[#pictureAdvent] December 25: HOLY FAMILY

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By Rev. Sarah B. Miller
Senior Pastor, Tuskawilla UMC
Casselberry, FL

First, read Luke 2:1-14

Mary and I have an experience in common – the events leading to the births of our sons were not as we planned. I am sure the last thing Mary wanted was to travel across the Holy Land for a census days before her son’s birth. I know the last thing I wanted was to be admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of severe pre-eclampsia at 36 weeks-5days.

We were both in unfamiliar places. We were both out of control of what was happening around us.

And we both had our sons’ wellbeing in the forefront of our minds, in the entirety of our hearts, and in the prayers on our lips.

After my care team finalized plans for how my son would be born, I felt a physical, tangible change in my body as an incarnation of the change that occurred in my spirit. I heard for myself the words the angel said to Mary at the Annunciation and the heavenly host would say to the shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid.” A peace overcame me and all was well with my soul.

Hours later my son was born in a room full of laughter and singing. My heart is glad that his first moments were full of kindness and care. And when the nurse brought my son to me, all swaddled and snug, I experienced a true moment of holiness as the family my husband and I started ten and a half years ago grew from two to three.

Today we celebrate the birth of our Lord, and I hope our celebration includes laughter and singing with our families by our sides. I hope we are quick to share kindness and care, not just today but every day. And I hope we join with the angels and shepherds in telling the good news of great joy, “A Savior has been born to us; he is the Messiah, the Lord!” In telling this good news, we will witness as God's holy families grows from two to three to so much more.

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for the gifts of laughter and singing. Thank you for the gifts of kindness and care. Thank you for the gifts of dispelling fear and indwelling peace. Thank you for the gifts of Jesus and opportunities to share his good news to grow holy families in partnership with you. Amen.

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

1.     Describe a time you were afraid; how did God help you overcome that time of fear?

2.     Describe a time of great joy you shared with your family.

3.     Ask a parent how he or she felt upon meeting his or her child for the very first time.

[#pictureAdvent] December 24: CHILD

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By Ashley Murphy    
Carter Memorial United Methodist Church    
Needham, MA

First, read Luke 1:31-38

“You’re going to be a mother.” Six short words; and yet perhaps one of the most powerful, emotion-filled sentences imaginable. “You will conceive and bring forth a child,” and never again will the world be the same. A child changes everything.

As I rock my own baby boy to sleep this Christmas Eve, this tiny child who in an instant changed everything I knew about the world, I cannot imagine the thoughts and feelings that Mary experienced as she awaited her son. 

What will people think and say?

Will my family understand?

How can I raise the Son of God? 

Like every parent that anticipates the arrival of a new life into the world, I am certain both Mary and Joseph were filled with excitement and apprehension, joy and fear, honor and uncertainty. As they journeyed toward Bethlehem, they were as prepared as they would ever be to welcome a tiny babe. In our modern context we can imagine that they had read every “What to Expect” guide, downloaded every app, and purchased every gadget and gizmo designed to perfect the parenting experience. And yet they could not possibly have fathomed the ways in which the world would change that very next day. After all, a child changes everything.

Mary could not have fathomed what it would be like to hold the child that had been moving inside her womb for months in her arms for the first time. Joseph could not have been prepared to be the primary role model for a growing young man. The world could not have had any idea what the next 33 years would hold. No one understood, as Mary wrapped her newborn son in swaddling clothes and sheltered him in an old barn, what this new life would mean to the world.

This child, who would change everything.

He would grow up to teach, to heal, to comfort, to befriend, to lead, to praise, to guide and to love. He would grow up to be God on Earth, the Kingdom come. He would grow up to give the greatest gift of selfless love ever known, that we may all see God’s face and experience God’s grace forevermore. That child, that tiny babe, that changed everything. 

On this Christmas Eve we wait, just as Mary did, in restless anticipation. Tomorrow is filled with excitement and apprehension, joy and fear, honor and uncertainty. Tomorrow, we welcome the child. And He invites us to change everything. 

