We have been exploring how the themes of Advent are opportunities for improving and enhancing your leadership. This fourth week let’s look at the theme of the birth of Jesus as another way of helping you become the leader needed at this time in history. 

How does rethinking the birth of Jesus help you be a Christ-centered leader? 

In a way, it is strange to “rethink the birth of Jesus” but slogans like “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” and “Jesus is the reason for the season” invite us and challenge us to look closely at the meaning and purpose of the birth of Jesus.    

The Birth of Jesus

When we read the biblical stories, we find that the birth of Jesus, in a stable to humble parents, is God’s dramatic way of coming into the world in a way that we can understand. It is the story of God taking on the life of a human being and coming into this world to live with us. It is a story of incarnation. 

When you read Matthew’s story you find that the name Jesus means savior and that the name Emmanuel means God is with us. Matthew is telling us that in Jesus, God’s saving presence is with us.  

John points out that Jesus was present at the beginning with God because Jesus is God. Then God becomes flesh and lives among us. The words “became flesh and dwelt with us” literally mean “to pitch his tent.” Eugene Peterson in the Message says, “moved into our neighborhood.” John is telling us that God in Jesus has come to live with us.  

And Paul teaches us that God is in Christ “reconciling the world to himself.” It might be helpful to think of the word reconciled as being embraced or hugged. God is in Christ “embracing” the world and “hugging” us, each of us, holding us close in love. Paul tells us that God came to be with us to bring us back to him and to his purpose. 

Read Luke 2:1-20

So, let’s look at Luke’s story to discover how rethinking the birth of Jesus can help you lead through Advent. 

2 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room. 

8 Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  

16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them. 

Reflect 

The birth of Jesus is a story of an encounter with the divine in the midst of the ordinary. Luke uses ordinary people to introduce his good news. Within the historical context of political struggle, taxation, and the governmental and religious claims of Rome, Luke tells of God coming to be with us in the person of Jesus. In the midst of the ordinary, we have an encounter with God. 

Sometimes it seems that we have heard the story of the birth of Jesus so often that we miss Luke’s purpose in telling the story. As much as I like to think of Christmas as family gatherings, special decorations, lights, trees, candles, singing carols, and a winter wonderland, Luke’s first-century Christmas was different. 

God with Us

The birth of Jesus is about God coming to be with us. It is about light coming into our darkness.  Luke tells the story of Mary, a young woman from Nazareth, whose life is turned upside down by God’s call upon her life. In his first chapter, Luke tells of the angel Gabriel arriving with a greeting that is unsettling: “Favored woman! The Lord is with you.” As much as you and I might want to be favored by God, to be in God’s favor means God has some extraordinary work to be done. 

When you read Mary’s call to the ministry, she is “confused and disturbed.” There is always a mix of surprise, fear, and faith when you encounter God’s call. But like other stories in the scripture, we tend to focus only upon a portion of the story, like “the virgin birth,” and miss the purpose of the story.   

Luke’s good news is that Jesus not only possessed the Holy Spirit but promised the Holy Spirit to his followers. For Luke, the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to communicate the good news of God beyond the barriers that separate people from God and one another. 

God’s Promise Fulfilled

In chapter one, the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary (1:35) in the same way Luke understood the Holy Spirit to come upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 1:8). The fulfillment of God’s promise, to be with us, is part of the intention of this story. Mary becomes God’s agent, God’s instrument, fulfilling God’s promise. This is Luke’s way of emphasizing the true humanity of the One who shared our life by being born, growing up and dying 

God comes to be with us, through the faithful response of Mary, to give us what we need to navigate the barriers that separate us from one another. When you read the good news according to Luke and the stories recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, you will discover that the Holy Spirit that came to Mary and the disciples is the same Holy Spirit that has been given to you. 

Holy Spirit Power

So, here is a clue for your leadership. When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, O favored one, you will be given the power to witness beyond the barriers of theology, race, nationality, gender, economics, politics, social standing, etc. God’s purpose is being worked out in and through you. 

When Luke writes that there is “no place” for the newborn Messiah, he is saying that Jesus is a displaced person for whom the world will not make a place. “No room” is not simply a matter of space but a matter of choice. Jesus born in a stable will find “no vacancy” signs throughout his ministry and will finally be buried in a borrowed tomb. 

Empowered for Love

Jesus being born in a stable and placed in a manger represents solidarity with people of poverty. Luke brings this into dramatic contrast with Caesar who has a place in the empire. As a Christ-centered leader, you are empowered by the Holy Spirit to make a place for God’s love in the lives of the people who have been pushed aside and forgotten. 

The story of the shepherds and angels emphasizes God’s affirmation of the poor and despised. Although the image of shepherds is more positive in the Old Testament, in the first century, shepherds belonged to the lower class, irresponsible thieves who grazed their sheep on the land of other people. They were nomadic people taking advantage of others while using the care of their sheep as excuses for their behavior. 

Yet, it is to the shepherds that the angels bring the good news. Using the words and images meant for the emperor, Luke has the angels announce the birth of Jesus as the One who fulfills the aspirations and yearnings of all people. The message begins among the outsiders of Galilee and Judea and extends to Samaritans, Romans, and then to all people. 

Reimagine

The word “savior” was a word of honor often applied to the emperor and the word “lord” was a designation for the emperor and for pagan gods, as well as for the God of the Old Testament. The word “Christ” is the one anointed by God to fulfill God’s promises. The announcement was meant to reimage the empire. He was bringing good news to all people, Jews and Gentiles. As a Christ-centered leader, you are now a part of “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met in Jesus, God with us. 

The announcement of “peace” or “shalom” refers to the birth of Jesus as an act of the grace of God. Jesus is bringing wholeness and completeness to all people and every aspect of life. It carries with it the image of becoming who God created you to be. 

A Message of Peace

So, here is what is so awesome about the birth of Jesus. God gave the message of peace to amateurs. It is like the message was too important to be left to the diplomats and those in positions of power.  

Think about it. The great diplomats and ambassadors of the past 2000 years, the councils that have met, and the peace treaties that have been signed have mostly been forgotten. But we still remember and are shaped by the peacemaking messages of a host of angels, a group of unimportant shepherds, and Christ-centered leaders like you.   

After the shepherds had seen such wondrous things, they went back to their ordinary lives. And that is the rethinking of the birth of Jesus. How has the birth of Jesus changed your life and the way you relate to people? What difference has the birth of Jesus made in your leadership? 

Respond 

What does it mean to “rethink the birth of Jesus”? Slogans like “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” and “Jesus is the reason for the season” are good slogans, but what do they mean? 

To rethink the birth of Jesus, you will have to ask yourself, “What will I do with the baby?” God has chosen to come to us in a way that we can understand. Now, how will you live and lead so others will know and understand God with us?    

After a busy morning of activity, a family decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant. The mother places her 12-month-old son, Erik, in his highchair. As soon as he was placed, he squealed with glee. He was giggling as he looked across the restaurant. 

His mother followed the direction of his eyes to see who or what had amused her son. Her eyes met a homeless-looking, unkempt old man just across from their table. With his hands waving at Erik, the man said “Hello baby. You are such a big boy.” 

Erik’s parents were startled. They were unsure how to respond to the situation. The baby didn’t seem to care that others in the restaurant were now staring at him and the old man. But his parents were uneasy. As soon as their meal arrived, they hurried and ate, not enjoying their food or one another. 

The old man was still making faces and playing with Erik. “Peek-a-boo . . . I see you.” The man was anything but cute and obviously intoxicated, but Erik didn’t care. 

As soon as they finished their meal, Erik’s dad told his wife to meet him in the parking lot and he hurried to pay the check. While Erik’s mother was gathering their belongings, she noticed that the old man sat between her and the door. “Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik,” she prayed. 

As she drew closer to the man, she turned her back trying to sidestep the man and avoid any air he might be breathing. As she did, Erik leaned over her arm, reaching with both arms in a baby’s “pick-me-up” motion. Before his mom could stop him, Erik propelled himself from her arms to the old man’s arms. Suddenly the ragged, unkempt old man and the baby were face to face in a full embrace. Erik was giggling and squealing the whole time. 

The baby, in an act of total trust and love, laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed, and tears filled his eyes. His old hands, full of grime and pain, cradled the baby and stroked his back. Erik’s mother stood stunned. She felt helpless and scared of the unknown. As the old man rocked and cradled Erik, he looked at the mother and said, “You take care of this baby.” 

Somehow, she managed to say, “I will.” 

He handed Erik back to her and said, “God bless you, ma’am; you’ve given me my Christmas gift.” 

She could say nothing more than mutter, “Thanks. With Erik in her arms, she walked to the car weeping, “Oh God, forgive me.” 

Rethink the Birth of Jesus

As you rethink the birth of Jesus, what are you doing with the baby? Maybe you can think of it this way, how is the birth of Jesus helping you love others as God in Jesus has loved you? 

Ann Douglas Vaughan tells the story of when she was ten, she found a wallet. There wasn’t any money in it, but even at ten years of age she knew how those things worked. She couldn’t wait to return the wallet and get her reward. All day long she called the phone number which she found in the brown leather wallet, but no one answered. 

She finally convinced her dad to drive her to the owner’s address. Once there, they found a modest military housing unit with a torn screen door. It was at that moment she noticed her dad doing something unexpected. As he rang the bell, he took three $20 bills and tucked them into the empty wallet. 

Ann Douglas Vaughan wrote, “Turns out my reward, for returning the wallet, was getting to see true love in action.” She witnessed, through the actions of her father, grace through generosity to a stranger. 

Rethink the Birth of Jesus

As you rethink the birth of Jesus, how do others experience love in action through you? How will you extend grace through generosity?   

