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Daily devotions, written by the staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church,
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As we light the first candle on the Advent wreath and open the first window on the Advent calendar, we turn our focus to watching and waiting, expectancy and hope.

As we await the coming of the Messiah, we remember that the season of Advent is not simply about readying ourselves for the observances of Christmas but about setting aside time to prepare our hearts and lives to receive the gift that comes to us in the stable. We open ourselves to see the light of the infant lying in the manger and embrace what it means to travel through life guided by the light that darkness cannot overcome.

On this Advent journey, we invite you to join with us in using these devotions for a daily time of reflection and prayer, and we wish you all the blessings of this season, as together we sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”

                —Members and Staff of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago

December 1–7 | December 8–14 | December 15–21
December 22–28
| December 29–31

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Today’s Reading | Luke 1:5–13
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him 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.” (NRSV)

It is probably not an accident that Luke’s story of Jesus begins in the temple. For ancient Israelites and Jews, the temple was the intersection of divine and human realms, a thin place in which the concentrated presence of God dwelled. This holy space was held in deep reverence and was only entered by certain priests. It was this sacred duty that brought Zechariah in contact with an angel of God, announcing the birth of a son named John who would prepare the way for the coming of Jesus.

John would grow up to be a prophet who operated outside the official religious institutions of his day. Out in the wilderness, far removed from the sacredness of the temple, John nonetheless brought his followers into contact with a thin place as he baptized them in the Jordan River. When Jesus himself submitted to baptism, it is said that heaven opened up and God’s presence was made known through a divine voice and a manifestation of the Spirit.

We believe that Jesus represents a unique coming together of divine and human, the world as we know it and the world as God desires it to be. Rob Bell has said that Jesus lived as if the whole world was a thin place. God is not confined to a temple—or any single place, for that matter. God is with us everywhere.

During this season of Advent, as we prepare our hearts and minds for the ever-present coming of Christ, open your senses to God’s presence around and within. Perhaps the whole world is indeed a thin place, waiting for us to enter.

God of wonder and mystery, help me to be attuned to your presence all around me. May the birth of Christ remind me that you do indeed dwell among us. Amen.

Written by John W. Vest, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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Monday, December 2, 2013

Today’s Reading | Isaiah 40:1–5
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
     that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
     double for all her sins.

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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (NRSV)

One of our favorite Christmas decorations is the nativity scene we inherited from the kids’ great-grandparents. It has a little light in the back of a rustic wood stable with pretty painted clay figurines, including an angel that hangs at the front peak of the roof and a wind-up music box that plays “Silent Night.” Each year, after Thanksgiving we clean house and set up our Christmas decorations. We put the nativity scene in a prominent place at the center of our hearth, near our Christmas tree. To gaze at it in the evenings with shimmering light coming from its “star” and the decorated tree gives us a feeling of calm and provides a sense of comfort.

During Advent, we talk about “cleaning house” and “preparing the way” for Jesus—making room in our hearts for him so that the light of his love can shine through us. This year the writing of this devotion prompted us to pause and think about how we might shine the light of the love of Jesus and help provide comfort for others less fortunate than we are. One way we settled on was to make trail mix for the Night Ministry, which is located relatively close to our home and the children’s school.

Dear God, thank you for always being there to help me. Thank you for always being there to forgive me. Thank you for bringing me the comfort that Jesus has saved me. Amen.

Written by Ned, Pam, Emma, and Addison Morley, Fourth Church family

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Today’s Reading | Deuteronomy 18:15–18
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.” Then the Lord replied to me: “They are right in what they have said. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” (NRSV)

For the past few months I, along with our Sunday School teachers, have had the joy of teaching the children of this church about the Old Testament prophets. Despite comprising roughly a quarter of the entire Bible, the prophets are rarely featured in our worship or in our thinking—in part because the sharp challenges they pose to readers typically require some level of historical background and context. To simplify this message for the younger children, the kids and I spent time putting together a picture of who the prophets were, piece-by-piece, over the course of several Sundays. The first piece? Exactly the content of our passage today: the mouth. The Hebrew word for prophet—nav’i—can be understood as “spokesperson,” and indeed the primary role of the prophet was to convey God’s words to the people.

Yet as we continued to put this prophet picture puzzle together over the weeks, it became clear that there was more to being a prophet than simply speaking: there was listening, feeling, and seeing the world through different eyes. It involved the totality of the person, and it was vital that prophets were deeply rooted in their communities. This Advent, as we wait for Emmanuel—“God with us”—we remember Jesus as the greatest prophet, the Word of God whose entire life spoke a rich testimony to us. From the humility of his birth as one among us to the sacrificial love he demonstrated his entire life, Jesus taught us a new way to speak.

Dear God, I am ever grateful for the gift of Jesus’ example—a prophetic witness who shone your light into this world. May I seek to follow your Word in this Advent season and in all the days to follow. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Minister for Children and Families

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Today’s Reading | Jeremiah 23:3–4
Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. (NRSV)

In the face of human failure to lead people away from pain and suffering, God boldly promises to intervene in human history and raise up new shepherds that will lead us to peace, security, and prosperity.

