Christmas Eve 2023

Candle in window with Christmas Tree reflection

 Jeff Garrison
Mayberry Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve 2023
Titus 2:11-15

Is your Christmas tree surrounded with gifts? This is, after all, the season of giving. You know, Christmas is the driving force behind the retail section of our economy—we’ve come a long way since that first Christmas when Joseph and Mary, a poor man, and his pregnant bride, had to take whatever shelter they could find.  

Most of us enjoy giving and receiving gifts. I especially like giving a gift so special that, when opened, the eyes of the receiver sparkle. Some of us, who still have a child’s heart, also enjoy receiving gifts. There’s nothing more exciting than carefully opening the wrapping paper. This tradition came from my mom—”open the paper carefully so that we can reuse it.” It makes sense to those of us of Scottish heritage. You know what I’m talking about.  

But when we just about have the present open, carefully pulling at the tape so as not to tear the paper, we catch a glimpse of something special, something we’ve always wanted but never felt quite right about buying for ourselves. At this point, frugality is thrown to the wind. We rip the remaining paper off and hold the present up high for all to see, then clutch the gift close our chest, chanting thanks: thank you, thank you.  

You know, you’ve received a special gift when its one you can’t repay by giving another gift, and when such efforts are not only not required, but are unnecessary and counter productive.  These are the types of gifts parents give their children. A child with halfway decent parents will never be able to repay the parents for all the gifts lavished upon the child. And if you think about it, most of these types of gifts are intangible, you can’t put a price upon them. But they’re the type of gifts you don’t easily forget.  

Thinking back to gifts from my father, a few stand out. When I was probably five years old, my dad made a table and a set of chairs for my brother, sister, and me. From what I remember, the table was plywood covered with linoleum. The sides of the plywood were sealed with a metal strip, and it had metal legs. 

That table vanished long ago. But the wooden chairs, live on. My parents kept them and used them for grandchildren, and then my brother got them for his grandchildren. They’ll probably be around for several more generations. 

If Dad had gone out and purchased plastic chairs, I don’t think I’d remember… And those chairs and table would now, and for the next several thousand years, take up space in a landfill. 

On another occasion, my dad made my brother and me wooden guns. All the other kids had received store-brought guns that year. One afternoon, a few days after Christmas, dad got a couple pieces of wood and drew out a gun on it, which he cut out into a rough shape with a jigsaw. Then he had us help him carve and sand and file the edges. We stained wood—so that by the time we finished, the pair of guns looked real. 

We were living in the Walnut Hill neighborhood of Petersburg at the time, fighting the Civil War all over again. The next time we played army, my brother and I toted those guns proudly. The other kids were envious. Our guns were not only more durable than the plastic and metal store varieties they received, but they were also even more special. This didn’t come from their dollar value, but because my father had put some of himself into making them. I don’t know what happened to those make-believe guns, but they live in my memory.

Maybe we should reconsider the adage, “it is better to give than to receive.” I no longer know for sure it’s true, for there are some gifts we can only receive and when we graciously accept them, they change our lives. Such is the greatest gift of all, God’s gift to the world, a Savior.

In our Scripture reading from the short letter to Titus, Paul provides the theological foundation for the ethical advice he’s been giving Titus. If you read back over this chapter, you’ll see that Paul has instructed Titus on how Christians should conduct themselves. Now he gives reasons for such behavior. Paul’s advice flows these ways. 

Paul looks back to the manifestation of God’s grace. Perhaps Paul has in mind here Jesus’ humble birth, a wonderful display of God’s love. 

But Paul could also be thinking about the way God offered himself for our sins in a death by crucifixion. God has been exceptionally good to us in the past—which is why we should strive to live noble lives in the present.   

And finally, because God has been good to us in the past, we have hope that God’s goodness will continue to be poured out upon us in the future. Our hope is for Jesus to return to receive those whom he ransomed from sin. God’s great gift of a Savior is a life-changing gift! We must learn how to gracious accept such grace.

I don’t know about your house, but I know ours will be rather quiet tomorrow. But homes with young children will be crazy, with kids up before daylight. After all, they’ve been anticipating the holiday for months. Children on Christmas have enough energy to light up the house without electricity. 

