Jesus at 12

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
December 26, 2021
Luke 2:41-5

Sermon taped at Bluemont Presbyterian Church on Sunday, December 26, 2021.

A few years ago, one of our missionaries in South Korea shared a story about a boy named Amos (obviously, that’s not his Korean name and for obvious reasons, the missionary didn’t use real names). Amos’ father was from North Korea and spent ten years in a labor camp before escaping to Russia. 

He lived there illegally and fell in love with a Russian woman. But they couldn’t marry because of his status. If he’d been discovered, he would have been sent back to North Korea, so they lived together and they had a son, Amos. The mother died when Amos was small, but because he was not legally linked to the father, he was taken to an orphanage. The father moved to be near the orphanage where he could visit his son and keep an eye on him. Then came the day that he learned his son was to be adopted. Fearing he’d never see his son, the father gambled and called on the South Korean embassy. After some political wrangling, he was allowed to migrate with his son to South Korea. 

When we think things are difficult in our lives, we should remember Amos and his father.[1] The bond between a parent and a child is great and when threatened, it’s heartbreaking, as we’re going to find out in our text today.

Today, a day after we celebrated Jesus’ birth, we’re looking at his young life. We don’t know much about his upbringing. The teachings of the Apostles focused chiefly on Jesus’ public ministry—from his baptism through the resurrection. Only two of the four gospels give us any detail about Jesus’ birth, and they both provide only a fleeting glimpse of Jesus’ life between his birth in Bethlehem and his baptism by John.  Matthew tells us the holy family spent time in Egypt—as refugees. Luke tells us two things about Jesus’ early life—his circumcision on the 8th day and the family’s yearly visit to the temple with some more detail provided about this visit when Jesus was 12 years old. This is the passage I’m using for today’s message.

I wonder if Luke received his information about Jesus’ birth and childhood from Jesus’ mother Mary. Twice in the 2nd chapter, we’re told that Mary pondered or treasured what happened to Jesus in her heart.[2]It seems quite probably that by mentioning Mary’s pondering these thoughts, she was the source for Luke’s information.  

We have so little information about Jesus’ early life and are left wondering… At best, in Luke’s gospel, we can only account for a few weeks of Jesus’ first thirty years. In our age where people focus on childhood experiences and their psychological impact on the rest of our lives, we’re curious. And we’re not the only ones. Even in the early church there was much curiosity about Jesus’ upbringing, which led to the publication of many apocryphal and extra-biblical writings about what Jesus said and did as a child. But most of these accounts are so fantastic that they were easily dismissed.[3]

The Holy Spirit inspired what we have: the four gospels with their limited insight into Jesus’ early life. So, we must be satisfied with these glimpses of Jesus’ childhood. We can save any other questions for table talk at that great banquet in heaven. Let’s now look at today’s text.

READ LUKE 2:41-52.

Probably one of the worst nightmares for a parent comes from the fear of losing a child. I told you the story about the Korean boy at the beginning of the sermon. It came from an article titled “The Shepherd of North Korea,” written by a Presbyterian missionary in South Korea. 

The author recalls his real education on God’s shepherding. Shortly after he and his family moved to Seoul, they visited an open-air market. I’ve been in some of those crowed markets. You wind through alleyways, with way more people than space. He and his wife then realized that his daughter no longer had his hand. What happened next, he described, was “five minutes of hell” as they searched for the small girl in the crowds of people speaking a strange language.[4] Luckily, they found their daughter, crying and terrified, but safe. It’s a horrifying thought; it’s our worst nightmare, not knowing where a child is located and knowing there is no way you can help him or her. If we think about the emotions the thought of losing a child brings to us, we can empathize with Mary and Joseph.

Mary and Joseph are devoted Jews. In some ways, their actions go beyond the demands of the law, which required adult Jewish men to go to the temple for Passover. Those living around Jerusalem observed this requirement, but those living more than a day’s journey or roughly 20 miles from the city, were excused. For those living far away, the trip was made less frequently and, in some cases, was a once in a lifetime journey. The holy family, however, attended every year. That’s devotion for the hard journey would have taken then four days of walking, each way. Even more remarkable, both Joseph and Mary attend!  Mary wasn’t required. She could have stayed home. But Luke leaves us with a picture of devout parents raising Jesus.

The fact that this is Jesus’ twelfth year is also telling, as perhaps he has gone through his bar mitzvah. Now Jesus is, in Jewish eyes, a “son of the law.” At this point, he’s obeying the command to attend Passover.[5]

There is much speculation about what these journeys to and from Jerusalem were like. Most likely, the pilgrims traveled in caravans or groups of like-minded people. The men walked together and discuss theology briefly, before the talk switched to the World Series, Superbowl, business, how they are all hen-picked by their wives, or equivalent subjects of the first century. Likewise, women walked together. They talked about kids and school, celebrities, and the inattentiveness of their husbands. Children also gathered to play with each other, to sing, and keep each other company while complaining about their parents. Not much has changed. Since this was a male-dominated society, the children mostly hung out within sight of mom.

Perhaps this is how it happened. Leaving Jerusalem and heading north to their home, Joseph engaged in conversation with other men and thought that Jesus was with Mary. And Mary, knowing that Jesus is now 12, almost a man, assumed he was with his dad. And even if he wasn’t with dad, he could have been traveling with some of his cousins. Jesus himself is at the in-between age; he’s not quite an adult (that’ll happen according to their tradition on his next birthday), but he’s also no longer a child and he’s putting aside childish games. Being in this no-man’s land, Jesus falls through the crack and it’s not until that first night, when Mary and Joseph reunite, that they realize he’s missing. Unable to find him among the pilgrim’s camp, they worry. 

They’re now a day’s journey from Jerusalem. They immediately turn around and hike back to the city and look for him. Not only are they devoted to their religious teachings, but they are also devoted to their child. 

It’s on the third day (a day traveling from Jerusalem, a day traveling back to the city, and a day of looking) that they find Jesus. Luke may be foreshadowing or hinting at the time between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Jesus is having an adult conversation with the intellectuals of the faith, but Mary isn’t impressed. “Why have you treated us like this?” she yells. “Your father and I have been worried.” Mary’s response is natural; all of us who have children have probably said this or something very similar at some point in their upbringing.  

Jesus replies, asking why they were searching, as if he didn’t know, and then, playing on words, asked if they didn’t know that he would be in his Father’s house. Mary and Jesus use the word Father, Jesus capitalizes his use, (or, it’s capitalized in the English version due to our grammar). Mary of course, uses father to refer to Joseph while Jesus is talking about our heavenly Father. But Jesus’ comments are not a rebuke of his parents, for we’re told that he returned home with them and that he remained obedient.  

There’s an unanswered question here. Had Mary forgotten about her pregnancy and Jesus’ miraculous birth complete with angels and strangers bringing gifts? Luke doesn’t say she had a brain lapse and suddenly snapped out of it, saying, “Oh silly me, I forget, we should have looked here first.” Luke is doing two things. First he’s showing that Jesus, even with his divine nature, was part of a normal family, one that cared for and worried about the kids.

