Sunday, December 31, 2006

Isaiah 26:1-9; Psalms 46, 48; 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2; John 8:12-19

Today’s gospel reading contains one of the most famous verses in the Bible. The verse I am speaking about is of course John 8:12, “When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ ”

I know it is famous, but what does Jesus mean by his statement? I feel there are a couple of meanings, so let’s examine them.

First, this is one of the “I am” passages found in John’s gospel. Other examples include water and bread. Like water and bread, light is necessary for life. In fact it is essential for life. Thus, Jesus is saying he is essential for a life lived to its fullest. Just as water, bread, and light are mandatory for human life on earth, Jesus is the mandatory element for a life that will lead to heaven. In fact he is the only way to spiritual life with the Father.

Second, light takes away darkness. Darkness is the absence of light. When you or I go out into the night, say on a camping trip, we normally take a flash light or lantern with us. Why? So we can see where we are going and avoid tripping or running into something we cannot see. So we can remove the darkness with light. Thus Jesus is saying that by following him we will avoid darkness, we will avoid unseen hazards, and we will live a full life. Just as we follow our flash light in the darkness to avoid hazards, Jesus calls each of us to follow him so we can avoid the dangers of darkness.

Wishing you the best in your walk with Christ,
- Richard Leach



Saturday, December 30, 2006

Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalms 23, 27; Revelation 1:9-20; John 7:53-8:11

The story is true. However, the names have been changed.

The flames from the garage leaped into the living room. Sadie was sleeping in the living room and smelled the ever encroaching angry, black smoke. She quickly yelled to her family, grabbed a laundry basket of clean clothes by the sofa where she had slept, and fled through the front door.

The family escaped without harm. The firefighters reported that if she had not been sleeping downstairs, the entire family would have perished because of smoke inhalation. Even though their house burned to the ground, the family said a word of thanks to God for sparing their lives.

Sadie thought back to when she had sat in the surgeon’s office.

“You will need surgery on your back, Sadie,” said the doctor to the educator. All Sadie could think of was being away two weeks from her students in special education.

“My students need me,” she quietly protested to her doctor.

“They won’t have you at all if you do not have this procedure.”

“I understand,” she replied.

She had the surgery. The surgeon reminded her not to climb stairs. Therefore, she had slept in the living room – and was responsible for saving her family’s lives.

That same evening of the fire, the Warner family – also members of Sadie’s church – was praying around the dinner table. “Lord, our house has been on the market for ten months. We are making two house payments. Why hasn’t it sold?” After praying, the family felt peace.

The next day their pastor called. “Since your house has not sold yet, may Sadie’s family stay there until their new house is built?”

The Warners unhesitatingly replied, “Of course!”

We do not understand God’s ways always, or understand right away. However, we know that the God of the Old Testament promises never to leave us (Psalm 23:4; 27:9) and will be our shade from the heat (Isaiah 25:4). Jesus will stand by us also, just as he stood by the woman accused of adultery (John 8:10, 11). One way we remember the promises of our heavenly father is to follow his commands. Just like John in Revelation 1:11 was commanded to record what he saw, I was led by the Holy Spirit to write down this true account to remind you to rest in the promises of God.

- Leanna Wilson



Friday, December 29, 2006

Isaiah 12:1-6; Psalm 18:21-50; Revelation 1:1-8; John 7:37-52

Here we are several days after Christmas Day. On Christmas Day and in the season following, we recall and rejoice in the birth of Jesus, his coming into this world. It is a time of great joy, for in this birth we perceive and receive in a new and tangible way God’s tender, abiding care for us and for all creation. A child is born. Alleluia! He is God with us, in mercy and love, and we are graced.

But the story of a child is only part of the story, only the beginning of the narrative of his life. His birth points forward toward his death, his loving and saving sacrifice on the cross. Jesus is born and not only will die but is born to die, for us and for the world.

Yet, likewise, the story of a death is only part of the story, only the beginning of the glory of his life. He died, but he did not stay dead. God raised him to new life, beyond all human imagining, for us and for the world.

Late in his life, John the apostle, long beloved by and devoted to the incarnate-crucified-risen Jesus, wrote down this Revelation. Central to the book is the reality that Jesus is the key to history, to life itself – John’s, yours, and mine. The child we celebrate at Christmas is the one we mourn on Good Friday, welcome on Easter, and worship at Ascension. This Jesus is savior and lord of all creatures and things, great and small and all between.

During the Christmas season, let us welcome the birth of this child with mirth and merriment! For in his life, grace and glory abound more than all the stars in the sky! At the same time, let us anticipate with sharp pangs in our hearts the death this child will face, for his birth means a cross. Thus, let us both weep and rejoice at his birth then his death, for they create life beyond all imagining for us. The babe crying in Bethlehem is the Lamb ruling from the throne of God. He is our beginning, our ending, and our beginning again, now and ever. To him we give our praise, our love, our life.

- Gregory Strong



Thursday, December 28, 2006

Isaiah 29:13-24; Psalm 80; Revelation 21:22-22:5; Luke 1:39-56

The readings for today really come down to what God expects of us. In Isaiah 29:13-24, the people say they honor God, but their actions really don’t bear witness to their words. The Lord says he will show them many wonders so they will acknowledge the holy one of Israel and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. Yet in Psalm 80, the people ask why the Lord their God has deserted them and left them in the wilderness. The fact is the Lord sent them into the wilderness to grow in their faith. However, they look at it as punishment, and they promise that, if he will restore them, they “will call upon [his] name”. That sounds a little like trying to cut a deal, doesn’t it? Is that what God wants us to do, make deals with him?

