December 16th, 2018 Luke 3: 7-18 Amy Jane Steiner, Trinity United Methodist Church Love and kindness; caring for our neighbors, community, and beyond, to all we can reach, doing as much as in in our power and ability. This is what I hear as I read and read again this passage. We need to hear this message repeatedly. We are always looking for protection from “the wrath to come,” however it manifests, as illustrated, through the people’s repeated questions and John’s calming and realistic responses. The provocations and threats are disquieting to me in our current political climate, as they and other passages, can and have been taken out of context to be used to provoke fear and violence. I believe and trust that God will continue to work through His people, to use our actions to share the love of Jesus, as foretold by John, in the gathering of all that is good and the obliteration of violence and division. Dear Lord, be with us as we fight the lesser parts of ourselves in these times of trial and strengthen our better selves to continue your good work while we prepare again for the celebration of Jesus’s birth. Amen. December 17th, 2018 Hebrews 13:7-17 Roger Green, First Presbyterian Church Quite a few of my friends are apathetic or even antagonistic towards the church. I totally get that. I’d been there myself some years ago. My friends often see some elements of the church favoring those who “have,” or are the insiders. “Send money” so the pastor can have a bigger house or a better plane. I actually heard one of these guys say that if Jesus had come to earth in the 21st century, rather than the first, he’d be riding around in the newest and fanciest airbus. That’s not the Jesus I’m seeing in this passage. He is instead a sacrificial Lord. While he is learned enough to swap scripture with the scribes and elders, he’s spending most of his time tending to the marginalized. I’ve been a member of a FOCUS church since 1984. What inspires me about service to others is that it doesn’t end at the sanctuary door. It goes “outside the camp” (v. 13), meeting the needs of the broader community. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry, and FOCUS does that with a food pantry, the breakfast club, and other services. “Do not forget to do good and to share with others…” (v. 16). FOCUS volunteers also sacrifice their time to do advocacy, trying to address the root causes that require a food pantry that was designed as a temporary activity to be in place for nearly five decades. Just as Jesus brought people together to express God’s will, occasionally turning over a table or two, FOCUS mobilizes “individuals and other community organizations to work for systemic and structural change to address issues including poverty, social and racial injustice.” God, when people come to Advent services, they see the lighted candles and hear the familiar hymns. May they also see the love in our hearts that comes from caring for others, even those ragged people outside the door, per the example of Jesus. Amen. December 18th, 2018 Acts 28: 23-31 Barkhiem Amir, Breakfast Club Guest As Paul explained to the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah, he quoted the Law of Moses and the Prophets: “Some were convinced … others would not believe.” The prophet Isaiah was the final argument of Paul, and in the words of Isaiah, Paul reminded them that “…this people’s heart has become calloused,” and so their healing will not come to them, but go to the Gentiles! Among the Gentiles were those same Romans that crucified Christ. Paul must have irritated them by saying the Gentiles have and will listen to Christ. The Gentiles know this same salvation as the Jews! Alleluia! Emmanuel, God is with ALL of us! Now we may choose … choose to trust in Scripture, … choose to have faith in the coming andwork of the Holy Spirit as the One on Pentecost that drove away all of our fears, … choose to believe that Christ is eternally in love with all of Creation, and … choose to live in Christ, indwelling here and now, in us by the same power and love of His Holy Spirit. We are not imprisoned. We are free, regardless of our circumstances, our wealth or poverty. We are unhindered, even as Paul was unhindered to preach and teach among the Gentiles. Lord, carry out your work in us, as you have in Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul. We give you thanks that Your words soften hearts and free us from the preconceived bondage of ourselves. Amen. December 19th, 2018 Micah 4:8-13 Mark Chaffin, Emmanuel Baptist In this passage, God’s prophet having foretold Judah’s doom, now tells of a future return from exile in Babylon. It will be the ultimate exaltation of Jerusalem, the City of Zion. In “the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house (Zion) shall be established as the highest of the mountains.” This will be fulfilled completely when the peoples shall flow to a restored and redeemed Jerusalem as the capital of the God’s universal reign over the nations. Its “former dominion shall come, the sovereignty of the daughter of Zion.” As yet, they must still suffer the pains and travail of exile before God rescues them. Without competent leadership or wise counsel, and no longer walking in God’s way, they will know the pain of defeat and derision that comes with it. They will suffer the loss of temple, land, and homes before God will defeat their enemies and restore all that was lost. Their difficult lesson learned, they finally return to God’s house to be taught God’s ways. A return to obedient walking in God’s ways and treading a peaceful, nonviolent path will ensure prosperity and redemption for God’s people. Such is the purpose of God in every age and most surely in our day. The dearth of moral leadership and the seeming death of judicious counsel at the highest level places us squarely in the same predicament as the people in Micah’s day. For a return from our exile to a path of moral faithfulness and commitment to the principles of justice, we too must seek repentance and change of heart. Like our forebears, we must seek the source of divine wisdom assured that the Lord will teach us