Thursday, December 31, 2009

Read and Learn -- New Year's Resolutions

I thought I would offer a few resources for New Year's resolutions. First, is probably the only spiritual disciplines book I have ever read that I think might actually connect with most of the typical, traditional Presbyterians I have known. Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, by Marjorie J. Thompson reads like it was written for Presbyterians.
God has not come alive for them through traditional religious institutions. I know a man who has dutifully attended worship and served as a church trustee for years. He is still mystified by the language of faith. Words about God seem mere words -- beautiful and hopeful, but unconnected tothe world he knows. This man would like to believe, but he does not experience the reality of God in his life.
This is a book written for intelligent, educated people who have good intentions, but have never really made faith a part of their real lives.

Second, has updated its Bible reading app for Blackberry. (I would assume it is available for iphone, too -- but Grace will have to verify that.) This is an app that is designed to help you read the Bible. It has a selection of reading plans and some social networking components built in. It is a perennial top ten download on Blackberry's Appworld. It is called simply Bible. It is completely free. It integrates with your contacts and Twitter so you can send verses to other people. It inclues a variety of translations. It is a very nice contribution from

So, happy New Year.


Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2010 devotion - A New Year, a New Journey

Psalm 147:5    Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit.

I like to think about each New Year as a journey of faith, where my understanding about God and my beliefs in Jesus will grow deeper and stronger. I’ve tried to be a Christian for almost 33 years and throughout each year, I’ve learned more about God’s words and Christ’s ways. It doesn’t make me anymore holy or saintly, but rather as each year passes I am in awe of God’s patience, love, and grace.

Perhaps you are also wondering about this New Year and new decade that we’re about to enter. Maybe you have hopes and dreams for your life, or perhaps there are fears and worries on the horizon. Whatever is ahead, know this: God is still mighty and powerful, and His understanding of our lives and circumstances are limitless.

We all tend to make resolutions at this time of year, but perhaps this is the perfect time to ask God what He would wish to resolve in us. If we will let Christ guide us throughout this new journey of 2010, then I think that there will be all sorts of new opportunities and possibilities about growing in faith, getting nearer to God, and finding our purpose.

So may 2010 be a Happy and Prosperous New Year for all of us, but also a more meaningful and faithful journey in Christ.

Prayer:                        Lord Jesus, as we stand on the threshold of another new year, we pray that You will come to meet us and lead us onward in this amazing journey that we call life. Take us to where You would have us effectively do Your work, and empower us to minister to those who travel with us. In Your Holy Name, we expectantly pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment on today’s message, please send him an email to

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve: The Huron Carol

The Huron Carol is one of my favorites for Christmas Eve. Written by a French missionary in the seventeenth century in Canada, it tells the story of Christ's birth using terms and symbols that were familiar to the Huron Indians. The English translation is also beautiful. Read the story of The Huron Carol here.

Blessings on all the PresbyBloggers this Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve Devotion: Blue Christmas Candle & Poem

Each year, I post this on my blogs. Feel free to use it at your services.

Christmas can be a painful and lonely time for some people. At our candlelight service, we light a Blue Christmas candle for those who are grieving, hurting, or ill during the festive season. This prayer poem is recited as the blue candle is lit. It's a very meaningful and emotional time for some members in the congregation.

Blue Christmas Prayer

There’s no room at Christmas for sadness,
There’s no place for hearts that are blue.
All the world wants to hear
Is a word full of cheer,
Not a sigh, not a tear, not from you.

There’s no room at Christmas for loneliness,
There’s no place for your emptiness and grief.
All the world wants is peace,
Mistletoe and Christmas trees,
Not a heartache that mars its beliefs.

There’s no room at Christmas for sickness,
There’s no place or time to be ill.
All the world wants is health,
Prosperity and wealth,
Not a pain that can spoil its goodwill.

There’s no room at Christmas for Jesus,
There’s no place for His family, too,
All the world would not share,
No one seems to really care,
A stable will just have to do.


Yes, there’s room at Christmas for sadness,
There’s a place in God’s heart for you.
For He knows pain and loss,
Which He felt on the Cross,
So this candle is lit here for you…
*For Christ knows what it’s like to be blue.