Whether your home is quiet or raucous, take enough time to clear your mind, to remove thoughts from the boxes around the tree, and to forget about making the perfect dinner. Think about the greatest gift ever offered. And if you’ve not received this gift, spend a few moments in prayer, opening your heart to God and thanking him for coming to our world to save sinners.  

Jesus Christ came to save. That’s the message of Christmas. That’s the message of our faith. Jesus Christ came to save sinners, to save you and me. It’s a life—changing gift if there ever was one.  Amen.  

Mayberry Church preparing for Candlelight service
Photo by Beth Almond Ford, taken before the beginning of the candlelight service
Lighting of candles during Christmas Eve Worship
Photo by Beth Almond Ford taken during the Candlelight service


Title slide with a photo of a Christmas tree reflecting in a window

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont Church
Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 24, 2023
Luke 1:26-45[1]

Sermon for December 24, 2023 at Bluemont Church.
Tonight there will be a candlelight service at Mayberry Church at 6 PM.

Our wait is almost over. It seems as if we should have another week before Christmas. After all, today is the 4th Sunday of Advent and tonight, we celebrate Christmas Eve with a candlelight service at Mayberry Church, celebrating the birth of our Savior. This year, the calendar tricks us!

Of course, our wait for Jesus’ return continues. I hope our celebrating Jesus’ first coming will be more than opening gifts. Not only should we give thanks for his birth, but with the excitement of a child looking for Santa’s sleigh in the night sky, we should long for his return. 

God’s timing is different than ours. Sometimes the wait is for generations and centuries. But God is good and faithful; his promises are fulfilled. We might think we waste time waiting. But during periods of waiting, God transforms his people. Being patient is a godly trait that we all need to work on. 

Today, we will be looking at two women, one old and the other young, both expecting their first child. Expectations filled their nine-month wait. Read Luke 1:26-45.


There was once a spoiled and rotten child… As Christmas approached, he produced a letter to Santa with a wish list that rivaled a Russian novel. And he expected to receive it all. “Christmas is not the season of entitlement,” his mother said in a scolding tone.[2] His parents, knowing they needed to nip his attitude in the bud, forced him to sit in front of the Nativity scene in the living room and contemplate the meaning of Christmas. Then he was to write a letter wishing Jesus a happy birthday. 

The boy stared intently at the manger, but he couldn’t get it out of his head that Christmas wasn’t just about him receiving gifts. He began to compose a letter. “Dear Jesus,” he wrote, “If you bring me all that I want, I’ll be good for the year.”  Then he thought about how hard that’d be. He tore up the letter and tossed it in the waste basket. 

He started over. “Dear Jesus, if you bring me all that I want, I’ll be good for a month. Again, the thought about how hard that would be, to be good for a month, for 30 days. He crumbled the letter and dropped it in the waste basket. 

He started again. “Dear Jesus, if you bring me all that I want, I’ll be good for a week.” Thinking further, he realized how futile such an effort would be. He tossed that letter into his rapid filling waste basket and resumed his contemplation of the Nativity.

Suddenly he spotted the figure of Mary, in the back, behind the manger, a beautiful young woman wrapped in a light blue shawl, her face shining as she gazed upon her newborn son. He snatched Mary out the Nativity, wrapped her in some tissue paper and hid her in the bottom drawer in his dresser. Then he went back to writing his letter. “Dear Jesus, if you ever want to see your mom again…”

The first time I ever told this joke, it was at a Christmas service I preached at in a local prison. I never heard a crowd laugh so much. Perhaps they identified with the boy. But they also know something about waiting, and that’s the theme from this passage I want us to explore this morning. 

Parents, especially mothers know about waiting… Those nine months can be hectic as you learn about breathing techniques during delivery and how to care for a newborn. And then there is the necessity of preparing for a nursery—most of us are beyond repurposing a manger for a crib. Waiting means there’s anticipation and hope. You pray for your soon to be born child with the hope they won’t grow up to be the terror like the little boy in my opening story. But even if that happens, we’ll still look back on earlier innocent moments with a smile.         