In Luke 1:39-56, in the Song of Mary, the Lord is mindful of the humble state of his servant. His mercy extends to those who fear him, meaning those who acknowledge and honor him. He scatters those who are proud in their inner most thoughts, meaning those who honor themselves more than him. Finally, in Revelation 21:22- 22:5, John describes the new Jerusalem that will come down from heaven when the Lord returns to claim his own. It is notable what John said he did not see in his vision of the second coming – he saw no temples. Wouldn’t you think there would be places for the people to worship the Lord? John said the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temples of the new Jerusalem. That, to me, tells us we should worship God and our Lord Christ instead of the physical – whether structures such as buildings or the organizations that tell us how to worship. We must not be distracted from our ultimate goal.

John instructs us that the impure will never enter the new Jerusalem. If we heed all the Lord has told us and lead the lives he has brought us to, then in effect we will be pure and will ourselves become temples to the Lord. We will shine as examples for others. When all is said and done, isn’t that what being a Christian is all about?

- Darrell Breed



Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Isaiah 28:9-22; Psalm 72; Revelation 21:9-21; Luke 1:26-38

I believe that, if Mary had lived in Isaiah’s time, Isaiah would have pointed to her and said to his countrymen, “Why can’t you be like Mary?”

Isaiah, in his book, admonished the Judeans for banking so much on being God’s chosen people. He warned them that God is going to allow their enemies to destroy them since they were not living according to God’s laws. Then, God will rebuild Israel when the Messiah comes.

In these verses, Isaiah particularly rebuked the Judeans. He basically said that God should speak to them as babies since they would not listen to or hear what God had been telling them all along. He warned that God will come suddenly with anger to destroy his own people – that they had broken the bargain they made with God and were no longer protected. They had taken their favored status with God for granted.

Mary was also told that she was favored by God. Much has been written about the risk Mary took by being the virgin mother of Jesus. However, she approached her destiny much differently than the Judeans did. Mary did not go on a drinking binge, nor did she set up false gods to worship. She did not take her confusion and fear out on anyone else. She did not boast of her status. In fact, Mary did just the opposite.

Her reaction was not out of fear, although she was afraid for herself and her unborn child. Mary conducted her life between the time of the angel’s visit and the birth of Christ (and even for the rest of her life for that matter) out of faith – faith that God would protect her and would provide for her. She lived in grace and humility, unlike the Judeans.

So, in comparison, we see an entire nation, favored by God, who were at the top of their game (so to speak) and were still completely ruined for not following God’s chosen path. Then we have Mary who was never at the top, who had every reason to be outcast and even killed by her people, who lived the life of a truly favored person.

You and I are favored by God. Everyone is favored if they want to be. Which kind of life will you live? How will you respond to God’s offer?

- Vicki Nelson



Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Isaiah 11:10-16; Psalms 66, 67; Revelation 20:11-21:8; Luke 1:5-25

Make a joyful noise unto God, all the earth:
Sing forth the glory of his name: Make his praise glorious. (Psalm 66:1-2.)

And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne; and books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of the things which were written in the books, according to their works. (Revelation 20:12.)

When I first read Psalm 66:1, it seemed to me that making a “joyful noise” was an oxymoron. I consider myself more like the Grinch than Santa Claus because I sometimes hate all the “Noise! Noise! Noise!” that the holidays bring. Opportunities for peace and quiet are very rare during the Christmas season in a household filled with three kids, dozens of relatives, and an endless supply of telemarketers (who routinely forget to check their “do not call” lists). It is hard for me to imagine God wanting any more noise radiating from Planet Earth.

In the signal processing field, filtering out noise is essential before any joyful understanding can ever be realized. Sophisticated software algorithms and digital circuits specifically deal with eliminating noise so that a signal can be detected and successfully processed. Associating joy with noise seems counterintuitive from this perspective.

However, my understanding of Psalm 66 improved when I read Revelation 20 where it explained how we would be judged according to our works. It is more logical for me to equate our works with noise, since it is hard to imagine there is anything we could ever do (i.e., any noise we could make) with our short lifespan here on earth that would ever make any sort of significant difference affecting the universe. Yet it is all the many good things (however small) that collectively create a positive force that lasts and ultimately fulfills God’s will. I believe we are truly blessed that Saint Matthew’s offers us so many opportunities to experience first-hand the spiritual depth and meaning that are possible in our everyday lives which might otherwise be lost in the (not so joyful) noise of a busy secular society.

Christmas lists usually describe the things we want. And New Year’s resolutions usually describe the things we want to do. Perhaps by combining these two concepts we could create a list of joyful noises we are capable of making, and then define a New Year’s list to enumerate all the things God wants us to do. Checking items off of this list might make it so that 2007 doesn’t just rhyme with heaven, but also brings our world a step closer to it.

- PES



Monday, December 25, 2006

Genesis 1:1 – Revelation 22:21

Make plans to participate in Saint Matthew’s third annual Bible Reading Marathon where we will read the entire Bible aloud from cover to cover. We will begin with the first chapter of Genesis tomorrow morning, Tuesday, December 26, at 8:00 a.m. at the church. We will continue until we have finished the last chapter of Revelation – probably mid-morning on Friday, December 29.

