Skip to content
ELCA Blogs

Faith Lens

December 15-21, 2010–What’s a Gift?

Contributed by Paul Baglyos, St. Paul, MN

Warm-up Question

When is a gift not really a gift?

What’s a Gift?

Recently, a woman addressed the following question and comments to an advice column: “How can I get my significant other to be fair to my kids at Christmas? He always makes sure his kid gets really nice stuff and then he will get something really expensive for himself. But my kids and me? For example, last year he got his 10-year-old daughter an iPod Touch that cost $300, but my kids got $50 gift certificates. Then he bought something for his guitar that costs over $400, and I got nothing. This really bothers me.”

Implicit in the woman’s question and comments is the popular sense that the value of a gift is determined by its monetary cost and that gift-giving should exemplify fairness and equity.  In that regard, gifts and gift-giving lose all character of grace and instead become  matters of obligation.

Discussion Questions

  • Imagine the larger story behind the woman’s question and comments.  What do you suppose the man might say in response to the woman?  What do you suppose his daughter and her kids might say to each other, or about each other, after they have opened their gifts at Christmas?
  • Is the man being selfish and cheap?  Is the woman being too demanding?
  • The response to the woman published in the advice column included this opinion: “We don’t think this guy sounds like significant other material.”  Do you agree with that opinion?  Why, or why not?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 19, 2010 (Fourth Sunday of Advent)

Isaiah 7:10-16

Romans 1:1-7

Matthew 1:18-25

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Quite a lot was expected of Joseph.  He was told to assume responsibility for his pregnant wife-to-be, and for the unborn child conceived in her womb, even though the child was not his own.  Joseph’s plan “to dismiss [Mary] quietly” was reasonable and fair; after all, her pregnancy might be regarded as a breach of pre-marital trust between them, releasing him from all further obligations.  The angel’s instruction to Joseph, however, required him to surrender all reasonable claims to fairness and to act with a generosity that exceeded obligation.

God, too, acts with a generosity that exceeds obligation.  God’s Christmas gift to the world, the gift of Jesus the Messiah, demonstrates sheer grace on the part of God.  The gift is neither owed nor deserved; it cannot be demanded and it cannot be priced.  God’s generosity is described in this well-known verse from the Gospel according to John: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Discussion Questions

  • What is the difference between grace and obligation?
  • Think about a time you received a gift you did not deserve–or felt coerced into giving a gift by the demands or expectations of others?    How does the contrast between grace and obligation change the character of “gift”?
  • Why does it seem easier to understand obligation than to understand grace?
  • How do Christians understand life in relation to God’s grace?  How do Christians demonstrate grace in relation to others?
  • In what ways might the church become more fully a community a grace in the world?

Activity Suggestions

  • Imagine that you are Joseph; write a brief letter to an advice column about your situation in relation to Mary and the unborn child she carries.  Now imagine you are an advice columnist responding to Joseph; write a brief reply to his letter.
  • Think of a gift that your church group might give in celebration of Christmas.  What is the gift, and to whom will you give it?  Make plans to do so.

Closing Prayer

O come, O come, Emmanuel.  Be with us, God, in all our days and all our ways, that we might be with you now and forever.  Amen


December 16-23, 2009–Christmas Greetings

Contributed by Jay McDivitt

Warm-up question:

What things bring you joy during this time of year? What things irritate you during the holiday season?


Story: Congress Wages War…over Christmas

capitol and crecheRepresentative Henry Brown, Jr. (R-South Carolina), has introduced a bill in the House which, if passed, would make it clear that Congress “strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas” and “expresses support for the use of… symbols and traditions by those who celebrate Christmas.” Brown believes that it is important for him to have “the right to celebrate Christmas” and that “wishing someone ‘Merry Christmas’ should never be met with disapproval.”

Although this is the first time that the so-called “War over Christmas” has been discussed in Congress, it has become a regular feature of the holiday season to debate how people—especially retail employees and public leaders—should greet one another during this festivetime. As the U.S. becomes increasingly diverse, the growing presence of non-Christian neighbors poses the question of whether “Merry Christmas” is a meaningful, appropriate, or insensitive way to greet strangers who may celebrate something else—or nothing at all—rather than the birth of Christ. “Happy Holidays” is a commonly used alternative.

Opinions vary widely, among Christians and non-Christians alike, about this question of decorum and etiquette. Some think this is an example of “political correctness” gone wild; others think it is a meaningful way to acknowledge religious diversity and offer a gesture of hospitality to non-Christian neighbors.  Still others think this conversation is simply a silly way to bring the “culture wars” into a season that should be filled with peace and good will.