I can’t imagine what must have gone through Mary’s mind as she is visited by Gabriel. Engaged to Joseph, she carries a special child. But she’s told to have no fear (easier for the angel to say than for Mary to do). Gabriel explains about how the child was conceived and his purpose in life. 

Gabriel also has another message, one about her relative, Elizabeth. After years of trying to conceive a child, she’d given up hope. Now that she’s old, she finds herself pregnant. It seems impossible, but Gabriel reminds Mary that nothing is impossible for God.

Mary heads down into the Judean hill country to visit Elizabeth. It used to be that way; a young woman not yet married, yet pregnant, goes to live with an aunt or a grandmother. With Zechariah struck silent for his disbelief,[3] the two women talked incessantly about their expectant babies. We’re told that when they greeted each other, Elizabeth’s child, who will become John the Baptist, jumps in her womb. The premature boys in the womb recognize each other. 

There is much excitement, for they understand God is doing something new. But they must wait. They must wait till their children are born, and then they must wait till they are grown. Jesus, we learn, doesn’t start his ministry till he’s thirty.[4] And poor John’s parents. I’m sure they hoped their son would lead worship in a fine synagogue in a respectable city. If they lived long enough, they got to see him preach knee deep in the muddy Jordan.[5] God works in mysterious and strange ways.

In a devotion based on this text, the late Henri Nouwen wrote: 

 I find the meeting of these two women very moving, because Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait.  Mary’s visit made Elizabeth aware of what she was waiting for. The child leaped in joy in her. Mary affirmed Elizabeth’s waiting…. These two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for.”[6]

I like the idea of the two of them creating space for the other to wait. Our world encourages us to rush in and fix things right away. We don’t value waiting. We need to create space for us and for others to wait, trusting that God works within us as we wait. 

It is healthy for us to accept and understand that there are things in life we can’t control. We can’t control when God wants to act. Mary and Elizabeth, in our passage today, had no control over what was happening. 

If it had been in Elizabeth’s control, I’m sure that she’d given birth to John when she and Zechariah were young enough that their backs didn’t ache from picking up the boy. And Mary, I’m sure, imagined waiting on kids until she and Joseph married and had time for each other. Maybe taken a cruise or purchased a house. The idea of honeymooning in Egypt with a newborn, as a refugee on the run from the authorities, wasn’t any more romantic then than it would be today.  

Let me talk a bit about the church and waiting. I admit, I’m often frustrated at the pace the church moves.  It was worse when I was younger. Early in my ministry, I started comparing my attempts at changing the course of a church to that of a Captain of a battleship steering with a canoe paddle. Change comes slowly. Some people get upset with that (while others don’t want change at all). 

Looking at scripture, we seechange takes time. We should be more patient. God seems to wait till the timing is right, and only then does the speed of change accelerates. At the time of our text, God had been quiet for centuries. There had been no prophets in Israel. And then, suddenly, God acts. And the world changes forever. 

We might often wonder what God is up to. But we should remember that God’s will has a “what and when” component.[7]We can want things to go faster, but we must remember that its best if we go with God’s timing. Otherwise, we might make a mess of things.

The two women in our passage today, one who may have only been barely more than a child and the other who was up in years, remind us that whatever our age (or whatever our level of spiritual maturity may be) when we open to God, the Almighty can use us to do incredible things. We just must be open to the Lord and to wait on his timing. 

We live in a world where we expect instant gratification. But when it comes to our faith, such expectations may be unrealistic and even harmful. Having faith means we’re in God’s hands and open to his timing. We don’t know when Jesus will return, but we should anticipate it and be ready. In the meantime, like Mary and Elizabeth, we support one another.  Amen. 

[1] I preached a different version of this sermon on December 15, 2011 in Hastings, Michigan.

[2] My Adult Ministry coordinator, MaryMartha Melendy, when I served First Presbyterian Church in Hastings, Michigan, used this phrase.

[3] Luke 1:20

[4] Luke 3:23

[5] Matthew 3; Mark 1:1-9; Luke 3:1-21; John 3:22-24. John’s preaching included both the Jordan River and that that region.