Secondly, Luke sets up early in his gospel the tension that will later become more prominent in Jesus’ ministry—a tension between one’s family and God. Jesus himself faced this problem as we see here and later in his life as his brothers challenged his ministry.[6]  

Luke uses this story to illustrate Jesus’ growing awareness. As Jesus matures, he begins to understand his destiny, as Luke points out in verse 52. Luke also shows the human dynamics of a family struggling with such a calling. Jesus’ mother would stick by him, even being there at the cross. Certainly, Jesus’ ministry caused her much heartbreak, of which this little blip in his childhood is only the beginning. Yet, she knows he’s destined for something greater than she could ever imagine. She does her part, raising the child, but when the time comes, must let him go to do his Father’s work.

Looking at this story from this angle, we can see it affirms both the role of the parents (after all, when they found Jesus, he obeyed them and returned home) and the need for a growing boy who’s almost a man to spread his wings, so to speak. The family, as well as the larger community present at Passover, did their parts in preparing Jesus for his life and ministry. Could we ask for more? Is there anything more important a community or a family can give the young people with whom they are entrusted? Therefore, when we baptize children, we require parents as well as the congregation, the child’s worshipping family, to pledge their support.  

And when the parents and the community have faithfully raised a child, that child must then be given the freedom to follow his and her own path. Here, we see that ultimately the focus isn’t on the family; it’s on doing the work of the Heavenly Father. When this is kept in perspective, our priorities fall into place, just as they did for Joseph and Mary.  

Raising children is both a blessing and a responsibility that we share with Mary and all other parents. Like Mary and Joseph, it is easy for us to get busy about our own concerns and forget our role in preparing our children to be about the business of their Heavenly Father.  

As we end this year and begin the next, think about our responsibility to the children in our homes, our community and of the world. What might we do, in our homes and in our neighborhood, to help our children grow up wanting to serve their Heavenly Father? What might we do to support children around the globe? We have a responsibility and we’re all in this together. Amen. 

[1] Samuel Weddington, “The Shepherd of North Korea,” Presbyterian Outlook, 10 December 2012. See

[2] Luke 2:19 & 51.

[3] Norval Geldenhuys, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 125-126,

[4] Weddington, “The Shepherd of North Korea.”

[5] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 41.

[6] See John 7:1-5.

Mayberry Church on Christmas Eve (photo by Beth Ford)

Christmas Eve Homily

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Presbyterian Churches
Christmas Eve 2021
Luke 2:1-20 (verse 19)

This video contains a whole service that includes music along with the homily

Growing up, I never felt like our Christmas tree was the real thing. Yeah, it was a live tree; we’d never go for the artificial variety. But it was store bought, purchased from the Optimist Club, which was logical since they supported the local Little League program.

On the night we put up the tree, we’d all wait patiently—or maybe not so patiently—for Dad to come home from work. When he arrived, we’d pile in the car and drive to the lot on Oleander Drive. It was a makeshift operation, some bare bulbs hanging from wires overhead illuminating the lot that in summer was a putt-putt golf course. Trees stood up against wires running between poles. We’d go through the lot looking at 100s of them. None ever seem perfect. And the ones I liked, my brother or sister wouldn’t like. Or it was too big. It was hard to get all of us to agree. After 15 minutes of this fruitless exercise, my parents assumed authority and picked out a tree. Dad paid for it. Then he tied it to the top of our car for the ride home. 

In some ways, it’s odd that my dad purchased a tree instead of finding a place to cut one. He’s the type of man who never brought anything he could make, and that included our tree stand. Had the bomb dropped on our house, something kids worried about in the 60s, I’m sure Dad’s tree stand would have been the only thing to survive. I was in Middle School before I could pick it up. It was constructed from a large flat piece of 3/8-inch plate steel with a four-inch steel tube welded to it. The trunk went into the tube. At the top of the tube, he’d drilled holes and tapped it so the bolts could be tightened to hold the tree in place. It was hard to get water into the tube, so after the first year, he drilled a bunch of holes in the side of the tube and then welded a shorter eight-inch pipe over it. We could pour water into the larger tube, and it would seep into the trunk. This tree stand was so solid that the tree’s trunk would have broken before it would have toppled. 

As a child, I wondered why we didn’t have one of those red stands with green legs made of tin, like all other families. I was envious of those flimsy tree stands sold at J. C. Fields. As an adult, before moving to an artificial tree, I found myself wishing for Dad’s old stand. The tree in that stand would have survived kids, dogs, cats, and rowdy guests, all of which have been known to topple a tree my living room.

My maternal grandparents still lived on a farm and never had a store-bought tree. For me, they had a real tree—an Eastern Cedar—thick and full and fragrant compared to the scrawny firs the Optimist Club imported from Canada. My mother, obviously trying to console us, said firs brought down from Canada were better because you had more room between branches on which to hang ornaments. She was trying to convince herself, I’m sure. Deep down, she knew that for a tree to be authentic, you had to select the one for the sacrifice, and cut it you’re your own hands.  

Of all the trees I’ve seen in my life, the one that stands out as the ideal tree was the one my grandmother and grandfather Faircloth had for Christmas 1966. It was a full, well-shaped cedar my grandfather had cut near the branch that ran behind his tobacco barn. Although I didn’t witness the harvesting of this tree, I imagine him, sitting on top of his orange Allis Chambers tractor, with the tree tied behind the seat, hauling it back home. This tree took up a quarter of their living room and its scent filled their home. Grandma decorated it simply: white lights, red bulbs, and silver icicles. And, of course, there were presents underneath along with boxes of nuts and fruit.

They gave me a Kodak Instamatic Camera, that year, the kind that used the drop-in 126-film cartridges and those square disposable flashes that mounted on top.  It was the closest thing to a foolproof camera ever built. I got good use out of that camera. It’d be nearly another decade before I replaced it with a 35 millimeter. My grandfather did not feel good that Christmas, but after some coaxing, I came outside so I could take a picture of him and my grandmother in front of the house. 

Even though I lost this picture years ago, I can still visualize the snapshot in my mind. Grandma and Granddad stood in front of their porch, by one of the large holly bushes that framed their steps. My slender grandmother, a bit taller than her husband, has her arm around him. They’re both smiling. Granddad sports his usual crew cut. In the picture, my grandparents are a bit off-center and crooked, for the camera in the hands of a kid wasn’t as foolproof as Kodak led everyone to believe. But the image was sharp. It still is, in my mind.

My granddad never raised another crop of tobacco. Although I don’t know for sure, he may have never even driven his tractor again, for early that January, his heart gave out. Perhaps that’s why the memory is so vivid.  

I’m sure my Christmas memories are normal. You probably have similar ones—some are good, and others are of Christmases that didn’t live up to expectation. And then there are those sad Christmases in which we lost loved ones. There’s nothing wrong with a normal Christmas, for if you look at the birth narrative in Luke’s gospel, that’s what the first one was all about. It was business as usual. Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem to do their civic duty, registering for the census. You have shepherds working the graveyard shift. Even birth itself is normal. It’s how we all came into this world. In this ordinary world God enters. Good news! God appears in an ordinary world, in an ordinary life, just like ours. We don’t have to do anything special to experience God. The Almighty finds us waiting in line to meet a government bureaucrat or while working the nightshift. God finds us where we are, that’s one of the messages of Christmas.

The Good Book tells us that after the shepherds left the Baby Jesus, rejoicing and praising God, Mary pondered in her heart all the things she’d heard and experienced. The late Raymond Brown, a well-known scholar who wrote the most detailed commentary on the birth narratives of the Gospels, says the word “pondered” literally means “thrown side by side.”[1] Mary brought together in her heart all the events occurring in Bethlehem and during her pregnancy and juggled them around in an attempt to understand. 