Centuries and continents removed from the situation that gave rise to these prophetic words, for those with eyes to see, the suffering of our world is just as palpable for us as it was for the Jewish exiles that first heard these words of hope. Like them, we too wonder who will be the leaders that will bring back the glory days of the past. We too wonder who will lead us to peace in places of simmering conflict and outright war. We too wonder who will have a clear vision of a better future for all and a correspondingly clear strategy for getting us there.

Until those leaders rise, we wait. Like generations before us, we wait.

As Christians, we are tempted to read Jesus into this passage. We are tempted to assume that this was some kind of prediction about the Messiah and be content with it as a beautiful Advent passage of hope. But this promise is about shepherds (plural)—not a shepherd.

Perhaps, some of us hearing these words today are the shepherds God is talking about. Perhaps now is the time for a new intervention. Perhaps now is the time for peace, security, and prosperity for all of God’s people.

Perhaps Advent is not just about waiting. Perhaps it is also about listening for God’s call.

God of bold and mysterious promises, give me eyes to see the suffering of your children and ears to hear your voice calling me—even me!—to lead them home. Amen.

Written by John W. Vest, Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry

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Thursday, December 5, 2013

Today’s Reading | Micah 5:2–4
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
     who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
     one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
     from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
     when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
     to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
     in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
     to the ends of the earth. (NRSV)

I remember when I was pregnant, both with Anneke and with Harrison, I was so curious. Who would this child be? What would he or she be like? I knew our child was coming some day, but really nothing else.

Finally, when each was born, they were immediately their own person with their own personality. It didn’t matter anymore what my expectations were. They are who they are, and I love them each for who they are.

In this passage, Micah is promising Israel that their savior is coming. But beyond telling them that that the savior would be their prince, their shepherd, Micah won’t tell them much more. Israel can only wait and wonder, just as I did when I was pregnant.

The one thing that Micah does tell them is that this savior will be born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem!?! From the least of the tribes of Judah? As Anneke and Harrison giggled when we read this passage, “Everyone knows that princes are born in palaces, not in Bethlehem!” But once again, God is standing our expectations on their head. The savior will be born in a humble village, a tiny creature who will become great. And he will bring us peace.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in, be born to us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Amen.
(from the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Phillips Brooks)

Reflection written by Lisa, John, Anneke, and Harrison Stracks,
    Fourth Church family

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Today’s Reading | Luke 1:26–38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 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. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (NRSV)

The danger of a passage like this is that because it is familiar we don’t take the time to really ponder its meaning for us today. I am struck most by Mary’s initial reaction. Gabriel says to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was “much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The angel goes on to tell her to fear not. Did he misunderstand her quiet contemplation as fear? The amazing thing about this encounter is that in it Mary seems to express no fear. Her reaction is one of extreme patience and contemplation. She does not jump to any conclusions, but ponders what sort of greeting this is. She does not act from emotions but from thoughtfulness. She does not seem angry or fearful or annoyed.

Gabriel states that “the Lord is with you” and Mary concludes by responding, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Put yourself in Mary’s shoes for a moment, how would you react? For Mary, the knowledge that God was with her was enough. As a servant she followed in trust and obedience. Have you remembered lately that the Lord is also with you? We are also each called to be the servant of the Lord. If we surrender to this fact rather than our own desires, we can truly be transformed. So in this Advent season remember that the Lord is with you today, right now. Open yourself up to this presence and listen for where God is calling you.

Loving God, help me remember that you are always with me. As you did with Mary, you have also chosen and called me. Open my ears to hear your voice among all the preoccupations of this season. Help me to serve you. In the name of Jesus Christ I pray. Amen.

Written by Liz Nickerson, Family Ministry Coordinator

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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Today’s Reading | Luke 1:39–45
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (NRSV)

When we read this passage to our three daughters, I was optimistic they would have a Christmas memory that might fall in line with the passage. Instead, Kate started drawing pictures of Mary and Jesus; Julia advised Kate that Mary probably colored her hair; and Lila climbed in and out of my lap as if it were a jungle gym. Suffice it to say we were struggling to concentrate. I prayed that I might be filled with the wonder of Jesus much like Elizabeth by way of some words for the blank page in front of me. I looked up and saw Julia and Kate drawing and comparing their versions of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and realized that perhaps, just by reading the passage, they were actually filled with the wonder and purpose of Christmas in a most age-appropriate way.

They then asked if I thought we should put out our nativity set this year. You know, because of Lila. (Who was, by this point, walking across the kitchen table.) Each year we put out a ceramic nativity scene front and center under our tree. It was given to us by my mother-in-law who made it for us years before Dean and I even met. She gave it to us for our first Christmas. It survived the oldest two girls’ toddler years, and I’m sure it will make it through one more. In a few weeks we’ll decorate our tree and finish by arranging the nativity, reminding us that Jesus’ birth is the meaning of Christmas. And together, like years past, when we stand in the dark and watch the tree light up with the soft glowing manager below, I hope that we’ll be filled with the wonder and meaning of Christmas.

Dear God, bless this church with joy, wonder, and hope, and let this be a wonderful Christmas full of hope, wonder and Christmas miracles. Amen.

Written by Dean, Carrie, Julia, Kate, and Lila Kozlowski, Fourth Church family

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Today’s Reading | Psalm 24
The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
      the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
      and established it on the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
      And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
      who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
      and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the Lord,
      and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
      who seek the face of the God of Jacob.

