Thursday, December 16

Anna Beyersdorf

Then there appeared to him [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.”

Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (Luke 1:8-13, 18-20)

Any time an angel shows up, it’s surprising, but that God came through an angel—to a priest who was already called by God through his tribe and his fellow priests —seems a bit more than necessary. It is even more surprising that worshipers were praying just outside the door at the same time Zechariah was encountering an angel.

Angels come as messengers from God to relay important and usually surprising information. God shows up during a time that we are not expecting. Zechariah must have thought “You are doing this now?”  We have all, at one time or another, considered what exactly God is doing in our lives. But God usually has a plan to help us and to glorify God and the kingdom here on earth. We forget, God’s plan is not always our plan.

Zechariah was, unsurprisingly afraid. That response is purposeful; when we fear, we tend to listen, especially to God. “Surprise! I’m an angel in your temple! Oh, and I know you and your wife are very old but she’s pregnant.” Is it really a surprise Zechariah was rendered mute?

Lord God, as we come together this Advent season, we thank you for being in our lives. Your plan in our life is not always the plan we have for ourselves. Please keep on surprising us with situations that follow you. Amen.

Wednesday, December 15

Rev. David Heim

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace (Isaiah 9:6-7a)

The prophet Isaiah’s initial forecast for the land of Judah is unremittingly gloomy. He calls out a faithless king who is leading the people to destruction. So it’s a surprise when the prophet offers this word of hope: a new king is on the way, already born, who will govern with godly wisdom and might.

Handel’s setting of this text in Messiah emphasizes the words “unto us.” The music underscores the message that the child is born “for us,” that is, for the sake of the people he will rule over, not for his own glory or might. In the birth of this child, God is acting on behalf of God’s people.

 The traits of the one who will be king mark him as an ideal leader for any age: wise and powerful, exhibiting fatherly care and ushering in a lasting peace. Yet Isaiah’s words outrun the description of any earthly king, even one close to God’s heart. Can even the most fatherly of kings be an Everlasting Father or a Mighty God? Can any human king bring “endless” peace?

Jesus is the king born “for us”—the true and ultimate king of the universe. And yet as we apply these words of Isaiah to Jesus, we find that Jesus rearranges their meaning in surprising ways. Jesus sits on no earthly throne and exerts no coercive power. His might is not that of armies, and the peace he brings is not won by shrewd negotiation or military might. His authority and power are enacted in a life of service that leads to a cross—for us.

O Lord, in our times of gloom, when human possibilities run out, act again for us. Rule over us and send us your wisdom, power, compassion, and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Tuesday, December 14

Rev. Phyllis Kersten

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,

    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:3-4)

Pundits often say that there are two seasons here in Greater Chicago: winter and road construction. The sign “Construction Ahead” is not a surprise to any of us who have navigated nearby streets or faraway expressways the last several months.

What is surprising about Isaiah’s words here in Chapter 40 is that we’re being asked to become part of God’s road construction crew. Whether we’ve had prior earthmoving experience or not, we’re being asked to help prepare “the way of the Lord.”

Why? Because God is not just traveling alone: God is bringing God’s people back home at last from captivity and exile in Babylon. The highway needs to be straight and broad, with the uneven ground made level because among God’s people returning home are frail older folks and toddling toddlers, the blind and lame and fit young athletes, and everything in between.

John the Baptist quotes Isaiah’s words in the wilderness several centuries later. Why? Because he is asking God’s people then – and us today – to once again don our hardhats. This time we’re asked to make a pathway, a level and broad interstate, for the God in Christ who is still bringing people back home today from captivity and exile.

Oh, there is one more surprise in Isaiah’s text: that even though we’re called to “prepare the way of the Lord,” God is actually at the wheel of the backhoe, bulldozer and grader. How do we know that? From Isaiah’s use of the passive voice in verse 4: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.” The passive voice signals that the construction of a broad and level homecoming highway is all God’s doing.

Thanks be to God – who brings us “home,” restores us to full relationship with God and one another in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Gracious God, help us to see that providing food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless is part of your work of making “the rough places” smooth and “the uneven ground level,” to create a homecoming highway for all. Amen.

Monday, December 13

Dan Lehmann

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (Isaiah 35:5-7)

The exiles returning from Babylon and elsewhere to Zion receive a pledge of hope in this text from the prophet. God is on the move again among the people, the devastating judgment that came with captivity will be made right through God’s grace.

Surprise!—All is being made new, correct, reclaimed. Captivity and desolation will be washed away.

Isaiah mixes environmental and human physical conditions that God promises to make right. Drought and aridness in Zion will give way to life-giving water and luxurious land while ailments that limit and damage the people will transform into a healthy, joyous world. How is all this to happen? “(God) will come and save you,” the immediately prior verse assures us.