There must have been a variety of emotions of which we can only speculate. How much of her Son’s future did she really understand? Possibly not much. It would be thirty years before Jesus’ ministry would begin. And even after he started his ministry, there were times Mary and her family tried to talk Jesus out of it.[2] A normal mother, trying to protect her son. The birth of any child is miraculous to the mother, so maybe Mary just thought all that happened that night in Bethlehem was normal. As the years went by forgot about the angels and the prophecies concerning her son.  

Mary is important to the story, not only because she is the mother of our Savior. Mary’s the only person mentioned in the gospels whose presence bridge the life of Jesus. She gives birth, she’s at the cross with her heart heavy with sorry, probably still pondering and wondering, and on the first day of the week is there to experience the resurrection.[3]

Ever since that first Christmas some 2000 years ago in the small town of Bethlehem, the day has been one in which we ponder its meaning while creating our own memories. The picture etched in my mind of me photographing my grandparents reminds me of the family from which I sprung, a family who saw to it that I had a chance to know the Christ-child as someone more just a reason to receive gifts. 

Those trees I remember from my childhood, whose roots historically are pagan, have become a symbol for the life Christ brought into the world, the greatest gift we can receive. The impossibility of finding the perfect tree, a task so daunting for my family, always seemed so silly afterwards for even imperfect ones become perfect when decorated. And God works the same miracles in us, taking what is weak and imperfect and using it to carry out his mission in the world. And if I wanted to stretch it, I could even point to my Dad’s Christmas tree stand as a metaphor for the solid foundation we all need in our lives! The memories of Christmas that stay with me are not of receiving gifts. It is the assurance of being loved, by parents and grandparents, and ultimately by God.  

Tonight, ponder what this all means. I suppose for most of us, our fondest Christmas memories are as children or when we had children of our own. In a profound way, Christmas is about children. Think of the possibilities that rest in an infant.

The birth of a child in Bethlehem, the joy of a child tearing into wrapped presents and then hugging a parent, the twinkle of candlelight in our eyes as we sing Silent Night help remind us what it’s all about. And when we hear those words from Jesus’ adult ministry, that unless we come as a child, we will never enter the kingdom of God,[4] we can think about how we viewed things as a child. Perhaps this is what we should be pondering as we once again recall and celebrate God’s entry into our world. How might we become child-like and accept our Savior into our heart?  Amen.  

Recently, I came across another wonderful mediation about Christmas and children from “The Plough,” a devotional site for Christmas. Click here to read it.

[1]Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 406.

[2] In John 7:5, we see that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him.  Was this the reason his brothers and Mary were trying to see Jesus in Matthew 12:46 and Mark 3:31?

[3] Not only was Mary present at the death, she’s listed as being present with the early church.  See Acts 1:14.

[4] Luke 18:17.

Mary’s Song

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
December 18, 2021
Luke 1:39-56

At the beginning of worship

It’s the fourth Sunday of Advent. Out waiting is paying off. This week, we’ll celebrate the birth of Jesus. But what does Jesus’ coming mean? What will his return be like? Today, we hear from his mom. Jesus doesn’t just come to provide for about individual salvation. Instead, God is doing something incredibly new in the world. Will we want to participate? 

Before the reading of Scripture

When I lived in Michigan, there was always a time, generally in March, that I’d wake to birds singing while it was still dark. It was a sign winter was almost over. Spring was on its way and the birds had made their trip back from their winter home. I imaged them singing a song of thanksgiving. 

Luke’s gospel opens similarly. Everyone sings. We’ll almost everyone. Old Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, was at a loss for words. That is, until he regained his speech. But I bet his heart sang. Joining in his heart’s song is his pregnant wife, Elizabeth. And then Mary, pregnant with Jesus, joins the song. And after Jesus’ birth, angels gather as a chorus. They all understand it’s a new day. God’s promises are about to be fulfilled.

The last two Sundays, we explored John the Baptist. The last of the prophets of the old age, John points the way to Jesus, the one who ushers this new age.[1] Today, we’re stepping back, to when John and Jesus were still in the womb. Our scripture tells of the two mothers, Elizabeth, and Mary, giving thanks to God. 

Read Luke 1:39-56  

Automobiles and control

I have a confession to make. I like to be in control. Didn’t come as a surprise, did it? I like to know what I’m doing and where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. I don’t like things I can’t control, which is probably why I don’t get excited over cars. I’m not impressed with how much horsepower one packs under the hood or the size of the tires. I just want the contraption to get me where I’m going.  

You see, with a car, you can be whizzing down the interstate at midnight with everything in order—cruise control set just a hair above the speed limit, the vehicle’s interior climate comfortable, and just the right tune blaring from the stereo when, suddenly, a water pump breaks. You sit in the middle of nowhere, reminded once again that you’re not in control. A little mechanical gadget that can only be found in an auto-parts store three counties over shatters any allusion of that. Moments before you were happy and content, now you’re cranky and angry. Know the feeling? (That said, I hope none of us have car problems if you’re travelling for the holidays.)

The desire for control is something instilled into our culture. We’re told to pull ourselves up by our bootlaces. We take care of ourselves, or at least we are under the mistaken belief we can take care of ourselves. But we didn’t build the car. Nor did we build the highway or refine the oil to make the car run. We should keep in mind that we always depend on others and ultimately, we depend on God. 

The fantasy of control

We need to get this control fantasy out of our heads. The tornadoes to our west over the past two weeks, at the wrong time of the year, certainly reminded folks in places like Mayfield, Kentucky they weren’t in control. That said, we need to accept ourselves for who we are. When we try to make ourselves out to be more than we are, we create an idol out of the self and set ourselves up for a fall. The higher we elevate ourselves, the further we fall.[2]

Yet, control is a desire we all share. But it’s dangerous because it is incompatible with our faith in God. We desire to be rich, famous, powerful, popular, the type of individual who controls his or her surroundings. But it’s a myth. As Christians, our desires should center on pleasing and fulfilling God’s will. If you question this, consider Mary, the women whom God chose to work through to bring about salvation to the world.  

Mary and women of the 1st Century

Mary wasn’t rich or famous or powerful or popular. According to worldly standards, she was the most unlikely candidate to be the mother of Jesus, the mother of God. She was young and unmarried, probably poor, from a second-rate town in an obscure corner of the world. As far as we know, she had no education and there was no royalty within her blood. She didn’t seek fame. 

Mary depends on others. As with other women of the age, she depends on her father to find her a husband. Then she’ll depend on her husband to provide for her and their children. Later in life, she’ll depend on her children to take care of her. She had no control over her life. Absolutely none. A poor woman, like 1000s of other poor women, in a dirt-poor town in an obscure providence of the Roman Empire. 

Mary’s troubles

Yes, Mary was like 1000s of other women, until she’s visited by the angel Gabriel. It almost sounds like a fairy tale story, does it, to be chosen as the mother of God?[3] Except Mary never inherits a castle. Her story goes downhill. She gives birth to her son in a stable, the family flees to Egypt where they live as political refugees, and three decades later she’s there by the cross watching her son die.[4] She is a woman of sorrow, but despite this her song is one of the most beautiful found in scripture as she praises God for what he has done and is doing.

