Posted in Advent/Christmas, Life

Advent Devotional 2022

Excerpt from Week One: Hope

The first week of the Advent season focuses on the theme of Hope. For many of us, hope is a fuzzy concept that often gets mistaken with a fleeting wish or casual desire. Phrases like “I hope you have a great day!” or “I hope this works!,” commonly appear in our everyday conversations. This week we are going to look at the theme of Hope in its biblical context, especially in the lives of the Jewish people of the first century.

For the Jewish people, hope was something that was all but smothered by the oppression they faced from the Roman government. They were a conquered people who were severely limited in their freedom and considered one of the lowest ranked people groups in their society.

Any hope of freedom from their oppressors was based on prophetic words written generations ago. The stories of a coming King hadn’t panned out yet. Popular fiction and a few revolts led by men claiming to be God’s chosen Messiah served to spark momentary glimpses of hope, hope that the faithful God of generations past would be true to his word and deliver his people. But, as time dragged on, revolutions were squashed, potential messiahs were executed, and the spark of hope was quickly smothered leaving them spiritually numb. They were stuck in their situation and most of their hope had withered away. These were truly dark times for God’s people, times foreseen by the prophet Jeremiah when he said,

“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long….

My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” (Lam. 3:1–3, 17-18 ESV)

It was during this time; a time where hope was scarce; a time when darkness reigned; a time that seemed to stretch on and on with no end in sight, that God spoke. Zechariah, a visiting priest from the outskirts of Jerusalem, was told (by the angel Gabriel) that despite his advanced years, he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. This boy would be The Herald (The Announcer) of a message of hope that would change the course of history.

True to the spiritual numbness of his people, Zechariah doubted. This priest, a man who was supposed to lead others in the worship of God and constantly remind the Jewish people that God was true to his promises, didn’t believe God could or would do something so spectacular. As a result, he was rendered unable to speak until his son was born.

The first words Zechariah uttered, after his speech was restored, are recorded in Luke 1:67-79. They form a beautiful poem that recalls God’s past faithfulness to the people of Israel, recognizes that he is currently at work on their behalf, and looks to the future with anticipation. Through this poem, we can see that Zechariah was beginning to understand what the concept of hope was really all about.

Scripture Reading from the New Testament:

Read Luke 1:67-79

In Zechariah’s poem, we can see that hope finds its meaning in God’s character. It’s a confidence that, despite the situation, God is acting on behalf of his people. Hope acknowledges the present circumstances and views them through the filter of God’s past faithfulness. Even when his action is not evident, when we don’t know how he is working things out for our good, we can look into our past and remember how he has lovingly comforted, rescued, and guided us along the way.

Reflecting on these times is an act of worship. It provides us with a foundation of hope that God is present, here and now, working on our behalf. And, if God has been faithful in the past, is faithful here and now, we can trust that he will also be powerfully at work in the years to come.

Posted in Life

Advent Week Four- Love

Opening Prayer:

Lord Jesus,
Master of both the light and the darkness,
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear 
Your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to
Your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete
 joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of Your presence.We are Your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light. 
To You we say, ‘Come Lord Jesus!’
Amen. (Joel Mason)

Scripture Reading from the Old Testament: 

The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; 
let the many coastlands be glad! 
Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; 
righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne. 
Fire goes before him and burns up his adversaries all around. His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles. 
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord, 
before the Lord of all the earth. 

The heavens proclaim his righteousness, 
and all the peoples see his glory. 
All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols; 
worship him, all you gods! 
Zion hears and is glad, and the daughters of Judah rejoice, 
because of your judgments, O Lord. 
For you, O Lord, are most high over all the earth; 
you are exalted far above all gods. 
O you who love the Lord, hate evil! 
He preserves the lives of his saints; he delivers them from the hand of the wicked. 

Light is sown for the righteous, 
and joy for the upright in heart. 
Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous, 
and give thanks to his holy name!
(Ps 97:1–12)

Scripture Reading from the New Testament: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’ ”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:1-5 and 9-18)

Advent Reflection:

On this, the fourth week of Advent, we focus on the theme of God’s unconditional Love. The concept of love, especially the love of God, is probably the most difficult thing for us to grasp. We are often impeded by our inability to comprehend the fact that anyone, especially the Holy God, could truly love us for who we are. We question if this is even possible, thinking that the darkness within our own hearts, the hidden sin in our lives, makes us unlovable.  

But, in these moments it is important to remember that God’s love is not based on anything we have done, are doing, or could ever do. Instead, God’s love flows from his nature and character, it is who he is. (1 John 4:8) This love is what ties together the entire narrative of human history: in the intentional way he formed Adam and Eve in his own image, in his commitment to continue relationship after the Fall, in the sending of Jesus, and through the continued work of the Holy Spirit. Whether explicitly stated or overtly implied, God’s unconditional love is expressed through his faithful presence, working on our behalf to make a way for us to be with him. In short, God has proven that his love is an unstoppable force, a force that can’t be derailed by anything we could possibly do.  

