December 25: I Corinthians 13

            How appropriate to meditate on this chapter on Christmas Day!  Paul has just finished explaining spiritual gifts to the church at Corinth.  Many of them were enamored with the ecstatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit.  He concludes chapter 12 with a sort of surprising caveat, “and now I will show the most excellent way.”  It is as if to say, “spiritual gifts are great and they have their place, but they pale in comparison to the greatest gift.”  That greatest gift is of course love.  But not love as in a temporal emotion or passing fancy, but the love of God.  The undiluted, undeserved, unimaginable love that comes from God, is personified in Christ, and remains available to us by the indwelling Holy Spirit.  The Christian calendar today is not the end of a season but the beginning of celebrating the incarnate God that is defined best by love; that’s what He is after all.

            And now where there has been rushing, let there be stillness.  Where there has been frustration and hurried anticipation, let there be contentment and calm. Where there have been moments of warm feelings and also sadness over loss, let there be the enduring love which echoes from Heaven throughout our hurting world.  When you don’t know what to give, give love.  It never fails.

            From the heart of a pastor and a fellow sojourner in this often unloving world, Merry Christmas and Love to all!

Justin Dunn

December 24: Romans 8:31-39

As we write this, it is nearing Thanksgiving, and it is a common practice to say what you are thankful for. Family, friends, health, food, housing, and work are frequent themes that children and adults alike name. God commands us to be thankful as we pray, so these are good gifts to thank God for. But they are also potentially temporary. In UBC College Bible study, we have been studying Job, where we see an example of someone who loses all that he has in one day. In the New Testament, Paul loses his freedom and ministry when he is put in prison. In today’s news, wildfires are still raging through California, robbing people of homes and loved ones. If you dwell too long on it, the actual or potential loss that humans suffer can be crushing.

But even in captivity, Paul writes Romans 8:31-39, a joyful celebration of God’s ever-present love. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (v. 35). Paul recognizes that loss of safety and security is a real possibility, but goes on to say, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 37-39). What am amazing promise! There is NOTHING that can take away God’s love in Christ. There’s something to be truly thankful for.

Brent and Amanda Newsom

December 23: Psalm 98:1-9

            I am curious; am I the only one who sets a reminder on their phone for just about everything?  I need to be reminded of daily tasks such as running errands, paying bills, and even calling my grandma on her birthday.  What would we do without technology?  In a deeper sense, God’s people have always struggled with forgetfulness.  The Israelites had just witnessed the incredible miracle of God parting the Red Sea and they walked across on the dry ground where waters had once been rushing.  They were free from Pharaoh and the slavery they had endured in Egypt for hundreds of years.  Then two chapters later they were grumbling against Moses and proclaiming that God had brought them into the wilderness to kill them!  How quickly we forget God’s love and faithfulness!  Thankfully, God is not forgetful.  Psalm 98:3 says “He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.”

            I absolutely love this time of year with its twinkling lights, the smell of spices, and the crisp winter air.  My mind is filled with thoughts of loved ones, the joy of giving to others, and building anticipation of Christmas morning.  Yet the thing I have grown to love most is the manner in which this time of year is set apart to remember our Savior.  Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of every promise God has ever made.  Jesus proved that God had indeed not only remembered Israel, but the world, and demonstrated his unwavering love by sending us his only Son.

            Christmas morning will come and go, decorations will come down, and we will move into the new year.  It can all feel so empty if we don’t take hold of the true reason we celebrate Christmas:  God remembered.  He saw his people hurting, broken, lost and depraved, and He acted.  He sent Jesus, the embodiment of his love, yet so fragile and small.  Jesus, who would take upon His shoulders the weight of every sin to bring his people true freedom.  Let us remember what we are celebrating:  that his love is and will always be unwavering.

Hannah Little

December 22: Colossians 3:12-17

Many of us have an outfit we can readily bring to mind that is permanently tied to a specific memory. Growing up, my great-grandmother bought my siblings and me a Christmas outfit every year, usually in some variation of red plaid. It was never an exciting day for me when we had to put them on and go to Sears to have our pictures made. For most of my life, I associated that annual event with the start of Christmas.

