This week we have entered into the way of hope. It is the prophets who show us how as they hold firm to who God is and what God has promised in the midst of difficult and devastating life circumstances.
Hope does not set us free; it binds us to the hard places, to the dry places, to the burning places, watching and waiting for the bud to blossom, for the river to run, for the promises of God to become a present reality.
Sometimes, we may wish that God would release us and allow us to wallow in self-pity; to throw up our hands in despair and declare, “There is nothing to be done!”
Yet hope catches the lie between ours lips and counters, “Just wait and see what God can do.”
As we journey with your living Word and deeper into the eternal Mystery of God-with-us, may you come to us like a bud on a long-dead branch, like a quiet stream in the desert, like the warm hand of a child, reaching out to lead us. Amen.
Today’s Advent task is to attempt crafting a friendship bracelet like this one:
It’s inspired by another tiny prophet: Habbakuk.
Writing (probably) during the Chaldean period when Babylon was at the height of her power, he converses with Jehovah through a series of complaints to which God must respond regarding God’s punishment and providence.
Do you have any complaints that you would like to make against God today? Choose a colour for your bracelet that will reflect your complaints.
Throughout the conversation, Habakkuk wrestles, as many of us do, with the apparent prosperity of the wicked while good and holy people suffer, but holds stubbornly to the ancient stories of God coming forth to deliver his people despite the “evidence” of God’s inactivity.
His faith is based on God’s faithfulness in the past; on the songs and stories of God’s people throughout the ages. From Joshua’s battle with the Amorites when the sun stood still and the moon stopped in the sky until the nation had been avenged (Habakkuk 3:11), to the surging waters of the Red Sea trampling down the Egyptian’s horses and chariots as the Israelites fled captivity (Habakkuk 3:15), Habakkuk has been nursed on the accounts of a God of Action – Mighty to Save – that enable him to wait patiently despite a clear threat to his personal safety and the wellbeing of his nation as a whole.
What are the songs and stories that you hold on to to remind you of God’s faithfulness? Weave a new colour into your bracelet design as a symbol of God’s goodness.
He writes, in conclusion of his conversation with Jehovah, of his conscious decision to trust in the Lord and rejoice in his Saviour despite their current plight:
“Fig trees may no longer bloom, or vineyards produce grapes; olive trees may be fruitless, and harvest time a failure; sheep pens may be empty, and cattle stalls vacant— but I will still celebrate because the Lord God saves me”
Habakkuk sees everywhere “evidence” of God’s inactivity and apparent desertion yet chooses to celebrate, in faith, the God who has shown himself through the ages as mighty to save.
Choose a bold colour for the final strand of your bracelet as a symbol of your choice to celebrate. How might you share this choice in the world today?
Today, we look at Jesus’s family tree from Matthew 1 against the backdrop of the prophecy in Isaiah 11 regarding the shoot that shall spring from the stump of Jesse. You’re welcome to read through the first half of the first chapter of that Gospel but for those who may be put off by all those names, here’s a handy little lyrical version that I found on youtube:
Isaiah’s hope-filled vision occurs, interestingly, in the context of the growing Assyrian threat, in a time when the legacy of King David is all but lost in spite of God’s promises that his house would endure forever.
In the midst of those first 39 chapters of the book, we hear the voice of first (or proto) Isaiah: a voice full of judgment and warning about the bad things that are about to happen because the people of God have not lived in right relationship with God nor with one another nor with their neighbours.
It’s a countdown to conquest really; but, against all odds, a new shoot will grow from an old stump – the stump of Jesse who was David’s father and David was Israel’s first and greatest King.
And this new King – the Messiah – will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and reverence for God and delight in doing God’s will. Through him, the poor and the needy will find favour and all that are divided will find peace and harmony. There will be no harm, no hurt in his kingdom.
Isn’t that a beautiful image? A hope to hold on to?
But what do words and pretty promises mean when your home is burning, your child is dying; when you have no freedom; when there is no peace or harmony – only harm and hurt, hurt and harm day after day, month after month, year after year after year?