Mary realizes her position. She’s a lowly servant. Her honor comes from God’s action within her life. Everything is God’s doing, not hers. She’s not the cause of redemption; she’s just a vessel God uses to bring the Savior into the world. Mary can’t boast of her accomplishments. She doesn’t line up book deals; she isn’t saying, “look at me, I’m the mother of God.” Instead, as Luke tells us at the end of the Christmas narrative, Mary ponders all that happens in her heart.[5] She’s the model of true humility. She directs her praise, as well as her life, toward God.

God’s operation

Mary’s song gives us an insight into how God operates. God chose her, an unlikely candidate, to be Jesus’ mother. God lifts the lowly while pronouncing judgment upon the powerful—upon those who think they are in control. We Americans should take notice. 

God’s blessings are given to those who understand they have no control in their lives; God’s blessings are for those who, in their humble state, fear the Lord. At the same time, those who are not willing to acknowledge God’s sovereignty will not find salvation in Jesus Christ. They’re too busy looking out for themselves and pretending their own resources will save them. Such folks may not even realize they need a Savior.

The poor and dependency 

Have you ever wondered why the poor appear to be special in Scripture? Think of the verses: Blessed are the poor.”[6] “It’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get into heaven.”[7] Why is it easier for the poor to accept Christ and find salvation?  

The poor are dependent. Those without money must depend upon others for food. Those without capital must depend upon others for jobs. And this doesn’t just go for the economically poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”[8] Those who are depressed must depend upon others to cheer them up. The poor are dependent on others, they are not in control, and those who acknowledge their dependence have an easier time accepting God’s grace.  

All of us need to learn to depend upon God and, by doing so, we need to make Mary’s song our own. Can we prescribe all our praise to God? (Or, do we want to save a little for ourselves?) Can we acknowledge God’s power and sovereignty in this world? (Or, do we believe in our individual grandeur?)

Mary is in no position to help herself, yet she so totally trusts God and sings his praises. Mary accepts God’s call and gives God thanks for choosing her, which is why her song is remembered.  

Mary’s model of prayer

Mary’s song provides us a model of a prayer of thanksgiving. If Mary, a woman of sorrow, can sing such a song, if the songbirds who struggle day after day for food and survival and make long journeys across a continent can sing such praise, why can’t we? In all we do, we need to see how God is working in our lives and then give thanks.

We need to take Paul seriously when he says that we’re to be praying without ceasing.[9] And our prayers need to mostly be prayers of thanksgiving, as we praise God for all that he has done for us. When we search our lives for God’s blessings and realize our blessings. Humbled, we become even more dependent upon the loving arms of the Almighty God. 

During this festive season, don’t forget to give thanks. Take time to count your blessings. What has God given you to be thankful for? First off, he’s given your life; God’s given you a chance.  Secondly, you’re redeemed in Jesus Christ. That’s a lot! And what has God done for our church for which we should be thankful. He’s given us a rich heritage, a church that has served this community for a hundred years,[10] people who work hard in the community to make it a better place for all people. We’re not perfect; for that we’ll have to wait for the Second Advent. But God blesses us to be a part of Jesus’ family and in such a community as this.  

Blessedness in a troubled world

Of course, as the news reminds us daily, we live in a world of violence. But so did Mary and Elizabeth. They lived in a world where those who disagreed with the occupying army were crucified and where Roman soldiers enforced the will of Caesar by spear and sword. And yet, they both praised God for what was happening. Both knew what God had done in the past and understood that a new age was dawning. Even John, in his mother’s womb, knew and was excited about what God was doing.

Today, we can be cynical, when considering the violence and injustice in our world. Or we can realize the message of the cross, which is that violence and evil may have their day, but they are not the final answer. Be thankful, for the powers of death could not overcome God’s love for the world. Be thankful, for Jesus will return and establish his rule and every knee will bow in reverence and God will live among us in such an intimate way that he’ll wipe our tears from our cheeks.[11]

Blessings and Hope

And be hopeful. For God works with us to bring about a marvelous eternity. This past week, I listed to Tim Keller talk on hope in a troubling time. Keller is the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the heart of New York City. Keller also suffers from cancer. (In the footnotes of my written sermon, I posted the link to this YouTube podcast.[12]) Keller reminds us of the depth of our hope. We are not just hoping God will take away whatever trouble we experience today. That’s trivial hope. We place our hope in what God is doing in the world that will be eternal. And that starts with the coming of Christ. 


I encourage you in your prayers to be like Mary. Remember what God has done and what God is doing!  Paul tells us to rejoice always.  When we regularly give thanks to God, we live differently. Our lives will be more positive. We’ll be like the songbirds on a spring morning, sharing God’s hope to a hurting world. Come, Lord Jesus, Come!  Amen.  

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: JKP, 1990), 29.

[2] See Isaiah 14:12-14 and Luke 10:18

[3] Luke 1:26ff.

[4] See John 19:26.

[5] Luke 2:19

[6] Luke 6:20

[7] Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, and Luke 18:25

[8] Matthew 5:3

[9] 1 Thessalonians 5:17.

[10] Bluemont was 100 years old in 2019. While Mayberry will be a hundred in 2025, it existed as a Sunday School meeting in the school house before then. 

[11] Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10, Isaiah 25:8, and Romans 21:4


Another lighthouse ornament from my Christmas tree. Bald Head Light at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in North Carolina.

“Joy to the World” A History of a Carol

I wrote this article for in 2019, on the 300th anniversary of the hymn, for The Skinnie, a magazine for Skidaway Island. I have slightly altered the text for this blog post.

Issac Watt’s Role

This year, with a young puppy in the house, the tree is locked up

A little over three hundred years ago, in 1719, English hymn-writer Isaac Watts published the words we know today as “Joy to the World.” Today it’s one of the most popular Christmas carols in America, with its hopeful and joyful message. However, “Joy to the World” was not written as a Christmas carol. It would take nearly 120 years before the carol we know was first sung. 

Isaac Watts is perhaps the greatest author of hymns ever. Supposedly, when he was a boy, he complained to his father about church music. Like a good parent, his father suggested that instead of complaining, he should work to make it better. From this challenge Watts, set out to write hymns, a relatively new style of music for Protestant Churches in the early 17th Century. At this time, especially in the English world, the Psalms served as the main source of lyrics for music sung in churches. As a pastor in a dissenting English Church, Watts began writing hymns. While he often drew from the Psalms, upon which he would modernize the language and Christianize the content, he also wrote hymns that reflected a trust in an Almighty God and in a Savior who was willing to die for humanity. Churches in Britain and America quickly adopted Watts’ hymns. These hymns include “I Sing the Mighty Power of God,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “From All that Dwell Below the Skies,” and of course, “Joy to the World.” 

Influence of Psalm 96

“Joy to the World” was based on Psalm 96, a royal Psalm of God’s enthronement as King. King David sings this Psalm, we learn in 1st Chronicles, as he moves the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. At a time in history, nearly a millennia before Christ, most nations had their own gods. Psalm 94 proclaims the God of the Hebrews, the God of Abraham, as reigning not just over the Hebrew people, or just in Jerusalem, but over the world. The God of the Psalmist is supreme throughout the world. God will rule fairly. God will administer justice with equity. God’s deeds are such that all will stand in awe and, along with all that is in heaven and on earth, will sing out in joy. 