Lift up your heads, O gates!
      and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
      that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
      The Lord, strong and mighty,
      the Lord, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
      and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
      that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
      The Lord of hosts,
he is the King of glory. (NRSV)

The season has arrived for Santa Claus. From now until Christmas, every shopping center we visit will have its own red-suited, white-bearded, jolly old St. Nick, and we will see lines of young children waiting their turn to sit on this gift-giver’s lap and make their requests.

I wonder sometimes if we confuse this Santa-sitting experience with our pursuit of God. We just simply show up and tell God what we want. God laughs a little, says I will see what I can do, tells us that we are special and loved, and then we hop off God’s lap and go about our day.

Well according to Psalm 24, God is not the Santa Claus at a our local mall. According to Psalm 24, God is the king over all things, the king of glory, and there are requirements to enter into God’s presence. This God wants those who seek him to have clean hands (innocent of guilty works) and a pure heart (good motives).

I wonder if this bothers us a little because we want a God with no relational standards or ethical demands, a God who invites us into his presence so that we can get some things off our chest or ask for a few things. A one-way street where it is all about us and little about God.

Thankfully God has grander visions for us, and this season of Christmas is not a story about a jolly bearded man on whose lap we wait in line to sit. Rather Christmas is the story of a loving God who cares about justice and mercy, a God who is heavily invested in creation; a God who sent his only Son into the world to save us from ourselves and our attempts at bearding his Father and dressing him up in a red suit.

God, I confess I want you to be safe and demandless. Please break me of this narrow view. By your Holy Spirit, fill me with a true and beautifully powerful understanding of you. Amen.

Written by Daniel Holladay, Senior High Youth Coordinator

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Today’s Reading | Isaiah 9:6–7
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
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
     He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
     from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (NRSV)

The fourth- and fifth-grade Sunday School kids have spent all fall learning about David’s ups and downs. For example, an “up” was that David defeated Goliath and saved the townspeople. An example of “down” was the “Bathsheba and Uriah incident” as Katie and Emily refer to it. The Israelites in David’s kingdom trusted David to rule them since he was such a great warrior, but he betrayed them. They must have felt let down when their role model failed them.

In 2013, we similarly feel let down by public figures we look up to—like sports players who we later learn cheated to win, like young pop stars we idolized who later lost their way as they grew up, and like our country’s leaders who sometimes struggle with keeping the people’s best interests in mind. This Bible passage reminds us that when we are struggling to find the right role models, as David’s people were, we can put our hope and trust in Jesus—someone who will bring peace, justice, and righteousness now and forever.

Dear God, please help me remember that Jesus is the role model I can trust. Amen.

Written by Kevin, Kim, Katie, and Emily Reome, Fourth Church family

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 42:1–4
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
     my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
     he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
     or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
     and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
     he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
     until he has established justice in the earth;
     and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (NRSV)

Somebody special is coming. He (Jesus) will do amazing things (justice for all humankind), but it won’t be showy.

My mother-in-law loves to give books, but she only gives books with religious overtones. Consequently almost all of our children’s Christmas books that are about Jesus are from their MeMac. One that we read year after year is called Have You Seen Christmas? Two children look for a lost dog named Christmas. Christmas is definitely not in the mall where children fight over toys or at the beautifully lit skating rink. The children find Christmas at the church hall, where the homeless have gathered for food, warmth, and fellowship on Christmas Eve. The shiny trappings of the season look like Christmas, but they’re meaningless, even unpleasant. The answer is in a location devoid of glamour but rich with love. It holds the promise of the birth of Jesus and the quiet expression of Christianity through serving others.

Is the plot contrived and implausible? Yes. But this book sweetly and succinctly answers the Big Advent Question: “What are we waiting for and where do we find it?”

Gracious God, help me find the simple yet extraordinary gift of the season and to give thanks for the people in my life who help me get there. Amen.

Written by Josie, Greg, Meredith, and Andrew Phelps, Fourth Church family

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 35:1–10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
     the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
     and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
     the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
     the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
     and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
     “Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
     He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
     He will come and save you.”

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.

A highway shall be there,
     and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
     but it shall be for God’s people;
     no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
     nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
     but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
     and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
     they shall obtain joy and gladness,
     and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (NRSV)

People seeing a desert in bloom—who have never seen. People hearing music—who have always been deaf. People dancing and leaping lightly across the ground—who have always walked with a crutch or not at all. People singing—who have never been able to speak. An image of pure joy, and in the midst of this joy, a promise of safety.

An image of God watching over this celebration of land and people, protecting them and bringing them finally home. I smile. I raise my head from reading, look up and out, and see the playful picture before me of singing and dancing, swirling color, and laughing faces.

But whenever I hear, “Let us pray,” I don’t look up and out. I instinctively drop my head and close my eyes. I clasp my hands and close my chest. Why? Why is that the way we pray? Wouldn’t God like to see our faces when we pray? Wouldn’t God like to think that we enjoy talking to our God? Wouldn’t we feel freer to tell God our joys and sorrows and needs and thanks with our heads up and our hands open?

That is what this passage is encouraging me to do—pray up, not down. Pray with joy and with the expectation that God hears me and loves me and will keep me safe while we talk. Pray with an open heart.