To rethink the birth of Jesus, you will have to ask yourself, “Will I follow Jesus where he leads me?” Mary replied to the angel, “May it be to me as you have said.” You might not entirely understand what is going on. You might not anticipate what will happen. You only know that to put Christ back into Christmas, you have to allow yourself to be loved and to love others as you are loved. It means becoming vulnerable and available.    

When the Bible Grasps You

There once was a seminary student who approached the theologian Paul Tillich after a lecture on the authority of Scripture. The student was clutching a large, black, leather-bound Bible in his hand. As he approached Tillich, waving his Bible above his head, he shouted, “Do you believe this is the Word of God?” 

Tillich looked at the student’s fingers tightly gripping the Bible and responded, “Not if you think you can grasp it.” There was a moment of silence, then Tillich continued, “When the Bible grasps you, I believe it is the Word of God” 

God is Calling You to Participate in the Good News

The heartfelt music, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and sweet words are all good, but they have numbed us to the intrusion of God’s love. Christmas is saying, “Yes” to something beyond all your emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying, “Yes” to a hope based on God’s initiative which has nothing to do with what you think and feel. It is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work, and that God is calling you to not only announce the good news but to participate in it.  

So, when Jesus comes knocking on the door of your church building, be ready for his invitation. Because when you open the door to invite him in, he is going to invite you to follow him into your neighborhood. Get ready because he will introduce you to his friends. His poor, forgotten, disabled, overlooked friends. And if, by faith, you have the courage to follow him, you will take your first step in becoming the incarnational leader needed to meet the needs of people today.  

Join Mary in responding,  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” It will be at that moment that you will join the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

Put Christ back into Christmas by loving others as God in Christ has loved you. Who you are is how you lead. 

Return  

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. What did you decide to do with the baby Jesus? How did you experience God’s love for you? How did you express God’s love for others? To whom is Jesus leading you? How will your experience of the birth of Jesus help you love as you have been loved? With whom do you need to celebrate the hope you have experienced in and through them? 

Merry Christmas! May the joy of Jesus be yours as you rethink the meaning and purpose of his birth in your life and in the lives of the people entrusted to your care.

As you continue to lead through Advent, how are you practicing and improving your leadership skills? This season we have looked at how rethinking waiting and preparing are growth opportunities. With waiting and preparation in mind, have you considered how Advent provides you with the opportunity to rethink your focus on life and leadership?   

Life is not found by focusing on yourself but is found in giving yourself for the sake of others. It is not self-protection but self-giving that opens you to your best self. Effective leadership is not found by focusing on likes and dislikes, but by listening and responding to the hopes, dreams, and desires of those entrusted to you.   

Rethinking with John the Baptist

It is easy to get caught up in our own stories. When you think about the highs and the lows of daily life and add the chaos of disease and distress in the world, it is easy to lose focus on who is life-giving and what is important.   

In an age where the focus on self is promoted as the path to happiness, Advent provides the opportunity to rethink your focus. Today, John the Baptist teaches us to refocus by shifting our attention from ourselves to God and God’s mission. In a culture of weariness, John calls us to discover a different path to life. He invites us to focus on the light in the darkness.    

To help refocus, take a few minutes to read this scripture, John 1:6-8, 19-28. 

Read John 1:6-8, 19-28. 

6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 

19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed and did not deny it, but he confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 

23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” as the prophet Isaiah said. 

24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, “Why, then, are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal.” 28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. 

Reflect 

John the Baptist points us toward a greater vision than ourselves. He, himself, embodies a self-giving life. Despite the attention given to him, he keeps his focus on the One who is to come after him. In other words, he refused to claim an identity that would overshadow his mission or that would take the focus off of the light, off of the Messiah, off of Jesus, the One who is coming. 

So, John, the gospel writer tells us, John the Baptist was a witness to the light. He was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. Why? So, all might believe. His focus was on his mission and not himself. 

A Voice in the Wilderness

Even when the Jews sent priests to question him, John responded, “I am not the Messiah.” “I am not Elijah.” “I am not a prophet.” He could have elevated himself to a level of importance, but he kept his focus. They asked, “Who are you?  What do you say about yourself?” 

And he answered, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” He knew who he was and his place in God’s mission. Even though some wanted to make him the center of attention, John kept his focus on his mission and not on himself. 

The Power of Self-Giving

The scripture is clear, John the Baptist’s life is a witness to the power of self-giving. His witness was a light for others, but his light was only a reflection of the One to come, the one true light. John’s life is a model of humility. 

His insistence that he is the voice in the wilderness highlights a profound humility. He is not even worthy to untie the strap of the sandal of the One who is coming. John is directing everyone to the Messiah, the Christ, the One to come, Jesus. Why? So, all might believe. 

The scripture is clear. John’s humility models for us what it means to follow Jesus. 

Respond 

This Advent season, John challenges us to rethink our focus. John invites us to turn our eyes upon Jesus and to place our attention on the mission. He came to point people to Jesus. John is calling us to do the same. 

So, as you listen to John, how are you leading through Advent? Are you focused on the baby in the manger or on the commercial aspects of Christmas? Let me be clear, it is very difficult if not impossible to give your full attention to both and hold Jesus, God with us, clearly in focus. 

Leading Through Advent

So, how are you leading through Advent? Are helping people prepare for the birth of Jesus, and the coming of Christ, or are you lost in the timing of activities and the proper trimmings of the season? Advent candles are good and necessary. They provide a way of telling the story. 

But when you get upset because someone lights the pink candle on the wrong Sunday, where is your focus? When you are more concerned about the poinsettias being delivered and properly placed than you are about the people who only attend worship once a year, with family, at Christmas, where is your focus?   

The Why of Christmas

Advent provides a wonderful opportunity to rethink your focus on why you participate in some activities. How is baking cookies, wrapping gifts, decorating, going to parties, and assisting you in keeping your focus upon “God with us” the savior of the world? They are good activities that bring joy and pleasure, the question is, how do they keep you focused on the “why” of Christmas? 

In today’s culture, we often celebrate ourselves more than we celebrate the One whom God sends to set us free. Because of God’s love for us, God sent John the Baptist to challenge us to rethink our focus. His mission was not about gaining recognition. Instead, he was committed to pointing to the One greater than himself. John the Baptist didn’t seek personal glory. His life was a message, urging people to look beyond their desires to the Messiah. 

Rethink Your Focus

So, as a Christ-centered leader, Advent provides the opportunity to rethink your focus. It is easy to lose focus of the One who calls us and equips us for leading and loving. When we are out of focus, we misunderstand the connection between serving others and the life we are called to live. It is in focusing on others and loving others, that we become more who God created us to be. 

As followers of Jesus, as good as it is, you are not invited to a life of serving others as a way to be and do good. You are invited to love and serve as a way of expressing God’s goodness you have experienced in and through Jesus. You love your neighbors as you love yourself and you love others as God has loved you. As good as it is, it is not about your service, it is about God’s love.   

Undefeated

Maybe this story will help. It is from the Academy Award-winning documentary film, “Undefeated.” 

In 2004, Bill Cortney left his position as a schoolteacher to open his own lumber business. While participating in a small group from his church, he was challenged to volunteer to go into the North Memphis neighborhoods and be a friend to some kids. Through that experience, Bill Cortney learned that the Manassas High School football team needed a coach. Through the encouragement of his friends, he volunteered to be the coach for one year.  

The Manassas High School football team had never won a playoff game. In fact, in 2004, they had only won four games in ten years. Bill Courtney offered to help the Manassas Tigers turn the football team around. 

Are you a Turkey Person?

That first year, there were 17 players on the team. About midway through the season, the coach was concerned about his relationship with his players. He felt he had a good relationship with half of them, but he wanted something more than being the coach, something of greater depth than football. So, he had a conversation with one of the seniors, Jamie, about his relationship with the team. 

The coach asked Jamie, “What is the deal? I am here every day. I’m giving all I have to give. What do I have to do?” 

Jamie responded almost dismissively, “Just keep doing what you are doing, Coach. We appreciate it.” 

Coach Courtney: “Tell me what is going on.” 

Jamie: “Real talk? I don’t want to hurt your feelings. 

Coach: “Straight talk, Jamie.” 

Jamie: “Straight up. They are trying to figure out if you are a turkey person. 

Coach: “I have no idea what you are talking about. What is a turkey person?” 

Jamie: “You know coach, every Thanksgiving and Christmas some white folks roll up into our neighborhoods in their vans and SUVs. They have turkeys, hams, and gifts. They unload them. We take the gifts and the food because we need them. But then, they all get back into their cars, vans, and SUVs and they go back out to the suburbs, and we don’t see them ever again.   

“Now, Coach, are they delivering those turkeys and gifts because they really care about us or are they going back out to the suburbs to tell people how they helped some poor black folks. Are they doing what they are doing because they care about us or just so they can feel good about themselves? 

“Coach, what are you doing? Everyone is trying to figure it out. What are you doing?” 

Loving and Nurturing

For Bill Courtney that was the beginning of six years as the Coach of the Manasses High School Tigers. Through his loving and nurturing of the players and helping them develop their physical and emotional strengths, Courtney coached the team to a winning season in 2009 and their first playoff win in the history of the football program. 

What made the difference? I think it was focus. Bill Courtney kept his focus on why he was doing what he was doing and on the people he was serving. His focus was not on himself but on the character and integrity of the players on his team. 

What is Your Focus as a Leader?

This Advent season provides you the opportunity to rethink your focus as a leader. 

Too often we are absorbed in our own worlds. We do what we do because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Even when it has implications of helping others, we too often are more concerned about how it affects us than we are about how we truly reflect the light of love and care for others.  Our actions are more self-serving than they are of humility and love. 