Watts took Psalm 96 and tweaked it in a manner that reflects Christ’s second coming. In addition to the three traditional stanzas of the Psalm, which he modified, he added a fourth (which he inserted between the second and third stanzas).

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;

He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found, 
Far as the curse is found, far as, far as the curse is found.

This stanza reflects Watt’s eschatological hope based on Christ’s return. God reverses the curse of Eden. It was a wonderful poem of the Second Coming. Watt’s titled his piece, “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.”

The words for the carol were written three hundred years ago. However, it required more creativity for this poem to became the beloved Christmas Carol we now know.

The Role of George Frederick Handel

The composer for the music who he combined with Watt’s poem was George Frederick Handel of Germany. Handel and Watts were contemporaries and were both living in England at the same time, but the two of them did not work on this carol. The music comes from Handel’s “Messiah,” a popular piece often sung by choirs and in concerts during the Christmas season.  But this adaptation of the two works did not occur for another century and on another continent, long after the deaths of Watts and Handel. 

The Role of Lowell Mason

 Lowell Mason was born in 1792, into a musically talented family in Medfield, Massachusetts. As a child and young man, he learned to play the clarinet, violin, cello, flute, piano and organ and became a choir director in his home town at the age of 17. A few years later, he moved to Savannah, where he worked in a dry-goods store and later in a bank. During this time, he studied under a Frederick Abel, a music teacher from Germany and began to serve as the choir director and organist at Independent Presbyterian Church. Mason helped create the first African-American Sunday School at Savannah’s First Bryan Baptist Church. This was at a time when the education of slaves was condemned throughout the South. 

After returning north, he later served as music director for the well-known abolitionist preacher Lyman Beecher. While working in Savannah, Mason became interested in musical composition and had to travel to Boston in 1922 to have his first collection of arrangements published as there were no publishers in the South with the capacity to print musical fonts. 

         Mason moved to Boston in 1827, where he served as organist and choirmaster for several prominent churches. He worked for a time as music director for the well-known abolitionist preacher, Lyman Beecher. During this era, he became an American proponent for European-styled music. At the time, adherents of the traditional American “shape-note” tradition satirized the European-style as the “Better Music Boys.” However, because of Lowell and others insisted on music education in schools, America eventually adopted the European styled music. 

         Mason was an important figure in music in early America who wrote, arranged, or composed music for hundreds of hymns including “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” He also wrote secular music including the popular nursery rhyme, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  

         Mason’s most popular tune, however, is “Joy to the World, in which he arranged the words of Isaac Watts’ poem with tunes of Handel to create the popular Christmas carol. “Joy to the World” is considered the most loved carol in America.  Almost every congregation will sing it during the Christmas season and just about every artist who has recorded Christmas Carols have included this hymn in their repertoire. The song is uplifting, as it reflects the Christian hope of a new and peaceful world in which Christ will reign as King.  

         This year, as you hear this song sung on the radio or perhaps in a Candlelight service on Christmas Eve, may you experience joy. 

         For Christmas Eve services along the Blue Ridge, Bluemont will hold its service at 4 PM and Mayberry at 6 PM. Both churches will be celebrating communion and invite you all to attend. 

The Preaching of John the Baptist

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Church
December 12, 2021
Third Sunday of Advent
Luke 3:7-20

Sermon recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, December 10, 2021

At the beginning of worship

We’re at the third week of Advent. Christmas is coming. Have you’ve been naughty or nice? Of course, that sounds like I’m emphasizing works. We often think the only thing that matters is a belief in Jesus. And while believing in Jesus is important, so is how we live our lives. Because of the love we’ve experienced in Jesus Christ, we are to share such love with others. 

This week on Twitter, a seminary student witnessing an online debate over what’s the correct belief, responded: “Some of y’all need to stop studying apologetics (that’s the defense of our faith) and start studying apologies.”[1] She has a point. Jesus would probably agree.

I’ve been reading Makoto Fujimura new book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making. The author challenges us at our “bottom line”.[2]What are we doing with our lives? How are we using the gifts God has given us to make this world a better place? Not only do we need to believe and love Jesus, but we must also shape our lives using him as a model. 

Before the Gospel Reading

Again, this week, we’re dealing with John the Baptist. The man preaches a harsh sermon. God’s judgment is at hand! John’s message when added to Zephaniah’s (whom we heard in our Old Testament reading) blend into the sweet and sour of God’s word. Like sweet and sour sauce, the richness of tastes comes by combining both flavors. God’s ways are good for salvation, yet they are linked to judgment. Listen to what John says. Once he gets your attention, I think you’ll then be surprised at what he says.  

READ LUKE 3:8-18

After the Reading of the Gospel

The Hound of Heaven

Francis Thompson depicted Jesus as the Hound of Heaven in his epic poem by the same name… We, of course, are the ones portrayed in the poem as being chased by the hound. Out of fear, we run as fast as we can. 

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him…

But the hound pursues. He doesn’t give up the chase. When he finally overtakes us, we find it’s the not the deranged dog we’ve feared.[3]Jesus is a loving hound, who chases us down because he cares about us. The Hound of Heaven is the type of dog that would jump all over us and lick us. 

At the risk of blasphemy, the hound of heaven is like my dog, Mia. As those of you who have met her knows, she barks and barks, but if you get to know her, she’s loving. She’ll roll over and let you rub her belly. 

The Junkyard Dog 

But if Jesus is the loving hound of heaven, John the Baptist is the junkyard dog.[4] Wild and furious, John stands in our way. Interestingly, in all four gospels, before we get to the life of Jesus, we go through John. We endure John’s preaching and hear about the vipers, wrath, and unquenchable fire. 

We want to get to the stable, where we feel safe and can see baby Jesus lying in a manger. We want to bring gifts for the child, to sit at the feet of a gentle Savior and draw in his words. But before we arrive, we must deal with this wild lunatic. The junkyard dog snaps at our heels, shouting repent, repent, for judgment is at hand.

John wasn’t a preacher who spoke gently. He had no golden tongue or mild-manner ways. When the crowds came, he shouted at them, “You brood of vipers.” That’s not a line church growth consultants suggest we preachers use. Yet, they came. People came from all around. Somehow the word got out and people were intrigued, and they made their way to where John was holding his camp meeting. Why, what drew them?  Perhaps they needed an honest assessment of themselves. Or, more likely, they knew what John said was true, that deep down they were lost and to find the way to salvation, they had to be honest to themselves and to God.  

The Need to Confront Our Sin

Consider this: If we think things are okay, we have no need for a Savior. But when things aren’t looking quite right, when we’re in over our heads, we need a Savior. John prepares these folks for Jesus’ arrival, getting them to understanding that just being children of Abraham isn’t enough, they need something more. It’s no longer the “good old boy system” where you get special treatment because your daddy or uncle is so and so.

The Grace in John’s Message

Although John has some rather unusual tactics and he preaches judgment as harsh as any fire and brimstone Puritan, his message really isn’t that tough. He gets the crowd’s attention by harshly pointing out their sin and teaching that they couldn’t depend on the faith of their ancestors. Once he’s got their attention, John demands they behave in a particular way. By then, they know they have not been living up to God standards for John doesn’t command anything that’s not set out in the law.  