It was 700 years or so before the promised child was born – so full of Spirit; the Son of God. Born into the midst of Roman occupation and religious exploitation and poverty and need …
… for the more things change, the more they stay the same as we say so casually.
But when we step back a little further and look at Jesus’ family tree, we see, in fact, God’s promise to deliver, to rescue, to save spanning the fourteen generations from Jesus’ birth to the exile in Babylon. And fourteen generations before that between the tile and the reign of King David. And fourteen generations from David all the way back to Abraham, who is known as the father of our faith for God made a promise to him and he left all that he had known to follow God.
Forty-two generations! That’s a long time to wait for a promise; a long time to hold on to a hope when you’re hurting right now.
We will spend a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary cycle, and you will see how often he draws attention to things happening in fulfilment of what the prophets said. The author wants us to know – in both head and heart – that God does what God says God will do.
But each person has a part, a place, in fulfilling these promises, including:
Tamar, who was nearly burned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock,
Ruth, the foreigner,
Rahab, the prostitute,
Bathsheba, who was so beautiful that King David had her husband killed so he could have her for himself,
and Mary, who was pretty much an insignificant little nobody until she was chosen to bear the Christ-child.
Everyone has a place – including those we deem unlikely, insignificant, and unworthy (hence my choice of women from Jesus’ family tree) – in the unfolding promises of God who is active in every generation.
As we hear again in this Advent season that familiar story of the Christ-child born in our midst who will come again one day to establish the perfect peace of his kingdom, once and for all, it would serve us well to wonder – and perhaps to talk about over the table:
what does that promise really mean?
what might it mean for those who are in the midst of drought, destruction, and despair right now?
do we walk with dread each day because of bad things happening?
do we set out into the world in anticipation that God will draw near to us?
do we offer hope through pretty words or through active participation in what we see God doing to bring comfort and healing and peace in the midst of harmful, hurtful situations?
My prayer as we travel the prophet’s path is that we will enter into each new day as if God is coming – not in 700 years’ time or 7000 – right here and right now, in the words that we speak, and the love that we share, and the space that we make at the table.
For our first Christmas in Australia, I insisted that we find a living tree we loved that would grow, like us and with us, in this new land.
After several futile trips to garden centres and nurseries, we finally found the perfect little Norway Spruce and planted it in a big red pot and surrounded with poinsettias to mark the season. The tree itself was so small, however, that we had to hang the lights and few ornaments that we had held onto on a metal frame around the fragile branches.
This morning, as I braced myself to lug it from its sunny spot by the front door into the lounge, I realised that it is actually as tall as I am – and I’ll probably need a few more muscles to get the job done.
The lovely little leaves and acorns that I bought as decorations will probably also just disappear among the branches but they are symbols to me of the living hope that we honour and nurture in the time of Advent.
Yesterday, we read in the words of the prophet Micah, a reference to the Promised One coming to a little and unlikely place. But we also read that this One still to be born will have ancient roots.
Isaiah, too, writes of these old, old origins blending the promise that is to come into a past in which God has always been faithful:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
This is a great mystery of the Christian faith: that both past and promise inform our present hopes, dreams, and choices in life-givng, creative tension.
I’ll elaborate on that a little more tomorrow, but today I’d simply like to link you to a song by Heather Price entitled “Seed of Hope” which is a prayer for our environment in a time when we celebrate new life and beginnings and also recognise the ongoing hardships of those threatened by drought and bushfire.
These beautiful advent calendars are two of my favourite Christmas decorations. Aren’t they lovely? Don’t you just want to peek inside at the mysteries they hold; mysteries to be revealed one by one each day in the journey to Bethlehem and the Christ-child in his cradle?
I can tell you right now that if you did slide out one of the drawers to discover what lies within, you would be very, very disappointed.
Each Christmas, with great intentions I declare that this will be the year that I find 24 (times two!) little treasures to point the way to what it most important (which is what good prophets do) and – every year – I simply don’t get around to it because of: lack of time, or lack of money, or a total lack of inspiration!
But, this year, thanks to a small prophet writing about a small place being of great significance to the whole, wide world, I’m inspired to do things differently.