When you’re focused on yourself, your preferences, and your conveniences, your vision narrows, and your focus becomes blurry. When you keep your focus on Jesus, it is clear who God sends your way to love and serve. 

John the Baptist is challenging you to focus upon the light of the One who is to come. That is who you are as a Christ-centered leader. This Advent season, rethink your focus and become the leader needed for this time and season. And remember, who you are is how you lead. 

Return  

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. With whom did you rethink your focus? What brought you to the moment of refocusing? How do you clear a path for others to rethink their focus? In the future, how will you respond differently? How did you express God’s love today? With whom do you need to celebrate the hope you have experienced in and through them?   

Have you ever felt that there is more to life than meets the eye? That there is more in your past than history can tell? That there is more going on in the present moment than you really know? And that there is more to your relationships with others than you are aware? 

It seems that the more we explore the mystery of our lives, the more we learn about ourselves, and the more mysterious we become. We are seldom content with what appears to be on the surface. We are not at ease because we sense that no matter how full our lives, there is more. 

Preparing to Receive Jesus

Advent is about preparing to receive what is missing. It is about preparing to receive Jesus as the Son of God who delivers us from all the threats that rob people of authentic life. It is about preparing to receive the One who stands with us against the enemies of meaninglessness; of the storms and evils of nature; of loneliness, alienation from ourselves, others, and God; of sin and guilt; hunger; sickness; and the ultimate enemy, death. It is about preparing to receive Jesus who can do only what God can do. 

Advent is about preparing to receive Jesus, who in his weakness and vulnerability, stands with us in the midst of our misunderstandings, misconceptions, and broken relationships. 

Leading through Advent

The question is, how do you lead through Advent? How do you rethink preparing in such a way that people find themselves face to face with the God who has come to be with them in the places they are hurting, suffering, broken, and need healing and hope? 

Maybe it will be helpful to start with an Advent prayer, written and put to music by Charles Wesley. 

Come, thou long expected Jesus.

Born to set thy people free.

From our fears and sins release us.

Let us find our rest in thee. 

How will you rethink preparing this Advent season?   

Read Mark 1:1-8 

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight,’”

4 so John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

Reflect 

Mark’s story does not begin with Jesus, and not even with John. This story is part of a larger story of God’s unfolding plan that began at creation, continued through the Old Testament prophets, comes to its climax in Jesus, and continues after the resurrection in the followers of Jesus, including you and me. 

The good news according to Mark is “God sent Jesus to oppose the evil, pain, and suffering in the world.” To announce the good news, Mark starts with John the Baptist, who is seen as connecting the message of the prophets with Jesus and the preaching of the church.    

John ushers in the new age, a new order. For Mark, what is important is not John’s bizarre appearance, nor his ethics, nor his message, but the fact that the story of Jesus begins with him. John is a figure of hope. His appearance marks “the beginning of the gospel” as a continuation of the message of the prophets. He continues the story of the in-breaking of God’s new order. 

The Good News in Mark

The people who received Mark’s good news were in the midst of persecution. The followers of Jesus were tortured, crucified, and killed as insurrectionists. They were seen as people in opposition to the Roman government. So, for Mark John came announcing the coming of Jesus, God’s way of opposing the evil, pain, and suffering in the world. 

In verses 2 and 3, Mark sets the context for the new order by calling upon the memory of his readers. He has them remember the exile and homecoming of the Hebrew people. Then, he focuses upon the work, the person, and the words of John. 

Baptism is an Act of Grace

The work of John is to baptize (verses 4-5). Baptism is an act of grace giving access to the new order, God’s new day. It is an invitation to and an act of transformation. It leads into public ministry, which is seen in the work of the followers of Jesus opposing evil, pain, and suffering in our communities and neighborhoods. Baptized followers of Jesus are related to their communities and working the good of all the people living there. 

For John, baptism is identified in two ways. The first is through repentance, the turning away from the old age and all its loyalties and values and turning toward God’s new order. The second is through forgiveness, which brings with it the release of indebtedness that keeps people from freely participating in God’s new order. 

Rethinking Preparation

With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. One example of rethinking preparation might be John’s message of repentance which brings with it the challenge to give up our participation in the cultural consumerism that enslaves us. Another example of rethinking preparation might be John’s message of forgiveness of sins which brings with it the release from systems that dehumanize people and effect the way we relate to one another, especially the people we identify as different from us. 

The person of John is characterized as an outsider, as one who comes from the wilderness. Not only is he geographically an outsider but he has kept his distance from the seductive good things of his culture. He comes speaking of a new order which calls for an end to conventional loyalties and attitudes. He comes speaking of a new freedom that brings a different perspective regarding relationships. 

Embracing Uncertainty

With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. It is an occasion for embracing uncertainty, understanding ourselves and others differently, and making decisions that facilitate hope and the future. Keep in mind, as you rethink preparation, that the culture will resist any changes you make. It will want you to be well-fed, well-dressed, and well-housed so that you do not depart from old loyalties. John is reminding us that there is a greater way of living in this world.   

The words of John point beyond himself and beyond the dangerous moment in which people are living. He is like Moses pointing across to the new land. He anticipates the One who is to come, but he does not name him. Christmas is the time for naming Jesus. Advent is a time for waiting and hoping. John might not know the name of the One to come, but he knows that the work of the Spirit will bring a newness that transforms. 

Make a Difference

With this in mind, Advent is a time of rethinking preparation. It is not only a time of spiritual reconstruction but a time to make a difference in the community and the neighborhood in which you live. It is a time to stand with people as they face adversity, pain, and suffering. 

Leading through Advent means you will offer hope amid people being dehumanized and misplaced, amid cynicism about trusting God’s way in Jesus, and amid people sensing there is more but not knowing what it is. The time is right for rethinking preparation. It is right for you to announce, “God with us. There is hope for all who are changing the way they have been thinking and living and are ready to receive and to follow. Prepare the way of the Lord.”  

Respond 

John’s message is clear regarding preparation. There can be no pretense or deception. You come as you are, vulnerable and unencumbered 

The novel, The High and the Mighty, was made into a movie several years ago. It was about the passengers on an airplane that are flying over the Pacific Ocean into California. The plane began to have engine trouble which caused it to run low on fuel. As the flight continued, the news got worse and worse for all the passengers. 

One passenger, a woman, was well-dressed. Her makeup was impeccable. Her jewelry included a diamond necklace, bracelet, ring, and earrings. She sat and listened to the captain as he gave updates regarding the plane’s location and situation. Then she heard the captain say, “It looks less and less likely that we will arrive at our destination. It looks like we are going to be meeting our Maker before this is over.” 

As she listened, she began to remove her jewelry. She took off her rings, her necklace, and her earrings. She removed her eyelashes and mascara. When she removed most of the cosmetics that covered her skin, she revealed a scar on her cheek. She had decided to be who she was. She was coming clean. She was going to meet her end real and true, without deception, without pretense.  

Well, eventually, the plane landed safely. And through the ordeal, she had learned something about herself. 

Come Clean

The plot of the movie reflects the story of John and the response of the people who heard his message. John offered people the opportunity to come clean. He used some wonderful images that caused people to see clearly what he was talking about.  He said, “This moment in history is like an ax being laid at the root of a tree. If the tree has not borne good fruit, it comes down.” 

He said, “This moment in history and in your life is like the moment when a person has harvested the grain, but it is still full of chaff. And he takes a large fan and while the grain is being poured from one container to another, the fan is used to blow away the chaff. This is repeated several times until all the chaff is blown away. The grain is saved but the chaff is burned.” 

“In other words, there is one coming after me, I’m not even worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal. He is so much stranger than I; he is so much greater than I. He is coming. And one thing that he will do is cause the truth to come clean and clear. No more deception, no more pretending.” 

Preparing for the One Coming

After hearing John, people began to prepare for the One coming. They confessed to their life deceptions, distorted values, loss of priorities, and irresponsibility. They came clean and were baptized for the forgiveness of their pretentiousness and they began a new way of living. 

John the Baptist is presenting the message of the scripture. It comes in several figures of speech. Sometimes it is called a New Creation where everything is new. Sometimes it is spoken of as a New Birth. John the gospel writer refers to it as being born from above or born again. 

Sometimes it is presented as a New Life or a New Page of a notebook. And at other times the Bible uses the image of a new beginning. That is what John preached.  

New Life as a Christ-Centered Leader

What does this new life, this new beginning, look like for you as a Christ-centered leader? What does rethinking preparation mean as you lead through Advent? 

Come Clean

First, it means to come clean. It means to scrape off all the pretense and fear of what others might think and come as you are, a beloved child of God. It means that you lead with courage anchored in God’s love and grace. 

Hold the Past and Future Together

Second, look at John. He understood his present role as keeping continuity with the prophets, with Jesus, and with the church. Even though he has all the qualifications for being first, he did not give into the temptation of assuming that his contribution was better than anyone before him or greater than anyone who came behind him. 

So, as a leader, take your place as one who holds the past and future together. As you prepare for the future, do so within the context of who and what has brought you to this moment. Then ask the question, “Who will help lead us in taking the next step on our journey?” Walk with them. Be who God has created you to be for them. 

Submit to Jesus

Third, John submits himself to the greatness of Jesus. Imagine being born and prepared for a singular moment when you stand on the banks of the River Jordan and shout, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” One sentence summed up his life and ministry. 

John found his joy in Jesus and by giving up his self-serving right to happiness. Sooner or later, you learn that happiness is neither a right nor an end in itself. For the followers of Jesus, the word is not happiness but is joy. It is used in the context of submitting to the greatness and the glory of God. 

