O Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town of Bethlehem

We made our way from Jericho to Bethlehem with great hopes. We would be among the first guests in the Bethlehem Inn, erected by Palestinian Christians. Our guide told us that we would be across from Rachel's Tomb, and not far from the Church of the Nativity. The open market street, not so different from the streets where Joseph and Mary shopped, was within walking distance.

It was night when we arrived at the birthplace of Jesus. There were no lights anywhere. Our bus stopped. The driver and guide stepped outside, and suddenly there were loud voices. Israeli soldiers with drawn guns could be seen in the shadows. I was summoned, as the American host, to assure the head of the guard that we had only peaceful intents.

I had little influence with these young soldiers. We all had to get off the bus and walk up the hill to our quarters. The bus disappeared with our luggage, not returning to Bethlehem Inn until hours later. The problem, we later learned was that days of pilgrimage to Rachel's Tomb was about to commence, and the Orthodox Jews had asked for military protection since the tomb was in the West Bank.

We traveled back and forth from our hotel for four days. On the morning of our departure a Palestinian boy threw a rock at one of the soldiers. The soldier kneeled down on one knee, aimed his rifle and shot the boy through the head. It is still hard for me to sing, "O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie."

The greater truth about Bethlehem is expressed in the lines, "Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight." Our Advent theme is heard: waiting with a sure and certain hope.

Lord Jesus, as we make plans to celebrate your birthday again this year, help us to remember that you are greater than all of our fears and fantasies. Amen!
O Little Town of Bethlehem

1 O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

2 For Christ is born of Mary
And gathered all above
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wondering love
O morning stars together
Proclaim the holy birth
And praises sing to God the King
And Peace to men on earth!

3 How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

4 O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Luke 3:7-18

Luke 3:7-18
I was asked to speak at the Estwing Company Christmas Dinner. I said yes before I realized that I knew nothing about how their premium hammers and tools were constructed. I had worked seven summers on construction crews. I figured that a hammer had a striker and a handle and except for a few frills, all hammers were alike.

Was I ever wrong! I took a tour of the plant and was constantly amazed by how this elite hammer was made. I watched as a crane unloaded steel rods with the thickness of a Coke can. The inspector made sure that these rods were indeed 1055 carbon, fine tool steel. The rods were cut into bars and heated to 2400 degrees. The bars were then drop forged by a series of 3,000 pound blows into the shape of a one-piece hammer. The rough edges were roto-blasted smooth.

The next step was to the oil vats. The hammers were heated to a cherry-red color and then dipped into a vat of oil. The hammers were heated again and this time dipped into a vat of ice water. The last step was placing the hammers in ovens to pull out all possible stresses, especially where the handle and striker met.

Finally the distinctive, blue, lifetime grip was molded to the handle, polished and then stamped with the esteemed name, "Estwing." I still treasure my Estwing hammer and hatchet.

John the Baptist said that a similar process is used to mold and polish women and men for service in the kingdom of God. When Jesus comes to establish a community of faith that will endure forever, he will stamp upon their chests the esteemed name, "Redeemed."

Mold and shape and temper our mettle, that we might be recreated as part of the ranks of the redeemed. Amen.
Luke 3:7-18 (NRSV)

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

8 "Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

9 "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"

11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"

13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

14 Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

17 "His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Philippians 4:4-7

Philippians 4:4-7
My sister shared with me a prayer that Mother wrote in one of her journals one New Year's Eve: "On this last day of 1985, I thank you, Lord, for caring for me, loving me, and leading me through this year of 1985. Many times I have complained, I had so many 'whys,' but you understand and are a loving and forgiving God. I cannot live without you and surely want you by my side when I leave this world. How many days or years do I have left? Only you know.

"I am ready, and my prayer is that you might take me home before I become a burden to my family or society." Five years later, this woman, who was a charge nurse until she was nearly 77, had dementia and couldn't remember whether we had visited or not. She became like a child, a pleasant and peaceful child. Her death, however, was the celebration of a life turned over to her Lord.

Paul wrote to his friends while in prison, "The peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." I proclaim this promise at the close of nearly every sermon, but I learned what Paul meant from my mother: We wait with a sure and certain hope.

Lord, overrule my worries with the peace that is anchored in your promises. Amen.
Philippians 4:4-7 (NRSV)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Isaiah 12:2-6

Isaiah 12:2-6
Wilbur was one of three retired men who gathered in the kitchen of the 150-year-old Parish House. It was there that they would count the offerings collected from Sunday. They were good men and they loved each other, but when they would talk about their accomplishments in earlier years, Wilbur didn't say much.