* light a blue candle

Monday, December 21, 2009

Advent Welcome Mat - Decorated with Holly

Pour yourself a cup of cocoa and welcome our newest member, Bill McLean of Meandering McLean

"Meandering McLean" is the blog of a husband, dad, pastor, and sports fan who blogs to explore issues related to ministry and pastoral leadership from the Reformed perspective. While this will be the primary focus of the blog there will also be posts on random thoughts about life, parenting and sports. Please explore "Meandering McLean" and let me know what you think. My hope is that as part of my blogging we will be able to engage in a discussion about topics that are impacting on our lives and our ministries. With this in mind, I hope that visitors will feel free to post comments, ask questions and engage in a dialogue. I am new to the world of blogging, so I ask for your patience as I learn what it means to be a blogger and how to use this communication medium. * * * Please note that this is a personal blog and the posts that I write are my own opinions so they are not pre-screened and/or approved by the congregation I serve aspastor, the Presbytery I am a member of, and/or the Presbyterian Church (USA). * * *

Welcome, Bill!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Question for the Community: Congregational Traditions

A lot of focus this time of year is put on traditions inside of people's homes, or family traditions outside of the home. My wife and I are currently wrestling with ideas for how we will begin traditions, and what to begin, within our family of three. We realize that we will never be a family unto ourselves on Christmas as we will spend time with either my family or hers. (Hi Paul and Sarahlynn!) I'm not indicating that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, it's a wonderful thing to be able to spend time with our families whom we value very highly in our lives. We are struggling with how to set up traditions for our three that are meaningful for us as a unit without affecting others. Anyway, that's my story.

We live just north of Washington, DC.  One of the jobs that I am tasked with in the Presbytery office is to collect special worship information from our congregations for Lent and Advent.  It's really neat for me to see what different churches do to celebrate together while inviting others to join them.  We have one church that does a brief service and bag lunch on Wednesdays for Advent.  A couple of churches do live Nativities.  One church that does a really big Christmas Dinner.  It really makes me want to worship with a different church once or twice - if I only had the time!

So - my question for this month (and based on my posting, question to encompass the whole fall!) is:
What traditions happen in your congregation for the Advent Season?
Have you heard of traditions in other congregations that you want to try?
Do you go to another church to celebrate some of their traditions?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Read and Learn -- Children's Curriculum and the Great Stories

Last week Jan Edmiston of A Church for Starving Artists posted about trying to find a curriculum for use with children that taught the great Bible stories. For most of Christian (and Jewish) history the Bible stories were extremely well known. Most people weren't literate. The stories were read in church, they were depicted in public art. They were memorable.

I grew up in Sunday School using a story based approach to the Bible. Some of my earliest church memories are of coloring pictures of the stories while the teacher read the story aloud to us. I grew up and read those stories in context. So, I know where they are in the Bible and how they fit into the story. A lot of the people I grew up with know the stories, but they don't know the context. To them the stories are isolated snippets that they can't visualize in a bigger picture. Then, we have a lot of people younger than I am who just never learned them at all.

So, what do we do about this? Read Jan's post and the comments there, any ideas?