During the Advent season, we celebrate Jesus coming to earth as an infant, entering into our realm of existence with full awareness of the sacrifice he would make by taking on the permeating sin corrupting his beloved creation. Sent by the Father, the Son left his place of influence and power in heaven to be reviled as he rectified our wretchedness, repairing the relationship we had so callously cast aside. In the ultimate expression of love, he offered himself on the cross for our sins, eradicating the relational barrier we had erected between ourselves and God.

Born to die, the King of glory,
the hosts of heaven declare his story.
Our Lord Jesus could alone,
our sin and brokenness atone.

He acts with love and shows his power,
our rescue found in desperate hour,
defeating sin that binds us here,
granting grace to draw us near.

So, as we enter into this last week of Advent, with Christmas Day just around the corner, God’s love should be the central aspect of our celebration. Let’s not forget that our eyes and hearts should be drawn to Jesus, who serves as an example of what it truly means to love.

Group Discussion:

1. As a group, spend a few moments thinking through and discussing each of the passages below.

• How do each of these passages: (1) Recall God’s faithful work in the past, (2) Recognize God’s faithful work in the present, (3) Anticipate God’s faithful work in the future. Some might focus on one of these aspects more than the others.

Passages on the Love of God:
1 John 3:7-21
John 13:31-35
John 14:18-21
Phil. 1:9-11
1 Cor 13:1-13

2. What are some practical ways you can participate in God’s work in the next few weeks as you show the love of God to the people who he has placed in your life?

Advent Candle Prayer and Response (Modified from Celtic Daily Prayer): *Leader reads- People Respond:

*We have waited long for You.
Deep has been the darkness.

*We long for You to shine
right here among us where we are. 

*We will not fear the shadows that surround us
if only You will come among us

*We await the sound of a cry in the night,  the joy that follows pain,
the coming of hope. 

(Optional Lighting of the Hope Candle)

*This is the path that the prophets marked who heard the voice of the Lord, ‘Whom shall I send?’,
and they responded, ‘Here am I, send me!’

*These prophets declared the Lord’s simple requirements for his people
to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.

*One prophet said that a young woman would conceive, give birth to a son
and name him ‘Emmanuel’, God with us! 

*Emmanuel would come and preach good news to the poor
and bind up the broken-hearted,

*These same prophets rejoiced saying, ‘A Child is born to us, a Son is given to us
He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace.’

(Optional Lighting of the Joy Candle)

*This is the path that John marked,  whose voice called in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’, 

The same John who cried, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is near!’
and baptized in the River Jordan many who confessed their sins,
and who pointed out Jesus,  ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’

(Optional Lighting of the Peace Candle)

*This is the path that Mary marked, to whom Gabriel said,
You will give birth to a Son, and will call Him Jesus.’  

 *Mary replied,
I am the Lord’s servant, let it happen as you have said.’ 

*And she rejoiced in her calling,
My heart is overflowing with praise of my Lord, my soul is full of joy in God my Savior.’ 

(Optional Lighting of Love Candle)

*Today, the fourth week of Advent, we light four candles:
The First candle represents the Hope we have in Christ,
The Second candle represents the Joy found in the good news his advent,
The Third candle represents Peace in the presence of Jesus, our King,
The Fourth candle represents the Love we have for God, because he first loved us.

Leader Benediction: 

May God bless you and keep you this week
May you continue to be refreshed by the Hope, Joy, Peace, and Love available in the 
relational presence of the Holy Spirit 
May the light of Jesus Christ shine bright in your life
As you draw others to Him
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit

Posted in Advent, Life

Advent Week Three- Supernatural PEACE

Peace

The Third Week of Advent

Opening Prayer:

Lord Jesus,
Master of both the light and the darkness,
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear Your voice each day. We who are anxious over many things look forward to Your coming among us. We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom. We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of Your presence.
We are Your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To You we say, ‘Come Lord Jesus!’
Amen. (Henri Nouwen)

Scripture Reading from the Old Testament:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

Opening Question:

What comes to mind when you think of the word “peace”? How have you heard this word used in today’s culture?

 

Advent Reflection:

On this third week of Advent, we turn our focus to the theme of peace. It’s common to think of peace in terms relating to the absence of things like conflict, struggle, stress, and anxiety. When we are not directly experiencing these disruptive aspects in our life, we might mistake the absence of these things for a moment of peace. Yet, like the concepts of Joy and Hope we celebrated during the first and second week of Advent, the biblical concept of Peace is more than our culture expects.

Rather than the absence of something, true Peace is experienced in the relational presence of God. It’s an experience of his complete power and utter authority over our existence, a deep understanding that nothing could possibly disrupt his plan and purpose for us. When we experience the Peace that can only be found in his presence, we are given a brief glimpse into how the kingdom of heaven operates, right here on earth. It is through this experience of his supernatural peace that we begin to understand that we have a King, seated on his throne, sovereignly reigning over all his creation and actively working on our behalf.