[6] Henri Nouwen  “Waiting for God” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), 35.

[7] Larry Osborne, Sticky Teams (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 179.

A Christmas tree reflecting in a window

Christmas Letter 2023

Title "Christmas 2023, with photos of Bluemont Church in Snow, Laurel Fork Road in snow, and looking inside at night on the Christmas tree at Mayberry Church

I used to always send out Christmas letters, but I stopped doing this around 15 years ago. It got old and most people kept up with me on Facebook. Besides, I live with some private people and there’s only so much I can say about the dogs in the house. So, after a long dry spell, here’s my attempt at this genre again as I focus on myself… 

Christmas is just a few days away. While we have had snow already, it doesn’t appear we’ll have a white Christmas here along the Blue Ridge. But only time will tell. After all, this is the season of miracles. And our world could use a few miracles these days, and there are greater needs than a few snowflakes. For the holiday in which we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, this year has been one of war. From Ukraine to the Middle East, along with various spots in Africa, Asia, and South America, we hear of wars and rumors of wars. Pray for peace. We could all use a little. 

It’s cliché to speak about how fast a year has flown by, but it seems that 2023 has been faster than normal. Wasn’t it just a few months ago when I entered the year with COVID. 2022 was a Christmas to forget. I came down with COVID two days before Christmas. Thankfully, I recorded the sermon for Christmas Eve, allowing me to still appear on a big screen TV placed in the sanctuary on a super cold night. COVID kept its grip on me well into January. On the positive side, I got a lot of reading done.  After everyone else in the household came down with it, I moved out of quarantine in my basement office. While thankful for technology, I hope never again to open Christmas presents by FaceTime. 

Early November, looking toward the Buffalo. We will have an incredible view from the back dome

2023 was finally the year we contracted with a builder for planned addition to our house. It was scheduled to begin in May and to be done by August. Because of rain, it didn’t begin until well into June. They pushed finish date back to November. I thought we’d be done in time for a Christmas open house. No such luck. As of today, we’re still missing one of the large, specially made, windows, which didn’t make it with the others. Nor have they started the work on the deck on the back. Hopefully it’ll be done by the spring, and we can have everyone over to enjoy our view of the Buffalo. I’m not holding my breath. 

Of course, the delays cut into travel plans. I still have two weeks of vacation remaining; the other two I spent working on the house. But I like to be here when work happens. Now if we can just get folks to work more than a day every other week. Of course, these are minor first world problems when compared to the rest of the world. On the positive side, I have logged many miles walking the backroads around Carroll County. 

I got away for a Theology Matter’s Conference in Hilton Head in March of this year. As always, the speakers were excellent. Afterwards, I spent some time sailing at Skidaway before heading up to Wilmington to see my father and caught up with a couple of friends from high school

Highland Ave, Pittsburgh PA
In front of the seminary, looking toward East Liberty Presbyterian Church

In July, my Foundation for Reformed Theology seminar group meet in Pittsburgh. I stayed at the seminary. This was my first time being there in over 30 years and I made the most by going up a few days early. I got to see several classmates from seminary.

Lea Austin and Lee Dwyer and I went to a ballgame. The Pirates lost. Afterwards, we meet Walt Pietschmann for dinner. I had a wonderful lunch at a continuing care facility north of the city, thanks to Jean Henderson. She was the director of Field Education and Placement when I was in seminary. She arranged a lunch for me with her and two other residents of the facility, (Charles Partee and Don Gowan). Charles was a history professor. He confessed at lunch his fear he’d be discovered as a fraud, for he considered himself a philosopher. It was good to see Charles again, as he’s the one professor I’ve kept up with over the years.  Gowan was an Old Testament professor. I also had lunch with Steve Crocro, and Mary Witul. It was good to see old friends. 

PNC Park, Pittsburgh, PA
PNC Park in Pittsburgh

I caught a second ball game with my theology group along with another friend, Cody Watson, who happened to be in the area for the New Wilmington Missionary Conference. The Pirates lost. They started the season so hot, but after they slipped under .500, they were never able to pull themselves back into a winning season. This letter sounds depressing, doesn’t it. 

