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

December 11: 2 Peter 1: 2—7

We are 50 years past the tumultuous year of 1968, a year in America that we saw unrest, demonstrations, assassinations, an escalating war, political turbulence, and a generation pitted against the older establishment.  I remember adults at the time expressing a lot of desire for “peace,” although in my estimation they did little to try to achieve it even in small ways. 

Here, in the year 2018, we think we should be further along the path towards peace.  But, like Peter’s acknowledgment in 2nd Peter Chapter 2, we cannot “escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust.” (Verse 4)   His words ring true today.  Our perpetual and selfish human desires – our lusts – outweigh our desire for peace, regardless of the outcome.  We find ourselves mired in the continual nightmare of greed, lust, and a search for power.  Each time we turn on the news we are reminded that 2018 is no better than 1968, and in fact is no better than when Peter wrote his letter to believers. 

The Advent season is a strong reminder that, even though it is beyond our grasp, we should always search for peace.  We should mend strained relations; we should advocate for a better life for all, and we should treat all persons with respect.  But most importantly, we should “make every effort to support our faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.”  (Verses 5-7)  

It is easy to blame others for not keeping the peace.  As Christians, we should not assign blame, but work to heal the wounds of war, evil, indifference, and hate.  Let the Christ Child, who grew to exemplify Peter’s comprehensive list of the Christian life, enter your heart this season and change the way you think about peace.  It is worth striving for.  It is what Christ would want us to do with our lives.

Jim Vernon

December 10: Isaiah 40:1-5

I’m wired for preparation and planning.  At home there are insurance policies, savings accounts, and long-term plans.  At work, I use buzzwords like risk mitigation, scope creep, and impact to schedule.  These all used to be attempts to try and fool myself into believing I was in control.  I think for me this provided an artificial sense of peace that there was order, security, and a plan.

However, there was a problem.  I was not in control.  Because I came to Christ later in life and had been reliant on myself for so long, this pride in my abilities or reliance on self has been one of the single greatest things to give to Christ.  So for many years before Christ, as the prophet says in Isaiah 40 verse 2, I was unknowingly serving my term, paying my penalty, and receiving double for my sins.  Miraculously though it didn’t end there.  In verses 3 and 4, the prophet states that there was a path and a way that was created.  While I was there, still in sin, God gave me Jesus.  God has had this marvelous plan to redeem humanity through Jesus all along.  Having received this beautiful gift, it is now my job to live out verse 5 and glorify God in all that I do.  I still have my plans and budgets and concerns that vendors can’t deliver on schedule, but now I realize there is someone above and greater than all those things. Oddly, it is with that realization that I have found true peace.  When I give everything over to God, I no longer have to worry about making sure I’ve thought of everything.  It is such a simple plan, but God has created this way.  We were suffering for our sins, and God interceded on our behalf.  He made a path and sent his son Jesus to die for us.  When we receive that gift and let him be the Lord of our lives, we glorify Him, and it is there that we find peace.

Jason Knight

December 9: Luke 1:76-79

Around the Holidays we tend to get stressed over presents, food, and family celebrations. Sometimes, we don't know how to find peace in all this chaos. Luke 1:76-79 gives us great examples of how to find peace. In Luke 1:78-79, it says, "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace"(NRSV). These two verses are basically saying God will give us the ability to spread his light to those who don't know it and he will guide us to peace. So, you may be getting really stressed about the big holiday and may even want it to just to be over. This verse tells us that light will come upon us and God wants us to spread the light. In return he will give us peace. In verses 76-77 the Bible tells us, "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the most high; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins." These verses tell us that we are very loved by God and he calls us to go and tell of his salvation to people who don't know it. It is kind of like a chain reaction; by letting ourselves get immersed in God's light, we are shown the road to peace. Then we share that little light, and tell someone else. Then that someone gets the map to peace and the chain continues. So, in this passage we can have peace by listening to God and being willing to share His light. Merry Christmas!

Clara Timmons

December 8: Isaiah 12:1-6:

Armistice Day, VJ Day, and VE Day.  We have all seen the black and white photograph of the sailor kissing the nurse on VJ Day in Times Square.  These events were all celebrations of the advent of peace, the end of brutal and deadly conflict.  Because the world had been anxiously hoping for peace and waiting for its coming, the celebration was grand, and the people were ecstatic.

Isaiah speaks of a coming peace that is much more than the absence of conflict.  It is a peace that comes from being in a right relationship with God.  A relationship initiated by God through His grace.  Through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have access to the ultimate peace.