Last year we broadcast the entire reading of the Bible over the internet – live! We plan to do the same this year. For the link to the live broadcast of the Bible Reading Marathon, check the church’s home page: www.stmatthewssterling.org.

Come, be a part of reading aloud the Word of God. Those who have participated in the past have agreed that this was an incredibly significant part of their Christmas celebration. Here’s what a few of them had to say.

I was very rewarded by it.

It prompted me to start reading the Bible again.

The word of God was very powerful when read aloud.

I only wished I had signed up for more time.

This event was one of the most beautiful and powerful experiences I’ve had for a long time.

My first reading was for 15 minutes, which went so fast I was disappointed when the next reader showed.

After returning home from reading, I picked up my own Bible and continued on, something I normally wouldn’t necessarily do.

We still talked to friends, co-workers, and family about what a moving experience this was (one week later).

Everyone is welcome to participate, including children, so families can sign up together. Plan also on coming to hear the Word of God being read aloud. We have just celebrated the coming of the Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ; let us also celebrate hearing the Word of God as given us in the Bible.

For more information, contact Mark Vereb at 703-450-6050.

Zechariah 2:10-13; Psalms 2, 85; 1 John 4:7-16; John 3:31-36

Today’s reading from Zechariah speaks of God coming to dwell with his people sometime in the future. The reading from 1 John speaks of God having dwelt with his people in the past. Both point to the same thing: God becoming human in the birth of Jesus Christ, and through him having “moved into the neighborhood” as The Message puts it.

The reading from 1 John also makes it clear what God did through Jesus when he got here: he loved us. And because God has taken the initiative to love us so deeply and at such great cost, so too we ought to take the initiative to love each other.

I am not sure when Christianity began to emphasize believing the right thing over doing the right thing, but the real test of the depth of our connection to God is not whether we can quote chapter or verse of the Bible, but how deeply we love one another. And a great way to grow in our love for one another is to remember this Christmas Day how much God loved us in sending us his son. Going back to the idea of God “moving into the neighborhood” in Jesus’ birth, we see that God loves his people by being intimately involved with them.

So here is the question. How deeply are we involved in the lives of those we love? Do we know their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations? Do we know their hurts, their fears, their heartaches, their sorrows? Do we know the gifts that will genuinely bring their hearts joy and delight? Do we know what is capturing their interest, where they are feeling good about themselves, and where they are struggling?

If the answer to all the above is “Yes!,” God bless you and keep on doing what you are doing. You are putting your faith into practice. But, if you are like me and might not be able to answer all the above questions as well as you’d like … well, why not spend a little extra time this Christmas with your spouse, your child, your parent, your friend, your neighbor. “Move into the neighborhood” and enter into their lives in a deeper way than you have before. That is the only way to love others like Christ loved (and loves!) us, and live out the true Spirit of Christmas.

- Father Rob Merola



Sunday, December 24, 2006

Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalms 45, 46; Revelation 22:12-21; Luke 1:67-80

“There is a river whose streams
Make glad the city of God…”

Go north, go east from Loudoun, past the woods,
Estates and fairways, down the ramp
Devoid of boats, quiet the winter long,
And dip your fingers in the frigid flow,
Enough to link to what the ancients knew.
This was Patawomeke, the great meeting place,
The river of geese and swans,
The Algonkian’s inland highway
Our Potomac.

“The desert and the parched land will be glad.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
And streams in the desert.
The burning sand will be a pool:
The thirsty ground, bubbling springs.”

From the western slope of the great divide
Into a land of red rock and cobalt sky
Another river flows, gathers silt,
Cuts a deep canyon through high plateau.
A rafter holds on tight for a coaster ride.
Once I pitched headlong, full immersion
In a rapid, swimming back from depths
To feel the sun again, breathless, grateful.

“Whoever is thirsty, let him come;
And whoever wishes, let him take the free gift
Of the water of life.”

The river waits, though the river doesn’t wait
For me. The river is on its own time.
The river is not the same river that it was
Nor what it will be, yet the same river,
Moving but immoveable.
God too is on his own time.
The river is the servant of God.
The Servant was here, is here,
and will be here. If we wait.
He too has an appointment with the river.
He will come to us on river time.

- Matt Brown



Saturday, December 23, 2006

Isaiah 10:20-27; Psalm 55; Jude 17-25; Luke 3:19

Christmas is just a couple of days away, and we will joyfully celebrate the birth of Jesus, the culmination of the first Advent. As we prepare with great anticipation for the second coming of Christ and “...for the mercy of our Lord... to bring [us] to eternal life...” (Jude 21), we are urged to “Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them….” (Jude 22-23.)

Now that’s a tall order! Something perhaps best left in the hands of professionals? But we don’t have to be professional rescuers to save others. Sometimes ordinary people rise to the occasion. A while back, I read about a small plane that crashed in a subdivision’s retention pond in Indianapolis. Residents immediately dove in, pulled three passengers from the wreckage, and dragged them to shore.

I sometimes wonder if I’d have the courage to rescue people in distress. I know I couldn’t jump into a river or lake. I’m not a particularly good swimmer, and I’d drown for sure! But would I have the presence of mind to look for some other way to reach out to them, to save them?