I think the left is a Dester II and the right a Japanese Climbing cucumber.

On a more positive note, my garden produced well this summer. I had a bumper crop of cucumbers (28 quarts of lime pickles, 5 quarts of dill pickles). My tomatoes produced well. In addition to eating daily tomato sandwiches from late July to late September, I canned 18 quarts of tomato soup and froze another 20-some pints of tomato sauce. I’ll also be enjoying winter squash until spring and have a couple of nice Amish pie pumpkins to hold me over.  I even had a few messes of okra, which doesn’t like the coolness of the mountain climate.

I have also enjoyed many good books this year. In fiction, the best book was Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Demon Copperhead. This should be required reading for anyone living in these parts. The setting for the story is in far western part of Virginia, but she addresses problems that plague rural America. In the non-fiction category, I’d have to nominate Wendell Berry’s, The Need to be WholeThe book sums up much of his mission in life as he addresses issues with the land and race in American. Berry draws heavily on Scripture and does a wonder exposition on the Ten Commandments. Another good book, for the fun of it, is Bill Bryson’s One Summer, America 1927. Bryson captures a more innocent world that existed a century ago, and as is his trademark, he finds humor everywhere.

We got away for a short trip to Bluefield, West Virginia for the HopeWords Writer’s Conference. This is an incredible conference and it’s the second time Donna and I have attended. Sadly, I’ll probably miss it in 2024 as it conflicts with the “Faith and Writing Conference” at Calvin College.  

I am blessed to serve two Rock Churches along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a dream of mine to go back to a small church toward the end of my ministry and these churches have been a blessing. I enjoy preaching and visiting with people without the administrative headaches, and look forward to a few more good years before retirement (and writing my memoirs).

Sadly, however, 2023 became a year of deaths. At 66, I’m at the age where those who are a decade or two ahead of me are coming to the end of their lives. But there were also several deaths of friends who were my age and even younger. We need to enjoy and make the most of the time we’re given. 

May 2024 be a year of blessings. Our world could use some good news. We celebrate the birth of our Savior at the darkest time of the year (for those of us in the northern hemisphere). As the gospel of John reminds us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”  Let’s believe in miracles!

Merry Christmas,

A Voice Crying Out in the Wilderness

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
December 17, 2023
John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, December 15, 2023

After the lighting of the Advent candle:

Why did Jesus come? I hope you ponder this question during the season of Advent. In this season of darkness,  we recall Jesus’ coming and long for his return. 

Athanasius, one of the early Church theologians, in his classic book, On The Incarnation,[1] provides us with reasons God became a human being in the life of Jesus. These are all things of which only God can do. 

First, Jesus forgives our sins. We can’t do that! 

He completes the work of creation by helping to restore within us the image of God. Once that image is tainted, we can’t do anything about it. But God can. 

And finally, Jesus reveals the heart of God the Father. God is God, we’re not. Without the revelation brought to us by Jesus, we would not know of God’s goodness. All these things are beyond our abilities. We must depend upon God who came to us in Jesus Christ. 

Before the reading of the scripture:

John’s gospel is unique from the very beginning. The Prologue, the title given to the first 18 verses of John, provides a view of a dark world. And then comes light, the light of Christ. This section “oscillates” between a metaphorical introduction to Jesus and the preparation made by “an apocalyptic prophet, John.[2]

But John the Baptist’s presentation differs from what we find in the other gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all refer to a John Brown type of character, who points his fingers at the people’s sins, says harsh things, wears weird clothing, and lives on a strange diet.[3]We don’t see this side of John the Baptist in John’s gospel. In some ways, the Baptizer in John’s gospel is boring. But there’s a reason for this. I hope you think about this, for it applies to how follow Jesus. 

Preaching about John the Baptist from John the gospel is difficult. I’ll do my best to differentiate between the two Johns, for they are different people. Sometimes, to keep them straight, I’ll refer to John the Baptist as the Baptizer and John the author as the gospel writer. 

Read John 1:6-8, 19-28

When you go out for a night to a concert or comedy club, you are there to see the main act. That’s the draw. But before the main act come on stage, generally another band or comedian warms up the crowd. The only people who are there to see the warmup act are parents and friends of the performers. 