This was the message John (who would later be called The Baptist) would declare to the people of Israel. God is coming! The Kingdom of Heaven is near! Repent from the way you are living; change your self- indulgent and self-gratifying lifestyles and become an active participant in his plan of redemption! (Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3, Luke 3:1-18)

Just as the angel Gabriel had promised his father Zechariah, John’s voice would awaken the hearts of a people lost in darkness and resigned to a shadowed existence. He would be the first evangelist, announcing the advent (coming) of Jesus, the promised Messiah, who would provide the “way of peace”, a path through the conflict and enmity of sin into a relationship with God. (Luke 1:67-79) By placing our trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we are freed from sin’s toxic stranglehold on our lives, freed from the conflict and enmity that separates us from the presence of the holy God. Our relationship with God is now one of peace.

This world is broken, fallen and infected with sin. Pain, suffering, anxiety, and distress are things we are sure to experience throughout our lives. A constant barrage of expectations and responsibilities can disrupt and disturb us, sending us into the shadows of apathy and despair. As we celebrate this advent season, focusing this week on the supernatural Peace that we have experienced at the beginning of our relationship with God, let’s not forget the access we have to this same peace in his relational presence. The Holy Spirit, who gave John the Baptist the words to speak as he announced the advent of Jesus, provides a supernatural resource that combats the insidious influence of the world around us.

Take some time to meditate on the passages listed below. Keep a list of things that strike you about the relational promises that are made in these passages. Begin each day by setting aside a specific time where you will ask God to make these promises a reality in your life. Keep track of how the Holy Spirit is meeting you in this and growing your understanding of the peace available in his relational presence.

Supernatural Peace in the Presence of God:

Luke 2:14; John 14:25-31; John 20:19-23; Romans 8:1-11; Romans 15:13; Phil. 4:4-9

 

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How would a prophet like John the Baptist be received by today’s culture? (Think about his appearance as well as his message)

Read Luke 3:7-20.

  1. What questions would we ask of John today? Would they be similar to the questions asked by the people in verses 10-14?
  2. What are some things in our own lives that we need to fix, remove, destroy (paths we need to make straight) in order to fully embrace Jesus’ reign and rule?
  3. How would the sacrifice of these things help us be more aware of the Holy Spirit’s relational presence in our lives and open us to the experience of the supernatural peace he provides?
  4. Think of one person in your life who needs to hear that this supernatural peace is available. Share with your group or family who the Holy Spirit has brought to mind. Have someone in your group pray for this person out loud, asking for God to provide an opportunity this week for you to share this good news with them.

Prayer and Response with Optional Advent Candle Lighting (Modified from Celtic Daily Prayer):
(*Leader reads- People Respond):

*We have waited long for You.
Deep has been the darkness.
*We long for You to shine
right here among us where we are.
*We will not fear the shadows that surround us
if only You will come among us!

*We await the sound of a cry in the night, 
the joy that follows pain, the coming of hope.

(Optional Lighting of the Hope Candle)

* This is the path that the prophets marked
who heard the voice of the Lord, ‘Whom shall I send?’, and they responded, ‘Here am I, send me!’
* These prophets declared the Lord’s simple requirements for his people
to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.
* One prophet said that a young woman would conceive, give birth to a son,
and name him ‘Emmanuel’, God with us!

* Emmanuel would come and preach good news to the poor
and bind up the broken-hearted,
* These same prophets rejoiced saying, ‘A Child is born to us, a Son is given to us!
He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace.’

(Optional Lighting of the Joy Candle)
* Emmanuel would come and preach good news to the poor
and bind up the broken-hearted,
* These same prophets rejoiced saying, ‘A Child is born to us, a Son is given to us!
He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace.’
*This is the path that John marked, whose voice called in the desert,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’,

The same John who cried, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is near!’ and baptized in the River Jordan
many who confessed their sins,
and who pointed out Jesus, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God!’

*Today, on the third week of Advent, we light three candles, the First candle represents the Hope we have in Christ, The Second candle represents the Joy found in the good news of Jesus’ advent, The Third candle represents Peace in the presence of Jesus, our King

(Optional Lighting of the Peace Candle)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (by Casting Crowns)

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men
And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

And in despair I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men

But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

Then ringing singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men

And the bells they’re ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
And with our hearts we’ll hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Do you hear the bells they’re ringing? (peace on earth)
The life the angels singing (peace on earth)
Open up your heart and hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Posted in Advent, Life

Advent 2020- Week 2- JOY

JOY

The Second Week of Advent

Opening Prayer:

Lord Jesus, Master of both the light and the darkness,
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear Your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to Your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of Your presence.
We are Your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To You we say, ‘Come Lord Jesus!’Amen. (Henri Nouwen

Scripture Reading from the Old Testament:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
(Isaiah 9:7)

Advent Reflection

The theme of this week, our second week of Advent, is Joy. Like last week’s theme of Hope, the concept of Joy has been diluted by today’s culture and mistaken for brief bursts of emotion or bouts of happiness. 
Even more confusing is the way that some Christians talk about Joy, making it sound like something that we must  generate out of our own being. If we aren’t careful, Joy can quickly lose its potency when it is mistaken for a feeling we should summon or a choice we make, especially when we are facing trials or the spiritual dryness. Although our intentions may be good, encouraging someone to “choose Joy” can lead to more frustration and pain in their lives, leaving them to wonder how they can be filled with Joy while at the same time not ignoring the struggle that comes from existing in this world.