God’s Love and Joy

So, as a leader, give yourself to God’s love and receive the joy given to those who serve in love. Receive God’s love for yourself and then share God’s love with others. It means putting others first as you work for their best and well-being. It means being generous with others, allowing them to be who they are, and space to grow into who God created them to be. 

It means that you lead with grace, modeling the new order. John baptized people showing the new order was not based on ancestry, religious affiliation, or national citizenship. It was a conscious choice to turn away from the old and turn toward the new. It is coming clean so you can enter into the new life, the new order. 

So, Advent is preparing to receive what is missing in your life. So, rethinking preparation will help you become more who God created you to be by receiving the One who can and will make your life complete. Remember, who you are is how you lead. 

Return  

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. Where did you come clean today? What brought you to the moment of coming clean? How did you respond? How did you express God’s love today? With whom do you need to celebrate the hope or the love or the new life you have experienced in and through them?    

Prayer

Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart. 

Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

Have you given thought to how you might practice and improve your leadership skills during the season of Advent? Think about it. Advent provides an excellent opportunity to focus on and improve certain aspects of your leadership that you might not otherwise choose to improve.

So, as you enter this Advent season, I challenge you to take advantage of the opportunity to grow and improve as a leader. Start by rethinking the coming of Jesus by answering these two questions, “What is Advent? and “What does Advent have to do with being a Christ-centered leader?”

What is Advent?

It is relatively simple to answer the question “What is Advent?” In the early church, Advent began with watching and waiting for Jesus to return. Remember, from the Acts of the Apostles, when Jesus ascended, the message to his followers was, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.”

As the centuries passed and the church grew weary of waiting, Advent became preparing for the birth of Jesus. So, there were seemingly two advents, the celebration of his first coming, Jesus born in Bethlehem, and the preparation for his second coming, Jesus who will return someday.

Over the years, Advent has become more of a focus on the birth of Jesus, with one exception. The first Sunday in Advent focuses upon what is known as “the second coming” of Jesus.

Christ-Centered Leaders & Advent

It is a little more complicated to answer the question “What does Advent have to do with being a Christ-centered leader?” The answer depends on your understanding and focus on being a leader.

Advent provides an opportunity to practice key disciplines in your Christian living. Beyond the energy-draining activities of preparing for Christmas and trying to resist the pressure to sing Christmas carols before Christmas arrives, Advent provides you with the time and space to practice the discipline of waiting, particularly the discipline of waiting in hope. Advent gives you the opportunity to model waiting as a leader and to participate in waiting as a member of the community of faith.

Waiting is a Challenge

In our culture, waiting is a challenge. Most of us are not very good at it. We live in a time when we want what we want when we want it. And we want it on our own terms, exactly the way we perceive it. We have not had training in waiting. There are no seminary courses that teach waiting. There are no church programs to provide steps on learning to wait. Yet waiting is a necessary aspect of life and is a valued characteristic of Christ-centered leaders.

So, how do you lead others in something you are not very good at yourself? Well, because most of us learn waiting either by experience or by practicing it as a spiritual discipline, let’s take advantage of the opportunity to rethink the coming of Jesus and the practice of waiting.

To help you focus, take a few minutes to read this scripture, Mark 13:24-37,  reflect upon it from the context in which it was written, respond to it by thinking about the implications of its truth, and return at the end of the day to focus upon how the scripture came to life for you. This particular practice will help you rethink the coming of Jesus as well as assist you in becoming the Christ-centered leader needed at this time. 

Read Mark 13:24-37

24 “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels and gather the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[b] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert,[c] for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake, for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening or at midnight or at cockcrow or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Reflect

The good news according to Mark is, that God sent Jesus to oppose the evil, pain, and suffering of the world. He wrote his good news during a time when the followers of Jesus were known as insurrectionists, enemies of the government. So, the followers of Jesus were under great persecution. 

Mark wrote to give his people hope. Because there was a danger in writing the truth about the government and about the persecution, he used figurative language to get his message out. He used imagery to express the inexpressible. He wanted his people who were experiencing the evils of hate and persecution, that there was hope.  

Mark’s Message for Advent

It is difficult for us today to grasp the rich meaning of Mark’s message.  Too many people get caught up in a desperate attempt to know the future, so they focus more on the imagery and miss the point of the hope. They try to predict the future or confuse the imagery with reality. The truth of the scripture is, in the midst of pain, suffering, and evil, there is hope of deliverance.  

So, Mark’s story is not to be taken literally. It is not a travel guide into the future, but an assurance that despite all signs to the contrary, all the hurt, chaos, wars, separation, and uncertainty, there is hope. Hope in the living God we know in and through Jesus.

The Context of Hope

Let’s put Mark into context. The world as his people knew it was coming apart. It was like the sun was not shining. There was darkness. Even the darkness was darker than usual. The situation was so bad it was like the stars falling from heaven because even the powers of heaven were being shaken. The situations the people were facing were indescribable except for imagery and metaphors. 

The imagery he used helped put the situations and circumstances in which they were living in the context of hope. The shock of the coming of Jesus was not destruction. At the heart of Mark’s story is hope. Mark understood that God sent Jesus to oppose the suffering, pain, and evil in the world.

God’s offer of a New World

At the heart of Mark’s story is the shattering of the shapes of oppression, injustice, and evil that keep us from living the way God has intended for us to live. It is not a “business as usual” festival of things that make us feel warm and fuzzy. It is not an innocent baby who comes gently to fit into our preconceived world. Instead, it is both a welcomed prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus,” and it is a dreaded experience because it disrupts our comfort and convenience. 

With the coming of Jesus, there is a growing awareness that this world is not the one God has in mind for us. God is offering us a new world shaped according to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God is working on a world precisely for those who are ready and able to relinquish the old world. Part of preparing for the coming of Jesus is to acknowledge our participation in the darkness and despair of the old world so we can be embraced by the light and hope of the new one. Part of our preparation is to wait for the coming of the One who brings the light and hope of new life. 

The Coming of Jesus

To experience and receive God’s Advent, we have to rethink the coming of Jesus. That means that the coming of Jesus shatters our preconceived notions, our preferences, and our participation in the hate, lust, greed that leads to racism, crime, war and a thousand other evils. By rethinking the coming of Jesus, we focus upon him who has come to oppose the evil, pain and suffering of this world. Jesus is our hope!

The coming of Jesus meets you precisely where your hurt and hope meet. The question is, are you bold enough to be honest with yourself and with the people around you? Are you ready and open for the new life he brings? Have you experienced hope in and through Jesus for whom you are waiting? Has God’s grace led you to trust Jesus enough to relinquish the old world and to receive the new one?   

A Promise from God

The new world is a promise from God. It is not a domesticated political agenda or some form of a doctrine of progress. God does not provide happy endings for the futures we are engineering. God provides a future beyond our knowledge and control, and not even the angels in heaven know the hour of its coming. 

But even with this caution against wanting to know too much, we are still left with too little. We still have the question of how to hope in the meantime when nothing ever happens. And that is why the writer of Mark remembered the other word which Jesus said. This word was a parable about a man who went on a trip and left his servants to manage the house while he was gone. That, of course, is a description of the situation of the church, left in charge of the house while the Master is absent. 

Be on the Lookout

What Jesus said about the servants is also true of the church: we need constantly to be on the lookout. The house can never be in disarray, because, as Jesus stated it, “You do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep” (Mark 13:35-36). 

Mark is pointing out something significant here. The master could come “in the evening,” and, in the very next chapter, he tells us that “when it was evening” Jesus ate his last meal with the disciples, and told them, “one of you will betray me.” 

The master could come “at midnight,” and Mark records that, later that night, the disciples went with Jesus to Gethsemane. While Jesus prayed his cry of anguish, the disciples, no doubt weary of waiting, slept. Jesus asked them, “Could you not watch one hour?” 

Maybe the master will come “at cockcrow,” and Peter turned to the accusing maid with a curse and a denial, “I do not know this man.” The rooster crowed. 

Maybe the coming of the master will be “in the morning,” and “as soon as it was morning,” Jesus was bound and led away to his trial and to his death. 

The Promise of God’s Future

Mark has woven into the fabric of his gospel the possibility that every moment of the day is already alive with the promise of God’s future. As we look toward the horizon for the coming of Jesus, we know that each passing moment is filled with the potential for faith or denial, decision or tragedy, hope or despair. 

Those who trust the promise are able to see signs of its coming all around them. Those who believe that, in God’s good time, something is about to happen, also know that, even now, something is happening. 

Wait

Waiting is so important that Mark wrote three times to wait. Using the word “watch” he is instructing his followers to “wait”: “Take heed, watch” (verse 33). “Watch therefore” (verse 35). And “watch” (verse 37). To watch is “to shake off sleep” which implies being awake, alert, and prepared. It suggests staying aware of your actions, thoughts, and surroundings, so you can recognize Jesus in your everyday relationships and interactions with people. 

The point is clear. Although Jesus will come at a time known only to God, he will surely come, and no amount of delay or suffering we experience while waiting should dissuade us from that fact. The expectation of the second coming should keep us alert, and faithful to being who God has created us to be.

The question is, “Where have you seen Jesus this week?” 

Respond 

Advent is when you become a leader in waiting. You have the opportunity to give yourself the space to grow in faith as you keep watch for Jesus. When you have waited for God in the darkest and most difficult moments of your life, you can effectively model for others the spiritual discipline of waiting. It is only when you have stood still waiting for God’s transforming love that you not only have the power to face and address evil, pain, and suffering, but you develop the inner authority to ask others to do the same.

It is as you wait, trusting God’s leading, that you experience the grace to step out in faith and to lead with courageous action. As you learn to wait on God, God provides clear direction. It is at that point that you have the courage to act when the time is right. Christ-centered leadership is about knowing when to wait and when to act.