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on December 20, 2009

Here are the passages for December 20th, 2009, the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C).  All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.  (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Micah 5:2-5a
  • As Christians, it’s hard to hear the name of Bethlehem spoken without thinking of the birth of Jesus Christ.  Yet for the people to whom this prophecy was originally written, Bethlehem had a different connotation entirely.  Although a small, insignificant town, it was nonetheless well-known, but primarily as the hometown of King David.  How does this understanding affect our interpretation of this prophecy?
  • In verse 3, we read of a person in labor giving birth.  How might God’s people from before the time of Christ have understood this prophecy?  And how do we, who know of Jesus Christ, interpret the reference where “the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel”?
  • As this passage of prophecy draws to a close, a reference is made to the Assyrians.  Although the Assyrians were considered among the worst enemies the Israelites could imagine when this passage was written, the Assyrian Empire was long gone by the time of Jesus Christ.  Does this fact influence our interpretation of the passage in any way?
Luke 1:46b-55
Psalm 80:1-7
  • Throughout Advent, the version of the Revised Common Lectionary used in the PC(USA)'s Book of Common Worship has not had a reading from the Psalms on Sunday. However, this week gives two "responsive" readings, one of which is a Psalm. I expect that most churches will choose one or the other, if either at all....
Hebrews 10:5-10
  • Verses 5-7 of this passage come from Psalm 40:6-8, and the verses that follow expand upon this reference.  What does the author of Hebrews tell us about Jesus by attributing these words to him?
  • A few weeks ago, we spent several weeks following passages of Hebrews, and noted that a common theme throughout the book is the nature of sacrifice, and the superiority of Jesus' sacrifice over the animal sacrifices of the first century.  How do the words of this passage add to or affect that understanding?  Why do the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary use this reading on the Fourth Sunday of Advent?
Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
  • The Revised Common Lectionary allows churches the option of reading--or not reading--the verses in parentheses. 
  • Churches who choose not to read the "optional" verses may be missing out, because these verses contain the text of Mary's song of praise. These words tell us much about the character of the mother of Jesus Christ. How does she see God? Why does she sing praise during this time?
  • The verses just before this song (the verses most churches will retain) may provide part of the answer. This is the famous passage where we learn that Elizabeth's baby, who we learn later in the gospel is John the Baptizer, “leaped for joy” when Mary came to visit. Why do you think the baby was so happy? And what about Elizabeth? In these days before mass communication, what had Elizabeth been told about Mary's pregnancy? Or do you think she knew about Mary's baby through God directly, apart from human communication? When verse 41 says that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, what does that suggest?
With the closing of Advent, I am also bringing to a close my time as the writer of "Lectionary Ruminations" here on the Presbyterian Bloggers site.  I'd like to thank Sarahlynn Lester for offering me this opportunity, as well as for already having done the legwork to see that this feature will continue with new contributors.  I'm taking on a few new challenges, both on and off of the blogosphere, including becoming a deacon in my local church and attempting a "through the New Testament in a year" project over at my own blog, Transforming Seminarian, in a couple of weeks.   In the meantime, I'd like to link to one more lectionary reflection, the one written for the passages to be used on Christmas Eve.  Since these passages are the same every year, it only seems appropriate to draw attention to them one more time as I head out reflecting yet again on the words of Linus: "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!"

Monday, December 14, 2009

Passing the Peace

Good morning, and happy Monday to you all!

I'm highlighting three blogs from our blog roll this morning.

First is Nancy Janisch from Conversation in Faith Weblog: a place for thoughtful, respectful discussion. In her recent post Incarnation, Nancy talks about what it really means to "put the Christ back in Christmas."

Second is Castaway from CovenantStuff: Sunday messages - Covenant Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles (Westchester), CA. "A mile north of LAX and a neighbor to the world!". Today's post is Joy Gets Serious and includes an anecdote about an old Scottish man and his two adult children living in England. Last week's sermon asks the question: what are you made of? I enjoy looking at a pastor's notes, even without hearing the full sermon to compare against.

Third this week is Sara of Crying in the Night, currently living in and blogging from China. She blogs about her experiences as a mother, a daughter, a Christian. Sara has a gift of expressing herself through her blog. After reading only a few posts, her "voice" really comes through and you feel like you know her, like you're invested in her life's journey.

Have a wonderful third week of advent. The Peace of Christ be with you.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Advent Devotions: Advent 3 - Sing to the Lord - Zephaniah 3 v 17

Zephaniah 3:17 The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing."

I can remember someone asking me why Christians sing so often in their churches. It puzzled him that we spend so much time in worship using music and songs to convey our praise and prayers. “If you cut out the music,” he said, “everyone would get out at 11.30AM. It wouldn’t make any difference to God. He’s only interested in your prayers anyway.”

Obviously, this person hadn’t read the Bible. It’s full of songs and is written lyrically. The scriptures are meant to be sung – joyfully as in the Psalms, or dolefully as in Lamentations; loudly like the Angels on the hillside or quietly like Mary giving praise to God.

There’s even a verse in scripture, the one that we have today, which tells us that God Himself likes to sing! Music is an integral part of creation, heaven, and salvation. Song is a sacred vehicle of how we approach God, confess to Him, and praise His glorious Name. If we were to take out music from our worship, if we were to remove all singing, we would be left with something tedious, droll, and unfeeling.

Music captivates our hearts and connects with our souls, so that in turn, we may mystically connect with God. And one day, when all of His Son’s followers are gathered in eternity, we will hear the most beautiful voice and the most beautiful singing in all creation, because that will be the sacred moment when God sings and rejoices with those who are saved.

Prayer: Sing to the Lord a joyful song,
Lift up your hearts, your voices raise
To us His gracious gifts belong,
To Him our songs of love and praise. John Samuel Bewley Monsell

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He writes the devotional blog "Heaven's Highway."

Today's image is taken from John's ongoing Psalms art project.