The biggest mistake people make when it comes to experiencing true Joy comes from a dire misunderstanding of the source of Joy itself. Joy isn’t something we humans generate, it’s a supernatural attribute of God. The beautiful thing about this is that God has made the experience of his Joy available in the context of a relationship him. Even more mindnumbingly awesome is the promise that we can actively participate in His work through the relational presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. (Gal. 5:22-26) 

Rather than Joy being something we manufacture within ourselves, its source is found in the active relational presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And, as the story of Elizabeth shows, the way to access this supernatural Joy is through dependence on God when we are at our weakest.

As we celebrate the Advent season, we will continue to see that recalling God’s past faithfulness, recognizing his present work, and anticipating his future action on our behalf makes up an essential rhythm for growing our dependence on God and experiencing his Joy.

At first glance, it is easy to overlook Elizabeth and the  important role she played in the birth narrative of Jesus. We do know that she and her husband, Zechariah (the main character of last week’s Advent focus on Hope) were faithful followers of God in the time of political oppression and spiritual darkness. We also know that they struggled with infertility and were “advanced in years”. In a culture that considered infertility to be a sign of God’s displeasure, Elizabeth would be carrying the weight of people’s judgment and the shame of not being able to continue her family line.

Instead of giving way to bitterness, Elizabeth’s life is indelibly marked by Joy. Her response to the miraculous conception of her son is filled with language that recognizes God’s relational presence in her life as he acts on her behalf.

“Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” (Luke 1:25, ESV)

In addition to this, when her cousin Mary (who was pregnant with Jesus) came to visit, Elizabeth’s reliance on the Holy Spirit skyrocketed to the forefront of her story as she spoke a simple but profoundly important blessing over Mary.

Read Luke 1:41–45. 

While scripture only records a few brief glimpses into Elizabeth’s life, this experience (an experience she shared with her yet to be born son) identifies her as a person who understood and participated in the supernatural Joy available through relationship with the present and active God. 

It’s clear that Elizabeth strongly depended on the promise of redemption that the faithful God made to her people long ago. She also understood that her son would play a vital role in God’s present action as he would be the Announcer of the coming Messiah (Luke 1:67-79). This Messiah, Jesus, would fulfill the promises spoken to Mary and show mercy to their people (Luke 1:46-55). 

Despite her circumstances (infertility, advanced age, political oppression, etc.) she recognized that God had been faithful in the past, was actively working in the present, and anticipated his work in the future.

Questions for Discussion: 

  • To what degree, over the course of your life, have you experienced the supernatural Joy available in your relationship with God?

Recalling the Past:

  • Considering Elizabeth’s circumstances, what biblical stories of women who were facing similar issues (infertility, political and spiritual oppression, etc.) could she have held close to her heart, inspiring her dependence on God?
  • How does Elizabeth’s story inspire your own dependence on God?
  • When you recall your past, when were the times where his supernatural Joy has been evident in your life?

Recognizing the Present:

  • What three blessings did Elizabeth declare over Mary and what was the significance of each of these blessings? (Luke 1:39-45; Hint: Think about the Holy Spirit’s role in these blessings.)
  • How are you, in your life today, benefitting from these blessings?
  • Take a few moments of silence (5-7 min) and think through the following:  Over the past week, how have you seen God actively at work in your own life? Jot down a list.  

Share with your family, Life Group, or friends about these times. Give them the opportunity to speak into this and help you see how God might be using you to participate in helping others experience his Joy this Advent season. 

Anticipating the Future: 

  • What are you anticipating will result from this celebration of Advent?
  • How will your life be different this coming year? Name one area in your life in which God is actively calling you to experience the supernatural Joy available in his presence? (Think of areas where you: live, work, and/or play)

Prayer and Response with Optional Advent Candle Lighting: (*Leader reads- People Respond🙂

*We have waited long for You.
Deep has been the darkness.
*We long for You to shine
right here among us where we are.
*We will not fear the shadows that surround us
if only You will come among us!

*We await the sound of a cry in the night,  the joy that follows pain,
the coming of hope. 
(Lighting of the Hope Candle)
* This is the path that the prophets marked
who heard the voice of the Lord, ‘Whom shall I send?’,
and they responded, ‘Here am I, send me!’

*  These prophets declared the Lord’s simple requirements for his people
to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with Him.
*  One prophet said that a young woman would conceive, give birth to a son,
and name him ‘Emmanuel’, God with us!
*  Emmanuel would come and preach good news to the poor
and bind up the broken-hearted,
*  These same prophets rejoiced saying, ‘A Child is born to us, a Son is given to us!
He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Prince of Peace.

(Optional Advent Candle Lighting)

*Today, the second week of Advent, we light two candles,
the First candle represents the Hope we have in Christ,
The second candle represents the Joy found in the good news his advent.
(Lighting of the Joy Candle)

A Song of Praise: Joy to The World

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.