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
The words of the prophet Micah are spoken to the people of Israel at a similar time to those of the better known prophet Isaiah, and the message itself is quite similar (though very brief in comparison). But Micah writes from a very different context: from a tiny village in the countryside where the life and death of the marginalised and the poor are determined daily by distant and greedy rulers, judges, priests, and even prophets. It is because of them that all will be destroyed, he warns.
Yet God’s future plans will not be ruined by the desolation of God’s people.
One day, the greatest of all kings will be born to a small family in the small town of Bethlehem. God will use the little and unlikely to change the world.
So, today, I labelled my lovely advent calendars: “Little” for the tree (which is very miniature in comparison to the Norwegian fir tree that we’ll decorate this week), and “Unlikely” for the reindeer-moose-thingy because – though undeniably cute – he seems completely inappropriate for our Australian context.
Into “Little” I popped a small scroll of something little that I can do that will make a small difference to another person’s life in some way. The first task was inspired by a very particular person and a very particular need but I’ve generalised the idea: Reach out in a sensitive way to someone who usually keeps others at a distance.
Into “Unlikely” I popped a small scroll containing a big prayer. With today being Cyber Monday, I prayed for the cancellation of debt and a financial breakthrough for individuals and families who are victims of our consumer culture. It seemed like a pretty impossible thing to ask for but … “though you are small ….”
Each day in Advent, I plan to add a scroll to both, detailing a little task that can make a difference in another’s life and a big prayer that seems so unlikely of coming true that we may not think to ask for it. And each day, I plan to offer both.
At the end of the Christmas season, the boxes will be full instead of empty.
So next year when each drawer is opened (whether with my family or my church community), there will be inspiration of simple gifts that we can give one another, and huge hopes to hold onto, and even – I hope – opportunities for thanksgiving and celebration as we discover that God is working in our world in marvellous and unlikely ways.
Note: even if you don’t have fancy advent calendars that you’re trying to put to good use or want to do this in a different season, you could label two jam jars and fill them with colourful post it notes.
At the start of the Advent season, we light the candle of the Prophets.
Prophets are people who come so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what is most important.
Jerome Berryman, Godly Play
Generally speaking, prophets are not popular people.
It’s understandable really. Either they are throwing out some quite confronting warnings about where particular life choices might lead us (generally ending in despair, destruction, and death), or they’re painting such impossible pictures (like wolves lying down with lambs or an-all-you-can-eat-banquet at no cost or dry bones coming to life again) that you have to question their sanity.
It’s important to note as we celebrate our “prophets of old” in this month that prophets are not just people of the past.
Have you ever met a prophet? How do you know? How were they received? What difference did their words make?
An important task of the Church today is, in fact, to exercise a prophetic voice in the communities and societies and countries in which we gather. In other words, part of our calling as Christians is to offer warning about where particular life choices might lead us and/or to paint seemingly impossible pictures of God’s future for the whole world with great hopefulness and expectation.
These are not to be our own desires or judgments ill-wrapped in “godly language” to suit our own causes or sense of what is good and right but pointing people to the One who promises the renewal and reconciliation of the whole earth.
During Advent, when we are particularly aware of God coming close to us in Christ, we have the opportunity to come so close to God that we know what is most important, that we have something to say in the world that can make a dramatic difference.
How can you come close to God over this special season?
Over the next six days we will enter deeper into the mystery of God-with-us through the prophets, beginning with Micah who sets us firmly on the road to Bethlehem:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
God of Promise, we hear, in Christ, your greeting to the universe as we enter into this season of mystery: “Hope to you: hope for healing, hope for refreshing, hope for a world made new!”
We confess, today, how hard it is to pay attention to the signs of your presence with us – or within those who are radically different from us.
We acknowledge, today, how easy it is to speak criticism or judgment or bad tidings above good news and affirmation and promise.
We turn away, today, from the past that holds us captive in the place of pain and despair, as we turn in the light of your revelation and the movement of your Spirit to your vision for this new day, for a world made new.
Open our hearts to the words of the prophets – past, present, and future – as we seek to be signs of Your hope in this season.