anew God’s inclusive and nonviolent ways where all are shown dignity and have a share in the restored fortunes of the common good. The advent of Jesus, the Prince of peace and God’s true Messiah assures us that the promise of moral integrity is available to all who make him Lord in daily living and pursue justice in our corporate life. Through Jesus, God’s people are to constitute the new Zion as Paul indicates: “we are no longer strangers and aliens, but are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation … with Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom (we) are built into a dwelling place for God.” (Eph. 2:19-22) With Micah, let us say: “We will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.”Amen. December 20th, 2018 Psalm 80: 1-7 Michelle McIlroy, Delmar Reformed Church Our goats stand near the gate each morning, waiting for my father to lead them to pasture. Their eager cries for better food drifts across our farm and I smile, knowing they have a good shepherd (goatherd?) that will answer them. Psalm 80 carries itself out in a very literal way with these goats and my faithful father. I could stop there. I could say, God is a good shepherd. Just like my dad, he’ll fulfill his promises to us with a new pasture, one day. But what if this cry for restoration hits a little deeper? What if we, the individual, feel it painfully as we face invisible illness, chronic pain, grief, or unmet expectations that erode our peace? What if we, as a community, struggle with a society torn by hate that seems only growing? What if we, as a world, are drowning in fear? We cry out, “Hear us! Don’t leave us in the dark! Save us!” We beg for the bread of life instead of tears. The promise is this: we are heard, and restoration is coming. Cry out, then love mercy and act justly, while knowing it is the shepherd who will ultimately open those gates and lead us into shalom. Lord, don’t leave us crying in the dark. Restore our hearts and minds to lean into your saving grace. Feed us with the bread of life and the cup of living water, instead of our tears. Strengthen us for the waiting, and use us to give glimpses to others of the restoration to come. Help us to recognize you when you shine your face into the darkness, and to follow you faithfully toward shalom. In the name of the light of the world, Jesus Christ, who is coming again. Amen. December 21st, 2018 Isaiah 42:10-18 Judith Henningson, FOCUS Director of Food Programs There are days, sometimes months on end, when we may feel God is silent in our lives. In the dark, empty cavern of the heart, murmurs of fear, anger, humiliation, or grief may grow to tolling reverberations, drowning out the whispering, gentle persuasion of hope. Friends may say, “It is always darkest before the dawn” or “In the darkest night, we see the stars,” but the hollow, aching heart is not ready for words of comfort. Those words meant in kindness may cut like knives, or bruise like hammer blows. God is waiting for us in that silence. God waits patiently. When we struggle free from the darkness of fear, when we labor to bring forth new life after grief, God waits. While we build back our strength and find our voice, God waits. When we are ready to open our eyes to new possibilities, God lights our path, smooths our way, and offers the refreshment of new joy. We are never alone in the wilderness. Whether we sing songs of praise or songs of lamentation, God is always listening. Thank you, God, for your constant, patient presence. May I sing of your steadfast love and mercy all the days of my life. Amen. December 22nd, 2018 Isaiah 66:7-11 Rev. Susan Cox, First Church Albany It is not often in our lectionary that we encounter such strong maternal images of God. In Isaiah 64, we hear Israel’s lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” This cry resounds at a time when small groups of exiles are returning to Judah after Persia’s defeat of Babylon in 539. They are weary, faced with hardship, famine, political in-fighting, and economic oppression. Their homes are in ruins, their temple burned to the ground. Here God responds firmly, “has the one who delivers, shut the womb?” No, never! In this strong maternal language God assures that God will restore Jerusalem and the temple will again feed God’s people, bringing sustenance to all. In verse 13 God say full out “As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you, you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” God as mother nurtures and delivers new life. In a time of random mass shootings, cruelty against certain ethnic groups, political infighting: What do you know of your own weariness, your own doubt? Can you imagine God’s nurturing embrace, strengthening the tired old bones of our humanity? Can you imagine God bringing forth new life from the pain of these times? God of mercy and light, surround us with your loving embrace. Give us powerful faith as we await the birth of new life in Jesus Christ. Amen. Click here to view the complete FOCUS Churches Advent 2018 Devotional FOCUS was created in 1967 when pastors of four churches in downtown Albany recognized a need to join together in a cooperative spirit. Over the next decades FOCUS identified serious physical needs of those in poverty. For more than 30 years, FOCUS has operated feeding programs which have grown to include tow food pantries, a year-round breakfast program which guests themselves named, “The Breakfast Club.” FOCUS is also dedicated to educating others about the realities of poverty and advocating for the needs of those suffering injustice. FOCUS has committed to speak truth to power in addition to its direct ministries of the body. Today, FOCUS is a stand-alone not for profit organization, separate from those member churches that first envisioned what such a community could accomplish. FOCUS honors its roots and the original vision (read the FOCUS Covenant here) but continues seeking new ways to address issues we and our neighbors face. We welcome participation from all individuals and organizations seeking justice in our world. For more information, please visit our FOCUS Churches of Albany website.