Of course Jude writes about a more important saving – the saving of souls. Though not always obvious, many people around us are distressed, desperate, hopeless, or anxious. Some have severed their connection to God. Others refuse it. Many are at risk of losing their grip and falling – plunging into the dark, raging inferno of eternity without God. So how do we “snatch [them] from the fire,” rescue them, save them? For Jude, the answer is simple – you, prayer, and God.

“But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God’s love....” (Jude 20-21.) Jude effectively says: You! Focus on your walk with Jesus. Before we can help others, we must be strong in our spiritual lives. Then, with our hearts and souls firmly anchored in Christ, we will have the courage and ability to toss a lifeline to anyone and everyone around us: friends, family, even strangers half a world away!

Heavenly Father, may our Christmas gift to others be the extension of lifelines – encouraging words, helping hands, acts of kindness, prayer, ministry, and outreach – that will anchor them to Christ and lead them to life everlasting with you. Through prayer, fellowship, and grace, may we strengthen our own lifelines, and may we hold on tightly, always! Amen.

- Martha Olson



Friday, December 22, 2006

Isaiah 10:5-19; Psalms 40, 54; 2 Peter 2:17-22; Matthew 11:2-15

The “real” enemy. With evidence of so much violence in the world, it is comforting to know that God can be trusted to deliver us from our enemies. “Blessed is the man who makes the Lord his trust.” (Psalm 40:4, New International Version.) Trust is “the assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something” (Webster’s).

The news media provides us daily with the accounts of people escaping from the Middle East by any means and at any cost. The enemy threatens their lives with bombs and other weapons of destruction. This is a very real threat. But I would say there is another war – a battle that rages within us, between good and evil. As Christians, it is comforting to know that there is no threat that Jesus Christ cannot protect us from. In a world full of tragedy and uncertainty, the true tragedy would be to die without accepting him as your Lord and Savior. Faith in Jesus Christ gives us a certainty and assurance that the unbelieving world does not have.

There are no easy solutions to the world’s problems. Many of us seek easy solutions to immediate problems, sometimes taking shortcuts and justifying them because of the circumstances. The end is said to justify the means. As Christians, we must avoid this path by following the teachings of Jesus Christ. Obedience to God offers us a different perspective on life and even death. We realize that the real enemy is sin and that the battle is ongoing, and we have the assurance of knowing that the victory has already been won.

Keeping our minds focused on God and praising him for his many blessings provides us with our “real defense” against the “real enemy.” As the psalmist said, “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. Things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.” (Psalm 40:5, New International Version.) May the Lord continue to deliver us from our “real enemy” – sin – and may we always love, honor, obey, and worship him as God. Amen.

- Sandra Gentry



Thursday, December 21, 2006

Isaiah 9:18-10:4; Psalm 50; 2 Peter 2:10b-16; Matthew 3:1-12

Much of today’s readings speak to our behavior. We can say all we want, but it will be our actions that carry us through at the end of the day.

It’s inspiring to read about John the Baptist. We know he was born loving the Lord Jesus. His spirit was enlightened when he was still in his mother’s womb! But he didn’t rest on his laurels, so to speak, of just believing. He didn’t rest when he determinedly prepared everyone he was to meet for the way of the Lord. He lived his life completely and utterly for one purpose.

Can you imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to wear clothes made of camel hair, with a belt to cinch his robe, in the heat of the Middle East? I’m itching just thinking about it. And surely food of locust and wild honey was not the tastiest meal that could be found or scrounged. John’s life, even for that time, was considered radical; so much so that people probably avoided him. Would I be so willing to be avoided? Would you? But John’s thirst for revealing the truth was unquenchable. His preaching didn’t stop at the repentance of sins; he advocated a constant “and then some” attitude. Eternally committed, John used his life as an example. He showed us that complete devotion to a life with Christ at its center is possible. This requires a deep love and dedication where penance and words alone won’t cut it. As difficult as it can and will be at times, we can’t just call ourselves Christians. We have to demonstrate our lives as Christians.

I don’t remember where a dear friend said he heard or read this, but it’s so true: “Always preach the Gospel, sometimes use words.” I love that! I pray you find these readings, John the Baptist’s story, and this little saying truly inspirational.

- Lisa Lintelman



Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Isaiah 9:8-17; Psalm 119:49-72; 2 Peter 2:1-10a; Mark 1:1-8

I’ve chosen to write about two of today’s readings: Psalm 119:49-72, and Mark 1:1-8. As I read them, they both talk about hope in God, and I think that’s particularly meaningful during Advent.

The writer of Psalm 119 starts out mentioning the hope God has given him. He also writes that hope is his comfort and God’s promises are his life. He is able to hope and trust in God because God has fulfilled the promises he has made. As the writer puts it, God has “dealt well” with him in the past. We can also find comfort and hope in God’s words and promises.

In the first verse of Mark, we read of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In these verses, Mark writes about John the baptizer appearing in the wilderness. John tells the people that someone more powerful than he is coming and that he is not worthy to untie his sandals. God’s promise of a messiah, a savior is foretold in the Old Testament and by John. Someone is coming who will give the world hope.

In this world, we often encounter people and events that we can’t trust; they aren’t reliable. These experiences can make it difficult to trust that God is in control. Hope may seem difficult to find. But our God is a God of integrity and righteousness. His promise is one of life and hope. And he always keeps his promises.