Discussion questions:

  1. What do you think about Rep. Brown’s proposed bill? Would you vote for it?
  2. How do you greet people during this season? Do you have friends or neighbors who you know are non-Christian? Do you treat them differently from your Christian friends during the Christmas season?
  3. Whether “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas,” the greeting implies that this season is joyful. How joyful are you? How do you express joy during this season?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 20, 2009 (Fourth Sunday in Advent)

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)


For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Micah 5:2-5a

Hebrews 10:5-10

Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)

Gospel Reflection:

            The season of Advent belongs, for the most part, to John the Baptist. This year, we have three weeks in a row where John plays an important role. Today, however, his name doesn’t even appear in the text—but he’s there. John is the baby who jumps for joy inside of Elizabeth’s tummy. Talk about a Christmas greeting!

            John’s main job was to prepare the way for the Messiah—to point out the Christ; and today we learn that even while he was in utero, he was doing his job. Elizabeth is six months pregnant with John when Mary shows up.  All Mary has to say is “hello,” and John does cartwheels in Elizabeth’s womb: “This is it! Pay attention to this one, Mom!” And Elizabeth, rubbing her belly, looks Mary in the eyes and calls her blessed; she recognizes Mary as the mother of her Lord.

            And anyone watching this scene unfold would have been very surprised. Mary? Her? This poor, unmarried girl carrying an “illegitimate child” is blessed? Cursed is more like it. At least embarrassed or ashamed… but blessed? The mother of the Lord?

            But Elizabeth knows—deep inside her own body—that something special is happening in Mary. This child is, indeed, the Messiah. John said so—long before John could even speak.

            And if you’ve been paying attention in Sunday School, you shouldn’t be all that surprised. Everywhere you turn in the Bible, God is doing wild and holy things with unexpected people. In God’s strange way, it makes sense that God would choose to bring the Messiah into the world through the womb of an unremarkable girl, a poor girl who probably wouldn’t have been noticed. Makes sense, of course, if you’re prepared to look in ordinary places for extraordinary things.

            And that’s what John prepares us to do. That’s his job. This important prophet, son of an important priest in the Jerusalem Temple, is only a signpost, pointing to the amazing thing that God is doing in this illegitimate child born to a homely girl from a good-for-nothing corner of Israel. So John points. And Elizabeth blesses. And Mary sings.

And that’s what we do, too.

We point—we look for signs of God’s grace and love in unexpected places.

We bless—we call things “holy” when they remind us of God among us.

And we sing—we greet Jesus with songs of joy and sing those songs in the midst of a world in fear.

We do this, not because we want to shove Jesus down peoples’ throats or to make people uncomfortable. We do it, even if we don’t always use words—even if we find other ways to share joy and life with people who do not share our faith in Christ. We do it, not because we have to or because God tells us to. We do it because we, like John, Mary, and Elizabeth, simply can’t help it. This news is too good not to make us jump for joy—to point, bless, and sing out the good news that God is coming, Christ is here, and joy is real—today and always. And thanks be to God for that. Amen.



  1. Where do you see signs of joy in the world around you? Where do you see the “Christ” in all the Christmas stuff that is happening during this season?
  2. Does everything that says “Merry Christmas” on it have something to do with Jesus? What are some parts of the Christmas season that aren’t all that connected to the birth of Christ?
  3. What would be a meaningful way to share the joy of Christmas with people who don’t know or worship Christ? What are some ways you can spread the joy of Christmas with people who aren’t feeling joyful?



  1. Go through the Christmas section of the hymnal you use in worship and count all the references to “joy.” What do these hymns say about the reason for joy? What do these hymns say about the reason for Christ’s birth—what it is all about or what it accomplishes? Finish by singing Joy to the World together (ELW 267). Notice that this is in the “Advent” section of the hymnal. Why do you think that is?
  2. Depending on who you ask, either the Third or the Fourth Sunday in Advent is gaudete Sunday—the day when some folks light a pink candle on the Advent wreath. Gaudete means “joy” in Latin, and it traditionally was celebrated on the Third Sunday of Adventwhen the readings were about Mary’s pregnancy and the joyful announcement of Christ’s coming birth. In recent years, those readings now fall on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, leading to some confusion about when it would be appropriate to light the pink candle. Nevertheless, sometime around this day, the church celebrates Joy with a little pink flare—a break from the more solemn, blue season with its focus on repentance.  Introduce the theme of “joy” and gaudete Sunday to the youth and then make something pink—a stole/scarf, banner, t-shirt, etc. Invite the youth to adorn cloth with signs and symbols of things that bring them joy, things they are hopeful for, things they are waiting for in their lives. Invite them to share these projects with each other.