Leader Benediction:

May God bless you and keep you this week
May you continue to be refreshed by the Joy available in the relational presence of the Holy Spirit
May the light of Jesus Christ shine bright in your life,  as you draw others to Him.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit

Posted in Advent, Life

Advent 2020 Week One- HOPE

HOPE

The First Week of Advent

Opening Prayer:

Lord Jesus,
Master of both the light and the darkness,
send your Holy Spirit upon our preparations for Christmas.
We who have so much to do seek quiet spaces to hear
Your voice each day.
We who are anxious over many things look forward to
Your coming among us.
We who are blessed in so many ways long for the complete
joy of your kingdom.
We whose hearts are heavy seek the joy of Your presence.
We are Your people, walking in darkness, yet seeking the light.
To You we say, ‘Come Lord Jesus!’
Amen. (by Henri Nouwen)

Scripture Reading from the Old Testament: 


On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, 
“Fear not, O Zion; your hands shall not hang limp. 
Yahweh your God is in your midst; a mighty warrior who saves. 
He shall rejoice over you with joy; he renews you in his love; he will exult over you with singing.” (Zep 3:16–17)

Teaching

The first week of the Advent season focuses on the theme of Hope. For many of us, hope is a fuzzy concept that often gets mistaken with a fleeting wish or casual desire. Phrases like, “I hope you have a great day!” or “I hope this works!”, commonly appear in our everyday conversations. This week we are going to look at the theme of Hope in its biblical context, especially in the lives of the Jewish people in the first century.

For the Jewish people, hope was something that was all but smothered by the oppression they faced from the Roman government. They were a conquered people who were severely limited in their freedom and considered one of the lowest ranked people groups in their society. 

 Any hope of freedom from their oppressors was based on prophetic words written generations ago. The stories of a coming King hadn’t panned out yet. Popular fiction and a few revolts led by men claiming to be God’s chosen Messiah served to spark momentary glimpses of hope, hope that the faithful God of generations past would be true to his word and deliver his people. But, as time dragged on, revolutions were squashed, potential messiahs were executed, and the spark of hope was quickly smothered leaving them spiritually numb. They were stuck in their situation and most of their hope had withered away. These were truly dark times for God’s people, times foreseen by the prophet Jeremiah when he said,

“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long….My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.” (Lam. 3:1–3, 17-18 ESV)

It was during this time; a time where hope was scarce; a time when darkness reigned; a time that seemed to stretch on and on with no end in sight, that God spoke. Zechariah, a visiting priest from the outskirts of Jerusalem, was told (by the angel Gabriel) that despite his advanced years, he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. This boy would be The Herald (The Announcer) of a message of hope that would change the course of history. 

True to the spiritual numbness of his people, Zechariah doubted. This priest, a man who was supposed to lead others in the worship of God and constantly remind the Jewish people that God was true to his promises, didn’t believe God could or would do something so spectacular. As a result, he was rendered unable to speak until his son was born.

The first words Zechariah uttered, after his speech was restored, are recorded in Luke 1:67-79. They form a beautiful poem that recalls God’s past faithfulness to the people of Israel, recognizes that he is currently at work on their behalf, and looks to the future with anticipation. Through this poem, we can see that Zechariah was beginning to understand what the concept of hope was really all about.

Scripture Reading from the New Testament:  

Read Luke 1:67-79

In Zechariah’s poem, we can see that hope finds its meaning in God’s character. It’s a confidence that, despite the situation, God is acting on behalf of his people. Hope acknowledges the present circumstances and views them through the filter of God’s past faithfulness. Even when his action is not evident, when we don’t know how he is working things out for our good, we can look into our past and remember how he has lovingly comforted, rescued, and guided us along the way. Reflecting on these times is an act of worship. It provides us with a foundation of hope that God is present, here and now, working on our behalf. And, if God has been faithful in the past, is faithful here and now, we can trust that he will also be powerfully at work in the years to come.

Reflection Questions 

Recalling the Past:

  • What images does Zechariah use to vividly remind his listeners of God’s past faithful actions on behalf of the Jewish people? 
  • How does Zechariah’s Song remind us that we are part of a larger story, a story of God’s faithfulness that impacts us today and will continue on after us?

Recognizing the Present

  • What relational attributes of God are highlighted in Zechariah’s poem? (i.e. savior, deliverer, etc.) Create a list in the space below. (It’s perfectly fine to list other attributes of God that come to mind as you are reading the passage that aren’t explicitly mentioned.)
  • In your list, circle the relational attributes of God that you have personally experienced over the past few months. Share a story with your family or group relating to your experience. As you listen to other’s stories, feel free to add things to your own list.

Anticipating the Future:

Take a few moments (at least 5-10 minutes) to sit in silent reflection. Look through your list, prayerfully asking the Holy Spirit to help you with the following questions. Use this prayer to settle your heart and mind:

Holy Spirit, revealer of truth, search my heart and show me areas where you desire me to grow. Shine the light of Jesus into the darkness and let the grace and mercy of the Father be my strength.