So, let’s be clear regarding waiting. Waiting is more than:

Having patience. 

Although patience is a virtue and one of the fruits of the spirit, waiting is different than having patience. Waiting is a spiritual discipline and strength that grows out of a deep inner peace given by God’s presence to those who trust God. By learning to wait upon God’s direction, Christ-centered leaders will produce loving, forgiving, generous attitudes toward others, but the purpose of waiting is to act courageously in God’s time.

Being tolerant.

Although tolerance is the ability or willingness to accept feelings, habits, beliefs, or behaviors that are different from your own, waiting is different than being tolerant.  Waiting is a spiritual discipline and strength that grows out of your convictions of trust and obedience in response to God’s grace and is not a reaction to the beliefs and behaviors of others. By learning to wait, Christ-centered leaders learn to accept opinions and behaviors of different people, but the purpose of waiting is to respond courageously in God’s time.

The Meaning of Waiting

Maybe this will help put meaning and face to waiting. Sue Monk Kidd tells a story about her daughter being the Bethlehem star one year in a Christmas play. After her first rehearsal, her daughter burst through the door with her costume, a five-pointed star lined in shiny gold tinsel. It was designed to drape over her like a sandwich board.

Sue asked her daughter, “What exactly will you be doing in the play?” Her daughter answered, “I just stand there and shine.” 

Shine

Jesus’ disciples were concerned about the future and their part in it. Jesus wanted them to know that their role was to stay behind and shine. But they would not be alone. He would be with them. Christ-centered leaders learn to shine while waiting. So, you work while waiting. You live as God has created you to live while waiting. 

Once John Wesley was asked what he would do if he knew this was his last day on earth. He replied, “At 4:00, I would have some tea. At 6:00, I would visit Mrs. Brown in the hospital. Then at 7:30, I would conduct a mid-week prayer service. At 10:00, I would go to bed and would wake up in glory.”

When Martin Luther was asked what he would do on the day of Jesus’ return, he said he would go out and plant a tree. Mark tells us that Jesus expects each of us to be about our work so that when he comes, he will find us faithfully taking care of the world.

The Coming of Jesus

Some years ago, a tourist visited the Castle Villa Asconti along the shores of Lake Como in northern Italy. The old gardener opened the gates and the visitor stepped into the garden, which was perfectly kept. The visitor asked when the owner was last there. The gardener replied, “Twelve years ago.”

“Does he ever write?” “No,” was the answer.

“Where do you get your instructions?” The gardener answered, “From his agent in Milan.”

“Does the master ever come?” “No,” was the reply.

“But you keep the grounds as though your master was coming back tomorrow.” The old gardener quickly replied, “Today, sir, today.” 

Return 

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. Take a few moments to reflect on the following questions. They are designed to lead you into the waiting room of your soul. This is where you wait for God to revive you, to restore you, and to make you new. This is the place where you wait for God to come to you in ways you can see and know.

Where are you longing for God to enter your life with love, hope, and peace? In the words of Mark, where do you long for God to “shake the heavens” and to do something that you do not expect? What relationships do you desire to be restored? In what parts of your life do you need a tender shepherd to lead you and to care for you?

Where is the place in your ministry where you need to be “strengthened to the end” by the presence of God revealed to you in some new way?

Give God thanks for the day and for the ways God has shown up in your life. With whom do you need to celebrate the hope you have experienced?   

The work of Jesus is love. To lead with the work of Jesus is to lead with love. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul expresses the work of Jesus as, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Too often these words are taken as a poem idealizing love. But to do so is to miss the point. Sometimes the words are misunderstood to be a general idea of love. Again, that misses the point. Paul wrote these words to a church in the midst of conflict. He laid out the way of Christian living. In other words, to be a follower of Jesus is to love as God in Jesus has loved you. For Paul, love was the work of Jesus. 

During this third week in Advent, let’s explore the work of Christ as another distinctive characteristic of Christ-centered leadership.

Read Matthew 11:2-6 

“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-6). 

Reflect

Matthew is helping us understand that Jesus does not conform to the popular explanations and expectations of the Messiah, the Christ. Because Jesus does not conform, he tells us that even though John is a true prophet with a legitimate message, who recognizes Jesus as the Messiah, is imprisoned for his prophetic preaching, and dies a martyr’s death, his faith wavers. John needs assurance. So, he sends his followers to ask Jesus if he is the one they have been expecting. 

Jesus tells John’s followers to go tell John what they hear and see. Jesus is at work. The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Jesus is at work loving as God has loved, bringing healing and hope to all in need. 

Matthew’s story of John is an object lesson for all followers of Jesus. Your salvation is not a static possession. Being a Christ-centered leader is greater than your spiritual experiences. The story is a reminder that even when your expectations are not met, the work of Jesus continues. You are challenged to listen and to see what Jesus is doing in the lives of the people around you.

Leading with the Work of Christ

So, with that in mind, what does it mean to lead with the work of Jesus?

Again, the work of Jesus is love. So, to answer that question, let’s start with the word “agape.” Although “agape” is not a word we use in our everyday language, it is a concept found in the New Testament. It is used to describe the distinct kind of love embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus. It is the kind of love that focuses on people and develops communities of koinonia. 

Agape defines God’s immeasurable, incomparable love for us, all of us. It is God’s ongoing, outgoing, self-sacrificing interest and concern for creation. God loves you, me, humanity, and all creation without condition. Agape is the work of Jesus. 

To put it another way, this love is not dependent upon the worth of the people being loved. It does not count the cost based on the return. It is spontaneous and does not consider beforehand whether it will be effective or proper. It is the extension of God’s love lived out in and through our relationships with each other. 

Lead with Agape

This is the one characteristic of leadership that gives meaning and purpose to all other characteristics. 

To lead with the work of Jesus is to lead with agape. To lead with agape means: 

To lead with the highest form of love described and experienced in the Bible.

It is more than an emotion. It is a matter of will. As much as I like Hallmark Christmas movies, the love that holds each of us is not a Hallmark movie love. As much as we talk about the church being a family, this love is greater than friends and family. In fact, this love is greater than race, color, or belief. It is a love that intentionally works for the good of each individual regardless of who they are or whether you feel anything or not.

To understand the greatest expression of relationship. 

As much as I dislike conflict, this love is not about “getting along” with one another. Sometimes, for the sake of unity, we set this love aside and become nice instead of loving. It is in the midst of our differences and disagreements that love is the source of our relationships. It is working for the good of all people whether we agree or not. The purpose of Christ-centered leadership is not unity but agape, the love of God as experience in Jesus.

To love as Jesus loves. 

It is to be focused on the good of others before it is focused on our own goodness, desires, expectations, or results. Too many times we talk of loving others so we can get something from them, get them into the church, or meet our budgets. This love is greater than our institutional concerns. We love because God in Christ first loved us. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This love is about being who God created us to be for no other reason than being who God created us to be.

To express through action. 

Too often we talk about love and loving others but are slow to live the love we talk about. John, in his first letter wrote, “Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. After all, those who don’t love their brothers or sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen! This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also” (I John 4:19-21). 

Lead with Love

A different kind of love. Jesus told his followers to love one another in the same way he loved them. This was a new and different kind of love. You live this love by:  

Listening

You are quick to listen and slow to speak. You elevate the importance of a person when you take them seriously by listening. It is important for people to know that you care enough to listen to them. Too often, in conversations, we are forming our responses and interrupting before the other person finishes speaking. As important as your position and opinion might be, it is more important to listen, especially to those with whom you disagree. 

Being Patient

You are slow to anger. You are patient with people more than patient with circumstances. Regardless of how unkind and hurtful people might be, you show the same patience with others as God has shown you. The patience of love always wins. 

Being Kind

On one hand, you are quick to compliment and affirm, and on the other hand, you are clear with feedback. Being clear is kind. You build meaningful relationships with kindness. Being kind helps with connection and cooperation, as well as trust and well-being. 

Being Generous

You are slow to pass judgment and quick to offer grace. You freely offer space and time for people to be who they have been created to be. So, when people don’t move as fast as you, you are generous with “they are doing the best they can do.” Then you ask, “How can I help you?” or “What do you need from me to do what you need to do?” Being generous means, you are providing what is at the time. 

This love is so important, that the early followers of Jesus showed love in everything they did. For them, to love God and to love the people around them was motivation for everything. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Everything should be done in love” (I Corinthians 16:14 CEB). Agape love is the essence of God. Agape love is the work of Jesus. 

Agape Holds Us Together

Fred Craddock tells a story that illustrates the work of Jesus. He writes: 

 “I was walking one afternoon, and I passed a corner where a man was doing something that fascinated me. I stopped my walk and watched him. He had a pile of bricks, and the thing he was doing was measuring each brick; how long it was, how wide it was, and how deep it was. He threw a bunch of good-looking bricks out. He said, “I have to get them all exactly the same.”

I asked, “Why?”

He said, “I’m building a church and I want it to stand.”

Craddock said, “There are people who think that the way to really have a church is to get people that are from the same economic and social and educational background, then they will all be together.”  He said, “The man started stacking those brinks; they were all just alike. I went by the next afternoon, and they were all just piles of brick. They had fallen down.”

I went on around the corner, and I saw a man with a pile of rocks. You have never seen such a mess in your life. No two of them are alike, round ones, dark ones, small ones, big ones, and little ones. I said, “What in the world are you doing?”

He said, “I’m building a church.”

I said, “You are nuts! The fellow around the corner had them all alike, and he couldn’t make it stand.”

He said, “This will stand.”

“No, it won’t. It won’t stand.”

“Yes, it will.”

Craddock said, “You can’t get it to stand. The fellow around the corner…

The man said, “It will stand.”