Surprise!—Dysfunction and disability will be vanquished by the grace of God. Death and fear have met their match.

This promise foreshadows the coming ministry of Jesus who in Luke 7:22 cites his work among the people: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”

Surprise!—God shows up among us in the form of the Son. We sing this Advent season, “From God’s heart the Savior speeds, back to God his pathway leads; out to vanquish death’s command, back to reign at God’s right hand.”

The Savior came and comes to us still. Thanks be to God.

God of abundance, teach us patience and hope as we care for all those in need as we await the coming of your Son, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Sunday, December 12

Rev. Frank Senn

But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. (Isaiah 8:13-15)

The southern Kingdom of Judah was surrounded by enemies; the northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians. Who should the king and people of little Judah be afraid of? The prophet Isaiah says, fear Yahweh Sabaoth (the Lord of heavenly hosts). Who or what should we, in our big and strong country, be afraid of? Are we, the people of God living in this land, afraid of foreign powers, viruses, the political opposition, a warming planet, and one another instead of the God who has power to save? Has the God who has been our refuge in ages past become a stumbling block that we trip over in the dark? We are surrounded by many dangers. But there is no freedom from fear and anxiety in politics or religion, only in trust in the God who remains our companion and destiny in Jesus. We will either find hope in the light of this faith or stumble over it in the darkness of despair.

Lord God, you sent prophets to harden our hearts against the threatening dangers that surround us. By your Spirit, cause us to place our trust only in the promises of Jesus, and lead us to our destiny in your kingdom; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Saturday, December 11

Rev. Troy Medlin

Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman  is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isaiah 7: 10-16)

What is the sign that God will give? We would never dream it up, that is for sure. A child. This is the sign. A newborn baby born in a manger to an unwed mother. Vulnerable. Dependent on others. Someone without rank or status. Small. Not mighty. A child. This is the sign that God will give us. As preacher Barbara Lundblad points out, “God’s sign of a child surprised a king and an unwed father named Joseph.” If we are honest, it continues to surprise us. I mean, the God of all creation can do better than that, right? We would be more accustomed to a sign of power or prestige. A sign worth its salt. A sign that is worthy of the God of all that is. Still, we are left with this sign: a child. The shock of it all should not cease to surprise us day after day and year after year. 

The surprises continue to unfold. This is not just any child, and this is not just any sign. This is God come in the flesh. As Isaiah says, Immanuel. It is not that this is God’s sign, God and the sign are one. This child. This one. He is the God of all that is. If this is how God has revealed Godself to us, then our whole frame of reference for God is upside down. We don’t look up. We look down. Towards a child. This advent as we search for God’s in-breaking let’s continue to look down. Towards the vulnerable, small, dependent, those without rank or status. We just might find that God has already been dwelling there. We just might find a sign of God’s work in the world. And, when we find a sign let’s stay awhile. Where do you see a sign? 

Immanuel, you came to dwell with us as a little child. The ultimate sign of your reign. May we search out where you are found now. In wheat, wine, water, word, and stranger. Among the vulnerable. And marvel at your work until you come again. Amen. 

Friday, December 10

Rev. Bruce Modahl

He shall judge between the Nations, 
    and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

Usually, I listen to podcasts to help me fall asleep. One 2 a.m. morning, I scrambled for pen and paper when I heard the host say, “The gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ is the definition of hope.”

The gap not only defines hope, but our hope is also born in this gap. It is not just the gap between peace and war. It is the gap between Jesus’ death and resurrection and his coming again. With that in mind, I propose an amendment to the host’s definition. I say, “The gap between ‘what is’ and ‘what will be’ is the definition of hope.

Every weekend in my hometown we hear the toll of shootings and deaths. Every weekend a group of mothers gathers on a street corner to fast and pray for an end to gun violence. They know what will be. They know their prayers are not in vain.

Every day countless arbiters seek reconciliation among those who are odds with one another. Some will come to see their efforts as hopeless. Others will persist because they know that in Christ we all are reconciled to God and to one another.

Stroll by means of Google search through the sculpture garden at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. You will see contemporary representations of Isaiah 2:4. In 1988 Luxembourg gave to the UN a sculpture of a Colt Python 357 magnum revolver with its barrel tied in a knot. The gun is cocked, but it will never fire.

In 1990 the Soviet Union donated a sculpture of St. George slaying the dragon. It is a familiar image. What is surprising is the body of the dragon is made from fragments of Soviet SS-20 and US Pershing nuclear missiles.