City on a Hill - In the Bleak Midwinter

One of the best renditions of this much loved Christmas hymn, written by Christina Rossetti.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday Giving

Are you doing any special holiday giving this year?  Need exists year-round, but it seems that many of us make special effort at Christmastime.  (I do not believe this effect is due solely to the waning tax year.)

The PC(USA) blog got an email today from Nathaniel Frasher at Presbyterian Homes and Services of Kentucky. PHSK is a Christian, faith-based non-profit organization that provides senior housing services in Kentucky. PHSK has 4 campuses throughout Kentucky providing assisted living, personal care, skilled nursing care, and an array of other services.

I tend to contribute to some of the same organizations over and over.  It's good to be reminded of some of the other great needs out there.

I bet you all have your favorites, too.  Who's getting your special Christmas gifts this year?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Read and Learn Thursday: Officer Training Ideas

Recently I spent four weeks in the new elder training program at my church. I was there as the "understudy" because next year I will be in charge of the program. So I was paying careful attention to how it was being done.

There are four weekly meetings that cover Presbyterian polity and church history as well as a brief overview of Presbyterian theology. Presentations about the work and mission of several of the most important committees are also made by the elders who moderate those committees. This year we added a "continuing ed" session for the session in the spring that was very successful. It is hard to digest all this new information, so the continuing ed meeting (led by our Executive Pastor) gave new and not-so-new elders the chance to ask questions. We're planning to do this again in 2010.

A number of years ago I learned the importance of consistent and thorough officer training when I served on the Administrative Commission of a church in our presbytery that was so conflicted that fisticuffs had broken out before a session meeting and security guards were hired to maintain order in worship. One of the biggest problems in this conflicted congregation was the total lack of understanding about the roles of the pastor, session and congregation in our polity. We were shocked to learn there had been NO officer training for a couple of decades there. One of the first things we did as an AC was to conduct officer training for the session and any elders not on session who were willing to attend.

Most churches conduct officer training in the fall so that the officers can be ordained and installed by January. What is your officer training program like? What works well? What needs improvement? Please share your thoughts about officer training in the comments!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on December 13, 2009

Here are the passages for December 13th, 2009, the Third Sunday of Advent (Year C).  All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.  (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Zephaniah 3:14-20
  • Long-time readers of my reflections will no doubt have noticed that, when I reflect on prophetic readings (especially ones that have a certain meaning to those of us who know how the prophecies are fulfilled in Christ), I often like to consider how the people who heard this passage when it was originally written might have heard it.  In what time was this passage originally written?  What was happening to God’s people at that time?  How might that situation have influenced how they would hear this passage?  It is only after considering questions like these that we can begin to interpret how this passage speaks to God’s people today, in our situation.
  • In particular, I found a couple of sections interesting.  When I last wrote a reflection on this passage (three years ago, the last time "Year C" rolled around in the lectionary cycle), I was still using the TNIV for these reflections.  Verses 17-18 are translated rather differently in that version:

  • 17 "...(he) will rejoice over you with singing."
    18 "I will remove from you
    all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
    which is a burden and reproach for you...."
    Compare this to that same section from the NRSV, which reads:

    17 ...he will exult over you with loud singing
    18 as on a day of festival.
    I will remove disaster from you,
    so that you will not bear reproach for it.
    In the TNIV, the festivals were lost and mourned over by people to be removed (made not to mourn?).  In the NRSV, the festivals are an illustration of the fact that mourning has been removed.  Likewise, the object of "reproach" is changed.  The TNIV adds quotation marks, which the NRSV lacks.  Which is correct?  Does it matter?