Despite my memories of my own clothes, I can't tell you what my parents wore on any given Christmas. I can, however, tell you that every year. they both worked hard to be givers. They delivered baked goods, did errands, provided help to people in big or little ways. Their holiday finest wasn't a sweater or a dress—it was love.

"Above all, clothe yourself with love." Imagine for a moment if instead of your clothes, people saw your heart when they looked at you. Would you be proud of what they saw? When you speak to people, are you speaking kindness? When you're waiting on someone, are you showing patience, or just pretending? This Christmas season, the best gift we can offer anyone on our list, anyone in our church family or community, is the gift of love. Love that presents itself as kindness, as compassion, as gentleness. Love that practices being patient, even when it's hard. Love that forgives and let's go of the petty problems of the year.

This Christmas, as we go about our busy schedules, let us be conscious "as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved" to wear the love Christ has for us on our sleeves, as a gift to the weary world; let our love be a step towards living in "perfect harmony" amongst each other.

Linsey Mastin

December 21: Psalm 25

            The psalmist wants guidance (vs. 4).  He wants to be forgiven (vs. 7).  He is confessing his sins (vs. 8-9).  He remembers times when God has saved and been faithful (vs. 6).  He is God-fearing (vs. 12-15).  The psalmist prays for others (vs. 22).  He also pleads for protection (vs. 20).  He looks for God to do something right now.

            I feel like the psalmist is in the middle of the process, in the middle of life.  He is sitting smack dab in the “in-between.”  It is very much where most of us are now.  We have a heart for God and we seek him, but we are in the middle.

            At Advent we are reminded that Christ came and is with us.  God comes right to the middle of where we are and shows up when we need a savior.  God hasn’t forgotten in the past and God won’t forget in the future.  God steps in and saves.  We have hope and security in the love of God--no matter what.  He meets us.  What does it mean to be “in the middle” to you?

            Have you ever been RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of a 60-mile bike ride or a one-hour workout when you stop and think “I want to be done; I don’t want to continue.  I can’t go on.”  This happens to me constantly.  I can make the choice to stop or push through and finish what I started.  After the choice to continue and finish the journey, don’t you feel you’ve accomplished something?  Just imagine God feeling so accomplished when you reach out to him for his unconditional love right in the middle of whatever is going on in your life.

            Being in the in-between isn’t always fun, but it isn’t always bad either.  Can you think about other times we are in the middle?  Traffic—a phone call—a meeting—an argument.  All these help us come up with images of being in the middle of things.  God often interrupts our lives right in the middle of what we are doing.  He teaches us, saves us, and leads us.

The Psalmist shows that following Christ will always bring good and true intentions.  He is longing for God’s guidance for the sake of a life that is good and true, past, present, and future.  God’s guidance is always loving and perfect.  We desire to live like Christ in the in-between.

Channing Seikel and Allison Kentle

December 20: Titus 3:4-7

When I look at the picture of my three-month-old grandson on my desk, I am overcome by a feeling of love—unasked, unearned, flowing simply as a gift of the heart.  What could he ever have done to make me question loving him?

            The pictures of granddaughters, at ages five and six, evoke a similar sort of heart-deep love and hope for their happiness, but I’ve spent enough time around them to know that, occasionally, they can try my patience and counter my own will for them.  Still, I want goodness for them, and I’m determined to provide a path for them to find happiness.

            It’s a little harder to feel undiluted love for people I’ve known longer, been in conflict with, been disappointed by.  I want to love them, but it’s not always simple.  We don’t always live by the same rules or want the same rewards.