Prayer: Creator God, in Mary’s womb you formed the perfect child: Jesus, Son of the Most High, Christ our Lord. This tiny babe, born to the most humble beginnings on that first Christmas day, changed the world forever. As we welcome in a new Christmas day, fill us with the anticipation and excitement of Mary. Help us to see the world through a child’s eyes so that we, like that tiny Christmas babe, may be the force of love and spark of life that changes everything. In the precious name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

1. We hear little about Jesus’ formative years, but we can assume that in many ways he grew up like any other child in first century Palestine. Though he would have been recognized as an adult man on his 13th birthday, Jesus did not begin his formal ministry until the age of 30. Why, then, was it necessary for Jesus to arrive on earth as a newborn baby? 
2. Mary was certainly shocked by the angel’s message, and yet she responds with great faith saying, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Has God ever called you to serve in a way that is shocking or uncomfortable? How have you responded?
3. Through the celebration of Christmas, we are reminded that we are all children of God, filled with hope and promise. How is God calling you to be a child that changes everything this Christmas?

[#pictureAdvent] December 23: PROMISE

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By Rev. Dr. Marcus A.L. Freeman, III
District Superintendent of the Crossroads District of the Rio Texas Conference, the United Methodist Church

First, read Luke 1:26-30

From the time that my daughter began to put sentences together, she would say that when she grew up she wanted to be the president of the United States. But I remember vividly the day she made a major shift in ambition.

She was about five years of age and we were in the hospital visiting my late mother-in-law who was being treated for a heart condition. Suddenly she poised herself in this distant stare with a gleam in her eye as though peeking into the future with a seriousness that I had never witnessed in her before. She then said, "I don't think I want to be president anymore; I want to be a doctor". 

She had spent countless hours with her mother and me in hospitals visiting our parents who were dealing mostly with heart problems and she would repeatedly say that she wanted to help people to never have to suffer with heart conditions again. I have watched her quiet and steady determination and commitment to this purpose which has persisted in her throughout her years growing up.

Now at twenty years of age, she is a pre-med student at a major university on track to become cardiothoracic surgeon. At first, I must admit, I would have never thought that her wanting to be a doctor at the age of five was anything more than a childhood dream or fantasy. But her promise toward the achievement of this goal has been budding into clarity through her sincerity of purpose and devotion over the years.

I can imagine that few would have ever thought that anything special was going on with young Mary of Nazareth being a devout, chaste, and obedient young girl in this small farming village of a couple of dozen or so families. Perhaps her commitment was seen as her just doing her duties in a much more primitive time when life was lived off the labor of every able body in the family to just keep food on the table and survive.

Perhaps also there was not much fanfare or promise in a young woman living a life of such character in this setting other than enhancing her prospects of falling into a productive traditional role. But Mary’s quiet and steady determination to live a pious and devout life found favor with God to the extent that she was chosen to participate with God in achieving the salvation of the world.

May we never again underestimate the promise that can be realized in our most genuine and obscure acts of piety and faithfulness. Out of such devotion, however obscure or remotely present in our hearts, the very presence of Christ and God’s work to save humanity can be born. 

Prayer: Most gracious Lord, please help us to discover the promise of deepening our lives of personal piety and devotion to you and your word through your beloved Son and our Lord Jesus Christ by the power and strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

1. What is the promise of living a devout Christian life in this way?
2. Why is it important to be able to recognize signs of pious and devout Christian living in ourselves and others? What are the signs of a pious and devout Christian life?
3.  What are ways that we can deepen or enhance our lives of piety and devotion to God?

[#pictureAdvent] December 22: GOOD NEWS

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By: Annette Johnson
Director of Children and Family Ministries, First UMC
 Gainesville, FL

First, read Romans 16:25-27

When I was pregnant with my fifth child, we decided that, unlike in our other pregnancies, we wanted to know the gender of the baby ahead of time. Some sweet friends asked to throw us a "gender reveal party". So, following my ultrasound we passed the sealed envelope on to our friends who proceeded to plan the shin dig. 