Heavenly Father, by your Spirit you kindle hope in our hearts, showing us what will be when Christ comes again. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, December 9

Rev. Karl Reko

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. (Malachi 3:1-3)

It’s almost impossible to hear these words of Malachi without hearing George Frideric Handel’s stern, if not ominous, melody from the Messiah in the background. Being refined is not a pleasant prospect. As we go along, we often fall into spending a lot of time and much energy trying to improve, to become more and more pure. We usually don’t enjoy the process.

And yet, our greatest longing is to stand in purity before the One who made and sustains us. Malachi states our greatest need by saying the Creator’s messenger is the one “whom you seek.” The covenant bringer is the one “in whom you delight.” During Advent, we look forward to the day of his coming at Christmas in a longing mood ending in the celebratory day of Christmas.

And then, God’s Old Testament surprise of a coming messenger with a new covenant is ruined. If he is like a refiner’s fire, “who can endure the day of his coming?” We answer, “we can’t” because we can’t survive the refining and have no hope of coming out of it with purity.

But the surprise isn’t over. Luther equates our Lord’s coming with the exchange that occurs in a marriage. Everything that belongs to the groom now belongs to the bride and everything of the bride’s is now possessed by the groom.

In the new covenant, our Lord takes us and makes us his own. All of our imperfections, our tiring and vain pursuit of perfection now belongs to him who took it as his own on the cross. And by that same event our Lord’s perfection now is ours, and we are viewed as purified in the Father’s sight. We have been reclaimed, remade, refined.

Most of us don’t like to experience a lot of surprises. This is one that we can’t get enough of.

Good and loving God, our Refiner. Thank you for surprising us by making us pure. Let our acts of refinement no longer be self-justifying attempts to purify ourselves, but grateful lives rejoicing in the joy of your salvation. Through your Son, the Messenger of Your new covenant. Amen

Wednesday, December 8

Rev. Dave Lyle

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6: 20-23)

Part of what makes Christmas so special is that it’s different from other days. Our celebrations are marked by surprise. Our children spend Advent wondering what’s underneath that wrapping paper. Christmas morning brings the joy of discovery. Who knows what the gifts will be?

The rest of the year is different. We know what to expect, more or less. Life is often reduced to the transactional. You get what you pay for, and you get paid for what you’ve done. This is how the world works. Or more to the point, how the world doesn’t work. The problem is that if we get what we have earned, then what we have coming is death. The paystub is clear: Our hours are filled with sin and the wages of sin is death.

St. Paul, however, has a different gift in mind. In his letter to the house churches in Rome, he pulls off a grand surprise. What we’ve earned in sin is death, but God has something else up the divine sleeve. We get not what we deserve from God. We receive what God desires to give us. We unwrap the gift that is nothing less than God wrapped up in human flesh. Emmanuel.

With the gift of freedom comes servanthood to God and the righteousness of a life covered by Christ. We are free now to act in the most surprising ways, returning violence and hate with peace and love. This is the sanctified life. As you discover again the gift this Advent, may you marvel at the wonder of it all. You will not be given what you deserve. Instead, you are gifted with Jesus, the One who brings holiness and unending life.

Gracious God, thank you for the greatest surprise of all, this Jesus whom we do not deserve. Amen.

Tuesday, December 7

Owen Augustine

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table,took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” (John 13: 3-7)

Simon Peter and the rest of the disciples are baffled. Why would Jesus, son of God incarnate, teacher of the kingdom of heaven, soon-to-be savior of all our sins, perform a task so dirty and undesirable it is only reserved for servants of the day? As we have encountered many times before, God’s plan often exceeds our feeble human minds. What Simon Peter and the disciples didn’t understand was that Jesus wasn’t washing their feet because they were coated with the grime of Jerusalem’s roads or because the servant of the house was nowhere to be found. He was washing their feet as a symbol of washing away sin on earth.

The significance of this seemingly trivial act is a precursor to another that will take place three days later upon a hill for the whole world to see. The disciples’ perspective of achieving the kingdom of heaven is a tangible, physical one. By washing their feet, Jesus connotes that salvation is a spiritual journey and is not of this earth, not of human understanding. So when Simon Peter inquires as to what Jesus is doing, Jesus openly communicates that his confusion is justified and that in due time “[he] will understand.”

Then how are we, in our 21st century lives, to approach Jesus’ message of sacrifice and salvation? Unlike the disciples, we have, through the luxury of time and reflection, more of a comprehensive understanding of how this act fulfills Jesus’ mission. So whenever you find yourself caught in a rainstorm or wash your feet in the shower or bath, remember the sacrifice the disciples weren’t able to fully discern and recognize the path to salvation cleared by Jesus.

God of deliverance, lead our lives with growth and understanding so that we ma,y to the best of our earthly abilities, appreciate your wonders. Amen.