            In the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus, the author (Paul or someone using Paul’s authority and argument) offers some how-to advice about organizing communities of believers and urging their members to lives of kindness toward each other.  We have known lives of folly, malice, envy, disobedience and hate, he says.  We have tried to have our own ways, but then something happened—not by good deeds, not by acts of righteous living (following the Jewish law), but by God’s gift of undeserved mercy and love.  There has been an advent, a “dawn of kindness,” and out of it we have been offered a rebirth, a renewing of the Holy Spirit.  This is our hope—that we are justified by grace, not by acts of demonstrated faith.  From this example of God’s love, we too may learn to love without qualification or expectation.  For certain?  Yes, the author of the pastoral letters says it twice (my own adaptation): you can take that idea that to the bank!

Doug Watson

December 19: 2 Corinthians 8:8-9

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. (NIV)

“All you need is love, love, love is all you need” – the Beatles

“Beatles said ‘All you need is love’, and then they broke up” – Larry Norman

In the English language, there are many things meant by the word love. Some of these are affection, attraction, admiration, devotion, and enthusiasm. Love is used to sell music and merchandise. According to Wikipedia, there are at least fifteen movies, twenty-one albums, and over thirty songs titled simply “Love”. We tend to seek love, or at least some vague concept of love throughout our lives. It can sometimes be difficult to figure out what we mean by love, as the word has been so widely applied as to render it common and trite.

One sense of love is “benevolent concern for another.”. This seems nice and perhaps a little bland, evoking not much more than mild best wishes. However, consider how God amplifies this concept of love compared to how we generally think of it.  It is far beyond “benevolent concern” to commit oneself to rescue poor, sinful humans from their rebellious state. Knowing the full consequences of entering our world as a human, He comes anyway, spends a lifetime growing and learning, and shows us the most excellent love possible. How will we respond?

Mike Atchley

December 18: Psalm 96

In parallel sections, this psalm issues a summons to praise God, followed by reasons for doing so, calling us to worship and witness. It is among a group of "enthronement psalms" believed to have been used in the temple in Jerusalem in a yearly celebration of the reign of YHWH as king (see Psalms 47, 93, 97, 98, 99).

In the first half of the psalm, the assembled worshipers are commanded to sing songs of praise to God and to declare God's might and majesty among the nations (vv. 1-3). Why? Because of his exalted status and his royal excellencies (w. 4-6).

In the second half of the psalm, the scope broadens considerably. Now, the psalmist bids all peoples to extol God's glory and to bow in worship (w. 7-9). Indeed, the entire creation is to rejoice. Heaven and earth, the sea and its creatures, fields and forests— all are to be glad and sing for joy. Why? Because "YHWH is king" and because "he is coming to judge the earth" (w. 10-13).

This declaration that "YHWH is king" prefigures the central confession of our own faith, that "Jesus is Lord" (Rom. 10.9). Moreover, the joyful announcement of his "coming to judge the earth" likewise anticipates the arrival of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem, as well as the second coming of Christ in power and glory. Although his kingdom has already begun, we are to eagerly await Jesus' return to set things right finally and fully, and to rule over alt in peace and love.

In the meantime we worship and witness. We express our joy by singing "a new song," the song of a Savior who gave himself on our behalf, and we witness to his reconciling love for all peoples.

Charles Swadley

December 17: Hebrews 13:15-17

We are in the third week of Advent and our theme this week is joy. Our three-verse text from the last chapter of the letter to the Hebrews ends on this high note of joy. The unknown author of this letter leads us gradually up to this final high note.

In verse 15 we are instructed to continually praise God. Each of us can surely praise God occasionally and probably even often. God is certainly worthy of our praise. We can praise him for who He is as well as for what He has done, not just for the world in general but for us personally. To praise God continually, however, is very difficult for us to do. Hard, mysterious and difficult things come into the lives of each of us. At such times we seem to come to God with questions more than constant praise. Our goal, however, should still be to praise God all the time.

In verse 16 we are called upon to do sacrificial sharing: "... do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased." It is hard to remember all that we are to do, but we must not forget, especially at Christmas time, to share with others—-especially with those in great need. We are to share even to the point of sacrifice. To share with others is a good thing. Our sharing is not just seasonal but continual.