The man went over to a wood tray, took something like a hoe, and began to stir something back and forth. It looked a lot like cement to me, but that’s not what he called it. He put healthy doses of that between the stones. I went back thirty-four years later, and it was still there. It was that stuff in between that looked a lot like cement that made the difference. That’s not what he called it. But you know what it’s called…agape. It is the work of Jesus.

Respond

John had his disciples ask, “Are you the one or should we expect someone else?” Loving others as God in Jesus has loved you is not easy. It will cost you your life. But, if you are a Christ-centered leader, leading with the work of Jesus is the most life-giving work you will ever do.

Who you are is how you lead.

Pray

O God, I want to lead with the work of Jesus. Fill me with the love that is patient and kind. A love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude and does not insist on its own way. Keep me from being irritable. Help me tear up my list of wrongs I have kept regarding the actions of others and help me rejoice in the truth of others. Keep working with me so that I become more of the leader you need me to be. I offer myself to you in the name of Jesus who love gives me meaning and purpose. Amen.

Return

At the end of the day, give God thanks for the people you met today. Where did you experience God’s love? Through whom did you experience it? With whom did you share God’s love today? Give God thanks for the opportunities to love others as you have been loved. Reflect upon “Who I am is how I lead.”

This second week of Advent, Paul writes to the church in Rome, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:5-7)

Paul is encouraging the followers of Jesus to welcome Gentiles or to welcome the people who think, believe, and act differently than they do. So, what does Paul’s instruction mean for you and for your leadership? What difference does welcoming others just as Christ has welcomed you, make in your living and leading? 

We are exploring the distinguishing characteristics of Christ-centered leaders. Along with sharing good news, being mission-focused, developing koinonia, and relating people to their communities, I have added the characteristic of leading with the heart, mind, and work of Christ. 

This week let’s focus on leading with the mind of Jesus. 

Read Philippians 2:5-11 

 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he existed in the form of God,

           did not regard equality with God

           as something to be grasped,

but emptied himself,

           taking the form of a slave,

           assuming human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a human,

he humbled himself

                        and became obedient to the point of death—

                        even death on a cross.

Therefore, God exalted him even more highly

           and gave him the name

           that is above every other name,

so that at the name given to Jesus

           every knee should bend,

           in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

           that Jesus Christ is Lord,

           to the glory of God the Father.

Reflect

Paul is writing to the followers of Jesus in Philippi. He is instructing them on how to live in the midst of a hostile environment. He begins by focusing on Christian conduct in relation to a hostile, unbelieving community. Then he focuses on the Christian conduct within the believing community. It is this conduct that is important for the Christ-centered leader. 

He writes, “If then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. 

The joy of Paul and of the church is “in Christ Jesus,” nourished by their relationship with each other. For clarity he says he has four expressions: being of the same mind (which meant having a common attitude or mission), having the same love; being in full accord, and of one mind. He repeats the call for a common attitude or mission. 

In repeating “the same mind,” Paul is preparing the followers of Jesus for his instruction on what the Christian mindset, attitude, or mission is, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” 

Leading with the Mind of Christ

This attitude or mission is so important, those early Jesus followers made it into a hymn or a statement of faith to be repeated when they gathered. This is part of what it meant in The Acts of the Apostles, “They devoted themselves to the teachings of the apostles.” By repeating the hymn or statement of faith, they were learning what it meant to be Christian in the world in which they lived. Liturgy was important in learning the faith. 

So, what does that mean for you as a Christ-centered leader? What does it mean to lead with the mind of Christ? To lead with the mind of Christ means: 

Christ-centered leadership focuses on others. 

It is a choice defined and focused on the life and health of the Christian community. Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself.” Often leadership is viewed as a position, a title, or an office. But to lead with the mind of Christ is to choose to lead from who you are as a follower of Jesus. 

Leadership is not as much about authority as it is about vulnerability. Choosing to act on the behalf of others without personal gain is true leadership. Self-denying service for those entrusted to your care with no claim of return, no eye upon a reward is to lead with the mind of Christ. 

Being Right or Being in a Relationship?

Tom Wiles, while university chaplain at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, purchased a new pickup truck. While the truck was parked in his driveway, his neighbor’s basketball post fell against the truck leaving dents and scrapes on the passenger door. The scratches looked like deep white scars on the new truck’s exterior. A friend noticed the scrapes and asked, “What happened here?”  

Tom replied with a downcast voice, “My neighbor’s basketball post fell and left those dents. I asked him about it. He doesn’t feel responsible for the damage.”  

“You’re kidding! How awful! This truck is so new I can smell it.” His friend continued, “Did you contact your insurance company? How are you going to get him to pay for it?” 

Tom replied, “This has been a real spiritual journey for me. After a lot of soul-searching and discussions with my wife about hiring an attorney, it came down to this: I can either be in the right, or I can be in a relationship with my neighbor. Since my neighbor will probably be with me longer than the truck, I decided to focus on our relationship. Besides, trucks are meant to be banged up, so I got mine initiated into the real world a bit earlier than I expected.” ¹ 

Leading with the mind of Christ is to choose to focus on others for the life and health of the Christian community.

Christ-centered leadership is incarnational. 

It is a choice to be present with and for the people entrusted to your care. Jesus “…emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, assuming human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human…” Often leadership is viewed as being set apart from the people you are leading. But Jesus came to be with us. Leadership is most effective when you are related to and present with the people entrusted to your care. 

Max Dupree, in his book Leadership Jazz, tells the story of his granddaughter Zoe. She was born prematurely and weighed one pound and seven ounces. She was so tiny that his wedding ring fit over her arm. Additionally, Zoe’s biological father abandoned Max’s daughter the month before Zoe was born.  

The first time Max suited up in protective gear to visit Zoe in her isolate in the neonatal unit of the hospital she had two IVs in her arms, one in her navel, and a feeding tube plus a breathing tube in her mouth. A wise and caring nurse named Ruth gave Max his instructions.  

“For the next several months, you will be the surrogate father,” she told him. “I want you to come see me every day. While you are here, I would like you to rub her arms and her legs with the tip of your finger. While you are caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her because she needs to connect your voice with your touch.”  

“Ruth was doing exactly the right thing for Zoe and without realizing it, she was giving me the perfect description of the work of a leader. At the core of being a leader is the ability to always connect one’s voice with one’s touch.”  

Leading with the mind of Christ is to be present with and related to the people you are leading. It is to love them so much that you want to be with them and work for their good. You bring a human touch to the work of goals, objectives, and deadlines. 

Christ-centered leadership is about humility. 

Paul’s instruction to the Philippians was to look out for the interests of others. Your call, as a Christ-centered leader, is an ultimate concern for others which is greater than your self-concern. Your call is to have the mind of Christ who emptied himself and became a servant. 

In reality, not many of us see ourselves as humble servants. In fact, we find it offensive. But let’s be honest, there is a difference between the kind of serving most of us do and the willful decision to humbly serve. When you make the decision to lead in self-giving service, you give up the right to be in charge. The amazing thing about that decision is, you become vulnerable and authentic. The joy of leading energizes your life and leading. Rather than the pride of choosing to serve, you give yourself to be available to those God sends your way. 

Humility allows you to lead from the center of who you are as a follower of Jesus. 

There is a story of a man who asked a rabbi, “How come in the olden days God would show God’s self to people, but today nobody ever sees God”

The rabbi replied, “Because nowadays nobody can bow low enough.” 

Let this mind be in you, which was in Christ Jesus, who bowed low, emptied himself, and became a servant. Leading with the mind of Christ is a leadership choice that comes only after spending time with Jesus and the community in which you are leading. 

Respond

O God, help me lead with the mind of Jesus. By your grace, help me to let go of position and prestige and to grasp your love for me. Help me become obedient in my trust in you so all I say and do brings you glory and works for the good of the people you have given me to love and serve. Remind me again that who I am is how I lead. In Jesus name. Amen 

Return

At the end of the day, give God thanks for the people you met today. Where did you experience giving yourself up for the good of another person? In whom did you see Jesus? What opportunities did you have to love as God in Jesus has loved you? Give God thanks for the opportunities to love others as you have been loved.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

I hope your celebration with family and friends has been a good one. I’ve been thinking of you and giving God thanks for your ministry. I pray that the joy of Jesus will be with you throughout this next year. This brings me to something I have been thinking about. 

One of the songs I like at Christmas is titled, “The Best Gift of All.” The words are as follows:

The Best Gift of All

Candles glow from frosted windows

    Rooms are filled with twinkling lights,

There’s a manger scene, boughs of evergreen,

     Someone is singing ‘Silent Night’.

And every gift my heart remembers, 

     of easy laugher, dear old friends,

Precious faces and smiles, 

     the dancing eyes of a child,

All remind me once again: The best gift of all is Jesus,

     His love knows no season or place.

You can see Him in the firelight

     Reflected on each face.

And though we cherish the blessings of Christmas, 

     When his love seems especially near.

The Best Gift of All is Jesus – 

     All through the year. 

In a world of hidden motives and questionable agendas, there is still hope in what God offers. In the midst of our brokenness and the world’s chaos, Jesus is the message of God’s goodness. In Jesus there is something pure, something right, something true, someone good. The best gift of all is Jesus. He is with us all through the year.

Read  Luke 2:1-7

In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. – Luke 2:1-7

Reflect

This Christmas I was reminded of a family that celebrates Christmas all through the year. Through a small white envelope stuck among the branches of a Christmas tree, there is no name, no identification, no inscription. The envelope just peeks through the branches of the tree. 

The tradition began years ago when Nancy’s husband Mike stated, “I hate Christmas. Not the true meaning of Christmas, but the commercial aspects of it. I can’t stand the overspending, the frantic running, the gifts given in desperation because you can’t think of anything else.” 

