[#pictureAdvent] December 10: WATER

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By Jennifer Blessing
Director of Children’s Ministry, St. Andrew’s UMC
Brandon, FL

First, read Mark 1:4-8

When I was just out of college, I had an amazing opportunity to travel to the Holy Land with family friends. One of my favorite memories was standing on the bank of the Jordan River. People were being baptized along the landings that had been built. But my attention was focused on the lush green vegetation along the river banks.

My mental image of the Middle East prior to visiting had been crafted from a childhood of Bible stories. I imagined it was all just sand, vast piles of sand with a few towns here and there. As a child, I always pictured Moses floating down what was a stark wet road among a whole lot of sand - with maybe a couple of reeds thrown in for decoration.

While water is clearly less abundant in deserts, its presence is certainly not diminished. From the Jordan River to the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, across my trip I encountered gallons of water. In each instance, the vibrant growth of grass and trees highlighted the water’s edges. Life carved along the areas where the water reached.

The water was where John the Baptist drew people to him. He used water to not just baptize people, but to point them to Jesus. Standing in the river was the start of the growth and change he knew people would experience. He told them that despite the importance of baptism by him, John knew there was even more to come.

As people who have heard the good news, we understand John the Baptist’s encouragement that there was more than just baptism through water. Today we can be still and know that the power of water and the refreshment it provides is but a drop compared to the power of knowing Jesus. Baptism is the start of a lush, healthy relationship with Jesus. May we see the power in the water, yet recognize the powerful love of the One who created the water.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, your love for us is more powerful than the mightiest forces on this earth. May we always grow in that love - lush as the banks of a river. Help us sustain that growth, even when we feel weary and long for refreshment. Lord, help our hearts to know that you are the source of all and that we can rest in your mighty presence. Amen.

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

1. How many times have you witnessed a baptism? What types of images do you associatewith baptism today versus baptism during the New Testament time period?
2. Water has such immense power - for both growth as well as destruction as we have seen with this season’s hurricanes. Do you find yourself draw to places of water - the seashore, a lake, etc - or are you more timid around water? Why?
3. John the Baptist knew that he had an important calling - that he was drawing people to Jesus and not to himself. It’s same task we all have as Christians. Yet we often find it a challenge. In what ways can we learn to overcome that challenge based on how John the Baptist preached about Jesus?

[#pictureAdvent] December 9: MESSENGER

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By Rosemary Charmaine Grattan
Manchaca United Methodist Church/Associate Pastor
Manchaca, Texas

First, read Mark 1:1-3

I grew up in Victoria, Texas, in a time where we waited a lot. Living out on a stretch of the Bloomington Highway, I would often watch the cars pass by as I waited on the front porch for one of my parents to come home. 

In that day, not everything was so automatic or “here in a flash” speedy, that we didn’t get to enjoy what it meant to wait with eager anticipation, even to the point of excitement, just waiting for whatever it was we were expecting. For instance, as a child, I remember having the milkman come to our door to deliver two or more bottles of milk, and even the Schwan man delivering packages of food. Door-to-door salespersons were also popular in that day. I remember those being exciting times because someone was always delivering something. Decades later, my mom now waits for her groceries to be delivered to the house again. 

If you’ve ever been waiting for a message or a package or something of value to be delivered to you, you probably waited in eager anticipation because you were expecting something good.  Who looks forward to something bad? It’s a contradiction in terms to “look forward” to something that’s not going to be good for you, right? 

Messengers were very important in the days of Mark’s writing. Today’s passage of scripture in Mark’s Gospel account recorded that a “messenger” or herald was coming, and that messenger was John the Baptist. John was sent by God to prepare the way for the Good News of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, also being sent by God.  At the time of Mark’s writing, when the entire civilized world was under Roman rule, it was customary for Roman officials to be preceded by an announcer or herald; therefore, when the herald arrived in town, the people knew that someone of prominence would soon be arriving.  

When John came, he delivered good news and some of the people were in eager anticipation of it; after all, no God-sent prophet had been heard from in over 400 years. The people had been waiting as a nation for a long time to hear something from God. Now God would speak through John the Baptist, a messenger of God, concerning Jesus the Christ, and the people would actually be able to walk and talk with Jesus, the Sent One, and receive healing and salvation through Jesus. 

Like the people of that time, we too can be in eager anticipation of what Jesus came to do in our lives, as we look for His transformation for our lives and await with eagerness His second coming. 

Prayer: Dear God, you know our hearts and understand how much we wait to hear good news. Help us to hear with fresh ears and open hearts and minds the heralded news of Jesus the Christ, Your Son, who came to set us all free. 

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

1. Can you recall a time when someone brought you good news or something you were in eager anticipation of?  A letter, a book, a grocery delivery, a bouquet of roses? Consider sharing your story and memory with another person, perhaps someone who is in need of hearing good news.
2. Reflectively, imagine how the people of Jesus’ day must have been waiting for some good news. How much do you think John the Baptist was appreciated? How much do you appreciate the good news of Jesus Christ for your life and the world today? 
3. With so much tragedy throughout the world happening, do you think people can still see Jesus as good news for their lives? How can you help those who may be having a hard time seeing Jesus as making a difference in the world today?

[#pictureAdvent] December 8: WAIT

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By: Johnny Gall
 MCC Boston
 Boston, MA

First, read 2 Peter 3:13-15a

Wait. The season of Advent could be summed up in this one word. We wait for the coming of Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s promise to shepherd God’s people and keep them safe in a frightening world. We wait in darkness for the coming of the light.

I do not like waiting. I am like most city-dwellers in this regard. It’s almost unavoidable when you spend at least two hours of every day either waiting on a train or a bus or waiting in traffic. Waiting to me means doing nothing. It means being powerless to move forward until someone else comes through.

