December 23, 2018
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Advent Love – “Waiting in Welcome”
God is with us
Today we gather here to celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent. As we are getting closer to the coming of the Messiah, I can see how excited we are for our Christmas eve service and Christmas party after it. Although this is a time of celebration, let us not forget that there are people who can’t rejoice in this holiday as it can be a Blue Christmas to them… “How can we welcome and help people to rejoice in their lives” must be our concern for this Christmas season.
While meditating on todays’ scripture, I was thinking of the word, “welcome.” I believe welcome is a very proper term for the meaning of Christmas. The most marvelous event of Christmas in the Gospels is “Lord in heaven came to us as Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” God is with us because God welcomes us to his eternal fellowship through the gifts of hope, peace, joy and love; God is with us as we also welcome Christ our Savior into our hearts; God is with us as we extend our welcome to people in need.
God welcomes us
Our passage for this morning begins when “Mary visited Elizabeth” and “Elizabeth welcomed Mary” (v. 40). Elizabeth, the older one, was the wife of a priest Zechariah; she had been childless for long years; she must be in a shameful condition for her family and herself. When Mary visited her, she was now six-month pregnant with child (later named John), but at her old age, this must have been embarrassing. The younger one, Mary, was a poor and innocent girl from Nazareth, pregnant but not yet married to her fiancé Joseph. She probably needed time to get away from the eyes and tongues of people who knew her as a virgin, maybe even from Joseph. Anyway, Marry and Elizabeth were women without importance or with troubles in their lives and a far cry from most of the privileged people of all times.
Their social status somehow represents the miserable reality of Israel at their time. The Roman troops were everywhere to oppress the Israelites and thousands of people often appeared along the streets as they begged for food… In short, their times were bad, and everyone thought that they were going to get worse.
(And what is here today in our golden time to celebrate, as we also see many kinds of terrible accidents occurring randomly in our lives? We have to see that people we love get sick and die; our jobs and security are continually threatened; the future of children is uncertain; and the world has been torn apart by wars and terrors. It was then, and it is now, and it might be worse in the future. How can we rejoice in this time of uncertainty?)
In this world of violence and despair, according to our Gospel lesson for this morning, Mary visited Elizabeth, and they shared greetings and praised the Lord in joy and thanks! Considering their time and situations realistically, it might be nonsense or even foolish for them to sing for joy as they did in Luke’s Gospel. But this passage says that when Mary entered the house of Elizabeth, they could sing with joy! They celebrated their mysterious pregnancies (of God’s promise of salvation) inside of their house!
In one of the Hollywood movies in which Jim Carrey starred, the Grinch tried to steal Christmas by taking from the villagers all their Christmas decorations, all their trees, all their presents, and all their food that they enjoyed so much. And yet Christmas continued despite this theft because the villagers had Christmas inside them. As it was with the villagers in the film, so it was with Mary and Elizabeth, and so it can be and should be for us today as well.
In our history, those Grinches, those evil powers have kept on trying to steal our Christmas by looking at all the bad things, by destroying peace and joy in the world, and depressing our lives with shaky economy, high crime rates, and uncertain leadership in our country. But there in one thing that they couldn’t, cannot, and will never steal; that is our memory and faith deep in our hearts that “Jesus Christ our Savior was and is born in a broken and hopeless world to save his people from troubles.” No matter how bad our times are, nothing and nobody can steal our Emmanuel from our faith, even if we live in the worst of times. Halleluiah!
We welcome others
Back to the passage… Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth welcomed her, and they could celebrate their time together inside of their house. As expected in any culture, it is always a happy time when our families come to visit. We hear the bell ringing and our kids run with excitement to the door, shouting, “They’re here…” You are also happy to open the door and welcome them in your house. As everybody gathers in, you move on to have a Christmas party inside of your house!
Interestingly, when Elizabeth welcomed Mary at the door, her baby in her womb was also excited with Mary’s visit. Elizabeth shouted, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy” (v. 44). Elizabeth already knew that the baby carried by Mary is her Lord and Savior. Let me apply this powerful Advent image to our Sunday service… When we see people entering our church and joining in our worship, aren’t we excited to see them? The one who has Christ in one’s heart is coming in… don’t you feel your heart leap for joy?