I invite you to say this prayer with your hands open on your lap and your face turned up toward the light:

Dear God, I’m happy to talk with you today. Thank you for all the joys, small and large, you bring into my life. Thank you for flowers and music and smiles and miracles. Thank you for your constant presence in my life. Alleluia. Amen.

Written by Jean Marie Koon, member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 52:7–10
How beautiful upon the mountains
     are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
     who announces salvation,
     who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
      together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
     the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
     you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
     he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
     before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
     the salvation of our God. (NRSV)

I remember years ago singing “Our God Reigns” at small group gatherings in homes, church basements, and sanctuaries. Accompanied by guitar, we’d sing gospel songs based on verses like this from the Bible. These pieces of scripture were uplifting and ran through my head as a backdrop to whatever was happening at the moment. There was comfort knowing that “my God reigns.”

Those who came across the mountains proclaiming peace, good tidings, and salvation said to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The Israelites of Isaiah’s time had their share of trouble, as do we in our times. We are not in captivity by outside rulers, but we suffer an oppression of fear—fear about safety, fear about finances, fear about climate change, fear about warfare in our world. It can be difficult to remember that we have so much to be thankful for and that even through adversity “our God reigns.”

This is the preaching of the gospel. This is a proclamation of peace and salvation. It is good news, glad tidings of victory over spiritual enemies and liberty from our spiritual bondage.

During this season of Advent, Lord, help me proclaim the gospel message of peace and salvation. Amen.

Written by Roger Wilson, member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Scripture Reading: Zephaniah 3:14–18
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
     shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
     O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
     he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
     you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
     do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
     a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
     he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
     as on a day of festival. (NRSV)

“The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.”

There is a ton of courtroom language used throughout the scriptures. The Holy Spirit is called an “advocate” (our lawyer), and God is referred to as judge. Diabolos, what in English we call “devil,” is the accuser (the prosecutor bringing charges). The “law,” what guides how we live together as community, is to be meditated upon, and God’s covenant, a contract, is to be honored. While this judicial passage is in a long prophetic context trying to understand events of the time, I want to interpret what it can mean for us today.

We are being told that the judgments against us are being dropped, not because we no longer bear responsibility, but, I believe, it’s because God isn’t interested in finding us guilty. Guilt makes us look inward and feel unworthy: guilt is about us. Responsibility is about you and others. To borrow words from a spiritual guide, we are responsible to others and to ourselves. Guilt is about feeling responsible for others: we take on a burden we cannot handle and which God never intended for us to carry.

Stop carrying around all the “should haves,” “could haves,” and “would haves.” Stop beating yourself up over your mistakes, stop the self-loathing because of your past, and stop listening to the voices that tell of your unworthiness. Yes, we are capable of great evil, but God also equips us to offer grace. To do that, accept God’s grace for yourself. We can be full of sorrow for the wrongs we commit, but we don’t have to wallow in guilt. Instead, let us boldly accept our forgiveness and extend it to others.

Lord, help me accept my own forgiveness, that I might share it with all whom I encounter. Help me lament with sorrow all the ways in which I’ve hurt others, but free me from guilt and remind me of your grace. Amen.

Written by Edwin Estevez, Pastoral Resident

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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:57–66
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him. (NRSV)

Having attended a Catholic university, I had the luxury of sending a quick email to my priest of choice with odd theological questions. I often wondered why so many biblical prophets and apostles were renamed, sometimes much later in life. For instance, why was Simon, an old fisherman, suddenly renamed Peter? My chaplain responded in an email, “What a great question, ‘Esther’!” He explained that when God or Christ changed a person’s name, that person was called to a new identity and journey, undoubtedly something unique and pivotal to the Christian faith. So when Zechariah and Elizabeth share that their son, who is a miracle himself, will not bear his father’s name, we know John is destined for something greater in God’s plans.

The crowds were astonished the couple bore a child in old age and did not honor God with Hebrew customs. However, Zechariah and Elizabeth knew God had greater plans for John, whose name means “God is gracious.” As we walk with John in the New Testament, we witness his role as a bridge and his close relationship to Jesus. This passage calls us to mimic John’s call for a greater testament in our own lives. How is God calling each of us to something more unique and fulfilling than what we have planned? Are we able to answer God’s call, which is often very different from what society or our family expects of us? God sees something great in each of us, and while it is a blessing to have the mere gift of life, we must remain conscious of God’s journey in our lives and how we share our talents, gifts, and blessings with the world.

Dear God, as I prepare this Advent season for Christ’s birth, allow me to prepare my heart and mind to rebirth in my own life. Let me answer that special call you have for me, and let me share my gifts, acting as a bridge to others. Amen.

Written by Jackie Lorens, Associate Program Manager, EDSSC

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:67–80
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
      “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
           for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
      He has raised up a mighty savior for us
            in the house of his servant David,
      as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
            that we would be saved from our enemies
            and from the hand of all who hate us.
      Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
            and has remembered his holy covenant,
      the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
      to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
      might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
            before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
     for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
     by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
     the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
     to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. (NRSV)

It seems that every year, right after Halloween, “sightings” of Christmas come slowly upon us—from the retailers with all their decorations, to the Christmas music being played on the radio. It becomes so easy for our young boys to be suddenly wrapped up in the spirit of the season. They meticulously make their Christmas lists (multiple times) from all the holiday retail fliers that come in the mail. They especially eagerly await Target’s big book of toys. The excitement escalates as the days get closer to Christmas, and the suspense builds with each present placed under the tree. They secretly shake the boxes to try and guess what is inside, thinking that I don’t know what they are up to. Memories of my childhood race before me, and I clearly remember how I would do the same exact thing when I was their age.