One day, I walked into the kitchen from my study off the living room and asked Wilbur what he was proud of. He sat up straight, and with a strong voice declared, "I have the best water in all of New Jersey." The leader of the counting crew could not accept that. "My water is every bit as good as yours, Wilbur."

"No," Wilbur defended himself, "I have the best water. Even the water inspector says that."

"I am going to have to visit you, Wilbur," I said, "and have a drink of your water."

The next day his wife called and invited me to dinner. The road to their former hired hand's house was unpaved and full of ruts. The narrow bridge over the creek was a challenge. The main farmhouse was nestled at the foot of Schoolley's Mountain. Out of the base of the mountain was a spring. The water was channeled to a settling pond and then piped to both houses.

I took the old tin can cup, hanging from a wire hook and placed it under the gentle steam. It was clear and cool and easily the best water that I had ever tasted. I have never forgotten Wilbur and his water. He was right. He had the greatest treasure of the three men.

I now have a new appreciation of the prophet's song, "With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation."

Lord, we wait with a sure and certain hope to be able to drink the water of your salvation. Amen.
Isaiah 12:2-6 (NRSV)

2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.

3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.

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.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Zephaniah 3:14-20
We wait with a sure and certain hope. The prophet, Zephaniah, frames that hope with the words of the Savior: "I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise."

She was overweight, could barely see through her thick glasses, and was teased and tormented every day she rode the bus to school. Even when the bus had no empty seats, no one would sit with her. Her mother put treats in her lunch that she might win a friend through sharing. But when she offered to share her treats, the other kids would laugh and jeer. "Ish! Who would want to eat your food? It is probably poisoned." And everyone would laugh.

Something changed one day. When she offered to share her treats, an Asian-American boy who had grown up in Vietnamese orphanages walked over to her seat, sat down beside her, and said, "I would like to share your treats." He had known what it was like to be tormented and belittled. He remembered being held over open fires in the orphanage. Because he was neither American nor Vietnamese, he was rejected as a half-breed.

I remember well the day he came to me and demanded to be baptized. He had witnessed many babies and children being baptized into the family of Jesus. I would march them around the sanctuary and everyone would shout out, "Welcome!" He wanted that welcome. He found that welcome. And he wanted to let the girl on the bus know that she also was welcomed.

This is what we are waiting for. One day, we are sure that Jesus will gather the outcasts and change their shame into glory. Advent is a wonderful time of the year.

Help us, O Lord, to be a part of your welcoming party. Amen!
Zephaniah 3:14-20 (NRSV)

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!

15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.

16 On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak.

17 The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing

18 as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it.

19 I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

20 At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord.

Luke 3:7-13

Luke 3:7-13
I remember driving across St. Paul to hear Dr. Alvin Rogness, one of my favorite preachers, speak at Luther Seminary Chapel. It was in 1965, shortly following "After the Fall," a two-act play by Arthur Miller, was produced and published.

Al did not look at a note as he became Quentin, the 50-year-old lawyer who was full of passion and despair. Maggie, his second wife, had been a popular entertainer, but became a bitter neurotic and finally committed suicide. He had wanted to represent his good friend in court, but his friend took his life before Quentin had a chance to defend him.

Preacher Al brought us with him to a courtroom where he, as Quentin, was standing before a formidable bench, ready to present his case before the judge. He looked up at the bench and, to his utter dismay, the judge was not there. There was no one there to judge the merits of his case.

Quentin went into despair. As I remember, the gist of Quentin's plea before the empty bench went something like this: "If my case was judged to be with or without merit, if there was someone at the bench to even condemn me to hell, I would know that at least my life counted for something. But to stand before the bench and find out that it is empty means that life is nothingness."

Al taught me that morning what Luke was saying about the fiery John the Baptist: "With many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people."

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for taking my sins so seriously that you came to live and die for me. Amen.
Luke 3:7-13 (NRSV)

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

8 "Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

9 "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"

11 In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"

13 He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

O Come, All Ye Faithful

O Come, All Ye Faithful
A few years ago, a pastor colleague and I were invited to an open house. Both of us thought that we knew where the house was, and so did not bother to write down the address. We drove up the long driveway and walked up to the door. We rang the bell and knocked at the door, but no one answered. We should have been suspicious that something was amiss when our car was the only one in the driveway.

But we were in a good mood and tried the door. It was unlocked. We walked in and hollered, "Yoo-hoo!" We went into the kitchen and there was no food being prepared. I looked at some unopened mail and half whispered, "I think that we are in the wrong house." We gently made our way out the door and into our car. We felt a bit like Goldilocks, and didn't want to be there when the bears came home.