Knowing how her husband felt, Nancy decided one year to bypass the usual gifts of “shirts and ties.” She decided to do something special for Mike. The inspiration came in an unusual way.

Christmas Inspiration

Their son Kevin, who was 12 years old at the time, was wrestling at the junior level at the school he attended. Shortly before Christmas, he participated in a non-league match against a team sponsored by an inner-city church. The team was made up of kids who did not have the same advantages of Kevin. 

They dressed in faded tattered uniforms and shoes so ragged that shoestrings seemed to be the only thing holding them together. It was a sharp contrast to Kevin’s team in their new blue and gold uniforms and new wrestling shoes. As the match began, Nancy was alarmed to see that the other team was wrestling without protective headgear. It was a luxury the inner-city team obviously could not afford. Kevin’s team won easily. After the match, Mike shook his head sadly and said, “I wish just one of them could have won.” 

An Idea

It was at that moment that Nancy had the idea for Mike’s Christmas present. That afternoon, Nancy went to a local sporting goods store, bought an assortment of wrestling headgear and shoes, and sent them anonymously to the inner-city church. 

On Christmas Eve, Nancy placed the envelope on the tree, the note inside telling Mike what she had done. It was his gift from her. His smile was the brightest thing about Christmas that year as well as the Christmases that followed. 

A Simple Envelope

Each Christmas, Nancy followed the tradition. One year she sent a group of Special Olympics youngsters to a hockey game. Another year she sent a check to a pair of elderly brothers whose home had burned to the ground a week before Christmas. Each year it was an act of kindness that offered hope to the recipients.

The envelope became the highlight of Christmas. It was always the last thing opened on Christmas morning. The children, ignoring their new toys, would stand with wide-eyed anticipation as their dad lifted the envelope from the tree to reveal its contents. As they grew older, the toys gave way to more practical presents, but the envelope never lost its allure.

A Tradition Continues

Several years ago, Nancy lost Mike to cancer. When the next Christmas came around, Nancy was still wrapped in grief. She barely had enough desire to put up a tree. But Christmas Eve found Nancy placing an envelope on the tree. An amazing thing happened. The next morning it was joined by three more envelopes. Each of Mike’s children had placed an envelope on the tree for their dad. The tradition has grown for that family. Mike’s grandchildren now stand wide-eyed around the tree as their fathers take down the envelope. 

Hope-Filled Love

Now, what happened in that family? They experienced God’s incredible love. That love is our hope, and it is rooted in God’s gift in and through Jesus. 

So, as you put away your decorations, or think that Christmas is over, be sure to look in the tree one last time. There is one more gift. It is the best gift of all.

May the joy of Jesus be yours all through the year.

Respond

Be mindful of the people around you today. How is God inviting you to give the gift of Jesus? What might you do to give the gift of God’s love throughout the coming year? 

Pray

O God, I know the best gift I have ever received is your love. Because of Jesus, I have experienced your love and hope in and through the people around me. This next year, help me become an instrument of your love so that the people I encounter will experience the hope you have given me this Christmas. Just as I have received the best gift of all in Jesus, use me as a gift of love and hope this coming year. Amen   

Return

Consider your thoughts, feelings, and actions from today. With whom did you interact? What new life were you offered? Give God thanks for the people you met today. With whom did you share the gift of God’s love? How did you share it? What do you celebrate about your sharing? What would you do differently? 

Remember

The best gift of all is Jesus. Let’s celebrate Hope Throughout The Year! 

Advent is a time of preparation. We are invited to prepare the way for something new and unknown. When Kim and I were expecting our first child, we did not know exactly who or what we were expecting. We did not know what the child would look like, be like, or how it would change our lives. All we knew for sure was that nothing would ever be the same. Even with all we did not know, we still cleared space, a nursery, a place for this unknown child to become a part of our lives. 

Advent is a time to prepare the way by becoming vulnerable and letting go of the things that take up too much room in our lives. We may not understand all we are preparing to receive, but we know the One who is coming brings us hope. 

Yearning for What We Cannot Name

That is what makes the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist so interesting. They both yearn for something they cannot name. For Isaiah, it is the revealed glory of the Lord. For John, it is the one who will come after him, who is mightier than he. Neither of them knows any details.

John cannot even give his hearers a name to listen for. All that either one of them can proclaim is that the old ways of life are passing away and that new life is on its way. Without the luxury of details and with no concession to our need to know who or what is coming, they call us to prepare the way for that new life, to clear away anything that might get in its way, and to wait without knowing when it will come, or what it will look like, or how it will change our lives. 

With that said, there is hope in making room for Jesus. 

Read: Isaiah 40:3-8 and Mark 1:1-7

A voice is crying out: “Clear the LORD’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The LORD’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the LORD’s mouth has commanded it.”

A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. The grass dries up and the flower withers when the LORD’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are grass. The grass dries up; the flower withers, but our God’s word will exist forever. – Isaiah 40:3-8

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah: “Look, I am sending my messenger before you. He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.’”

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. 6 John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals.” – Mark 1:1-7

Reflect

A couple was expecting their second child. They looked in vain for a place in the house to create a nursery. After several lengthy discussions, they decided that the husband’s study would have to go. His library was divided up and moved into smaller bookshelves throughout the house. Even though he loved his library dearly, there was new life on the way, and the way had to be prepared. 

Making Room

Here is where we are in Advent. Whether we are expecting our own baby, the baby Jesus, or a grown-up Lord coming in great power and glory, we are called to prepare the way for new life. We are called to make room by letting go of our old ways, even our old loves, as painful as that might be. It is either we prepare the way for this new life or prepare ourselves for the news that we have been passed over because there is no room in us. 

At the heart of the messages of Isaiah and John is the challenge to wait without clinging to our preferences and to receive what new life God has for us. Both tell us that what we are hanging onto fades, withers, and passes away. It is only when we stop clinging to what has become gods for us and stop looking to those things to save us, that we can receive who the living God brings to us. It is only when we are able to empty our hearts and wait without our preferences that there is room for God to bring himself to us.

Deceptive Preferences

What is surprising is how deceptive some of our preferences are. My guess is that any one of us can turn and walk away from a golden calf. We could toss our savings out the window if we believed our souls depended on it. 

Those preferences are obvious, but what about our desire for independence? The belief that everything will be alright if we can just take care of ourselves and not have to ask anyone to help us. Or the romantic idea of friendship? The belief is that we can face anything in life if we just have one other person to love us the way we are, and to love in return. Or a variation on that one, the obsession with family. The idea of family is good, but the belief that our happiness and success is based upon surrounding ourselves with close and committed people who are just like us is not real. 

The most deceptive preference of all is the belief we can worship the way we want, when we want, and who we want if we live good lives. Being good and doing good is what is needed to get into heaven.

What preferences can you name?

The list is long, health, friendship, patriotism, power, money. I know you want to say to me that these are good things. And I will say, of course, they are. How else would they get in the way of what God has for us? 

The first criterion of an idol is that it makes us feel good in our hearts. That is why we grab ahold and hang on. We cling so tightly that eventually what we like and want becomes the only source of life for us. The only problem is that if our hearts and souls are full of what we want and prefer, we have lost our ability to receive what God has for us. We are full up; there is no room at the inn. While God is looking for a nursery, we are in our offices with the door closed.

Advent Hope

During Advent, we are invited to come out, to let go, and become vulnerable, not to forsake the things we love and want, but to put them in proper perspective and priority. We are invited to learn to hold our likes and dislikes lightly and to give them up when it becomes clear that they are taking up too much room. 

Our hope is in making room for Jesus. But to have room for Jesus, we must prepare for something new. We don’t have to have all the answers. We don’t even have to understand how it all is to happen. But we do have to wait with nothing but faith in the promise that the advent of God himself comes to those who saved him room. 

Respond

Be mindful of the people around you today. How is God inviting you to receive them into your life? What new life is being offered? How will you make room for who and what God is sending to you? 

Pray

O God, shape my life with divine humility. By your grace, help me make room for you by giving up my place and by letting go of my preferences. Help me become a dwelling place for your love and peace. I offer my life to be your residence in my everyday and ordinary life. Amen

Return 

Consider your thoughts, feelings, and actions from today. With whom did you interact? What new life were you offered? Give God thanks for the people you met today. What room do you need to prepare for whom God is sending you? 

This Advent Season, we are again asking ourselves, “How do we as the people of God live out God’s mission for the world? We are in the midst of profound shifts in our church, in our country, and in the world. Whether the shifts are religious, cultural, racial, generational, or political, we are ready to hear the prophecies of the Advent message. And we are not only ready to hear the message, but we are anointed to live out the message as God comes to be with us in Jesus. 

New Life is Born

Even though we have been through a number of Advents, we know that when we, as Jesus followers, take seriously our mission in this world and when we truly believe and live out God’s love, there is hope for our broken and hurting world. New life is born, and hope emerges. 

“O Holy Night”

This hope has been offered in many ways over the years. When we gather to worship this Christmas, many of us will hear the song, “O Holy Night.” It was written as a Christmas poem in France in the mid-1800s. When the words were put to music, their message began to change the world. In fact, “O Holy Night” was banned in several churches in France. Later, the third verse of the song was left out because of its message. The reasons were always based on theology, but the message of hope and justice was clearly proclaimed. The third verse is as follows:

“Truly He taught us to love one another.

His law is Love and His gospel is Peace. 

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother,

and in his name all oppression shall cease.”

Advent is a time of preparing for God’s justice to bring hope to those who are broken and lost in this changing world. May the hope of the coming of Jesus fill you with world-changing justice. 