 O God for whom we wait: Fill us with joy as we celebrate your birth among us. Help us to see the joy you are bringing into the world and point it out to those around us. Open our hearts and minds to see your blessings and open our mouths to sing for joy. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen

October 28-November 4, 2009 – Signs of the times

Contributed by Pastor Seth Moland-Kovash
All Saints Lutheran Church
Palatine, IL

Warm-up Question:  How easy do you find it to forgive a friend when something bad happens that is clearly their fault?

surgeons200Finding fault and placing blame are things that all people do. Somehow it just seems to make us feel better when we can place the blame for someone on someone’s shoulders. Of course, it only serves to make us feel comfortable if we can place the blame on someone else’s shoulders. There are times when placing blame isn’t just a matter of words, but of serious consequences: sometimes thousands or millions of dollars, or other punishments.

One way that this happens is through medical malpractice lawsuits. A doctor or hospital can be sued for malpractice if a mistake is made in treating a patient or something is overlooked that should have been seen or treated.

One current proposal that is part of the debate on the healthcare system as a whole is to limit the amount of money that could be awarded to patients or families in malpractice cases. Called “tort reform,” one proposal would limit the amount of money that people could win to $500,000 for punitive damages and $250,000 for “pain and suffering.” The Congressional Budget Office estimates that this change would save the government $54 billion over the next 10 years.

Some say that the legal awards need to be limited to be reasonable and to cut the costs that doctors have to pay for malpractice insurance. Others say that there is no amount of money that should be considered too great for the family of someone who has died because of malpractice. 

Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think? Should there be a limit on the amount of money that a doctor or hospital would have to pay in a malpractice case?
  2. If someone you loved died because of a clear case of malpractice, how much money do you think would be a fair punishment?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 1, 2009 (All Saints Day).

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Lazarus was dead. He was dead and buried and in the tomb. Jesus was late. The emergency message had been sent, but Jesus wasn’t there at the right time. Mary (Lazarus’ sister) said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” What do you think that she felt Jesus could have done? Whether she was right or not, she felt that Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had gotten there in time. Perhaps there was a hint of blame in her statement.

Where is God when it hurts? Why doesn’t God seem to be around to help me now like he helped all those people in the Bible? These are common questions that come to our minds when something bad happens. We want to know where God was and why God let that thing happen. In this story, we see that people even during the Bible times had the same experiences. Mary wanted to know why Jesus hadn’t gotten there in time. She wanted to know why this bad thing had to happen to her family. She was in pain.

And Jesus had healing for her pain. It wasn’t like anything she could have imagined. She imagined that, if Jesus had been able to get there before Lazarus died, then Jesus could have healed him. But once he was dead, Mary thought that was the end of the story.

Today, on All Saints Sunday, we remember again that death is not the end of the story for any of God’s saints. Your grandmothers and grandfathers, any of God’s children who have died, are alive again. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Nothing can separate us from God’s love; not even death (Romans 8:37-39).

Discussion Questions

  1. Tell about a time you were in pain and wondered whether God was even there.
  2. Have you seen signs that God is there in painful times? What do those signs look like? (Hint: Look at the other people in the room… they may be the signs for you)

Activity Suggestion

Create an “All Saints” remembrance with your youth group. Bring a memento or photo that makes you think of someone who has died. Tell your friends about that person. Say, “I am thankful to God for ________ because __________.”

Closing Prayer

Good and gracious God, we thank you for all the saints you have given us who have shown us your love and your mercy. Help us to continue to live as your faithful children until the day when we are reunited with all your saints. Amen.

(Or use the prayer for the “Rememberance of the faithful departed” found on page 82 of Evangelical Lutheran Worship.)

December 17-24, 2008 – Power 100 breakfast honors women in entertainment

Warm-up Question: What famous or accomplished women can you name? What are they recognized for?

There are several annual “Power 100” lists released at the end of the year: the 100 most powerful people in sports, business, politics, and others. But the film industry has its own list: the 100 most powerful women in entertainment, compiled by the respected trade paper The Hollywood Reporter. The list is made public and awards are given at the annual “Power 100” breakfast in December.