  • Are there any relational attributes of God that I am not experiencing in this season of my life? (Put a star next to these attributes on your list.)
    • Is there anything holding me back from experiencing this aspect of God’s relational character? (i.e. doubt, fear, anxiety, a specific sin). Take a few moments to silently confess these things to God, asking for his forgiveness and grace.
  • Following this, prayerfully choose one of the starred relational attributes from your list. Ask God to use this Advent season to help you begin to understand this attribute better as you grow in your relationship with him. (Revisit your list this week and prepared to be surprised, God may show up in an unexpected way!)
  • After this time of silent reflection, share with your family or group the attribute you have chosen and, depending on your comfort level, why you chose this specific attribute. 

Prayer and Response (*Leader reads- People Respond):

*We have waited long for You.
 Deep has been the darkness. 
*We long for You to shine
right here among us where we are. 
*We will not fear the shadows that surround us
 if only You will come among us!
*We await the sound of a cry in the night, the joy that follows pain,
 the coming of hope.
This is the path that God marked,
who said at the beginning, ‘Let there be light.’
And there was light;
and God saw that the light was good.
For people walking in darkness a great light of Hope dawns.
The true light, Jesus Christ,
 is coming into the world.
The light shines in the darkness,
A light of Hope that the darkness cannot put out.
May God bless you and keep you this week
May you continue to be refreshed by the Hope you have in Christ
May His light shine bright in your life
As you draw others to Him
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
(Optional: Lighting of the Hope Candle)

Posted in Life

Intro to Advent Study 2020

What is Advent?

The Advent season is a special time of spiritual refreshment that prepares our hearts for Christmas, the day we set aside to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It’s usually observed the four weeks leading up to Dec. 25th with a special emphasis on a particular theme for each week.

In Latin, the word “advent” means “coming” and carries a sense of anticipation. In addition to celebrating the birth of Jesus, Advent also looks forward to his second coming when he will restore his kingdom here on earth. Immediately following Christmas Day, is another traditional celebration called Christmastide. (You may know a bit about this from the song The 12 Days of Christmas!) These 12 days help continue the Advent celebration into the new year. 

When we observe the season of Advent, we enter into a centuries old tradition of recognizing the triune (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) God’s faithful and active presence in our lives. We sacrifice our time and refocus our priorities to engage in worship, posturing ourselves to be spiritually refreshed. This prepares our hearts to celebrate Christmas in a way that is meaningful and will impact us for the months to come.

How to Use this Curriculum

For the next 4 weeks, gather your family, Life Group, or a group of friends together to celebrate the Advent season. Each week includes prayers to say aloud, scripture to read, teaching to soak in, and questions for discussion. To get the most out of this curriculum, set aside a time every day to repeat the week’s prayers and think deeply through the questions.

Optional: The Advent Candle

As an optional exercise, we recommend having a set of 5 candles to light along with the readings (representing the weekly themes of Advent: Hope, Joy, Peace, Love, and Christ). Places to light the candle are indicated in the flow of the curriculum. 

Posted in Life

Can Digital Church Small Groups Still Be Effective?

Several months ago, when the official pandemic season started here in Texas, my 17-year-old son and I went on a shopping expedition to our local grocery store. As we meandered around isles, dumping random groceries into our cart, (a shopping method that drives my wife absolutely crazy) we turned the corner and witnessed what can only be described as a barren wasteland completely devoid of the normal stacks of plushy bathroom necessities. Even the usually dust covered packages of always present generic brands, sandpaper’s second cousin, was nowhere to be seen!

As we stood there, the reality of the situation slowly sinking in, my son turned to me and asked a poignant question. “Father,” he said “In all of the 40 plus years of your wisdom-filled existence, have you ever experienced a season of such chaotic complexity?” OK, these weren’t the exact words that came out of his mouth. It was more like, “Wow dad, this is crazy right?” But, I’m sure all the sentiment of my version was there, especially the part about my wisdom-filled existence.

Anyway, my son’s observation was spot on. What we were facing at the time was unprecedented, at least for anyone under the age of 60.

We were stepping into a season of chaotic complexity, a season that continues to drag on past the point that anyone except the savviest scientists and cautious dooms-day preppers could have predicted. For those of us in charge of church small groups, I’d be willing to bet the chaos has swirled directly into the core of our ministry, challenging our values, and disrupting our strategies. Time tested group philosophies, like an emphasis on group members being physically present with each other, have become frustratingly obsolete, at least for the time being.

Yet, despite all of the frustrations and new challenges that come with a crazy season like the one we are in, God continues to surprise me, revealing his paradigm shifting presence in different and exciting new ways.

One of the tectonic paradigm-shifts we’ve all been forced to make, due to stay-at-home edicts delivered by governmental authorities, was to embrace digital online groups. I’ve always insisted that online groups work, at best, as a kind of pseudo-community. In my mind, small groups that purely met online existed in the same category as Facebook friendships and group chats. To put it bluntly, they seemed like a shallow alternative that inhibited rather than enriched actual relational connections between real people. For me, there was no substitute for physical presence, being able to use most of the five senses to interact with others in a room. (The one exception would probably be taste. Although, we have had some awesome dessert nights where people have put a lot of heart and soul into their pie making experiments!)

