin for you, good; let him do it. If he is not willing to act as next-of-kin for you, then, as the Lord lives, I will act as next-of-kin for you. Lie down until the morning.”

So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, “It must not be known that the woman came to the threshing floor.” Then he said, “Bring the cloak you are wearing and hold it out.” So she held it, and he measured out six measures of barley, and put it on her back; then he went into the city. She came to her mother-in-law, who said, “How did things go with you, my daughter?” Then she told her all that the man had done for her, saying, “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” She replied, “Wait, my daughter, until you learn how the matter turns out, for the man will not rest, but will settle the matter today.”

No sooner had Boaz gone up to the gate and sat down there than the next-of-kin, of whom Boaz had spoken, came passing by. So Boaz said, “Come over, friend; sit down here.” And he went over and sat down. Then Boaz took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here”; so they sat down. He then said to the next-of-kin, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, is selling the parcel of land that belonged to our kinsman Elimelech. So I thought I would tell you of it, and say: Buy it in the presence of those sitting here, and in the presence of the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not, tell me, so that I may know; for there is no one prior to you to redeem it, and I come after you.” So he said, “I will redeem it.” Then Boaz said, “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” At this, the next-of-kin said, “I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.”

Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one took off a sandal and gave it to the other; this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the next-of-kin said to Boaz, “Acquire it for yourself,” he took off his sandal. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “Today you are witnesses that I have acquired from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and Mahlon. I have also acquired Ruth the Moabite, the wife of Mahlon, to be my wife, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance, in order that the name of the dead may not be cut off from his kindred and from the gate of his native place; today you are witnesses.” Then all the people who were at the gate, along with the elders, said, “We are witnesses. May the Lord make the woman who is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, who together built up the house of Israel. May you produce children in Ephrathah and bestow a name in Bethlehem; and, through the children that the Lord will give you by this young woman, may your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah.”

Notice where this story takes place. Does it sound familiar? It’s not the last time we’ll find ourselves in Bethlehem this Advent.

Maybe you know this story as a story about a woman uncommonly devoted to her mother-in-law. Or a story about a woman humble yet bold enough to find favor with Boaz, who could make life easier for these two widows. And certainly it is a story about Ruth’s faithfulness. But it’s also a story about Boaz’s faithfulness, which points to the faithfulness of one who was born in Bethlehem years later.
In Israelite law, there was a provision for widows with no sons. The brother of the deceased man was commanded to take the man’s widow as wife, both redeeming the man’s land and providing a son to carry on the family name. Without this man, called a kinsman redeemer, the widow would be left with nothing, and the family would cease to exist.

In the book of Ruth, Boaz steps up as the kinsman redeemer, a relative of Naomi’s husband with the power to redeem the land, marry Ruth, and carry on the family.

Who else do we know who steps up as a kinsman redeemer? Indeed, Jesus Christ is our kinsman redeemer. By virtue of his humanity, he is our brother, our kinsman, and he is willing to become the bridegroom in order to redeem us. He faithfully steps up to save us. He lovingly joins himself to us, impoverished though we are, and makes us his own. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Jesus, how humbling it is that you would consider yourself my kinsman, a member of my family. And how humbling that you would pay the price with your life to redeem me. Thank you. Amen.