During this season of Advent, we focus on God’s promise, the promise that gives us life. Unlike John or the writer of the psalm, we know the rest of the story. So, we wait to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s promise for a savior. As it always has been and will be, God keeps his promises and fills us with hope.

- Sue Reier



Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Isaiah 9:1-7; Psalms 47, 48; 2 Peter 1:12-21; Luke 22:54-69

Production timing for this Advent and Christmas devotional booklet begins many months in advance of Advent. I first read through the readings early in July, at the time when the space shuttle successfully circled the earth, and Israel was just beginning to attack Hezbullah in Lebanon. The view of earth from space and shells exploding in a densely populated city provide sharply contrasting images. In Psalm 47, verses 2 and 3, we read, “How awesome is the Lord Most High, the great King over all the earth! He subdued nations under our feet.” These lines seemed to echo the images of our day. I felt great sadness that we are still killing each other over religious, political, and social differences. One of the astronauts aboard the shuttle commented, as many have done before him, on how small our earth home looks compared to the vastness of space, and he wished we could share our only home in peace.

I moved on to Isaiah 9 and found, “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress … Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.” These words are not quite as familiar as those that immediately follow: “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

I pray that as the weeks pass from this writing and we approach the day when we will celebrate the birth of this child, this Prince of Peace, we will do all in our power to relieve the gloom and bring about peace. Not just peace in the Middle East, but peace in our own neighborhoods as well.

- Merry Breed



Monday, December 18, 2006

Isaiah 8:16-9:1; Psalms 41, 52; 2 Peter 1:1-11; Luke 22:39-53

As I’m standing on the beach, watching wave after wave come crashing ashore, I think about how vast the world is. How small our troubles may seem, but what burdens we carry. What is it like to hold on to hope? When we struggle with life’s challenges, there is hope: hope of salvation, hope of Jesus’ coming, hope of heaven. We put our hope in God because he is strong enough to sustain us. Hope gives our life meaning. Hope helps us see the bigger picture.

In Luke, the Lord understands the suffering he must endure, the sacrifice he must make to open the gates of heaven. During the Lord’s struggles, he prayed. He asked his disciples to pray. Do we turn from God in grief, striking him down? Or do we turn to him in our hour of need and know that to suffer is human, but the hope of something greater is to come? As we read about Jesus’ own suffering, we know he walks along side us in our hour of need. God cares for individual people, including you and me. That is why Jesus suffered on the cross.

From the lament of Psalms 41 and 52, when we experience pain that won’t abate, how do we deal with our distress? Because we are Christians, we can hold on to hope. We can offer prayer to the Lord. There is a purpose to our life, to the gifts and talents we have been given. We are loved, and we are called to be God’s people. Goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, kindness, and love endure.

When the waves crash over you, when your breath is taken away because of distress, hold on to hope. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. He is our hope.

- Jodie Leach



Sunday, December 17, 2006

Isaiah 13:6-13; Psalms 63, 98; Hebrews 12:18-29; John 3:22-30

I love the expectations of things to come. In some ways the thrill of knowing something good is about to happen is better than the event itself. Have you ever experienced this? I had such an experience as a young teenager. Christmas was always a major event in our family. I am one of five children, so my parents were really challenged to fill all those stockings. They allocated a certain amount of money to each of us. I loved Christmas, and I still do. I love anticipating the wonderful event, though I now look at it very differently. As a teenager I had assembled my own stereo system back when the technology was very new. I wanted to get a set of early stereo LPs that were quite expensive. In October I asked if I could have the LPs for Christmas. My parents said I could, but it would be my only present. I ordered it, and it came early in November. As excited as I was to play these LPs, I put them away and did not even open the package until Christmas morning. I think it was my best Christmas ever. I still have the LPs some forty years later, but I also have the vivid memory of how excited I was. It wasn’t just the LPs; it was knowing they were there. Their value increased every day I waited for them.

Today’s readings all deal with expectations of the Lord’s coming but in very different ways. The Old Testament gives us Isaiah’s proclamation against Babylon and its pending destruction on the Lord’s Day. This is a very different form of expectation than mine. The Lord’s Day will bring torment and anguish from the Lord’s anger. While it describes the people’s terror, let us consider God’s suffering to see his people as they are and not as they should be.

The two psalms also deal with expectations in very different ways. In Psalm 63, David seeks God in the wilderness. His expectation is based on hope and the knowledge that God will deliver the relief he seeks. Psalm 98 is a hymn of joy and a great victory song. For musicians like me, this expresses the joy in using God’s given gift of music to worship and thank him.

In John’s gospel, we have the story of John the Baptist anticipating the coming of the messiah and preparing the way for the coming of the Lord. Can you somehow feel the joy and excitement that John must have felt knowing that the savior of the world was actually coming and that God had chosen John to prepare the way? Wow, it makes my LPs seem pretty insignificant.

May God bless you with excitement this Advent as you wait for the greatest gift of all – the baby Jesus. Amen.

- John Dickie



Saturday, December 16, 2006

Isaiah 8:1-15; Psalms 30, 32; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18; Luke 22:31-38

I am a guilt-ridden girl! As you know, there is healthy guilt, the kind that gets me to the gym most mornings. Then, there’s the unhealthy guilt that questions whether I shouldn’t have used that hour or so to spend quality time with my “kids” (my dog and my cat) instead. (Currently, I’m experiencing a huge amount of guilt over the fact that this article is going to be a day late!)