What Should We Do

What John does is to get his audience’s attention, convict them of their sins, and lead them to the point that they ask, “What should we do?” This question forms the centerpiece of this passage about John’s ministry. What should we do? It’s asked three times in these few verses!

First the crowd asks the question. “What should we do?” And John says, “Be generous.” Share what you have.

Next, tax collectors come and ask what to do. Did you catch Luke’s irony? In the New Revised Standard version, the phrase reads, “even tax collectors came.” No one expects them, but they came and asked what they should do. John tells them to only collect what they are supposed to collect. 

Luke sets the stage here for an event that will come later. In the 19thchapter, he’ll tells us the story of Zacchaeus, the wee-little tax-collector who meets Jesus and doesn’t have to ask what to do.[5] Instead, he gives half his possessions away and promises to give to those he defrauded four times what he’d taken. Had Zacchaeus heard John’s sermon? 

Perhaps more surprisingly than the tax collectors are the soldiers who make their way to John’s revival meeting. These soldiers would not have been welcomed by the Jews of the day, for they were serving Imperial Rome.[6]

Remain Moral in Compromising Occupations

Surprisingly, John doesn’t say the tax collectors or soldiers should find a more suitable occupation. Tax collectors can still collect taxes and soldiers can still do their duty. However, they are encouraged to be generous, honest, good, and content. In other words, they’re to be nice. John’s teaching assumes that even in potentially compromising situations, people can still be moral.[7]

Nothing Radical About John, Mostly Mundane

There’s nothing radical about what’s John calls people to do! As one scholar on this passage wrote, “Much of what it means to follow Christ into better ways of living seems so mundane.” He goes on to note that mundane comes from the Latin word for world, and suggests that John 3:16 could also be translated as “God loves the mundane that sent his Son.”[8] Being a disciple isn’t about making a being on a grandstand, it’s what we do in the mundane encounters of life.

John comes to prepare the way and because of his message people expect something great to happen. The greater the demands, the greater the expectation. As the church, we need to remember that. The people of Israel now expect great things; after John, they are ready for Jesus. But are we?  Ponder that question…

Those Not Wanting to Hear John

Of course, there are those who don’t want to hear John’s message. There are always those who don’t want to play nice. One is Herod, the puppet ruler for Rome, who is one of history’s rotten characters. Herod can’t stand the truth. In a classic example of shooting the messenger, he has John jailed and later beheaded. But it was too late, John has already spoken, the Savior is on his way, and soon Herod will only exist as a footnote in history.

John Challenges the Chosen

It’s interesting to me that John can pull off his message. After all he preaches to the chosen people, those who feel God’s hand-picked them to be special. He’s telling those who feel secure because they have a covenant with God to shape up. Some of us may feel this way. Yet, we should know God expects more of those who have been given more.[9]

Will Rogers, America’s John the Baptist

Will Rogers may be the closest thing we’ve had in America to John the Baptist. Rogers didn’t pull any punches when attacking “sacred cows.” Like John, Rogers challenged society to live up the values they espouse and to change oneself before changing others. Pointing out the inconsistency in this nation of Christians, he once asked:

            What degree of egotism is it that makes a nation, or a religious organization think theirs is the very thing for the Chinese or the Zulus?  Why, we can’t even Christianize our legislators!

On another occasion he said that we have “the missionary business turned around. We’re the ones that need converting.”[10]

We Need to be Converted

Rogers has a point. We need to be converted, and now is the time. Before we head off to Bethlehem, we need to realize our need for a Savior. Before we enter the stable, we need to get our act together so we can anticipate what our God can do for us as opposed to what it is we can do for ourselves. We need to be shaken out of our comfort zones, to be confronted by John’s wrath, so that we too will seek out and clean up those places in our lives that are inconsistent with the gospel.

As harsh as we might think John came across, his preaching wasn’t void of good news. Yes, John points to the ax at the tree not bearing fruit and he talks about the fire burning the chaff. But trees that have been pruned bear more fruit and though the chaff is burned, the kernels of wheat are saved. John’s message encourages the Israelites (and us) to bare more fruit. And to be fruitful, we must put away those obstacles, those sins, which keep us from having a healthy relationship with God.  


Before rushing off to the manger to worship the Christ Child, pause long enough to hear John’s warning. His bark may sound mean, but it’s a loving warning. Repent and prepare a place in your hearts to receive the Messiah. Live so that your faith in a loving Savior is shown in a gentle life that is lived honestly and filled with kindness. Amen

[1]Laura Klenda, on Twitter, 9 December 2021

[2]Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2021), 62.

[3] Francis Thompson, The Hound of Heaven (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, nd).

[4] Idea from a sermon titled “A Cure for Despair” where John was portrayed as a Doberman pinscher.  See Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain: Sermons on Suffering (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 22ff.

[5] Luke 19:1-10

[6]James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 112.  

[7] Edwards, 113.

[8] Scott Hoezee, “Remembering the Future” in Reformed Worship #57 (September 2000), 9. 

[9] Luke 12:48.

      [10] The Best of Will Rogers, Bryan Sterling, editor (New York: MJF Books, 1979), 194.

Whitefish Point Lighthouse Ornament from my Christmas Tree. In a way, John the Baptist was like this lighthouse, that also boasted large fog horns that warned passing ships of the shoals around the point.

Four Books: Memories, Poetry, and a Novel

John Hassell Yeatts, A Long and Winding Road 
(1989), 120 pages. 

The long and winding road referred to in the title is the Blue Ridge Parkway which divided the little community of Mayberry in the mid-1930s. This was at the time when the author was becoming a man. He began working at the Dan River dam project below Mayberry and his life’s work continues as he worked on dams around the country. He later attends college and goes on to work as a reporter and writer, as well as working with agencies such as the March of Dimes and American Cancer Association. In his later years, Yeatts came back to the Mayberry of his youth for the summers. He also published several books about the community. 

These are wonderful memories. The author grew up at a time when chestnut trees dominated the Appalachian Mountains, when most people travelled by horse or buggy, and when life was hard. He was present in the old Mayberry School, when Bob Childress called for the building of a church (now Mayberry Presbyterian Church). His father delivered mail for 35 years, mostly using horses. Later in his career, he’d use a Model T. In the days before UPS, his father had to have extra packhorses for the mail order packages from Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Wards. Yeatts remembers a car salesman from Mount Airy introduce Ford’s Model T to the community and he travels to Stuart to meet those coming back from the First World War. There, for the first time in his life, he sees a locomotive, as the iron horse pulls the train into Stuart from the main line in Martinsville. He also remembers the lumbering of the chestnut and watching the trees hauled away as the blight killed the forest that dominated these parts. In these stories, we learn about old mills where farmers ground grain, and about his tee-totalling mother, who would have joined Carrie Nation if she had the opportunity. This book is filled with good stories, that take the reader back into a simple but difficult time to make a living on the mountains.

This book, along with the books of Aaron McAlexander, provide a colorful history of Mayberry. The difference in the two books is that Yeatts (who I’m sure is related to McAlexander), is a couple decades older and so his memories extend further back, to a time before the automobile, tractors, and tourists. In both books, the Mayberry store (which has gone by many names) is prominent. 

Gregory Orr, River Inside the River: Poems
(New York: Norton, 2013), 124 pages.