Yet I still wonder what made Marry visit Elizabeth; what kind of emotion did she have when she visited Elizabeth? We know what happened to her before she went to see Elizabeth; she had a life changing encounter with an angel: “The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God’” (v. 35). How overwhelmed, frightened, anxious, confused, thrilled, awed, or even hopeful she was!!! Based on her mysterious experience, we can assume that it caused her to hurry to meet her cousin Elizabeth, so at least she could share her complicated emotion with a trusted confidant.
Mary entered the house. Probably she hoped that this was a place where she would be welcomed and comforted. Every Sunday, people walk through the door of a church probably because they hope they will be welcomed. When we welcome any visitors, however, we should know that they don’t just walk up to a church for no reason. They come because they are in need; they come because they have something in their hearts or in their lives and they want to be touched by our greetings and God’s words.
Throughout the images of those two unprivileged women, “Mary and Elizabeth,” the Gospel of Luke emphasizes God’s concern for the lowly, the disadvantaged, the broken-hearted… and it inspires us to become more mindful of ministries with and for the excluded. I hope we take this lesson as a way to acknowledge and warmly welcome those who visit our church, those we meet in our paths, those who are thirsting for love, fellowship, help, and counsel.
God enters into our hearts
Mary entered the house of Elizabeth and Elizabeth welcomed her. Welcome is the way we celebrate our Christmas! The Good News is that those Grinches out there, no matter how evil they are, can never steal our Christmas from us, and rather we can give birth to hope, peace, joy and love in this broken and hurting world waiting for God’s salvation and healing mercy upon it.
Yet, to make it more meaningful, we as recipients of Emmanuel should welcome our neighborhoods, especially those who are suffering the most during the holidays. God is with us because God enters into our hearts; God is with us as we also welcome Christ our Savior into our hearts; God is with us as we extend our welcome to people in need. Amen.
December 9, 2018
Second Sunday of Advent
Pastor SeokCheol Shin
Advent Peace – “Waiting in Repentance”
Ready for Christ
December seems to be the craziest month of the year – wouldn’t you agree? We are so busy and excited with preparing for Christmas. This probably suggests to you; going to the attic and bringing down all the decorations, putting up the tree and all the lights, purchasing the Christmas gifts, doing all the holiday cooking and baking, and maybe a thousand other things that “need” to be done before Christmas… Yet why do you bother yourself with those crazy Christmas preparations? Well, I guess it is because your families are coming home, isn’t it?
We have found that preparing is hard work at our church too. During the past weeks, our members swarmed over the church like busy bees putting up Christmas trees and lights, the Nativity set, and the Advent wreath and candles and banners… As we have well prepared our Christmas decorations, we are also ready to celebrate our Christmas season with our families, friends and neighbors.
But when I meditated on today’s scripture from Luke’s Gospel, I was thinking of this question, “Am I ready for Christ?” Who is coming for our Christmas? Is it our family or Jesus Christ? It’s so exciting to prepare for the holiday of Christmas, but how do you like to prepare for Christ?
Traditionally, John the Baptist always visits us on the second Sunday of Advent and reminds us that Christmas is for preparing for the coming of Christ. For it, he calls us to a deeper kind of preparation – a serious spiritual preparation.
Before mentioning John’s ministry, interestingly, Luke listed the names of the rulers of his day (vv. 1-2). The first one is Caesar Tiberius, who was a strongly anti-Jewish ruler. The next is Pontius Pilate, who allowed the crowd to crucify Jesus Christ. Then there is king Herod, who later killed John the Baptist and took part in interrogating and humiliating Jesus along with Pilate. At last, Luke mentioned the Jewish high priests, Annas and Caiaphas; they were only puppet religious leaders who later handed Jesus over to be crucified. Those rulers were all tyrants and flatterers of the power. Why did Luke describe this list of Roman and Jewish leaders in the opening line? I believe that it is just to show his day was corrupt all the way from the top down.
After naming those rotten rulers, Luke suddenly turned our attention to John’s ministry. According to him, John preached about the impending coming of God’s Messiah to rule all the nations, and he shouted this, not in a secret place, but in public where many people freely come and go. What he spoke was very radical and dangerous around his time. How did the Roman rulers react to his message about the coming of a powerful King from heaven? How did the Jewish priests accept John’s preaching about “repentance?” His angry voice was not a kind of evangelical campaign but a political revolution or a religious reformation against the corrupt rulers of the world.