When we talked about this scripture passage, this idea of waiting, anticipating, expecting, and hoping seemed to be the important points of this passage. Josh reminded us that Christmas is really a celebration of the birth of baby Jesus. This whole passage talks about the anticipation of Jesus Christ and the promises God had made to us of our future. Seeing our sons’ excitement and hope that come with Christmas is exactly what we as Christians look forward to when God will eventually come and reveal himself again to us all.

Dear God, help me never lose the true meaning of Christmas. Bless me and guide me so that I may never lose sight of the wonder and the promise of your Son’s birth and life amongst us. Amen.

Written by Jim, Joyce, Josh, and Luke Van Overmeiren, Fourth Church family

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Monday, December 16, 2013

Scripture Reading: Zechariah 2:10–11
Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. (NRSV)

It starts with a star.
It starts with a tiny nation.
It starts with a country town.
It starts with a stable outside a full inn.
It starts with a humble manger used for feed.
It starts with a newborn baby who cries and fills the
The baby who dwells in our midst brings

Can you hear, O Zion?
Can you hear above the clamor
of the animals
of the inn
of the town
of the nation
of the infinite night sky?
Can you know
apart from your rejoicing?

Lord, in this season of busyness with church and family and friends and cards and gifts and travel and preparing and singing and rejoicing, we have no time for a quiet moment with you and your presence. Still our hearts; fill our hearts. Make us aware that you are dwelling in our midst. Help us to know the Jesus of the stable, filled with silent hope and expectation. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Minister for Children and Families

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:39–55
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
     Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
     and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
     from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
     he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
     and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
     and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
     in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
     to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (NRSV)

Though the mothers of John and Jesus meet, I think of the reaction of the two unborn children meeting. At Mary’s greeting, the baby Elizabeth was carrying leaped in her womb and she was suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit. The prophetic knowledge of Mary’s condition filled her lips with praise and thanksgiving to God for our coming Messiah. I’m sure it was overwhelming for Mary, who wasn’t married, to come to grips with the reality that she was carrying our Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. Mary responded with faith, trust, and willingness. And once Mary embraced the way in which God was using her, she began praising God for his promises. We, as believers, know that God keeps God’s promises and brings them to completion.

Heavenly Father, I praise you and thank you for your Son, Jesus, who brings me joy, hope, and assurance that you are my promise keeper, that what you promise you will fulfill. Amen.

Written by Arlene Raine, member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Scripture Reading: Psalm 89:1–4
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever;
     with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever;
     your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.
You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
     I have sworn to my servant David:
‘I will establish your descendants forever,
     and build your throne for all generations.’” (NRSV)

Our first Christmas together after Laura’s adoption in China coincided with the first night of Hanukkah. In our Christian-Jewish family, we practice and worship each religion “in light of the other,” as a priest we knew put it. Our extended families—coming from a range of generations, cultures, and faith traditions—were happy to be together. Before Christmas dinner, we thanked God for the gift of his Son, a Jew who brought light to a darkened world. At sunset, we lit the first candle of the menorah as we sang a Hebrew prayer thanking God for bringing us to the season.

This year during Advent, we are awaiting the opportunity to honor our family’s creation by revisiting China during winter break. While in China, we will make time to be grateful for the best gifts of all—our family that bridges religious, cultural, and geographical divides and our relatives, friends, and faith communities who have loved and supported us.

In the scripture passage, the psalmist recalls God’s covenant and proclaims, “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations.” In this season of Advent, may we experience God’s love as we sing of our common faithfulness in the light of our cherished traditions that span the generations.

Dear God, thank you for our differences in religion and culture, because they make everyone special and interesting. Amen.

Written by Kathryn McCabe, Ira Pilchen, and Laura Pilchen,
     Fourth Church family

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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Scripture Reading: John 1:6–9
There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (NRSV)

Many people are brought into a theoretical light in times of need; there are those who overcome the darkness and struggle that surrounds the ones they are helping. Sometimes when you are having a bad day, there is that one person that turns your day around or helps you get through what you are dealing with. This passage about John draws my attention to the idea that he was sent down from God about this light. John was sent before the people to call attention to the source of life, to help them know how to live their lives. He helped them to understand these things, as no one had a right answer. John was a gift from God. Several years ago I was on a mission trip in Cuba with the youth choir. While we didn’t do any physical work, our voices and song were our gift to the people who live their lives struggling but seeking God’s help in church. The music was God’s gift to the congregations in Cuba. God sends many gifts to those who need them, gifts that will help them through their struggle. John serves as evidence for the light.

Lord, I give you thanks for the people in my life who help me through times of stress and struggle and for those who are brought into my life when I need them most. Help me to be the light for others as they are for me. Amen.

Written by Rachael Cohen, member of Fourth Presbyterian Church

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Scripture Reading: John 1:19–28
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said,
     “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
     ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”
as the prophet Isaiah said.

Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. (NRSV)

One winter, when my daughter was about five, she looked at the bare branches of the trees and said, “Look, the trees are like hands lifting up to heaven.” Now every winter I look at the bare tree branches and see hands lifting up to God. Her revelation pointed me to God and taught me to always look for God. So does the homeless person who holds up a sign asking for money, because at the bottom of almost every sign is written “God Bless You,” sharing God’s love and reminding me that God is there for all of us. My daughter, wintertime trees, homeless people—all these and so much more point to God and make me aware of God’s ever-present reality in my life.

Look around you. What is pointing you to God? Where do you see God in your life? Who brings you near to the presence of God? God is always there, just waiting, and all we have to do is open our awareness to God’s love, open our hearts to God’s gifts, open our souls to God’s overflowing blessings.

But it doesn’t end there. That is actually only the beginning. Once you sense God’s love, there is another question: How can I point to God and share God’s love with others? We are called to let others know that God loves them and to show that love in our own lives. The more we show that love, the more love we can receive, and so it becomes a never-ending circle.

I know you, Lord, in my every breath, my every step, my every love; so help me share that love with others so they may know you in their every breath, every step, and every love. Amen.

Written by John W. W. Sherer, Organist and Director of Music

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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Scripture Reading: John 1:1–5
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 came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (NRSV)

The Bible is full of imagery that, despite the passing years, still speaks powerfully to our hearts and minds. The image of light that John draws upon has endured in our religious imagination. Comparing Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, with light, John writes, “Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I take this statement seriously, because it speaks truly about the power of light. The power of light is more noticeable when darkness surrounds it. Rather than darkness overcoming the light, light shines more brightly in the dark. 

What could be a more hopeful metaphor than this? When we feel as though we might be overwhelmed or overtaken by darkness and all the confusion, lack of clarity, and fear that accompany darkness, we can be certain that no amount of darkness will overcome the light of Christ. 

Grant me courage and calm my spirit, Lord. Fill me with confidence and make me certain that no amount of darkness will ever overcome me as long as I live in the light of Christ. I pray in the name of Christ, whose coming I await. Amen.

Written by Joyce Shin, Associate Pastor for Congregational Life

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Scripture Reading: John 1:10–14
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (NRSV)

“You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart.” Thus the last line of the refrain of a hymn we learned at grade school, “Christ Jesus Lives Today.”  Two particularly naughty and irreverent boys in the class (full disclosure—one was me!) would sing out heartily, “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives in my backyard.”

We thought we were so smart and funny; little did we realize that this is actually quite close to what John meant when he wrote the great prelude to his gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The way John expressed the concept “dwelt among us” in the original language was to write that the Word “pitched his tent with ours.”

As close as we are to “the big day,” perhaps this is a good time to reflect on the mind-blowing, sheer foolishness (see 1 Corinthians 1:23) of this God who will give up the attributes of the deity (power, omniscience, etc.) to be human, to pitch a tent with ours, to live in our backyard.

The result of this for God is expressed powerfully in an affirmation of faith we have sometimes said in worship: “We believe that God resides in slums, lives in broken homes and hearts, suffers our loneliness, rejection, and powerlessness.” Perhaps a draughty stable in the middle of nowhere on a winter night was the only place that the miracle could take place.

Come down, O Love divine, seek out this soul of mine
and visit it with your own ardor glowing. Amen.
(Hymn text by Bianco da Siena, d. 1434)

Reflection written by Calum I. MacLeod, Executive Associate Pastor

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Monday, December 23, 2013

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 31:31–34
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (NRSV)

At our house, Advent is celebrated by our making each day unique for our two young sons. Each morning, our boys pull a card dedicated to that day from a pocket in the Advent calendar. We plan activities like decorating the tree, baking and sharing Christmas goodies with neighbors, choosing gifts for less fortunate children who may not be able to celebrate the holiday with presents.

Throughout the Advent season, while enthusiastically joining in these meaningful events, our children wait patiently (and sometimes maybe not so patiently) with hope in their hearts for their most anticipated moment of the year, which always happens much too bright and early on Christmas Day. And every year, without fail, they truly believe that their fondest wishes will come true under the tree. They tirelessly write and rewrite lists and letters to jolly old Saint Nick, pour over toy catalogs, and discuss with each other every nuance and possible detail of Santa’s impending visit.

Advent is sort of like that. The anticipation sometimes becomes so great (it doesn’t help that holiday displays start appearing in stores by the end of October!), one starts to live less in the present moment and a little too much in the future, with everything leading up to the birth of baby Jesus. Jeremiah must have known that kind of anticipation, too—waiting for the promise of a new covenant with God. However, his unending faith must also have kept him secure in the knowledge that he would eventually receive the ultimate reward for his patience. Fortunately for us as we celebrate Advent, we worship a God who has already come to be in a relationship with us, through his Son, Jesus Christ. So we practice waiting—waiting to celebrate Christ’s birth—and we carry hope in our hearts as we are reminded of God’s glorious plans for all of creation.

Thank you, God, for keeping your promise to send your Son. Help me to remember your promise to write your new covenant on my heart, and help me to be grateful for a relationship with you that is renewed each day. Amen.