Only a handful of this year’s honorees work in front of the camera. Most notable (and least surprising) is Oprah Winfrey, winner of the number one spot. One other performer, actress Angelina Jolie, made the top twenty-five. Former model Tyra Banks and comedy writer/actress Tina Fey were included in the top 51, while Food Network star Rachel Ray appeared at number 65. At the 100th spot was teen star Miley Cyrus.

This was the 17th year of the event. During that time women have made great strides in gaining positions of power in Hollywood. Numerous recipients were CEOs, presidents, and vice presidents of major film companies and television networks, or their own companies.

Discussion Questions

  1. The film industry is over 100 years old. Why has it taken so long for women to gain executive positions in the entertainment industry?
  2. Do you think that women should continue to be honored separately from men, even though they are gaining more respect and better positions every year? Why or why not?
  3. How will we know when women have attained full equality? What will happen then? What will it look like?
  4. What purpose does recognizing the accomplishments of women in entertainment (or any realm of life) serve?

Women of the ELCA have a wealth of resources and ministries to explore…for all ages!

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 21, 2008.
(Text links are to
oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

  1. 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
  2. Luke 1:46b-55 (52) or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 (1)
  3. Romans 16:25-27
  4. Luke 1:26-38

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

Whether she is honored as a saint, admired for her courage and faithfulness, or held up as an example of total submission to God’s will, Mary is certainly the most important and memorable woman in the Bible for Christians. She was poor, humble, and most likely illiterate. She hailed from Nazareth, a despised little hick town. Yet, none other than the angel Gabriel tells her that she is “highly favored” by God.

What does this “favor” involve? She becomes the subject of gossip and ridicule when she is found to be pregnant without a husband. Her betrothed, Joseph, almost leaves her. She must watch her son, Jesus, suffer and die. This is favor?

In our world, “favored” means rewarded with position, honor, wealth, and preferential treatment. It is a breakfast where our work is recognized and celebrated. It is winning, gaining, or accomplishing. What did this poor girl, probably no older than a teenager, do to be called favored by God?

Mary was obedient. She declared herself “the handmaiden of the Lord.” She trusted God with her life and her son’s life. She sang for joy in all this, even in the midst of any uncertainty or self-consciousness she may have felt.

Well, that’s fine, but things are different now, aren’t they? Women are powerful, significant. They have rights. They buy and sell and do business around the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. The ideal woman described in Proverbs is a businesswoman (Proverbs 31:16, 18, 24). She receives praise and reward for her work.

In the end though, it is Mary who shows us the ultimate and faithful virtues in the eyes of God: obedience, faith, submission, and joy in the Lord. These are required of anyone — male or female — whom God calls to service, from Abraham to Moses and the prophets, from Ruth to Paul, to Jesus. As Christians, we, too, are called to service and faith even though it will most likely not make us famous, rich, or remembered like Mary.

Discussion Questions

  1. What do submission and obedience to God mean in everyday life? How can ordinary people like you and me practice them?
  2. Submission does not mean being a “doormat” or letting others take advantage of you. How can we show humility like Christ and still stand up for ourselves and others?
  3. What about joy in the Lord, such as Mary expressed in her song, the Magnificat? Where do we get it — joy? What do you think God is promising, and not promising, to us when it comes to joy? How do we sustain it, especially in difficult times? How do you personally measure or describe joy?
  4. Does obedience to God mean that we should not accept praise or rewards for doing God’s work? Why or why not? What is a faithful and humble attitude towards any praise we may receive?

Activity Suggestions

In groups or as a class, make your own top 5 lists (or more or fewer). Start with Biblical characters from both the Old and New Testaments. Who were the most powerful and influential people in the Bible? The best servants? The bravest? Have students make up others.

Activity extension: Do the same with Christians throughout history, people of faith from the past or present, including people from your own congregation.

Suggested Songs

  • “Away in a Manger,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #277
  • “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” Lutheran Book of Worship, #42
  • You can also read or sing the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) or “My Soul Does Magnify the Lord,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #882

Closing Prayer

God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, we praise you for the example of the one who was highly favored — Mary, our model of faithfulness, obedience, and joy. Like Mary, may we be always humble, always submissive to you will, and always useful to you in service to others. Let us not be absorbed in earthly rewards, but take joy in the gifts you give us both now and for eternity. In the name of your blessed son, Jesus Christ, whose birth we anticipate and celebrate. Amen.

Contributed by Sylvia Alloway
Granada Hills, CA