John spoke dangerous words against the unjust society of his day. I think that John the Baptist was a great leader of his day like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela, who fought for the social justice of their days. In terms of our language, we can call him “revolutionary.”
Yet, we ordinary people are not comfortable with his political message because he shouted his voice not only over the evil rulers but also over the crowds. According to him, we are like a “brood of vipers” that cannot flee from the wrath to come (v. 7). We are like the “tree that doesn’t bear good fruit and that is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 9). He continued to say that the Messiah stands on the threshold, ready to gather the wheat into his granary but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire (v. 17). None would be free from his punishment unless we repent, turn from our wicked ways, and get baptized!
As a prophet, he proclaimed the message of repentance not only to the political rulers of his day but all humanity of the world. Why? It is because God’s Messiah is the Savior and the King of all races in the world. Whoever wants to belong to him and receives his sovereignty must repent and try one’s best to live in a righteous way.
If we only consider ourselves as citizens of our country, we don’t need to repent; our government doesn’t care about how we live and what we do unless we violate the civil rules and laws. But if we consider ourselves as citizens in heaven, we should recognize that God will bring us to account for our personal and private lives. And we know that we are never perfect enough in terms of God’s holiness and righteousness. Although we think we are good citizens of our country, we should repent because we are part of the sinful world.
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
By the way, the theme of this second Sunday of Advent is peace. Then how is John’s message related to peace? Does he talk about peace in his preaching? No, not all… Rather, he seems angry and upset with all of us because we are all sinners and that’s why he only preached “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3). But I believe he still represents peace today because his preaching pointed to the coming of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
According to John, the result of our repentance will be worth it. He says, “[When the Messiah comes,] he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11). In other words, he will give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, that is, the power of our lives, the power of revival, the power of growth, the power to sustain, restore, and keep our lives going on!
We all want to celebrate our days and lives; we want to recover and restore what we have lost; we want to live in peace and raise our children in safety. For all those blessings, John the Baptist argues that we should first repent, change our life and get clean, that Christ will come into our hearts and shine and strengthen our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. Repentance is the way we receive Christ, Emmanuel, the Holy Spirit, who offers us genuine peace!
Peace Comes with Repentance
We are already familiar with his message, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (v. 3), for it is the central message of John the Baptist and also the central lesson for Advent. O yes, we have already set all the Christmas decorations around and inside of our house; a few days ago, we already finished our Christmas shopping and purchased Christmas gifts for our children. But unlike our way to prepare for Christmas, John the Baptist speaks of repentance rather than celebration. Repentance is how we prepare for the coming of Christ.
John says, “I baptize you with water.” Baptism is the sign of repentance and turning around and living with Christ. He continues to say, “The One who is more powerful than I is coming after me… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” As we repent, the Prince of peace, the Savior of the world will come in, bless and heal our lives, and renew our life’s journey. This is our faith, our hope, and our gift from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
December 2, 2018
First Sunday of Advent
1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Pastor SeokCheol Shin
Advent Hope – “Waiting with God”
The Season of Waiting
Human life is full of all kinds of waiting: waiting in line at the grocery store, waiting in the doctors’ office or post office, waiting for any appointment, waiting for our children to grow, waiting for graduation, waiting for marriage, waiting for a job interview, waiting for vacation, waiting for retirement, waiting for the birth of a baby, and even waiting for the time of death.… Yes, our life is full of waiting and waiting and waiting. I don’t know how you like your waiting moment, but I don’t like it because it usually brings a sense of anxiety and pain in my heart.
But I believe that there are some kinds of waiting that give us joy and fun. Let us think about the season of Christmas. I still remember how I was excited during the Christmas season when I was a little child; the closer it got to Christmas, the more excited I became. Waiting to open Christmas gifts, waiting for Christmas pageant, waiting for Christmas cookies and meals — all of these, even though I felt impatient in my heart, were all about fun! Yet if you ask me to give you just one word about why I like Christmas, I would like to say it is “friend!” Christmas is the best time for me to hang around with my friends. Gathering with my friends and playing with them is my happy memory of Christmas!
Waiting with God
This morning, our Gospel lesson leads us to talk about “waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ;” this is the central theme of the Advent season. For Christians, the first Sunday of Advent is a sign of hope. Yes, it is a hope because we are waiting for “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (v. 27).