I don’t know where all of this guilt comes from, or how I’ve come to nurture it so. After describing a situation to a friend recently, during which I expressed how awful I felt for missing a certain lady’s funeral service (I didn’t even know she had passed away), my friend said, “Girl, you need to let go of some of that guilt!” True.

Notice, though, that neither of the situations I described involved any real “sin” on my part (and yes, I do sin, more frequently than I care to admit!). The beauty of God’s grace, as described by David in Psalm 32, is that by confessing our sins to God we are freed from the burden of guilt that often accompanies sin. I know, I know, this is nothing new.

But it was new to me once, just as it was to David, and what a difference it made in my life! Prior to knowing and understanding God’s grace, not only did I have the guilt of the gym, the “kids,” the unanswered e-mails, the missed birthdays, the visits I should’ve made (I could go on and on), I also had the overwhelming guilt of my sins! Now that I can confess my sins to God, and be relieved of that burden of guilt, I am free to move away from those sins rather than continue to dwell on them. Talk about letting go of some guilt!

- Jennifer Hartig



Friday, December 15, 2006

Isaiah 7:10-25; Psalm 31; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5; Luke 22:14-30

Having never written a devotional before, I set out thinking it shouldn’t be too bad. This is Advent, who doesn’t know the Christmas story? Then I received my readings, only to discover that Mary and Joseph weren’t even mentioned in my passages!

My initial shock having worn off, I considered the readings of today and how they fit into this season of Advent. According to the Webster’s dictionary, Advent is the arrival, especially of something momentous; the coming or birth of Christ.

The birth of Christ is indeed momentous. It’s a reminder of miracles, wonder, and love. But it’s the second part of Webster’s definition – the coming of Christ – that I wish to address. It pertains most to today’s readings, in particular 2 Thessalonians 2:13-3:5.

Paul has written a second letter of encouragement to the new believers in Thessalonica. Much like our society today, the Thessalonians were surrounded with pressures to conform to be part of a world that more often than not asks us to go against the very teachings of Christ.

In his letter, Paul reminds them, and ultimately us, of our eternal reward with God. He commands us to stand firm and hold to the teachings passed on to us. That can be difficult to do when our lives are so filled with busy-ness, especially as Christmas approaches.

How do we stand firm? We begin by remembering who we are – children of God. Like children, we learn through our understanding of the world around us: things we’ve seen, experienced, and read. We also learn from people who love and care for us, whose advice we may seek and whose lives influence us.

When we read the Bible, our understanding of the world and our place in it begins to take shape. Through the teachings passed down from generation to generation, God becomes known to us in a personal way. It’s his advice we seek through prayer, and it’s through prayer that a personal relationship grows. Our lives transform as we experience the unconditional love God has for us.

It’s in the very season of Advent that we see first hand that love in the gift of a child, a Savior. The very same Savior who lived among us, died for us, and who will one day come again.

“May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.” (2 Thessalonians 3:5.)

- Debbie Vereb



Thursday, December 14, 2006

Isaiah 7:1-9; Psalm 37:1-18; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; Luke 22:1-13

As a new parent, I feel I am surrounded by a myriad of potentially life-altering decisions almost every day. When my son was two months old, I was faced with the decision about whether or not to vaccinate on the strict American Academy of Pediatrics schedule. This schedule, by the way, has small babies receiving as many as twenty shots during their first year of life. Quite frankly the schedule terrified me. The thought of injecting so many chemicals into my small child hung over me like a bad omen that I couldn’t shake. In addition, there has been so much attention in the media about the possibility of links between vaccinations and other harmful diseases. Whom can I trust? It seemed as if the government publications and pediatricians are on the payroll of the pharmaceutical companies. I felt that I didn’t know what to do and didn’t know where to turn for an unbiased opinion.

I found myself fretting over the decision. Worrying day and night about what was the right thing to do. Do I vaccinate and protect my baby from a handful of diseases, many of which are almost extinct? Do I not vaccinate and forever worry about his coming into contact with a potentially deadly disease? My husband, my mother, my best friend, and pretty much anyone who would listen can all attest to the range of emotions that I struggled with. What I finally did was pray.

I put my trust in the Lord and prayed that he would protect my son and enable him to “dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.” Since those early prayers I feel that God led me to the decision to vaccinate on a delayed schedule. Our son has received all his vaccinations, but he receives one per month, instead of four at a time every few months. Our pediatrician was not thrilled about the additional office visits and paperwork, but I persevered because I knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do.

Now I sleep much better at night knowing that my son is protected and that we are all enjoying great peace. Amen.

- Miriam Turner



Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Isaiah 6:1-13; Psalm 38; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12; John 7:53-8:11

All of today’s readings reveal people’s reaction to a sincere encounter with God.

In Isaiah 6:1-13 we read of Isaiah’s vision in which he saw the Lord and recognized his own uncleanness. Isaiah is purified by the righteousness of God and given a mission. Psalm 38 describes David’s overwhelming guilt – a burden too heavy for him to bear. Yet he still finds hope for deliverance. The familiar story of the Pharisees bringing a woman caught in adultery to Jesus is the reading from John 7:53-8:11. The woman expected condemnation and perhaps death but instead found respect and received a purpose. “[G]o and leave your life of sin.” The final selection is Paul’s second letter to the church of Thessalonica. The church was experiencing persecution. Paul sent them inspired words of God – words of hope and encouragement to endure.