Last summer, when on study leave, I found myself engrossed in A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry by Gregory Orr. Having not read any of his poetry selections of the University of Virginia professor, I picked up this collection. This book has three major sections. The first, “Eden and After” looks at our first parents in the garden and its aftermath. In the second, “The City of Poetry,” I have a sense that Orr was describing the city of refuge in Genesis 4, where Cain fled upon the death of Able. As a child, Orr had killed his brother in a hunting accident. The final section is titled after the book’s title, “River Inside the River” While Orr explores new themes, he also continues building on themes already introduced.  Overall, I enjoyed the collection. I like his use of words and metaphors. My only complaint was his use of the “F” word. It certainly got my attention and was only used a few times. It was just a shock to read it in such a work, especially since he uses it to describe that which Adam and Eve did in the garden. But that word is just too harsh. Of course, Orr uses this word less than other books I’ve read. In Matterhorn, which is reviewed below, the word is used a lot but in a combat situation it seems more appropriate.

Philip Conners, A Song for a River, 
(Audible, 2018) 6 hours and 44 minutes.

This book was in my to-be-read pile for some time. When it showed up as a freebee for Audible subscribers, I jumped on it and enjoyed the book. Conners spent thirteen years as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness area in Southern New Mexico. I didn’t even know that there were still fire lookouts into the 21st century! This book weaves together several tragedies: his own brother’s suicide, his divorce, the death of his friend John who was also a fire lookout, and the death of three students from Silver City who were killed in a plane crash, along with his own medical issues. Weaving into these deaths and his divorce are stories of fire in the oldest wilderness area in the United States (As a young forester, Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, had been instrumental in saving this land).  

Conner also experiences danger as a lookout. One fire sweep through the high country. Conner is saved by a helicopter sent in to rescue him. Throughout the book, we learn of larger and larger fires, that burn hotter and at higher altitudes from global warming. In addition to the danger of fire, Conner talks about risky river trips he makes in this part of the world. Toward the end of the book, we learn that Conner remarries.  While I enjoyed the book, I felt it was a bit disjointed. That said, I do plan to read his other books.

Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (Audible, 2010), 21 hours and 11 minutes.

Marlantes was a Marine officer in Vietnam, and this is his first novel. The story takes place in late 1968 and early 1969, as the narrator begins his deployment as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corp. Assigned to a company that’s securing a firebase close to the DMZ, the firebase is named Matterhorn. The young officer dreams of rising rapidly as he serves in combat, in the hopes he can return to law school and become a politician. But as he is thrown in with men who long to survive, he learns important lessons. The story centers around a decision by the top brass to abandon the base, only to then require the Marines to retake it, after the North Vietnamese have repurposed the base for their own purposes. This was nearly suicidal mission, but the mission is ultimately successful. Along the way, we learn of the men in his company, especially the issues around race. There is even a divide among the “black brothers,” between some who are sending back weapons to America to help in the fight against racism and others who just want to survive or to get high. We also learn about the problems that come from above, from officers trying to please politicians and making decisions that are almost impossible to carry out in the field. While this is a long story, it is well told and shows the horror of the war. 

Advent 2: Preparation

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
Luke 3:1-6

December 5, 2021

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, December 3, 2021

At the beginning of worship

Christ has come, and Christ will come again. This truth of the Christian faith is why on our Advent journey. As we recall what happened and will happen again, (Christ’s coming), we find we must deal with a crazy man out in the wilderness. 

We’re going to spend two weeks with John the Baptist, today and next Sunday. John kind of reminds me John Brown, the fiery abolitionist, for neither of the two minced words. John called it as they saw it, yet people were drawn to him. It’s an interesting phenomenon that we still see—one who makes outrageous demands yet is still able to draw a crowd. What’s that all about? 

Perhaps the appeal of John the Baptist has to do with us knowing that, deep down, that is something rotten in us and we need to change. John tells us to be ready, for one is coming who can help us make such changes. Today, our topic is preparation. How are we preparing to meet Jesus?

Before the reading of scripture:

Our reading today begins, not in the land by the Jordan in which John ministered, but in the halls of power as Luke tells us who was in charge in Rome and the various providences around Palestine and at the temple. The halls of power stand in contrast to the voice crying in the wilderness, far from where people live and work. 

Read Luke 3:1-6  

After the reading of scripture

Las Vegas as a metaphor

Some of you, I’m sure have been to Las Vegas. It’s a city that never sleeps. If you are up at 2 AM, which you might be if you have just arrived due to the 3-hour time change, you find the casinos still bright with the bells of slot machines ringing. Deserts are usually dry, dark, and sparsely populated places. But Las Vegas defies the desert. You’ll find magnificent fountains splashing water. 

When I lived in Southern Utah, a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive to Vegas, I often made the drive at night. Or, sometimes, I drove in the predawn early morning hours to catch a flight. I travelled down Interstate 15, through the darkness with bright stars overhead. Then, when I crested a ridge about twenty miles outside of Vegas, the entire valley before me lighted up. It appeared like Christmas, regardless of the season. 

And the crowds. Even in the darkness of early in the morning, Interstate 15 would be crowded.

In contrast to Vegas, deserts are quiet places, with the only sound being the wind blowing through a barren canyon or rattling dry yucca pods. In Vegas the sound of a carnival fills the air, especially downtown and along the strip. If you get out of Vegas, just twenty or so miles, you’re in a different world. 

The wilderness around Vegas

One of my favorite places to hike, on the times I was there in the winter, were the canyons that dissect the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. This area lies south of Hoover Dam. You never wanted to hike such canyons in the summer as the temperature will rise over 120 degrees. 

These dry waterways are dotted with an occasional hot sulfur spring. Because of danger of flash floods, you’d best stay out of the canyon when rain is forecasted. Deep inside one, you’d be more likely to come upon a desert bighorn sheep or a rattlesnake than another person. For those like me, who sometimes need a break for the commotion of a place like Vegas, these canyons provide opportunities for solitude. It’s hard to believe, when you are in such an isolated place that hundreds of thousands of folks are rushing around life just a dozen miles or so away, by the way the crow flies.    

From the busy world to the wilderness

Luke, in our reading today, provides us with a similar contrast, as he shifts our focus from the busy places of politics to the wilderness. This gospel writer is a stickler the details. We’re provided a historical setting, a who’s who of both the political and religious world.  

If I was to write the history of my ministry, using Luke’s model, I might tell the story of my ordination in Ellicottville New York in this manner: George H. W. Bush was in the White House, Mario Cuomo was the governor of New York, Price H. Gwynn III was the moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly, and the Reverend Eunice Poethig was executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Western New York.  

By beginning with all the bigwigs of Rome and Jerusalem, which Luke inserts here as he also does in chapter two with the birth of Jesus,[1]we’re surprised to learn that God’s word doesn’t come to the city or to those in power. Instead, it comes through a strange fire-breathing prophet living out in the Jordan River wilderness. Those in power have no idea of John, but the changes he forecasts will change the world in which they live.