  • Finally, at the end of this passage, after all the words of rejoicing at God’s work, we read that God will “restore your fortunes.”  Usually, to “restore” means to give something back that was once possessed.  What did God’s people once have, that they don’t any longer, that will be restored in God’s time?
Isaiah 12:2-6
  • The version of the Revised Common Lectionary used in the PC(USA)'s Book of Common Worship does not have a reading from the Psalms this week.  A rarity.  Rather, this passage, which seems to consist of a "Psalm" of praise from the book of Isaiah, is used in place of the weekly Psalm
Philippians 4:4-7
  • This is a short passage, but there are some aspects of it that bear thinking about.  When Paul tells us to rejoice in the Lord always, he clearly intends that we should rejoice even when things are going wrong.  This is especially true if, as is commonly believed, Paul himself is writing this letter while imprisoned.  What should rejoicing in such hard times look like?  How can we move toward an attitude of rejoicing when we don't particularly feel like it?
  • When Paul writes about prayer in this passage, he makes clear that he knows that human beings have needs, and that he believes that God can handle them.  Yet he tells us to offer our requests with thanksgiving.  For some people, it may seem like a contradiction to give thanks while asking for more at the very same time.  If this is so, how do we deal with that?
  • When Paul tells us that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds, what will this feel like?  Or, can we even know?  After all, Paul says that it “surpasses all understanding.”  Should we even be asking these questions?
Luke 3:7-18
  • This passage comes immediately after the passage from Luke that we read last week, and it starts with an interesting difference from the parallel passage in Matthew.  Note that, in Luke 3:7, John addresses the crowds when he cries out “You brood of vipers!”  In the Matthew version, the text specifically cites the Pharisees and Sadducees as the targets of John’s verbal attack.  Although it’s probably too much to suggest that these variants contradict each other, they definitely each give a very different impression from the other.  So, who was John so upset with?  And how might we explain the difference in wording from one gospel to the other?
  • In any event, we see much more of the personality of John the Baptizer this week than we did last week.  What kind of a person is he?  How might we apply the advice that he gives to the crowds, including the tax collectors and the soldiers, to our own lives?
  • As the passage comes to a close, John makes references to the one who is coming, the Messiah.  Based on John’s words, what kind of a person will the Messiah be?  Does the Messiah sound like someone we might look forward to seeing, or would we be afraid of such a person?

Monday, December 07, 2009

How Infinite Is God's Love

I'm no mathematician, so ask you local college professor about any technical corrections to my explanation below... 

In mathematics, the idea of infinity takes on some very complex, powerful, and sometimes paradoxical properties.  There is, for instance, Cantor's Paradox.  The paradox can be described using the set of whole (or "counting") numbers and the set of decimal (or "real") numbers.

First, realize that there are an infinite number of whole numbers.  However high you can count, you can always count one more.  So, there are an infinite number of whole numbers.

The look at any two consecutive whole numbers.  How many real (fractional or decimal) numbers can you come up with between those two whole numbers?  An infinite number of real numbers could appear between any two whole numbers.

Intuitively, then, there have to be more real numbers than there are whole numbers, right?  But there are an infinite number of whole numbers, already.  So what does that say about how many more real numbers there are?

Remember when you were a kid an you told your friend that you "infinity dog-dared" him to do something and he "double infinity dog-dared" you back?  Well, there's something to that idea.  The paradox suggests that the concept of something being infinite has many dimensions to it that can qualify the relative "infiniteness" of something.

I think this mathematical paradox shows us just how hard it is to fully comprehend the idea of God's infinite love.  No matter how we rationalize and justify and prove, there comes a point in the discussion where faith graciously takes over, creates a paradox for us, and grants us the freedom to believe rather than prove.  As an engineer, I struggle with those places where I feel free to believe, but I also find them gloriously spacious.

Thank you God, for paradoxes.

For Your Reading Pleasure

This morning I'd like to direct your attention to a delightful blog from our blog roll, Cleverly Disguised as a Responsible Adult, by Katina Sharp.  Last week, Katina offered an interesting new look about what Mary might have been feeling as she labored to deliver baby Jesus in More Like Mary.  Bonus: lots of pictures of Katina's beautiful newestborn son!
Next up is A Church for Starving Artists by Jan Edmiston.  Last week, Jan served up wonderful posts on Christmas and Advent (In Search of Purple Candles, What Is Christmas Supposed to Look Like?, When Everything's Falling Apart), the nature of community (Sharing a Room), and what it means to pastor (When You Can't Be Someone's Pastor).


Saturday, December 05, 2009

Sunday Devotion for Advent 2: Christmas Singalong

Hosea 6:3        “Let us acknowledge the LORD; let us press on to acknowledge him. As surely as the sun rises, he will appear; he will come to us like the winter rains, like the spring rains that water the earth."

At this time of year, I usually tune my car radio to a station that plays Christmas music all day long for the month of December. I like the old familiar songs that I grew up with. Most mornings, you’ll find me crooning to Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Andy Williams as I drive to church. The songs get me in a great frame of mind and even when interstate traffic is slow, I just enjoy more time to sing along with my favorite performers.

Christmas is all around me on my journey. I see festive signs, Christmas trees, and seasonal sales everywhere. I laugh at some of the billboards and smile at church notices. I watch people hurry and scurry over at the mall. I even have a child’s delight when I see bright colored Christmas lights and lawn decorations when I head back home in the evening.