If you don’t know what a hobbit is, I suggest that you get reading “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien and/or watching the film series onto your Christmas to-do list as soon as possible but, because I don’t want to hold this tiny error of omission against anyone, I will take a moment to explain with images the three ways in which I am quite hobbity:
Food 4 the road offers 24 days of wonderings to sustain us in our wanderings through brief daily reflections which you’ll find at liturgies4life.com each day or can get straight to your email if you click on the “subscribe button just below.
In addition, Wednesdays will feature some questions for conversation and communion if you would like to organise and enjoy a communal meal with other pilgrims, friends, and family members in this special time of getting ready and entering the mystery of God with us.
In the first week (beginning Sunday, 1 December), we travel with the prophets. So put on your walking shoes (if you don’t have incredibly large and hard hobbity feet), pack a bag with enough munchies and crunchies to keep you going for a while, and let’s journey together.
“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”
One of my particular passions at the moment is taking the “business” of being church and translating some of the policies, training courses, and decisions of our various councils and translating them into worship services that give our intergenerational, multicultural faith community and opportunity to engage with how they reflect our faith and help us grow into the love and image of Christ in the world.
Safe Church is often seen as a compliance issue is response to Work Health and Safety and the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse but it’s about so much more than that.
By identifying Safe Church Officers, publicly affirming those who attend Safe Church Awareness Workshops, and offering the whole community the chance to participate in building a sanctuary for all people, this liturgy hopes to shape consistent and authentic thinking about what it means to conduct church in a God-honouring, life-giving, and harm-free manner.
Credit given to the Church of England and Scott Noon’s “Life-lifting devotions for youth workers” for feeding some of this work.
As space allows, the sanctuary is set up in smaller groups with 6 to 8 chairs clustered around tables. Each table should be set with a brightly coloured piece of cardboard on which the letters SAFE are written vertically beneath one another (the blank side should be face up before the service starts), some felt-tipped markers, a centre-piece (floral, symbolic, or an image related to the “Sheltering God” welcome) and an ordinary plate and glass for a love feast. Posters containing contact details for Safe Church co-ordinators and helplines should be on display.
Sheltering God – welcome
Scripture is full of images of our Sheltering God: who bears us on wings of love and makes a home for us beneath the canopy of his wings; who shelters us in the secret place in times of trouble and keeps us out of reach of all our enemies; who offers refuge from the storm and a shadow from the heat; who, with open hand, satisfies the desires of every living thing and gives us our daily bread; who comforts us as a mother comforts her child – nursing us, carrying us on her hip, and bouncing us on her knee.
Today, as we gather together to mark Safe Church Sunday (for the first time), we receive again the invitation to find – in this time, and this place, and these people – the shelter of God who soothes our souls and shapes us into a sanctuary that is God-honouring, life-giving, and free from harm for all people.
We bind our hearts together as we sing:
Gather us in, and hold us forever; gather us in, and make us your own; gather us in, all peoples together, fire of love in our flesh and our bones.
Signs of welcome
NAME-SHARING: At the table, each person introduces themselves to the group.
Sheltering God, show us the signs of welcome in our worship.
Help us stand together, turn toward each other, sing in harmony, eat the same bread, kneel side by side, wave, meet another’s eyes, recognise a voice, say a name by heart, speak in unison, intercede for each other, give thanks, hear the same readings, hug, and join in a three-fold amen.
Sheltering God, show us signs of how we welcome one another and build – together – a sanctuary for hungry, hurting souls, a place full of grace and Spirit and truth. Amen.
Settling into Scripture
SAFE CHURCH: As the people prepare to listen to the Gospel reading for the day, they are invited to think about what it means to be a safe church by completing the acronym SAFE with appropriate words and/or phrases. The following example can be displayed on a board or projector:
Caring community Headed by Jesus Christ Us Real people with real joys and struggles Called to be salt and light Hope for reconciliation
Time should be given for groups to share their responses.
GOSPEL READING (chosen from Sunday’s lectionary – can be adapted)
Jesus was going through the city of Jericho. In Jericho there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a wealthy, very important tax collector. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but he was too short to see above the crowd. He ran ahead to a place where he knew Jesus would come. He climbed a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus. When Jesus came to that place, he looked up and saw Zacchaeus in the tree. He said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down! I must stay at your house today.”