In fact, any time the idea of online groups cropped up in our team meetings, I was quick to dismiss the idea as something that would quickly dilute the power for people to get real by entering into an honest and vulnerable group discussion. In my head, authenticity and physical presence went hand-in-hand. I was worried it would be easier for people hide in an online setting or, at the very least, not be able to connect on a deeper level that would be foundational to their spiritual growth through relationship. And, in my opinion, there were just too many uncontrollable factors that would get in the way of leaders being able to pave the way for establishing authentic relationships among the people of their group: the fickleness of technology, the learning curve for using online meeting venues, the multifaceted possibilities for distractions to derail good conversation, etc. etc. etc..

I could just picture the following melodramatic scenes unfolding:

Opening scene: The small group leader, let’s call her Emily, has prepared well, prayed for her people, and is excited to begin the meeting. A few hours before the meeting starts, she sends out the zoom link and takes a deep breath. All has gone smoothly so far, then “Ding!” the first reply comes in. It’s Gertrude, the aging baby boomer of the group, asking if the link Emily has sent it safe. She has read the New Yorker article on zoom-bombing and doesn’t need that kind of drama in her life. Emily reassures her, but Gertrude still seems skeptical. Over the course of the next two hours, Emily discovers that this is only the first technological question she will have to field that could have been easily answered by a 23 second google search.

Scene One- Meeting time: It’s 7:25 PM, almost a half an hour into the group’s scheduled meeting time. So far, 9 of the 12 people in Emily’s group have managed to log into the meeting. Emily is still receiving texts from the other 3 people asking for the meeting ID number, the same number she posted, texted, and emailed two hours ago. A quick look at her screen shows six people have actually managed to turn their camera on. Jim and Glenda, the couple who originally founded the group several years ago, appear to immensely proud of their popcorn ceiling. This 80’s style texture dominates the frame with only the very tops of their heads visible. True to his name, Bruce is shrouded in shadow with only the tip of his nose and chin visible, giving off a very Batman-like vibe.

Ginger’s phone is still streaming from where she dropped it, half hidden behind a saturated diaper that little Timmy decided to slip out of and streak through living room. In the background, you can clearly hear his high-pitched shrieking and his big brothers cheering him on. All the while Mike, Gina’s oblivious husband, shouts obscenities at the TV because his favorite football team just missed a vital field goal opportunity.

One frame down and to the right from Ginger, Tom, who has failed to unmute himself, has, for some unknown reason, angrily slammed his laptop shut.

Later, Emily will receive a terse email from Tom explaining that he has decided to leave the group due to a “toxic culture of insensitivity.” As proof of his accusation, Tom will cite how Sandra, an aging librarian, was completely unresponsive, “staring slack-jawed at the screen with one eye closed and the other half open in a grotesque parody of an uncaring gargoyle.” In actuality, Sandra’s video feed has just been frozen for the last few minutes due to her instance that paying $30 a month for internet is “beyond ridiculous!” And that her dial-up speed is “just fine, thank you very much!”

And finally, Tim, aka T-Pain, is having similar connectivity issues for completely different reasons. Reveling in his own cleverness, he has coupled the clean-up-my-appearance filter with a virtual background depicting the bridge of the Star Ship Enterprise. In addition to attending the group meeting, he’s also playing World of Warcraft on a separate monitor. All these factors are causing a sever lag in his audio quality. When he occasionally mentally checks into the meeting, between the slaying of legendary goblins and farming for epic loot, his voice sounds suspiciously like a rapper obsessed with auto tune.

Closing Scene– Emily is furiously cutting letters out of her Wall Street Journal and glueing them to a crumpled piece of paper. As the scene unfolds, we can see these letter forming a messaged addressed to the Pastor of Small Groups that reads:

I RESPECTFULLY RESIGN MY LEADERSHIP ROLE! MOVING TO THE WOODS! BECOMING ONE WITH NATURE. PLEASE DONT CONTACT ME EVER!

Sincerely,

Emily.

Potential scenarios like these, disruptions and distractions with real potential of getting in the way of group members connecting with their community and growing deeper in authentic relationships with God and each other, had led me to dismiss the possibility of online groups.

Then a global pandemic stopped the world in its tracks, and God showed me just how wrong I was.

Honestly, it’s kind of funny. I’d like to consider myself to be a bit of a theology nerd. Most, if not all, my understanding of scripture has to do with the understanding that the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) has been constantly and faithfully present, here on earth, among His people. Throughout history God has revealed his presence in many ways: in the cloud and fire that led a group of refugees (Ex. 13), in the mobile tabernacle (Ex. 40:32) and Jerusalem Temple (2 Chron. 5:14), in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God and second person of the trinity (Heb. 1:1-4), and in the activity of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the trinity (John 14:15-30). In fact, Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would continue the work he was doing, and this work would be done through us! (John 16:4-15).

As I prayerfully struggled to make sense of how God was working and moving among his people, even during a pandemic that forced us to isolate and actively avoid each other’s physical presence, I was reminded of something vitally important.