Written by Lara, Tom, Henry, and Jack Ramsey, Fourth Church family

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 1:18–25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
     “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
           and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (NRSV)

Do we ever tire of hearing the awesome story of Jesus’ birth? Angels appear in wonder and mystery, in person or through a dream, proclaiming to Mary and Joseph that they would bear a son. Mary responded, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Joseph awoke from sleep and did as the angel had commanded him, taking Mary as his wife. Both were servants of God, trusting how the Holy Spirit was breaking into their lives and changing them—and us—forever. In ways we cannot explain or fully grasp, God uses them to become “down to earth,” the Word made flesh.

Christmas is a celebration of the marvel that God chose to live as one of us, among us, and for us. The child is named Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us. God reconciles us to one another, to our true selves, and to God. The child is called Jesus because he would save people from their sins. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love, including our own unworthiness.

Meister Eckhart wrote, “We are all called to be mothers of God.” God calls you to give birth to Love in this world. You are called to embody and nurture God’s peace. On this holiest of nights, be amazed. Be attentive. Be open to how the Spirit may whisper your calling amidst candles and carols in a crowded sanctuary or as you contemplate the night alone.

Glorious God, with the angelic host I proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!” May Christ be born through me as well. Amen.

Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Scripture Reading: Luke 2:1–20
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)

“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen . . .”

I hope you are singing the familiar Christmas carol to yourself this Christmas Day. It is a particular favorite of mine, although it doesn’t mention Bethlehem or Mary or Jesus. It is based on a legend from Bohemia—now the Czech Republic—about a tenth-century king whose name, Wenceslas, is now rendered as Vaclav (remember the leader of the peaceful revolution in that county whose last name was Havel?).

Why do I love this carol despite its lack of reference to baby Jesus? Of course it is a great tune, but I also think it is because it embodies what Christmas means to us and reflects what at its best Christmas calls us to.

Good King Wenceslas follows the commands of Jesus: “Bring me flesh, and bring me wine. Bring me pine logs hither. Thou and I will see him dine when we bear them thither. Page and monarch, forth they went, forth they went together through the rude wind’s wild lament and the bitter weather.”

He feeds the hungry, cares for the least, gives warmth to the cold, and lives into the call of his Master, whose birth we celebrate today.


For those who are cold,
For those who are hungry,
For those who are lost,
For those who have lost,
This Christmas Day I pray, O Lord. Amen.

Written by Calum I. MacLeod, Executive Associate Pastor and Head of Staff

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scripture Reading: 1 Timothy 1:15
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. (NRSV)

How often in worship we hear these words of assurance: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” What we don’t hear the liturgist say is “of whom I am the foremost.” Of course we don’t fit Paul’s description of himself as “formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (verse 13). Nor may we identify with “a wretch like me” in the hymn “Amazing Grace,” written by former slave trader, John Newton. We’re not that bad! Jack Stotts, while chairing the committee that wrote the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s “A Brief Statement of Faith, said they received lots of strongly negative feedback on one particular phrase: “We deserve God’s condemnation.” We? Those other people, yes, but . . .

For years, I spoke prayers that confessed the sin of pride, but I didn’t really relate. Later when feminist theology identified that women’s overarching sin was not pride but withholding our fullest selves, suddenly I recognized myself. Accommodating, distrusting my inner voice, fearing rejection, not relying on God all diminished my courage to live as God desires and work for a world of compassion and dignity. I newly saw—and increasingly see—how far short I, and we, fall. “Yet God acts with justice and mercy to redeem creation” we say in “A Brief Statement of Faith.” For God’s utmost patience, let us indeed give God honor and glory.

Merciful God, forgive me for seeing others’ shortcomings more quickly than my own. Transform my life and our world with your redeeming love. Amen.

Written by Victoria G. Curtiss, Associate Pastor for Mission

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Friday, December 27, 2013

Scripture Reading: Philippians 4:4–7
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

My devotion assignment for this month came at a very unique time. I was home a couple of weeks ago, and my dad, sister, and I all watched a sermon by Rick Warren entitled “How to Keep from Stressing Out,” based on this very verse in Philippians. The message that really stuck out was “If you prayed as much as you worried, you would have a lot less to worry about.” I find that one of the hardest things for me, and what I worry about are things that I cannot change. “I should have done this; I could have done this; now this is going to be so different because I did that.”

This verse, however, tells me not to “worry about anything” and to “let my requests be known to God.” When I was in middle school my youth pastor said, “When God says that he is there with you always, try and picture that. As you walk down the street, ride in your car, imagine God sitting beside you giving you comfort.” That is the practice I find gives me the greatest reassurance. In moments of great trials, let us always remember what God is promising!

Lord, I pray for continued peace throughout my days. Help me be diligent in learning to pray first before I worry, to give all of my cares to you, you who promises to guard my heart and mind. Amen.

Written by Ashley Elskus, Co-Director, the Center for Life and Learning

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Saturday, December 28, 2013

Scripture Reading: Colossians 1:11–19
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (NRSV)

I remember the phone call so clearly. The person on the other end was describing to me a post-college bachelor pad that was in need of one more roommate. I was that potential new roommate. I told him I would think about it and call him back.

After hanging up the phone, I cried. My life as I had known it was over. My wife; our dog, Moses; the wedding quilt that covered our bed; the silver BMW with the heated seats; the game closet that also served as a linen closet—it was all in my rearview mirror. My four-year marriage was over, and the last thing I wanted to do was move into a house with three other guys and a dirty bathroom. My new reality was setting in and I didn’t want it. I wanted my old life back.

