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Faith Lens

December 31, 2008-January 7, 2009 – Show me a sign

Warm-up Question: Are your expectations for 2009 mostly positive or negative?

As we begin a new year, in especially trying times, many Americans are looking for a sign of the things to come. Will it get better, or worse? Can we know before it happens?

We wonder if we’ve seen the worst of the economic crisis, or if the worst is still to come. Will more people find jobs than lose them? Will gas prices keep going down of zoom back up? Will consumers once again be able to get loans to buy homes and cars and pay for college?

Our president-elect has promised change, but will it really be the change we need? Will our elected officials find ways to stop fighting and work together on our behalf? Will the election of an African American signal an improved era of race relations in the country? Will we find a way to improve the lives of the poor, neglected, and most vulnerable in our society?

Do the recent attacks in Gaza and the Middle East suggest a year of greater violence, or is there still hope for peace? Will people with affordable medicines reach the sick that so desperately need them? Can we slow or reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet?

Some of our questions are more personal. Will I graduate? Will I find love? Will I find meaning in my life? What will happen to my family and friends?

It seems that only time will show us the answers to these and many other pressing questions.

Discussion Questions

  • What questions are you hoping 2009 will answer?
  • What signs may give you an early hint of the outcomes?
  • Can you, or anyone, reliably predict the outcomes? Can you affect these outcomes? Why or why not?
  • What does your faith lead you to expect in 2009?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 4, 2009.

(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.)

Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 (12) or Wisdom 10:51-21 (20)
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

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

Gospel Reflection

The first thirteen verses of John’s Gospel form a sort of executive summary of the Christian story. Jesus — the Word, the Light — was of God, not a recent creation, but present at creation. He came to earth born as a human as a witness to God, but he was rejected by many. For us, the good news is that some did believe, and those that do have new life and hope as children of God.

Then John begins his story of Jesus’ life and ministry with the witness of John the Baptist. The oppressed people of Israel had hoped for the promised Messiah, and were watching for a sign that he had come. They also had many questions. John’s witness was foretold in Isaiah 40:3, one of many signs that would confirm for believers that Jesus was the promised one. God had said, through Isaiah, that this is how Jesus’ ministry would begin.

In John’s message, we also have the first sign from God of the revolutionary new covenant with all humankind that was Jesus Christ. He is not, like Moses, an instrument for God to declare his law. Instead, through Jesus, God fulfills and demonstrates his truth and grace. As John says in verse 18, no one could see God, but through Jesus, we can know and develop a closer relationship with God.

Discussion Questions

  • Why was it necessary for John to “prepare” people for the coming of Christ?
  • Imagine yourself in first century Judea. What might influence you to believe or disbelieve John?
  • Few, if any, could imagine the events of the next three years of Jesus’ life. Based on the sign from John, what do you suppose most people expected of Jesus?
  • In what way are contemporary Christians like the Jews of Jesus’ time?
  • If God’s message through John is as valid today as it was in the time of Christ, what should we expect in 2009 and the years to come?
  • Based on these expectations, how should we behave and prepare ourselves as people who profess and follow Jesus as the Son of God — the promised Messiah and Savior?

Activity Suggestions

  • On a piece of paper, write down 2-3 questions that you hope will be answered, or problems you hope will be resolved, in 2009.
  • For each item, list the signs that will let you know in advance how they are likely to turn out. (For example, if you’re applying to colleges this year, your grades in school, SAT scores, information from colleges, or scholarships might be early signs that your hope will become a reality.)
  • Then, list the things you can do to affect and influence the outcomes, and the role of faith in each. What is beyond your control?
  • Share your list with the group.

** You can take this exercise one step further by putting it someplace safe (like the box you store your Christmas ornaments in) for a year. Next year at this time, review the list. How predictive were the signs you identified? How effective were your actions in securing the desired outcomes? And, most important, where do you see God’s hand in shaping the year you had?

Closing Prayer

Almighty God, we recognize in Jesus a sign of your great love for us. Help us every day to see the many signs of your loving presence in our world and bless us to be signs of your love for those who need your light and hope. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Contributed by Jocelyn Breeland
Fairfax, VA

December 3-10, 2008 – Shoppers and retailers getting ready for the Christmas season

Warm-up Question: What is your family doing to get ready for the Christmas season?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! All around the country, beginning at least as early as the day after Thanksgiving, or “Black Friday,” shoppers are getting ready for Christmas by gathering lists and hunting for bargains. And stores are more than ready to welcome them with great deals on all the latest fashions, toys, and gear.

Every year, retailers depend heavily on the Christmas season for a year-end profit surge, but with the economy daily sinking deeper into crisis, this year they are more hopeful than ever.