I love this time of year, but I also remember that Christmas has not come, and that this is actually the sacred time of Advent, when Christians everywhere are supposed to be focused on the Second Coming of Christ. I ponder quietly and wonder if I am prepared for that amazing event. I switch off the Christmas music and turn on my heart to pray.

Will Christ come again this year?

Prayer:                        Lord Jesus, I think You also enjoy the bright lights, joviality, and festivity of Christmas. People everywhere appear to love this time of year for different reasons. I hope and pray that they will also quietly stop and think about You, Your Teaching, Your Life, and especially Your Return. In Your Holy Name, I pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment on today’s message, please send John an email to He loves to receive your feedback.

The image is one of John's original drawings called "Advent 2." You can view a larger image at his art site on

Friday, December 04, 2009

Read and Learn -- oops, it isn't Thursday!

Sorry about the day, Grace and I were confused. I did NOT say senile. I said confused. That's our story, and I am sticking with it.

Anyway, I have a question for all the church bloggers around. Do you use a blog (only blog, secondary blog, doesn't matter) for any intentional form of Church communication or for purely personal purposes? If so, how do you think it is working?


Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on December 6, 2009

No doubt many of you have already seen Christmas decorations start to appear in your churches, and have started the annual traditions like the lighting of the advent wreath. Although different churches may have different traditions, such as the different names for each of the candles to be lighted each week on the advent wreath, this is a time when symbols and traditions become especially important. I'd like to invite you to keep these symbols and traditions in mind as we read this week's lectionary readings. How do our traditions help us to interpret these passages?

Here are the passages for December 6th, 2009, the Second Sunday of Advent (Year C).  All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.  (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Malachi 3:1-4
  • Last week, I mentioned that a major theme of advent is that “something is coming.”  In this passage, something is coming.  A messenger is coming.  What message does this messenger bring?
  • There is a lot of language in this passage that conveys a sense of cleanliness.  “Refiner's fire”  “fuller's soap,” “purifier.”  What kind of cleaning does the author of this passage imagine will take place?  How would the people who originally heard the words (assumed to be living more than 400 years before the birth of Jesus Christ) have understood these words?    At the end of the passage, we see references to “days of old,” “former years” during which offerings were apparently more acceptable to the Lord than the days during which this passage is written.  What had changed?  What was true about those earlier days that the author is attempting to return to?
Luke 1:68-79
  • The version of the Revised Common Lectionary used in the PC(USA)'s Book of Common Worship does not have a reading from the Psalms this week.  A rarity.  Rather, this passage, which consists of the prophesy made by Zechariah right after his son (John the Baptizer) was circumcised, is used in place of the weekly Psalm (some say the prophesy was sung, like a Psalm)
  • Responses like these seem to break the flow of the narrative. Why does Luke find them important enough to include?

Philippians 1:3-11
  • Because of the themes of advent, it's tempting to find a way to put the phrase “something is coming” into all of my comments during this season.  But the fact is, for this passage, I'd have force that phrase in.  It doesn't really seem to fit.  Why, then, is this passage being included as an Advent reading?
  • This passage is believed to have been written while the Apostle Paul was in prison, a fact that he alludes to in verse 7.  Yet the passage remains extremely upbeat and joyful.  How can Paul maintain this attitude despite his situation?  How were the Philippians “partners in the gospel”?
  • As the passage comes to a close, the theme of purification comes up again in verse 10.  If Paul is already so happy with the Philippians, what further purification might they have needed?  Did he have something in mind, or is he simply referring to the fact that no one is perfect, and everyone can become more pure and blameless than they currently are?
Luke 3:1-6
  • Something is coming.  In this case, John the Baptizer is coming.  We don't see much of John in action in this passage, but Luke sets up the context in which John appears.  Luke goes to great lengths to tell the year in which this event occurs, and to tell us what political figures were in power in the surrounding regions.  Why do you think Luke goes to all this trouble?
  • I usually try to make it a point to note when the New Testament quotes a passage of the Old Testament.  This passage ends with a quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5.  Besides asking why Luke used this particular passage of prophesy to describe John, it's worth noting that this passage of Isaiah would have been part of the liturgical readings for this same Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, last year, when the Lectionary calendar was on Year B for weekly Sunday readings.   And on this Sunday in Year A, the gospel reading is the parallel passage from Matthew.  Why do you think that the framers of the lectionary found it so important to include these prophetic words on the same Sunday of the lectionary calendar every year of their three year cycle?