Ancient ties to John’s message

John’s message is one of expectation, as he draws upon the ancient prophet Isaiah, emphasizing God’s on-going work of salvation.[2] I like how Eugene Peterson translates John’s preaching in The Message:

Thunder in the desert!
Prepare God’s arrival!
Make the road smooth and straight!
Every ditch will be filled in, 
every bump smoothed out
the detours straightened out
all the ruts paved over.  
Everyone will be there to see
The parade of God’s salvation

There are some that think this passage draws from an ancient practice of clearing a path for a royal procession. If a king traveled through his territories, there would be those who went ahead to smooth out the road so that the king could travel comfortably and speedily.[3]

Admitting our needs

It’s interesting to contemplate this passage considering the never-ending political season in which we now live. A friend, commenting on how Luke throws in the politics of the era into our text, wrote: “In the rarified circles of society where the Caesars dwell, folks don’t like to admit they have problems. Politics is about solving other people’s problems, not about admitting to your own.” To such people, who “live on the mountaintop, such a call to repent is frightening,” for they are to be made low. But to those “living in the low-lying margins of life, this great equalization, the mountains lowered as the valleys rise, is good news.”[4]

In a way, this appears to be just another example of that hard-to-comprehend truth found throughout Jesus’ teachings that the last will be first.[5]

We must always remember that God’s ways are not our ways! God loves the world and is looking out for everyone, especially those often overlooked.

God is coming

John’s message is that God, through Jesus Christ, is coming. People better get ready! To the Jewish listener of John in the first century, the thought of encountering God face-to-face was terrifying. They knew their own sinfulness, and that when compared to God’s holiness, it would lead to their demise. So, it’s imperative that people prepare themselves by confessing their sins, just as we do early in nearly every worship service. 

Confession and repentance are necessary if we want to stand before God without fear.

Preparing for the holidays

We all get that Advent is a season of preparation. Many of us have begun decorating our homes with trees and lights. The Garrisons may get around to it this afternoon. The smells of sweets baking, and cider mulling fill our homes. Donna made gingerbread cookies this week. Our homes seem warmer and brighter this season even as the weather can be cooler (although, that hasn’t been the case this year). At least the nights longer. 

Getting ready for Christmas, in this way, runs counter to the season. We prepare with optimism, reminding ourselves of a change that’s coming, as the days will be getting longer after Christmas. But our preparations, the ones that are really needed, have nothing to do with us creating a home that could be featured in Southern Living. We need to prepare our souls…

Preparation by self-examination

The preparation for Christ’s coming, whether it was his first coming, his second coming at the end of history, or just preparing to celebrate Christmas, must involve self-examinations. Are our paths straight? Are their bumps on the roads of our lives? Are their mountains that we face or valleys we must cross? 

John wants us to do is to examine ourselves so that we might see what keeps us from being in full communion with God. John’s role, by being out in the wilderness, draws our attention away from the busyness of life and refocuses us on what’s important.[6] What crooked ways do we need to straighten, what obstacles do we need to remove?

Now obviously, by ourselves, we can’t move mountains. But God can. If there’s something like a metaphorical mountain blocking us from God, we need to confess and call out for help. We do this trusting God will hear our cries and respond with compassion. 

We need to enter the wilderness

This Advent season, take some time to go into the wilderness, at least metaphorically. Explore the rough places in your lives and see what might need to be done to make room for the coming of God, the coming of a Savior. Are there dark places in your heart which needs to be brought to light and confessed to God in repentance? Are their obstacles that keep you from accepting the gentle loving ways of Christ that need to be removed so that you can be filled with joy? 

Baptism is the symbol of our sins being washed away in Christ. Do you need to be baptized? Or maybe, we all need to rededicate ourselves to the baptism we experienced years ago.

An evening ritual

You know, before falling asleep at night, I try to think of the things for which I’m thankful and include them in my prayers. But there is another side to prayer. Before falling asleep at night, take time to examine your life using Jesus as an example and confess those sins that you realize you’ve committed. And, in in the spirit of the season, if you find you have wronged someone, make a point the next day to apologize. And finally, repent too of those sins you may not uncover and need God’s help in weeding out from your heart. If we truly open ourselves up to Christ, there will be things we may be surprised of our need for repentance. 


Prepare, for not only has Christ come, but he is also coming again. Are we ready to meet him? Amen.

[1] Luke 2:1-2.

[2] Fred B. Craddock, Luke: Interpretation, A Bible-Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: JKP, 1990), 47.

[3] “To You Is the Song: The 2015 Advent Devotional” published by The Fellowship Community (Louisville, KY), 12.

[4] Scott Hoezee, “Remembering the Future,” Reformed Worship Vo. 57 (September 2000), 7.  

[5] See Matthew 19:30, 20:8, 20:16; Mark 9:35, 10:31; Luke 13:30. 

[6] Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 137.

Sunrise in the woods on December 3, 2021

Meadows of Dan Christmas Parade

Floyd High School Band

Small communities tend to do the best with Christmas parades, and the Meadows of Dan Christmas parade was no exception. The line was long and involved so many people that you would think there wouldn’t be anyone watching. But the street was filled with folks, especially kids with bags as the parade is like Mardi Gras, with people throwing candy (I didn’t see any beads). 

Roger pulls the float into town for the parade
Richard not only helped built the float, he was also the Parade Marshall

Cedar City UT Christmas Parade 1996 (some of those kids now have children as old as they were then)

This year, the good folks at Mayberry Presbyterian Church decided to create a church float. This was a community effort, which I suggested based on something we’d done when I was a pastor in Utah. Shep purchased the 2x4s, most of which he and Richard split into 2x2s. Fred loaned us the trailer. A frame was built with the help of Joey, Mike and Linda, Richard, and Henri. Then Richard and I ran down to a place near Martinsburg, where we were able to obtain the MDF board at $7 a sheet. These we brought back and cut out the windows and doors. A team the consisted of Mike and Linda , Angie and Shep, Richard and Ann painted the rocks and the roof to match the church. Sharon fed us with hot dogs from Jane’s Country Cafe. 

The frame on Fred’s trailer

Painting rocks
Panels drying (notice the real church in the background)

After the panels were try, we screwed the walls and roof to the frame. We taped plastic over the windows, put up a tree inside the church, and taped battery-operated candles onto the windows. 

Steeple Jacks Mona and Norris in front of the float after the parade

At the same time, Norris and Mona were constructing the steeple. If he gets tired of being a financial planner, Norris could have a career as a steeple jack!  We installed the steeple while waiting for the parade to begin, feeling it might be a bit dangerous to drive it the 3 ½ miles to where the parade lined up. We were not sure if the steeple (held on with a few screws) could survived a 45 mile an hour wind.  

For the parade, Roger drove Mike N’s truck, pulling the float. In front of the church, sitting on hay bales, were Mary and Joseph with baby Jesus laying the manger.  Madison and Kegon Played Mary and Joseph with Jesus being played by a Mattel doll. Standing in the seat of the truck, head poked out of the sunroof, was Happy. Dressed as an angel, she harked the coming of the season. She also threw out candy canes with information about our Christmas Eve services and one of the many “legends” of

the candy cane on the back.

Lining up for the parade

The parade was probably two miles long (for a business district that is about two blocks long). Not to be overly proud, but we took first-place. Thanks everyone for your hard work!  (I hope I didn’t forget anyone). 

This year’s Christmas Eve services for the Rock Churches: Bluemont at 4 PM and Mayberry at 6 PM.  There will also be a Christmas Eve program available on our YouTube Channel after 5 PM. If you’re not in our area, please check out the program! Also, if you like it, please like, and subscribe to our YouTube channel.    

Santa waiting to bring up the rear