Zacchaeus came down quickly. He was pleased to have Jesus in his house. All the people saw this and began to complain, “Look at the kind of man Jesus stays with. Zacchaeus is a sinner!”
But Zacchaeus said to the Lord, “I will give half of my money to the poor. If I have cheated anyone, I will pay that person back four times more!”
Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house today. This man truly belongs to the family of Abraham. The Son of Man came to find lost people and save them.”
LUKE 19:1-10 (International Children’s Bible)
REFLECTION: LESSONS FROM THE SYCAMORE TREE
BUILDING A SAFE CHURCH, TOGETHER: The church’s safe church person is introduced and invited to share his/her thoughts on the importance of being a safe church community.
NAME, you have heard the call of Christ upon your life to be the Safe Church Officer of the [Name] Church. We affirm your passion to protect others as a sign of God’s sheltering love and we welcome your willingness to serve in this way.
Will you be watchful, yet caring, trusting, yet ready to question, and always available to those who may need support? With the help of God, I will.
Will you deepen your knowledge and refine your skills to the benefit of this church, and encourage others to do likewise? With the help of God, I will.
Will you work closely with your colleagues here to ensure that all may flourish? With the help of God, I will.
Faithful God, we thank you that [NAME] has offered him/herself as a Safe Church Officer in our Congregation. Uphold him/her by your love and enable him/her by your Spirit, that through his/her ministry this church may be a place of welcome, security and compassion, that all who gather here may do so in safety and in the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Safe Church Officer reads the names of those who have recently completed safe church training.
I offer my gifts through the grace of God and with the support of elders and ministry leaders who have also completed the Safe Church Awareness Workshop. Today we affirm the most recent participants from [NAME OF CHURCH and participants are read out] :
May you always hold before us the example of God’s sheltering love and particular concern with the most vulnerable in our communities so that, together, we may be a sanctuary and a safe-haven for all.
Let us pray together:
For your sheltering love over us at all times We praise you, O Lord. For your blessings on this worshipping community We praise you, O Lord. For all who safeguard the well-being of your people here We pray to you, O Lord. For the call to build a sanctuary for all that you give to each one of us We pray to you, O Lord, For your grace and guidance We praise you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In groups, people have the opportunity to make their own commitment to building this sanctuary. Flipping over the piece of cardboard on which the word “SAFE” is written, those who would like to trace each others’ hands. During this time a song medley can be sung:
You are my hiding place, There is none like you, A new commandment
The “posters” can be stuck to exterior facing windows of the sanctuary – some displaying the hands and others the SAFE words.
A place at the table
In celebrating and committing to being a sanctuary which we build together, a love feast is shared in groups around the table. The elements will be brought to each table from the central table, with the wine being poured from a large jug and a small loaf broken and placed on each plate. By way of introduction the following is offered:
The night before his suffering and death, Jesus shared a final meal with his friends around the safety of a table in which he could speak some uncomfortable truths and prepare them for what lay head. This time of sharing now is a sharing of food and of sharing in the love we have for each other and for our Lord Jesus Christ who said:
‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’
In that love, we are the body of Christ whose Spirit is with and within us.
On this table in the midst of this community with whom Christ is present we set symbols to remind us of His presence and his promises to us.
A candle is lit.
Jesus said, “I am the light of the world;
whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life”.
A loaf is broken and other loaves distributed with the words:
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. The bread that I shall give is myself for the life of the world”.
A cup of wine is poured and distributed to the other table with the words:
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
So share these symbols with one another, be part of the story of God’s sheltering love, as we hold space for everyone at the table.
Each group shares the bread and wine together – as they wish.
SHARING OF THE PEACE (after communion)
Jesus said: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’
So may the peace of the Lord be with you. And also with you.
Going in peace
NOTICES AND OFFERTORY Sheltering God, as we offer these gifts to Your glory and in celebration of Your embracing love – may You take also the gifts of our awareness, our compassion, and our desire to be more and more like You and build us into a sanctuary, a safe-haven, in which You are honoured and life is shared and given and all are kept safe from harm. Amen.