READ: Isaiah 61:1-2, 8 and Matthew 5:3-6

The LORD God’s Spirit is upon me because the LORD has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim release for captives, and liberation for prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and a day of vindication for our God…I, the LORD, love justice… – Isaiah 61:1-2, 8

Happy are people who are hopeless because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad. Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth. Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.  – Matthew 5:3-6

Reflect

A Raging River

Imagine a raging river full of rapids that surge over a waterfall. You see people struggling in the current of the river. As they are trying their best to swim to shore or grab a hold of rocks, they are being swept downstream toward the falls.

You also see people along the shore trying to help those struggling in the rushing currents. Some are reaching out at the edge of the falls to snatch victims at the last moment. Others are upstream, stepping out on the rocks to grab whomever they can reach. A bit further upstream there are some throwing out lifelines and pulling the struggling people to shore. Even further upstream there are some people teaching people how to swim. You even notice that there are some trying to install fences along the river to prevent people from falling in. At the same time, you see others, gathered at the bottom of the falls, trying to recover and save the few who survived going over the edge.

Not one of the helpers along the riverbank can catch everyone in need, but together they each do their part along the way. The one thing they all have in common is a love for helping others. 

An Example of Love

One example of that love can be found in a man named Trevor Ferrell. When Trevor was eleven years old, he saw a television news report on Philadelphia’s inner-city homeless. He couldn’t believe people were homeless and lived on the streets. He began questioning his parents why people didn’t have a place to live. It took a while, but his parents, Frank and Janet, reluctantly agreed to broaden their sheltered horizons. 

One evening, they left their home in an exclusive suburb and drove downtown. One block past city hall, they spotted an emaciated figure crumpled on a side-walk grate. Frank stopped the car and eleven-year-old Trevor got out and approached the man. 

With a blanket in hand, he said, “Sir, here’s a blanket for you.” The man stared up at Trevor at first. Then, he said softly, “Thank you. God bless you.”

Jesus Inside Me

That encounter altered the Ferrell’s life forever. Night after night they would drive downtown, trying in small ways to help the street people. They emptied their home of extra blankets, clothing, and dozens of peanut-butter sandwiches. When people learned what they were doing, someone donated a van and others charted nightly food distribution routes. To the Ferrell’s surprise, “Trevor’s Campaign” had begun.

At a young age, Trevor found himself explaining what he and his family were doing to local media. Eventually, he was explaining his campaign to major news outlets, late-night television, daily talk shows, the President of the United States, and Mother Teresa. They all wanted to meet the small boy with the big mission. When asked why he was caring for the homeless, he simply replied, “It is Jesus inside of me that makes me want to do this.”

Trevor’s Campaign

In an interview regarding “Trevor’s Campaign,” his father stated, “Our social life has changed a lot since the campaign began. Our church is behind us one hundred percent, but some of our old friends don’t understand why we’re messing with the homeless. They just tolerate our ‘idiosyncrasies.’”

For twenty years, a van traveled each night to the downtown streets of Philadelphia. It stopped first to deliver food to the residents of Trevor’s Place, a ramshackle rooming house where some of the former homeless lived. Then it proceeded to feed the hungry people gathered on sidewalk grates and street corners. 

Short Term Need & Long Term Changes 

When asked how the handouts have made a difference in the complex business of helping the homeless, Frank Ferrell sighed deeply and said, “We’re trying to meet short-term needs and figure out ways to bring long-term changes to people’s lives. Sometimes it seems like just a band-aid. But this is how we build relationships. These people become our friends, and they trust us to help them in bigger ways.”  Then Frank paused for a moment, looked at the landscape of broken bottles and bodies, and said, “There are plenty of struggles, But I know one thing: giving has made all the difference in my life. I used to just read the Scriptures. Now I feel like I am living them.”

Meeting a Need

Trevor’s Campaign has evolved over the past 32 years. His objective is to meet human needs, alleviate suffering, and restore hope by developing comprehensive programs for vulnerable children and adults in the Greater Philadelphia area. 

Trevor is one of those people along the riverbank seeking to save those who are drowning in the changing world in which we live.

Respond

Where will you see a human need today? How might God’s love become human in you? Begin to imagine how you might respond to the needs around you. 

Pray

O God, you have taught me to love you and the people around me. You have put within me a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Use me as an instrument of your peace, so that the people I meet each day will experience your love in and through my words and actions. Help me be a person who offers hope in the name and love of Jesus. Amen.

Return

Consider your thoughts, feelings, and actions from today. Where did you see human need? How did you respond? What do you need to become more the person God needs you to be for this time of change?

Advent is a season of waiting and expectation. As we wait, we reflect upon the events of the past year. With expectation, we anticipate receiving the hope needed to navigate the year ahead. 

It is obvious, as we enter this Advent Season, we are coming to the end of another difficult year. In both big and small ways, our lives have been filled with constant, and often painful, reminders that something is not right. Things are just not the way they are supposed to be. 

The Hope of Jesus

At the same time, Advent provides us, in the midst of brokenness and pain, the opportunity to look beyond the worst situations and circumstances and to see the hope offered to us in Jesus. 

The biblical story is that in the darkest of hours, whether by our own doing or at the doing of others, God comes to us as the light in our darkness. In Jesus, God enters the darkness of our brokenness and pain to bring us the light of healing and hope. 

So, we wait, expecting our hope to come. The good news is, God is with us. God has come as the Light of the World to be with us. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish the light. This is our hope. 

Read

Isaiah 2:2-6: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy. They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice. As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them, the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor. Because every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood will be burned, fuel for the fire. A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

John 1:1-5: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.

Reflect

The Bible uses the image of darkness to describe chaos, fear, uncertainty, and death. The image of darkness is used in a variety of stories from the prophecy of Isaiah to the birth of Jesus. 

The prophet Isaiah was called to speak to the people of Israel. They were a people walking in the darkness of sin, danger from enemies, and judgment from God. The only hope for their darkness was light. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined…For a child has been born for us, a son given to us.”

A New Day

The birth of Jesus was the dawning of a new day. According to John, Jesus is the Word that was from the beginning, the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life and the life was the light of all people. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

So, Advent is preparing for the light to come in the darkness. It is the preparation for Jesus, the light of the world. It is Jesus, God’s light, who comes into our world and breaks the chains of darkness and brings hope for the future. 

So, we wait, expecting our hope to come. I get it. Darkness comes in a variety of ways. It shows up when you are looking for direction, fearful of the circumstances, feeling alone, and paralyzed by anxiety. It shows up when you have doubts and fears as you look to the future. I understand that darkness. 

Times of Darkness

Several years ago, I faced a time of darkness. I faced uncertainty so great that I could not see beyond myself or the moment of pain I was experiencing. Hurt, confused and feeling alone, I was uncertain about the future. It was at the moment of my greatest distress, a colleague and friend stepped in to help me face my future. I was not offered a lot of sympathy or unrealistic platitudes. I don’t ever remember hearing the words, “Call me if you need me.” What I do remember hearing was, “You know where to find me.” 

God sent me a person of faith, a Jesus follower, who allowed me to be me at the moment of my greatest need. She created a space for me to talk about my anxiety, disappointments, pain, and fear. Although there were times she did not agree with my assessments, she never passed judgment. She listened compassionately. At appropriate times would ask me the questions I needed to answer for clarity and healing. She offered Christ to me by becoming the embodiment of God’s grace. I began to trust that I was not alone in darkness of my uncertainty. 

The space created and the grace offered allowed me to move beyond the moments of my anxiety to see new possibilities. I began to look beyond what I had experienced and to create a new story for myself.

I began to heal. My friend provided several ways for me to put into practice the new possibilities that began to emerge. We created plans for reflection, prayer, and conversation. She challenged me to look beyond myself to see what new things God might be doing in my life. I was invited to put my faith into action by looking beyond myself. 

It was at that point that I rediscovered God’s work in my life. God began to use me to make a difference in the places I encountered the people God wanted me to love. It was through the engagement of this colleague and friend in my life, this Jesus follower, who helped me see the hope in the midst of my uncertainty. There were no easy answers. In fact, there were no answers at all. 

She came alongside me, in the darkness of great anxiety, embodied God’s love, and journeyed with me through difficult moments. Helping me see what God might have in store for the future, she was an instrument of God’s hope in the midst of my uncertainty. She was a light in my darkness.

God came in the person of a Jesus follower. While I was in darkness, I saw a light that brought hope. 

The Good News

There is good news in this Advent prophecy: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us. He is called by many names, but we call him Jesus. He is the Light of the world, the One who comes from God to save us from our darkness. “Light and Life to all He brings, risen with healing in His wings.”

Whatever your need, whatever your circumstances, whatever your darkness, there is hope. For unto us a child is born and unto us a Son is given. And his name is Jesus, the light of hope in your darkness. 

Respond

As you go about the activities of your day, be aware of the people who are broken and in pain. Be aware of the people who bring light into their lives. As you become aware of the people around you, be thinking of how you might be a person of light in the lives of the people you encounter along the way. Look for Jesus in the people you meet today and be aware of God’s loving embrace. 

Pray

O God, I am grateful that you are the light in the midst of my darkness. Help me be aware of your presence in every situation, circumstance, relationship, and acquaintance of this day. When it is so dark, I think I cannot see, give me eyes to see your light. When the noise is so great that I think I cannot hear, give me ears to hear your still small voice. Give me a heart to discern and a mind to recognize what you are doing. Help me be your light to the people you send my way. I offer all I am to you in the name of Jesus, the Light of the World. Amen.

Return

Take a few moments to name the places you experienced God’s light today? Through whom did you experience Jesus, God’s light? Who came alongside you to be a light in your darkness? To whom were you God’s light today?