In verse 17 we are told to follow our leaders who are looking over us. We are to have confidence in them. We are to do this so that their pastoral work will be a joy and not a burden (NIV), or as the RSV translates, "Let them do this joyfully and not sadly." Let us contribute to our leaders' joy and not their sadness! Let us make sure that our spiritual leaders know that their joyful leadership is greatly appreciated, not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

Lynda Pence

December 16: Isaiah 9:2-7

A few years ago I visited Kartchner Caverns in Arizona, a cave system with 2.4 miles of passages open for tours. At one point in the tour, deep in the earth, our guide turned off the lights leaving us in complete darkness. My open eyes were strained and uncomfortable, trying to take in even the slightest image. Then another guide, from across the room, lit a small pen light. It was such a relief to see even the smallest light from a distance.

But the light mentioned in Isaiah is not merely a pen light; it is a GREAT light, giving more hope than ever imagined. And it is not seen from afar; it is seeking us out in the land of deep darkness, penetrating the countless layers of guilt, shame, and despair - shining directly upon us. What rejoicing! We celebrate as we would after a great harvest. But this bounty does not come from our labors. Instead, it is a tremendous gift given from love incarnate - "For a child has been born for us...; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."

Perhaps it's an occupational hazard or simply because it has become ubiquitous in our holiday culture, but I cannot read this passage in Isaiah without hearing portions of George Frideric Handel's Messiah. From the lower strings illustrating the darkness itself in "The people that walked in darkness" to the absolute jubilation in singing the titles given to the coming Messiah.

Wonderful Counselor!

Mighty God!

Everlasting Father!

Prince of Peace!

We need not look far to see the terrible ruin of man. His hatred, greed, and lack of shame. We are living in a land of deep darkness. But upon us a great and everlasting light has shined. And the giver of this light is our Prince of Peace. How great our joy!

Michael Dean

December 15: Jeremiah 31:31-34

When my brothers and I were growing up, and wrapped gifts began appearing under the tree in the days leading up to Christmas, we couldn't keep our hands off the gifts. Our mom would tell us to leave them alone, and we would do the best we could. But they were SO enticing! Mom even reached the point where she wouldn't put our names on the packages to prevent us knowing which gift belonged to whom. When we finally got to open the gifts, our anticipation turned into joy as we removed the outer paper to reveal the gift inside.

As we all know, the true gift of Christmas is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ which resulted in reconciliation for all of humankind with the God of the universe! Jeremiah is writing at a time when the promise of the Messiah is yet to be fulfilled, the gift to be unwrapped. The Hebrews know the Messiah will come, but they don't know exactly how the fulfillment will happen. There's a mystery, an anticipation, and an expectancy of what is to come.

While the presence of God was given to a few individuals in the time before Jesus came, for most Hebrews God's presence was manifested in the physical Temple, not in the hearts of individual believers. Jeremiah and his people had to work harder to follow God through the established rituals and animal sacrifices. However, they knew deep down the rituals and sacrifices weren't enough.

Jeremiah encourages the people when he says, "No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, 'Know the LORD,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more" (v. 34). This fulfillment came with Jesus's birth, death, resurrection, and coming of the Holy Spirit. This New Covenant means we don't have to be reminded to know the Lord. We know him because he lives within us, and he will never leave us. The revealing of Jeremiah's prophetic expectation is the gift and joy we celebrate at Christmas!

Kaylene Barbe

December 14: Phillipians 4:4-7

The third Advent Candle is JOY and the scripture chosen to represent this candle is Philippians 4:4-7. Paul's words in this passage told the Philippians (and ultimately, us) how to have joy. He wrote: "Rejoice in the Lord always." And he evidently thought it was important enough to repeat. I don't know how hard that would have been for the people of Philippi but I know we have trouble with that, don't we? It's very difficult to be joyful always about some things that happen. But. according to Paul. that's the first step to having real, continual joy. Then Paul adds some other characteristics that will enable us to have joy in our lives: gentleness and victory over worry or anxiety. Even if it is difficult, Paul says that in everything, we should ask for God's help by prayer and by giving thanks. And if we can manage that, what will it do for us? We will have joy and as a result of that joy, we will experience the peace of God, a peace so amazing it surpasses all understanding!