In Isaiah chapter 12 the prophet describes that peace to the nation of Israel and to us.  Isaiah gives thanks to God who though he was angry with his people turned his anger away from the nation and instead provided comfort.  Isaiah describes God as his salvation, his strength, and his might.  Isaiah is describing a peace in which not only is he not in conflict with God, but he is experiencing the joy that comes from drinking of the water drawn from the well of salvation.

The celebration that follows from God’s provision of this peace is beyond anything we can imagine.  Isaiah describes a celebration that goes way beyond fireworks, a ticker-tape parade, and giant newspaper headlines.  In Isaiah 12:5-6 the prophet says

5 Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

As we approach this advent and celebrate the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ, celebrate the peace that comes through God’s grace.

Craig Walker

December 7: Micah 5:2-5a

When the magi from the East come to Jerusalem expecting to find the king of the Jews, King Herod’s scribes quote this passage from Micah 5:2 as evidence that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathat, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Micah prophesied during the reigns of the kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, who reigned during the late eighth and early seventh centuries (759-687 BCE). At this time Israel and Judah experience great turmoil as the Assyrians invaded the region. Corruption and hypocrisy were rampant. Micah prophesied that God would punish Israel and Judah for their sins. God’s promise enters this perilous world in a surprising way. Micah vows that God’s ancient covenant with Israel is secure and reliable. The covenant will be fulfilled with a new leader in the line of David.

Micah calls us to see God’s faithfulness in surprising ways, to look where we might not expect. Micah reminds us that the promise of God’s covenant is certain. Yet the expression of its fulfillment is not always predictable. While there is much that separates us from eighth-century Israel and Judah, the dynamics are not unlike the world in which we live.

We too know terror and fragility on national, international and personal levels. We too seek hope that the world will be different. We too yearn for security and peace. The promise of Micah is that God will be faithful and will appear in surprising ways. Micah invites us to look for God’s presence where we least expect and to be attuned to  the voices of the small, the powerless and the vulnerable.

Frank Davis

December 6: Malachi 3:6-12

December 6:  Malachi 3:6-12

In Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man,” he gives a glimpse of our current situations, whatever they may be, when he said:

                        Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
                        Man never is, but always to be blest.
                        The soul, uneasy, and confined from home,
                        Rests and expatiates in a life to come. 

The poet realizes that we are always looking to the future with an expectation of fulfillment, and yet we are jittery and uneasy that our hopes won’t be fulfilled the way we expected; that things will go awry, and that we may wind up in worse situations than those we presently occupy.  Therefore, we often are not really content with the blessings we already have, whether they be national, financial, or egotistical!

            As Christians we know that God’s love and message are for and to everyone, regardless of race, creed, or nationality, and that love binds us in one great fellowship.  Yet we struggle with how to treat our fellow humans who are different from us, how to maintain our favored positions without excluding those less fortunate, and how much we are willing to give to ease the suffering of God’s people here at home, in California in the wake of the devastating fires, in Puerto Rico where people still don’t have the necessities of life, on our southern border where thousands are beseeching us for help, or in war-torn lands in Yemen, Syria, and around the world.

            Giving is not an easy decision.  Do we give of our abundance or give sacrificially?  Don’t we need to take care of ourselves first?  What if we fall on hard times ourselves?  Our prosperity, no matter how great, somehow seems tentative, and we fear recession and want, even when we know God will take care of us no matter what befalls us.   Malachi 3: 6-12 reminds us that these fears need not plague our contentment, that we can rest assured that our hopes for the future are in God’s hands, and that, no matter what comes, God tells us “I am the Lord—I do not change” (v.6).  The following verses assure us that even when we fail to live up to our side of the bargain, God forgives us, and as long as we serve him, live as his people, and fulfill his commands and instructions to us, he promises to pour out his blessings on us far greater than our wildest expectations and hopes.

            In addition to the promised prosperity, God promises that we can rejoice in our self-esteem as Christians.  Other nations will recognize that we are a blessed and favored people because of the God we serve, the service we are willing to render, the wealth we are willing to share, and the acceptance of all people who enter God’s fold.

            Therefore, we Christians need not be uneasy about the future, although it is human nature to be so, as Pope says.  We do look with hope to the future for our final rewards, yet we can rest assured now as we live our lives that whatever hardships come, we will not face them alone, and our places in his Heavenly plan, both on earth and in Heaven, are secure.

Ozelle Scrutchins