When Jesus talked about his own second coming to the world, the disciples were surprised and also excited to hear this event. So they wanted to know when the end of the world was going to come. But Jesus said that “No one knows about that day or hour, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Nevertheless, Jesus commanded them to “be on guard,” which means keep awake, watch, and pray, because they don’t know when he is coming back to them (v. 36).
Yet, I am wondering whether this uncertain return would really encourage us to always keep watching and praying in faith and hope. Rather sometime later, we might get tired, bored, and confused about how it is all going to take place. Waiting for Christmas is always fun for us because we can count the time. But waiting for the second coming of Jesus may bring us a sense of tedium because we don’t know when it really happens.
This is exactly how the early Christians of the Apostle Paul’s time felt. When they first believed in Jesus and started their Christian life, they were eagerly looking forward to the second arrival of Jesus. They thought that his return was going to happen soon. They waited and waited and waited until the waiting was almost unbearable. As time just passed and nothing really happened, perhaps they began to look foolish, tired and even skeptical about the delay of his return. Some of them were even losing their faith and left the church. As they left the church, they fell into their secular lives. That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonian Church, and he tried to call them back to their confidence in Jesus’ promise.
Paul’s main concern in this letter is about “waiting in hope.” For that, he reminds the Thessalonian believers that they are not alone as he points out to God’s abiding grace in their lives: “… continue to stand firm in the Lord” (v. 8). What Paul mentions in his letter is a simple and yet profound truth, which is “God is with them.” Perhaps they had forgotten. Perhaps we have forgotten, too.
“God is with us!” This good news that Paul shared with the Thessalonians is the eternal truth for all Christian believers. As you know, Jesus Christ came to us as our Emmanuel at the first Christmas. Emmanuel means “God with us,” and that means we have never been waiting alone but always waiting with God. It also means that all God’s gifts we are looking for in our wait have been already given right in front of us. If we are confident of God’s abiding power and grace in our everyday lives, we will not feel discouraged or bored or hopeless, but we may have hope for our future life.
Let us talk about the feeling of waiting for something again. What helps us enjoy our time rather than feel bored or tedious when we are waiting for something? To answer this question, let us think about the time when we are with someone else during our wait. I believe that while talking and chatting together with our company, we don’t feel bored; we may even forget how long we have been standing in line waiting.
As we know, Lorrain’s father passed away last week. When I was there, I saw he was surrounded by his family and friends. All the people in that room were in sorrow while waiting for the time that God took him to eternal peace in heaven. Of course, I shared my sympathy with the family, but I could also feel God’s comforting hands there in the midst of their gathering. I saw they held each other’s hands, shared their emotion and childhood memories, and encouraged each other. As they were all together in that waiting time, their father was deeply blessed by their love; they could endure their sorrow; and they could peacefully accept God’s calling for their father. What I want to point out through this experience is that friendship or companionship is the best way for us to stand in peace and hope during our shared wait.
This companionship is exactly what Paul talks about to us. We are waiting for the coming of Christ, waiting for something to happen, or waiting for a better life in the future; whatever it is, we are not alone in our waiting time. We are waiting with our Emmanuel in God’s grace that is always surrounding us, picking us up, and strengthening our faith and hope in Christ. With this ongoing presence and companionship with God, we can always take heed, stand in courage, endure our pains and sufferings, and wait in hope that God will strengthen us to overcome our problems, heal and recover our wounded bodies and minds, provide our journey, and bless our future lives.
No matter what happens in our lives, no matter what situation we may be in, we can always wait and continue our lives in hope because we know that Jesus Christ our Savior and our merciful friend is here with us and among us.
Waiting in Hope
This morning’s Scriptures teach us that our Lord Jesus Christ is coming into the world, and on the first Sunday of Advent, this is our hope. Our waiting for a new world may seem tedious or even discouraging especially with this shaky economy or without our beloved. We may be frustrated by its delay. But we must not give up the hope of a brighter future and the hope of the final fulfillment of God because Christ is indeed coming again!
How long do we have to wait then? We don’t know because Jesus didn’t give us the exact time and date. Yet, Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads” (v. 28). And in the meantime, let us always remember this simple and yet deeply profound word of hope: God our Emmanuel is here with us, among us, and for us, always accompanying our journey and empowering our life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.