Sometimes when I read the Bible, I forget that the individuals described there were people just like me. As I read the passages for today, I tried to put myself in their place. I was able to identify with Isaiah and recognize my uncleanness. I can relate to David since I have found myself overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. There have been times when I have been caught in sin and expected retribution and punishment like the woman caught in adultery. There have also been times where I have felt persecuted for my beliefs and, like the Thessalonians, have fallen into despair. Perhaps you can relate to the people and their situations in these stories as well.

However, Advent is the time when we celebrate God’s ultimate encounter with man. Think about the people in these stories and how their attitudes, behaviors, and very lives were changed by their encounters. Don’t let the festivities of the season cause you to miss a meeting with God where you, too, can find a mission, a reason for hope, respect, a purpose, and encouragement.

- Alan Davenport



Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Isaiah 5:13-17, 24-25; Psalms 26, 28; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28; Luke 21:29-38

By the time you read this the Advent season will be well upon us. Everyone will be busy decorating homes and preparing for Christmas Day and all it stands for. For me, here today, writing this in summer, the week of the terrorist plot in the United Kingdom, I experience a sense of fear and dread that all the events around the world evoke in me. Israel and Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are all places with such anger and hostility.

In reading the passage today in Isaiah 5 on woes and judgments, one can only feel sad for all the suffering around the world and sorry for those who carry hate in their hearts. How can this be in a world that allows us to have so much, that we can hate, attack, and be so mean to each other? It reads in Luke 21:34, “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.”

We are to be aware of these evils and the stresses of life, those as described above and the silly ones like the frustration of finding a parking space around the shops in Loudoun at Christmas time. We must instead stay calm, lead a blameless life, and stay alert, for he is everywhere watching over us. In turn we must listen and wait; we must keep our faith in our hearts. God is love, and love provides the strength for us to stay on the right path.

- Ann Lowden



Monday, December 11, 2006

Isaiah 5:8-12, 18-23; Psalm 25; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Luke 21:20-28

We are full throttle in the run-up to Christmas, this season full of sentiment. But have you noticed that Advent involves some pretty edgy themes?

Today’s readings offer quite a mix. One common thread is the recognition that all of human life is revealed before a holy God. The prophet Isaiah points out the folly of presuming God does not see injustice and deception for what they are and does not act accordingly. The psalmist calls to God for guidance in truth; he seeks a reliable source of wisdom and trusts in God’s willingness to answer. The epistle warns against complacency and illusions of security. It draws an uncomfortable distinction between those who live for Jesus intentionally and those whose lives are undisciplined. Finally, the gospel describes disasters preceding the arrival of the Son of Man (a name for Jesus) in power and great glory. This last presents a paradox. Just when things seem at their worst, God’s people are called to “stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

What are we to make of all this? Should we be secure or afraid? Is God loving or fierce? Does God’s presence provide comfort among us or is it a judgment on us? Perhaps it is all of the above. I am reminded of the children in The Chronicles of Narnia. Although Aslan was their dearest friend, they had to remember that “he’s not a tame lion. . . . He’s not safe, but he is good.”

I’ve been blessed to know Jesus in some wonderful ways over many years. Because of that, I am often tempted to forget that God is too wild to conform to my needs or expectations. God’s love in sending Jesus to us is not a sentimental love. Just consider the bloody horror of the cross. God’s love is costly and demanding, while simultaneously being extravagant and forgiving. God wants more than our good; he is after what is best. So even if it is not “safe,” I cannot help joining my cry with the psalmist: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” May it be so.

- Karen Strong



Sunday, December 10, 2006

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalms 148, 149, 150; 2 Peter 3:11-18; Luke 7:28-35

Talk about a daunting task! The four readings for today couldn’t be more different. Isaiah 5:1-7 relates a story of a vineyard that is well established and cared for that bears no fruit. It refers to the children of God who are given everything by him but do nothing in evidence of God’s love. Psalms 148, 149, and 150 call on us to sing praises to God for what he has done for us. 2 Peter 3:11-18 was written to the followers of Christ to stimulate church growth, combat false teaching, and encourage watchfulness in preparation for the Lord’s triumphant return. Luke 7:28-35 talks about the differences in the baptisms of John and Jesus and how they both carry their own wisdom.

As different as these readings seem, one from the other, I think there is a thread that runs through all of them – the thread of knowledge. Using the vineyard as an example, being well tended makes us strong, yet we need to know how to use that strength for the good of others. How can we sing praises unless we know the many wondrous things that deserve our praise? Peter admonishes us to live holy and godly lives so that at the coming of the new world we will be found “spotless, blameless, and at peace with the Lord.” In order to live our lives in this fashion we need to know what is right and wrong. He also warns us against being misled by false teachers. Finally, Luke relates the rejection of John and Jesus by the Pharisees because, though each was baptized, they were different in some ways. Luke refutes this and makes the point that both John and Jesus were godly despite their differences, a fact recognized by spiritually wise people.

Knowledge is the key to a strong Christian life – knowledge of what God has given us, what the Lord expects of us, and what we should do to prepare ourselves for that day when we will all be judged. How do we find that knowledge? By attending church to hear and receive the word of God, by increasing our knowledge through reading and studying the Bible, by teaching our children to know and love the Lord, and by building each other up so that in times of trouble we are not tempted to let go of the teachings that are the cornerstone of our faith.