Those hopes, however, are more pipedream than reality, though, as most retail experts are predicting that this season will see the lowest increase in holiday sales since the last recession after 9/11. Many families are less willing to splurge this year, wary about what the new year may bring in terms of economic woes, and instead opting for a simpler season.

Still, stores are certainly buzzing with tinsel, lights, and Christmas carols — and the ringing of the cash register bells may be softer than last year, but it remains a sure sign that Christmas is coming soon.

Discussion Questions

  • How is the economic situation affecting how your family is getting ready for Christmas this year?
  • When you think about the Christmas season, how much of what you think about is tied up in shopping or gift giving?
  • What do you do to get ready for Christmas that has nothing to do with shopping?
  • What suggestions might you have for families that want to celebrate this year but are low on cash?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 7, 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 A at Lectionary Readings.)

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

Gospel Reflection

Mark begins his Gospel in a very straightforward way: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The reader doesn’t have to wait or wonder about what, or who, this story is about. It’s about Jesus, God’s holy Child, and it is very good news.

Funny, then, that the first story Mark tells isn’t about Jesus; it’s about Isaiah, John, and us. Apparently telling the good news about Jesus takes some preparation, it’s a story that takes some getting used to. Before planting a seed, you have to dig a hole or plow a row. The same goes for Jesus.

But what’s missing from this story about getting ready for Jesus, when you compare it with how most of us get ready for Christmas? Lot’s of things, but one thing we notice is that there is a notable absence of shopping. There’s a similar rush of excitement, some anxiety and stress, and plenty to do, but none of it will make you stand in line for hours at American Eagle or Wal-Mart.

No, preparing for God to come into the world, for Isaiah and John, is not about getting or giving more stuff; it’s about getting rid of stuff altogether. It’s about emptying our hearts and our hands so we can have them free to receive the greatest gift of all. It’s about repentance, changing our minds, turning our heads, and re-ordering our lives, so we can see Jesus breaking into our world and turning it upside down.

Isaiah tells us that the Lord’s coming is such a big deal that a massive highway will have to be built — not a bigger parking lot at the mall or new Web site, but a wide path for all God’s people who have been living in exile to walk through the desert and finally arrive back home.

John tells a similar story. Get rid of all the junk that’s weighing you down, leave it behind in the river of baptism, and come back home to the person God created you to be: a person alive with hope, love, joy, and peace in the midst of a world full of fear.

Perhaps this year more than any other, when budgets are tight and anxieties are high, we have the opportunity to really “come home” for Christmas. To clean out our closets, cleanse our hearts, and open our eyes, minds, ears, and doors to receive first the simple but amazing good news of God’s holy love for us and for this whole world. Then we can spend the rest of the year figuring out how to give that love away.

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it easier to get excited about “stuff” than it is to get excited about Jesus?
  • What kind of “stuff” is in your way of feeling close to God this season? How can you clean it out?
  • What “good news” are you, your family, your community, and your world in need of hearing or receiving this year?
  • What could your family do together to get ready for Christmas that has nothing to do with shopping?
Consider giving gifts or contributions that benefit ministries around the world. Learn more at ELCA Good Gifts.

Activity Suggestions

If you have lots of time to prepare:
Find an image of a Christmas scene (an icon of Mary and Jesus, a manger scene, etc.) that you can project onto a large piece of paper and trace (Google images is a great tool for this). Trace it and label the areas with the appropriate color for the picture. Collect a bunch of Christmas shopping ads from the newspaper or the stores, some scissors, and glue sticks. Have the group tear or cut the ads apart to find the colors they need to fill in the image. When you’re done, you have a beautiful icon made out of torn-up bits of shopping ads. Talk about “repentance” as changing or getting rid of “stuff” and turning our attention back to where it belongs.

If you have less time to prepare:
Skip the icon and tracing. Collect a bunch of Christmas shopping ads from the newspaper or the stores, some scissors, paper, and glue sticks. Have the group draw their own pictures of Mary and Child or the manger scene, code them for color, and then tear or cut the ads apart to find the colors they need to fill in the image. Talk about “repentance” as changing or getting rid of “stuff” and turning our attention back to where it belongs.

If you have no time to prepare:
Have each student make two lists: 1) a list of everything they want for Christmas, and 2) a list of everything they need to grow in their relationship with Jesus. Talk about the differences between the lists, and what could help them get what they need from the second list.

Closing Prayer

Holy God, you send comfort and joy into weary hearts and a weary world. Help us open our hearts, ears, eyes, and minds to receive your gifts of life and love — and to share those gifts with the entire world. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Contributed by Pastor Jay McDivitt
Denver, CO

November 5-12, 2008 – Get out the vote… and wait

Warm-up Question: What surprised you the most about Tuesday’s election?