The day of the big reveal came, and surrounded by family and friends, our other 4 children were each handed a large black balloon. Armed with safety pins and instructions to pop on the count of three, our children nervously awaited the moment of the big announcement. 1-2-3 we all shouted and as the balloons popped we watched blue confetti fly through the air. "Good news! It's a boy! A brother!" Were the shouts that rang through the air.

 In that moment, I glanced over to see my daughter, my only daughter, begin to shrink down. You see, what seemed like good news did not seem so happy to her. Her greatest hopes and dreams were for a baby sister. With 3 brothers already, a new squishy sister seemed like the answer to her prayers. 

I went over to her and quietly whispered in her ear "guess what? Now you will never have to share your room with a sibling!" Her eyes lit up and she began to laugh as the tears were even still running down her face.  In that moment, I tried to help her sweet 7 year-old perspective shift a bit. She was not getting what she expected, but none the less- it was "good news". Four years later, she would tell you she couldn't imagine life without her 4 brothers, and she loves being the only girl. As she grew to adjust to her new normal she found the joy in the every day. While the package came wrapped differently then what she thought she wanted, the gift was good all along. 

I think this is how it must have been for the people of Jesus's time. When they heard the words "I bring you good news of great joy!" and they anticipated the arrival of their Savior, their Messiah-they never in their Iwildest dreams thought that would come in the form of a lowly infant, born into a poor family.  There was no power or prestige, no royal bloodline that would help him rise to power. A change in perspective was needed. A new normal. The gift was oh so different then they dreamed, but such a good gift it was, and such a good gift He is to us today. 

Short Prayer:

All powerful God-

Shift my perspective to find the good news in the unexpected.  Let me not focus on what I may anticipate, but instead on the gifts I was never even looking for. Thank you for the good news that Jesus was, and is, and always will be. 

Amen

Discussion/Reflection Questions: 

1. Where in your life has God give you "good news" in an unexpected  manner? 
2. Are you searching for a Savior that doesn't exist? How can you shift your perspective to see Jesus for who he really is? 
3.  What place in your life can you shift your perspective to see good news, where perhaps you previously saw none?

[#pictureAdvent] December 21: GENERATIONS

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By Becky Rokitowski
Pastor at Riviera UMC
Saint Petersburg, FL

First, read Luke 1:49-55

Mary is visited by an angel and told she will give birth to an amazing child. While she is still wrestling with all the implications, and how this was all possible, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant. When Elizabeth greets her at the door she is full of joy and excitement and speaks words of blessing upon Mary. 

Mary’s response is to break out in praise of God’s faithfulness, recalling how God values humility, and has always provided… extending mercy from generation to generation.

I wonder, if on the way to Elizabeth’s house, Mary anticipated a very different reaction from Elizabeth. Did she expect to be lectured? Did she brace herself for the possibility of rejection? Did she wonder if she should try and keep her pregnancy a secret?

Imagine the emotions of relief and gratitude that Mary felt when Elizabeth embraced her and spoke words of blessing over her and her child. Elizabeth was saying to her “I know about the child, I love you, and everything is going to be okay.” 

Each of us longs to be accepted. We have all fallen short. Mary recognized that she did not deserve the honor that God was giving her, nor the affection from Elizabeth, and yet she received them all the same. We each have the opportunity to accept the same undeserved gift of God’s love… AND we each have the opportunity to extend that gift to others. The gift of God’s mercy and grace, especially when it is shared with our family members, is the gift that keeps on giving, generation to generation. 

Prayer: God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I thank you today for your unfailing love. Forgive me for the times I have dealt harshly with others. Help me to see others and myself as you see us: both the brokenness and imperfections, and the tremendous value and worth we each bear. During this season of Advent, give me opportunities to extend your mercy to the next generation. Holy is your name, Amen.

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

1. If you had been in Mary’s shoes, unmarried and pregnant, what response would you expect to receive when arriving on the doorstep of your relative’s house? 
2. How did the grace and mercy extended to Mary from Elizabeth mirror the love and mercy of God? 
3. What are you doing to mentor the next generation? What role does humility play in this?