What actually binds us (followers of Jesus) together in unity and empowers us to enter into deeply spiritual relationships is not our physical proximity to each other. It’s the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit each of us relationally experiences (Rom. 8:9-11) when we place our faith in Jesus Christ. Because of the Holy Sprit’s presence, each of us has a supernatural relational connection to the triune God. But we don’t enter into this relationship solely as individuals. Instead, we become part of a larger Body of Christ, (the “Big C” Church) where our relational connection reorganizes around a spiritual dynamic based on God presence in our lives. In short, you and I can have a deeper relationship than is humanly possible because this relationship is based on the Holy Spirit living in us.

The apostle Paul explains this supernatural dynamic in his first letter to the Corinthian church. After explaining that we, together are God’s building, a building founded on Jesus Christ, he takes this building metaphor to its fullest realization by reminding us that we are God’s Temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. Notice how he addresses the entire church (and all followers of Jesus) using the plural “you.”

Do you [all] not know that you [all] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you [all]? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you [all] are that temple. (1 Cor. 3:16–17, ESV with additions to emphasize the Greek plural form of “you”. See also 1 Cor. 6:19)

Think about that for a moment, the same Holy Spirit that lives in me, also lives in you creating a super natural connection between us that is based on who he is, the omnipresent (a cool theological term that means he is present everywhere, at the same time) third person of the Trinity. No matter where I am physically present here on earth, or anywhere else in the cosmos, you and I are connected by the indwelling Holy Spirit. This supernatural connection doesn’t begin to decay when we are more than 6 feet apart from each other. It’s not based on line-of-sight, lost in tunnels, or degraded by lack of bandwidth. It can’t be corrupted by fickle technology.

Paul thought this supernatural connection was essential, especially when it came to important leadership decisions. In the same letter, he calls the leaders of the Corinthian church to act by kicking out an individual who was unapologetically and blatantly engaging in some sketchy sinful acts.

“For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:3–5, ESV)

The fact that he was locked in a prison cell over 350 miles away didn’t stop Paul from being part of an exceedingly difficult leadership decision. In his letter, (the most technologically advanced form of communication available in his day) Paul reminded his readers that he was already present “in spirit,” a presence made possible through a shared relational experience he and the followers of Jesus in Corinth had as the new Temple of God. (See also: Col. 2:5) Paul wanted them to understand that the Holy Spirit was the one that made this kind of connection possible, a relational connection that isn’t limited by physical distance.

So, what does this mean for online small groups? Well, to my humbled chagrin, it means that the Holy Spirit can work through the chaos, bypass the perceived limitations, and use online venues to create a quality group experience where people continue to connect and grow deeper in relationship with God and each other. So, while online groups are not specifically prescribed in the Bible (obviously), all the theological elements are there to support the possibility that they can be a real option for people grow together in relationship with God and each other. In short, they can be effective if we approach them with an understanding that God can use the unexpected to continue his work in the lives of the people we shepherd.

Just like before the swirling Covidic chaos, when we could encourage our groups to meet face to face, it’s our responsibility as leaders of small group ministries to trust that God can work, is working, and will continue his work in the lives of the people we lead.

We need to encourage our small group leaders that, despite the limitations everyone is facing during this season of chaotic complexity, the Holy Spirit is still binding followers of Jesus together. He is creating and maintaining the supernatural connection that isn’t based on physical proximity.

Let’s be open to new ways of creating space for people to meet, work our hardest to eliminate any roadblocks, and, most importantly, allow ourselves to be surprised when the Holy Spirit shows up through unexpected relational connections that develop in unexpected venues. Even if these venues, in the past, been considered by some (cough, cough) as less than stellar options.

Posted in Life

Fellowship Life Group Leaders Response to COVID-19 Crisis

Here is a video of the Facebook Live Event our Life Group Team created to help our Life Group Leaders understand the important role they play in pastoring the people of their Life Group during the COVID-19 crisis. I’ve also attached a pdf of the notes I am speaking from and a copy of our Life Group Leader Handbook. Feel free to share, but please cite us as your source if you use any part of this material.

Blessings!

Josh

Posted in IBAC, Life

Back Nicaragua and Wow!

www.youtube.com/watch

I’m back from Nicaragua after an awesome week where I was privillaged to see God work in the lives of several pastors from all over the area. I was very privileged to teach from the book of Revelation and cap off the entire series of our New Testament survey course. I’m very tired but jumping right back in to work here at Fellowship Dallas. Thank you so much for your prayers and support! God is definitely moving in Nicaragua! I was privileged to be a small part of what IBAC is up. I was also privileged to be part of the team there. My fellow teachers are amazingly gifted and able to teach with passion and clarity about God’s word. Josué and Michael, wow! Thanks everyone for your prayers and support!

Posted in Life

Somotillo Day #1 Getting Ready

www.youtube.com/watch

We made it safely here to Somotillo, Nicaragua. Tomorrow we will begin classes in New Testament survey for over 100 pastors in the area. I’ll be Teaching two sections tomorrow: The Cultural Backgrounds of the New Testament and The Life of Jesus. I’m excited to walk through the cultural questions that were being asked at the time and explore how Jesus answered each one with his life and ministry. Please pray for our team!