It was through this pain that I began to see that I had built so much of my life on the wrong things: people being impressed with me, finding my worth in the talents and beauty of my spouse, the car that we drove, the stuff we owned. These things had defined who I was, they filled me with worth, and now that they were gone, I was left with an identity of absence. I was gone because it was all gone. I called those days the dark days.

Yet, slowly, by the grace of God, a light started to shine in and the story of Christmas started to unfold in my heart. I began to understand why Jesus came into the world. Jesus had come to tell people about another way, a way that leads to life and not death—a kingdom robed in light and tucked in by forgiveness. Jesus had come into the world to transfer me from my unsuccessful kingdom, which had led to darkness, and now I was beginning to see God’s kingdom, filled with radiant light.

Yes, I did end up moving into that apartment with the three other guys and the dirty bathroom, but I also moved into another kingdom, one where God calls me his beloved son (Colossians 1:13).

God, thank you. I love being your child. Amen.

Written by Daniel Holladay, Senior High Youth Coordinator

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Scripture Reading: Hebrews 1:1–4
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (NRSV)

If all you received from a friend in an obscure place in the world was a postcard with this text, what would be your reaction? What would you think and feel? I’d have several questions. First, why not just a simple “wish you were here,” as I enviously look upon some white-sanded beach? But who is the Son? What’s all this about sins, purification, ancestors, prophets, and angels? I would inquire about the Son. What’s his name and what’s his story? Then I could answer why he’s the reflection of God.

I’ve been told that the Son’s story is found in the Gospels and that all of scripture points to him. What is it about him that reflects the glory of God? Is it his truth-telling, grace-giving, forgiveness offering? Is it the wisdom of his parables and teachings, the faith, hope, and love he imparts? Is it the time he spends with all sorts of people and the intimate relationship to his followers?

Go, read the story. The audience to which Hebrews is addressed is familiar with the story but is being reminded of it. We all need that. We all need to remember—so go read the story about the one who reflects the glory of God. Read it again, and again. Be challenged by it and comforted. Bring to it your doubts and questions, as well as your desperate faith and faint hope. Bring to it your desires and your dreams, your deep wounds and your suffering. Read it, and there discover that you’re also called to reflect the glory of God.

Grant me, O God, by my living and relating, by my learning and my teaching, by truth-telling, grace-giving, and forgiveness-offering, that I might reflect the glory of God. Amen.

Written by Edwin Estevez, Pastoral Resident

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Scripture Reading: Matthew 2:1–6
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

    ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
          are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
    for from you shall come a ruler
          who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” (NRSV)

This year marked a big transition in our family: kindergarten! As the first day of school approached, Tara and Jenna were both eager and a little bit scared. What will school be like? No amount of visiting the school or talking with kids already in school could calm all their fears.

When we first read this scripture passage together, Jenna’s first question was, “Why was Herod so scared of Jesus when Jesus is so wonderful?” Today, of course, we recognize what a wonderful gift Jesus’ birth is to us, but at the time it must have seemed a bit scary, because nothing like it had happened before. All Herod heard was that Jesus was a wonderful king! Did this mean that Herod couldn’t be king anymore? Herod’s fear of the unknown took over all other possibilities and caused him to do some bad things.

All of us, at any age, probably have a bit of Herod in us. When we can’t understand how something new is going to turn out, especially when it’s bigger than we are or somehow threatening, do we fight it? Or do we embrace it in all the mystery that the unknown always has, trusting that God is in all situations and will have a gift for us if we just have the courage to trust and follow?

As our family talked about how scared and unsure we all were on that first day of kindergarten, we smiled because kindergarten has turned out to be so wonderful. At Christmas we are reminded that God gives us gifts we can’t fully understand yet, and sometimes those are the best gifts of all.

Dear God, help me to have less Herod in me and more shepherd in me, and thank you for Christmas. Amen.

Written by Linda, David, Jenna, and Tara Maclachlan, Fourth Church family

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Scripture Reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1–15
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by. (NRSV)

For everything there is a season—and as sure as one season ends, another shall begin.

No other time on the calendar offers up such an acute awareness of time in the way that New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day does. As the reverie and expectation of tonight gives way to the malleable beginning to be set before us tomorrow, we will begin a new year with great resolution—fully expecting the new  year to be better than years past as we stride towards the idealized vision of our lives we have created.

The writer—or, in Hebrew, “teacher” —of Ecclesiastes, however, offers us an alternative vision of time: rather than a straight line, time is something that is experienced in seasons. Seasons of personal growth, but also seasons of failure. Seasons of expectation, but also seasons of disappointment. We are challenged to see God in the midst of all circumstances, not just the times when everything is ideal, and in the same way we are challenged to believe that the value of our lives is not the number of resolutions we achieve, but rather in being God’s beloved.

May we begin the new year confident of God’s love for us, regardless of whatever season we find ourselves in and regardless of our ability to achieve resolutions, and may we each drink deeply of the gift of life God has given to each of us.

Great and loving God, I am so thankful for the newness of your love each and every day. Your love is with me regardless of circumstance—my sure confidence regardless of season. Amen.

Written by Matt Helms, Minister for Children and Families

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