The final days leading up to the 2008 General Election were filled with a frenzy of phone calls, knocking on doors, and posting signs all over the country. Both the John McCain and Barack Obama campaigns pumped millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers into battleground states in the hopes of picking up a few extra Electoral College votes on November 4. It is estimated that, when the campaigns have concluded, over $1 billion will have been spent on this election — or $8 per voter. (It’s a lot of money, but consider that Americans spent $3 billion on buying potato chips last year.)

Democrats called their final wave of contacts a “Persuasion Army,” while Republicans participated in a “72-Hour Program.” The goal was simple: send as many volunteers as possible into the states that are up for grabs, and do everything within your legal rights to convince those people to vote for your candidate. Key states in the day leading up to the election included Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and Ohio. President Bush won the electoral votes of each of these states in 2004, but all were declared “too close to call” in this election.

The struggle for many campaign volunteers was not the long hours they invest, but the inevitable wait on Tuesday night. Some political experts have predicted that the official tally may not be approved until Wednesday morning, or later. The location of voting sites and ballots, in addition to a record number of absentee voters, caused some people to anticipate the possibility of contested results in some states.

“I just hope I know who the winner is come Wednesday morning,” said one McCain volunteer. “I don’t think I’ll be able to handle waiting several days to know the outcome.”

Discussion Questions

  • How did you decide which candidate to support? What were your criteria?
  • What do you think of the Electoral College system? Is there a better way to elect leaders? What changes would you make if you had the power to restructure the presidential voting system?
  • The 2000 Presidential Election wasn’t officially determined until December 12. How would you respond if it took five weeks to announce the winner of the 2008 election?
  • Imagine of you were a presidential candidate and you had to wait to find out if you won. How would you spend your time waiting? Who would you want waiting with you?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 9, 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 A at Lectionary Readings.)

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

Gospel Reflection

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells a difficult story of what the “kingdom of heaven” will be like. A group of bridesmaids were hanging out and waiting for the bridegroom to show up. He was running late, so they all fell asleep. When the bridegroom finally showed up, only half of the bridesmaids were prepared, with oil in their lamps. The other members of the group asked if they could borrow some oil so their lamps would remain lit. The wise bridesmaids, those who were prepared, did not share their oil. The foolish and unprepared bridesmaids went out to buy some oil for themselves, but when they returned to the party, the door was shut and they were not allowed to enter for the wedding.

The first time I read this story, it sounded to me like Jesus was saying “only the smart people get into heaven.” The next time I read it, I thought Jesus was telling the disciples, “You shouldn’t share what you have with others.” However, from what I’ve read in other parts of the Bible, I have come to know that both of those ideas are not in line with how God and Jesus have acted in other situations.

So what can we learn from the story of the ten bridesmaids? Perhaps it’s that Jesus is calling us to be ready. He’s reminding us to be prepared and to be patient for him to come again. Jesus has blessed each of us with parents, pastors, friends, and mentors who can help us come to know him in a special way. This story encourages us to listen to those people and to be ready for his return. Even if we think Jesus is running late, he has promised that he will eventually show up. So be patient, watchful, and ready — because the party is going to be pretty amazing!

Discussion Questions

  • What does this story say to you about salvation?
  • Which group of bridesmaids would you be associated with? Why?
  • What is something that you had to prepare for this week? How did you prepare?
  • Tom Petty once sang, “Waiting is the hardest part.” What situations really test your patience? In what kind of situations do you tend to just “hang loose” until the last moment?
  • More than once Jesus tells the people around him “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour [of my return].” What does staying awake involve? What do Jesus’ actions and words suggest about living life?

Activity Suggestions

Thanksgiving is coming up in a few weeks. Advent and Christmas are right around the corner. In most churches, the final weeks of the calendar year are filled with important worship services and special events. Find a way that your group can help your church prepare for one of these things. Perhaps you could decorate the sanctuary for the Thanksgiving Eve worship service. Or maybe you could make Advent calendars for the children in the church.

Try to be creative in the ways you can be helpful. Doing special things at church takes a lot of patience and preparation!

Closing Prayer

God, it’s easy for us to be impatient in a world where we have everything we need right at our fingertips. We wonder if you’re ever going to come back and invite us to the big party, the wedding, the feast. Help us to relax and focus on the ways you touch our lives every day. Give us the understanding to know how to best prepare for your coming. Let us be bold in telling others about your amazing love for us. Amen

Contributed by Erik Ullestad
West Des Moines, IA