- Darrell Breed



Saturday, December 09, 2006

Isaiah 4:2-6; Psalms 20, 21; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Luke 21:5-19

The readings in Luke and 1 Thessalonians are spooky to me. Both of these passages speak to the second coming. The passage in Luke is especially nerve wracking to me because they are the words of Jesus. He says that it will be sister against sister, brother against brother. If this happens during my lifetime, how will I endure such trials?

Jesus follows this, though, with such words of comfort. In The Word, it says that every detail of your body and head will be in his care. It goes on to say that there will be one big family reunion with God. What imagery!

So, how do we prepare ourselves for this? The Aztecs believed that the end of the world would occur on December 23, 2012, at 4:12 p.m. Evidently, their crystal ball has not been wrong yet. That is certainly a lot sooner than I thought. I’m not sure I’ll be ready.

There are many books written about the second coming of Christ and what we need to do to prepare. But I wonder, do we really need to do anything? If we are living the life that Christ means for us to live, what else is there to do to get ready? And if we are not living the life that Christ means for us to live, than the second coming really makes no difference.

This means that your decision today is the same as your decision on the most fateful of days. Will you live the life that Christ means for you to live? Will you give yourself entirely to his will? That is a difficult thing to do. Even though we may have the best of intentions, the discernment process is not always that clear.

So what we are left with is faith. You will not see a big, black arrow indicating “This way to the rapture.” At the same time, one cannot just sit by and watch time pass. We must take control over our spiritual well-being. Attend church, attend Bible-study classes, get involved with helping the world. Then, when we are called up to be with our Father in heaven, we will know that it is time and that we can meet the tests before us with God’s grace.

- Vicki Nelson



Friday, December 08, 2006

Isaiah 3:8-15; Psalms 16, 17; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12; Luke 20:41-21:4

Long ago I heard Scripture described as a love letter from God to us. We see his love on every page. Sometimes it’s good to read Scripture as a call to action. The story in Luke 21:1-4 in today’s Gospel is a call to action for sure; it’s the story of a poor widow who gave sacrificially. Jesus noticed her contributing her small offering at the temple. Her faithfulness amazes me. I’m sure she was tempted to keep those coins for clothing, blankets, or food. Widows in that time didn’t have a lot of status, and she was poor. Did she trust God’s love and faithfulness that much? I pray to be able to give like her.

At other times, what God gives us from his word is the simple message that, no matter what, God loves us and will care for us. I think that widow knew that. Once in Florida I saw a gopher tortoise rehabilitation hospital. It was at a marine science center. After visiting some grand sea turtles with their patched shells, we were shown the gopher tortoises (burrowing land tortoises), each with their patched shell, now safe and healthy. My heart went out to those slow creatures and the humans who cared to help them.

Psalm 17:7 says, “Show the wonder of your great love.” David here reminds his readers of what Jews knew to be true: God promised to love us. Moses recalls to the people of Israel God’s covenant to love in Deuteronomy, chapter 7, and he reminds them that God loved them first. Advent is a reminder that God cared to love us and that he loved us first. He reached down and made a covenant to love the people of Israel, and he sent Jesus for all of us, so we’d be safe.

- Linda Merola



Thursday, December 07, 2006

Isaiah 2:12-22; Psalm 18:1-20; 1 Thessalonians 3:1-13; Luke 20:27-40

What drives you? My freshman year of college was a whirlwind of indecision. I fluttered between about seven different majors. There was Psychology, Biology, Philosophy, Russian History, Religion, Teaching, and Computer Science. In the end I decided that I would love all of those options, but settled on Computer Science.

I didn’t settle on Computer Science because I liked computers, not even because I thought it would be an easy major. I chose it because it would be the one degree where I could make a lot of money. I fully intended to work in the computer industry for a few years until I had enough money to leave and pursue what I really wanted to do.

What ended up happening is completely different. I started living the lifestyle of the industry. I was the computer geek and “gadget boy” as my mother-in-law calls me. I always wanted the latest and greatest toy. While I’m not rich, I certainly bought into the lifestyle that having just a little more money would make my life work out.

Before I knew it I needed not only to be accepted, but to be the best at what I did. I would turn to the Internet or books for advice, but I would rarely turn to my co-workers or other people. I was focused and driven toward being right and being accepted by those around me. More than anything I wanted to fit in.

These readings from Isaiah and Psalms bring some real hope for someone like me. “Quit scraping and fawning over mere humans, so full of themselves, so full of hot air! Can’t you see there’s nothing to them?” (Isaiah 2:22, The Message.) I’ve recognized that it’s time to quit trying to fit in with the rest of us humans. It’s time to stop chasing after “all the ships of Tarshish, and upon all pleasant pictures.” (Isaiah 2:16, King James Version.)

After our mission trip to Montana and the following trip to Mississippi, God brought a big change in my outlook on life. My passions have changed, and I’ve let go of my drive to fit in and be accepted by those around me. I’ve stopped seeing my life as one big competition.

You know what I’m asking, what really gets your blood boiling and your heart pounding? As we come to the end of the year where is your passion focused? Is it time to have a conversation with God and find his focus for our lives?

- Tom Leary