I am uncomfortable with stillness and stagnation. I cannot handle losing momentum by having to stop moving and sit until someone or something else shows up.

I am bad at this in my spiritual life too.  I want God’s promise of justice now and I do not want to stop moving until it comes and I can see that all is right in the world. I don’t want to stop moving.

And that’s unhealthy. I drive myself into the ground around twice a year because I feel like I can just keep pushing until the world is all better. And even though I know I don’t have the power to make that happen, I will keep pushing myself until I am completely broken and need to build myself up again.

The kind of waiting written about in this verse from 2 Peter is a middle ground between these two attitudes. God’s people are not standing and sighing until God’s righteousness comes like waiting at a bus stop. Neither are they driving themselves into the ground in a futile attempt to bring God’s world right this second.

They wait. In the meantime they focus on being at peace with God and being good people. They do not sit idly but neither do they refuse to take a break. They focus on the small ways they can bring God’s righteousness just a little bit closer to us and a little more present in the moment. They trust that God will come through and don’t feel the need to shoulder the burden on their own.

On this day in 1980, a man was shot dead outside his New York apartment. He was not a Christian, but he also dreamed of a world that was coming with no possessions, no greed, no hunger, no war, but a reign of peace in which “the world will live as one.”

Without knowing it, he was dreaming of the same world which people across centuries and millennia have waited for. This Advent, let us take up the same torch, waiting in the darkness, preparing for the light, but never burning ourselves out.

Short Prayer:

Discussion/Reflection Questions:

1. What is the world you are waiting for? What does it look like? How can you bring it a little closer?

2. What are some ways to take a break? How do we remind ourselves to trust in God’s coming?

3. What are some things you have a hard time waiting for? How do you remind yourself to be patient?

[#pictureAdvent] December 7: FAITHFUL

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By Rev. Jeana Martin
Senior Pastor, Wesley UMC
Harlingen, Texas

First, read Psalm 85:8-13

The act of speaking is powerful. Our words can be used to speak comfort and encouragement and they can be used to hurt or wound another. Sometimes we forget the power of our words. We live in a time when words are incredibly important and the words we hear our leaders say are often not words of peace. 

In today’s Psalm, the psalmist asks to hear of God’s peace and reminds us God will speak peace to those who are faithful and willing to listen. We often get distracted by the barrage of words thrown at us and, at times, we are unable to hear God over all the other voices competing for our attention.

God will speak peace to God’s people. In this text we read of God’s faithfulness in speaking peace to the people and we also read that it takes faithful people who are willing to listen and be open to receiving God’s words of peace. We read that steadfast, unending love will meet faithfulness and that righteousness and peace will kiss! Faithfulness with spring up from the ground and righteousness will look down from the sky! 

There is playfulness in these images! Unending love and faithfulness will meet and become friends like two kids at a city park might meet. And righteousness and peace will share a kiss like a newlywed couple at the end of their wedding.

So, not only will we hear peace but we will also see signs of God’s faithfulness all around us!! From the ground to the sky, there will be evidence of these things! That is one of the beautiful, mysterious invitations of Advent: to be open to what God is doing and to be faithful in approaching each day with the expectation that God will show us signs of God’s peace breaking into the world.

If we are faithful in listening and looking, these signs of peace and love and righteousness will be heard and seen! In addition to openness to what God is doing, Advent gives a secondary invitation to be faithful in our waiting just as God is faithful in showing up!

Prayer: God, speak to us once again of your peace and help us be open to hearing you! Teach us to recognize your presence in this world as we wait for Jesus Christ. Help us grow in relationship to you and to one another. Silence those voices in our lives that shout division. May your voice be the one we listen and respond to. Thank you for your faithfulness to us and for the invitation to be faithful to you. Amen.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

1. What distracts you from hearing God?

2. What spiritual disciplines are you cultivating in your daily life that will help you see and hear signs of God’s peace in the world?

3. How might your words speak God’s peace into the life of someone else today?

[#pictureAdvent] December 6: SHEEP

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By Christine V. Hides
Christine serves as Director of Children’s at Youth Ministry at Northbrook UMC and blogs about faith formation at ChristineVHides.com.
Northbrook, Illinois

First, read Isaiah 40:9-11

When my daughter was five, she told me that she imagined that God looked like a swirling, colorful bundle of stars. She tried to recreate what she saw in her head, but soon realized that what she imagined couldn’t be drawn on paper.

No one pictures God exactly the same way. Today’s reading includes two different images of God’s arms. God’s strong arm is raised at the front of a great parade as the exiles return home. God’s arms also safely hold the tiniest of lambs. 

In the Bible God is described as a shepherd, a king, an artist, a rock, and so much more. During Advent we prepare ourselves to see God in the most gentle and vulnerable position possible – as a tiny baby born in a stable. God’s arms are no longer metaphorical, they are Jesus’s sweet, baby arms, able to reach out from his manger toward the wooly sheep.

No one can completely describe God with words or with pictures. But, we are able to imagine the comfort of being safely cradled in muscular, yet kind arms. We can tell others what it feels like to be safe and cared for, like a lamb snuggled in the shepherd’s lap. “Here is God!” we can say. Strong and gentle, mysterious and amazing. Beautifully indescribable.

Prayer: Loving God, we are thankful for your love and care for us. Through the challenges we face, continue to cradle us safely. In this season of Advent, help us to prepare ourselves to proclaim your presence among us.

Discussion/Reflection Questions: 

1. How do you imagine God?
2. Which descriptions of God that you have heard or read do you like the best? 
3. Talk about a time you felt safe and comforted in God’s care.