"O Come, All Ye Faithful" can be an Advent roadmap guiding us to our destination. We are going to Bethlehem. Many people are already celebrating Christmas, but they are not going to make it to Bethlehem. The faithful are invited to come and check out the address, even if we are so sure that we know where we are going. Many will have the Goldilocks experience and end up with the bears instead of at the manager.

We have heard the invitation, to come and celebrate with the heavenly hosts the glory of your coming. Humble us to check out the address. Amen!
O Come, All Ye Faithful

1 O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem;
come and behold him, born the king of angels!

O come, let us adore, him, O come, let us adore him,
O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!

2 The highest, most holy, light of light eternal,
born of a virgin, a mortal he comes;
Son of the Father now in flesh appearing!

3 Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation,
sing, all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God in the highest!

4 Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory giv'n!
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!

Lo, How a Rose E?er Blooming

Lo, How a Rose E?er Blooming

I remember well uncovering my roses in the spring, gently removing the leaves and dirt from stems I had trimmed in the fall. I clipped the stems again and then waited for the green shoots to appear. I would talk to each rose plant and encourage it to grow and produce rose blossoms, the most beautiful of all flowers. When the first bud would appear, I would carefully stroke it. When the petals would unfold, I was able to celebrate its unique personality.

It is easy to see why the writer of this hymn used the waiting for and then the celebrating of the bloom as a metaphor for the waiting for Jesus and then celebrating his birth.

Our theme for this Advent is "waiting with a sure and certain hope." My experience with roses, however, falls a bit short of a sure and certain hope. The Texas winters are not near as bad as when we lived in Ohio. The Ohio winters could be brutal, especially when there was a lot of thawing and freezing. But, I still hold onto this hymn's metaphor of the rose for Jesus' birth, as I know that no winter, no matter how harsh, can take away my confidence that the rose that is Jesus will always bloom, revealing the glory of our salvation.

We wait again, O Lord, for the bloom of Christmas. Amen!

Lo, How a Rose E?er Blooming

Lo, how a Rose e'er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse's lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah 'twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God's love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

Luke 3:1-6

Luke 3:1-6

Today is Dec. 7. I was six years old on Monday, Dec. 8 when Mrs. Kline burst through the door of the parsonage. She was wild with grief. "My son is dead," she sobbed. "He was in the hold of the ship, and he drowned right before my eyes. I could not do anything to save him."

We were doing the family wash in the middle of the kitchen. We had not yet heard that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Three weeks later two soldiers knocked at the Kline's door and confirmed what Mrs. Kline already knew. The next four years we were engaged in a world war. It was a terrible time in our history. Every Sunday that one of our blue stars was sewn over with silver thread became a day of mourning. Air Raid wardens would pound on our doors when we had forgotten to extinguish a light or even a candle. Young soldiers from Camp Grant would march the gravel street that ran by our house.

Japan, Germany and Italy were formidable enemies. We wondered if we would be defeated. We feared that our freedoms were in dire jeopardy. We were called to put our faith in Uncle Sam. He would look down from his posters and say, "I need you!"

When Luke tells us the story of Jesus' entry into the world, he documents the enemies that the Savior would be facing. Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Philip, Lysanias and even the internal enemies of Annas and Caiaphas would all seek to defeat Jesus. Luke had already identified the most powerful of all enemies, Emperor Augustus, who ruled the world when Jesus was born.

How could Jesus bring justice and peace to our world against such formidable enemies? And the enemies are no less powerful today. The message of John rings out a message of sure and certain hope from the first century to today. "All flesh," cries John in the desert, "shall see the salvation of God." We wait for this day.

Quiet our hearts and give us the courage to believe that our Lord is greater than all of our enemies. Amen.
Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)

1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene,

2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,

4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

5 "Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;

6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

Philippians 1:3-11

Philippians 1:3-11
"Waiting with a sure and certain hope," Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi from his prison cell. Paul was confident that "the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ." That is confident waiting for Jesus.

Ten minutes before she died, my mother had a window of clarity. Emerging from her dementia, she looked up and me and asked, "Are you happy, Hubert?" "Yes, Mom. I am happy." She seemed satisfied and slipped back into her private world. Minutes later she breathed her last.

Mother was not asking me if my life was full of parties. She wasn't asking if my life was devoid of difficulties or challenges. She wanted to be assured, before she went to be with Jesus, that I was on the same track. She wanted to know that I was enjoying my walk with our Lord. Before she left this world, she wanted to be sure that we would meet up again in the new Jerusalem.

We buried Mom, commending her to Almighty God with a sure and certain hope.

Thank you, Lord, for those people who are our cheerleaders as we seek to realize our identity with you. Amen.
Philippians 1:3-11 (NRSV)

3 I thank my God every time I remember you,

4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,

5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.

9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight

10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,

11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.