Recently I was reading about Advent Candles on an on-line site and saw the following description of "Advent." I decided to include it here.

"During Advent, we prepare for, and anticipate, the coming of Christ. We remember the longing of Jews for a Messiah and our own longing for, and need of, forgiveness, salvation and a new beginning. Even as we look back and celebrate the birth of Jesus in a humble stable in Bethlehem, we also look forward, anticipating the second coming of Christ as the fulfillment of all that was promised by His first coming."

During this Advent season, let's practice being joyful through the means Paul has given us and, hopefully, we will attain that peace he described and we can participate in the anticipation of the return of Christ.

Mary Kay Parrish

December 13: Isaiah 12:2-6

     At the end of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, Wilbur, the pig, is surprised. Out of his desperate sadness at the death of his dearest friend, Charlotte, the spider, Wilbur witnesses the birth of Charlotte’s children from an egg sac he has preserved—hundreds of children—and one of them he names Joy.

     C. S. Lewis’ early autobiography, Surprised by Joy, traces a part of his longing for a satisfaction beyond words; it tells a part of his journey toward faith.  The title is borrowed from a Wordsworth poem in which the poet, deeply saddened by the death of his sister, experiences a moment of release—he forgets his sorrow—and is surprised by joy found in nature.

Late in life, Abraham and Sarah despair to think that, after many years together, they have no child to carry on after their deaths.  But they, too, are in for a surprise, and they name him Isaac, which means “joy.”

     Chapters 1-12 of Isaiah form a unit.  The first eleven chapters mostly reflect on the failures of leadership and despairs of a conquered people who long for success but feel that God has turned his face from them.  Chapter 12 dares a surprise and describes the joy of thanksgiving for God as deliverer, as refuge, as defender.  On that happy day, all will draw water, will give thanks, will sing psalms, will shout aloud for joy that “the Holy One of Israel” has delivered them.

     We long for joy.  But how to arrive there is a puzzle. Few of us would wish for sorrow, for longing, for disappointment, for despair.  But it seems that out of these dark times, and perhaps only from them, may come the surprise of our joy, the knowledge of our deliverance that we celebrate in this advent season.  This joy is reason and opportunity for thanksgiving.

Doug Watson

December 12: Luke 2:8-14: Peace

The appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the field near Bethlehem is one of the most familiar events in the Christmas story. Several Christmas carols highlight this event, and the characters appear in most nativity scenes. Still, to me the story is a little puzzling. I have little first hand, personal experience with shepherds, sheep, or angels!

At first one angel appears to the shepherds, and he acknowledges they are probably frightened by his revelation. Certainly I would be afraid if an angel appeared to me. The angel's good news is the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. He describes Jesus as the Messiah, the Lord, and Savior. Before the shepherds can begin to comprehend this first announcement, a large choir of angels start to sing. The angels praise God and the arrival of peace for "those whom he favors" (NRSV). You probably know the rest of the story: the angels visit Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and then begin to proclaim the good news to everyone they meet.

I wonder how the shepherds understood the peace brought by the Messiah. Perhaps they knew the Messiah would be the "Prince of peace" (Isaiah 9:6). Recent historians describe this first century time period as the "Roman peace," since most of the Roman world was peaceful. The Jews, however, resisted Roman rule. The Jewish Zealots even agitated for a violent revolution to overthrow the hated Romans.

What type of peace do you want in your life today? Paul assured us that the salvation we experience in Christ will give us a peace that surpasses all human comprehension (Philippians 4:7). Most of us experience conflict with other humans at times. We all need to experience Jesus as the source of genuine peace for our world.

Warren McWilliams