These the warmup bands are usually up and coming musicians or comedians. It’s how most start out in the entertainment business. The warmup acts begin, then comes the feature act, the one we pay to see. The warmup act is a hard position because you are trying to make a name for yourself. But it would be in bad form to outshine the main act.

In a way, John the Baptist role warms up the setting for Jesus. But John knew his position. He wasn’t trying to make a name for himself. Instead, he knew his goal was to point to Jesus, the Messiah, who we get the sense is already on the scene, hiding in the crowds. 

John and Jesus are contemporaries. From Luke’s gospel, we learn John was only a little older than his cousin, Jesus.[4] John just starts his career earlier. His role was to prepare people for Jesus’ arrival. 

In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we learn more about how John went about preparing people. He called them to repentance. He was harsh on those who abused their power, calling the people a brood of vipers. Shaken, they asked what they should do. John encouraged them to bear fruit worthy of repentance such as giving to those in need and being honest in their dealings.[5]

Furthermore, John the Baptist attacked those in power. The Pharisees and Sadducees received his wrath.[6] He also attacked Herod, the ruler, for his evil which included luring away his brother’s wife. The later accusation landed John in prison and eventually to his execution, where his head was displayed on a platter.[7]

And of course, John was known for his eccentric dress (camel hair and leather) and unusual diet (bugs and honey).[8]

But in today’s reading, John the gospel writer doesn’t provide such exciting details. We ponder the reason why John presents a more domestic Baptizer. I think John left out those details because he wants us to focus, as did the Baptizer, not on John’s work, but on the one coming. After all, the gospels are not about John the Baptist. It’s about Jesus. Yes, the Baptizer plays an important role in announcing Jesus’ coming. However, ultimately, it’s not a story about him but about the one to come.

This is also true in our lives. We are not to draw people to ourselves. Such is the behavior of a cult, not the church. It might be the great sin committed by preachers in that we try to get people to like us. But our role is to point others to Jesus, not to tiptoe around issues so that others will like us. At best, we’re servants of Jesus, but like John, we’re not even worthy of that role. 

Later, in John’s gospel, after Jesus was well known, a group of Greeks in Jerusalem (perhaps they were tourists who heard about Jesus) approach Philip, one of the disciples. “Sir,” they say, “we wish to see Jesus.”[9] Again, this is the purpose of John’s gospel, to show Jesus. 

That verse, “We wish to see Jesus,” is often found in pulpits such as the one from which I preached on Skidaway Island. Those in the congregation couldn’t see it, but if you stood in the pulpit, you couldn’t miss it. The sign reminded the one preaching that our purpose is to introduce and help people see Jesus. 

By leaving off the interesting tidbits of John the Baptist’s life, John the gospel writer tells us just enough about him to keep the focus on Jesus. 

So, what do we learn about John the Baptist in this text? We’re told that John was sent from God to point the way to Jesus. Then, John himself denies that he is the Messiah, when confronted by the Jewish leaders sent to check him out. Instead, he is the one fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, the one preparing the way of the Lord. 

And finally, as John the Baptist deemphasized himself and acknowledged he’s not even worthy of being a slave to Jesus. At this time, in royal households and the very rich (think about the one percenters of the first century), slaves who did the most menial tasks for their masters. This included tying and untying sandal straps. But John says he’s not even worthy of such a task. 

Of course, none of us are worthy. But because of Jesus’ grace, we are invited into his family and called to do his work in the world.

The baptizer introduced to us by John is humble. He has one task, to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. He fulfills this task as he baptizes people in anticipation of Jesus. 

This Advent Season, we should be like John the Baptist as he’s portrayed by John. We don’t have to eat locust or wear camel clothing (although I happen to like camel hair sports coats during the winter). But John’s camel clothing wasn’t a fashion statement. 

Instead, like John, we should humbly let others know, by our examples and lifestyle, the important role Jesus plays in the hope we have for the future. This message needs to be heard in the dark world in which we live, a world where wars rage, the poor starve, and those without medical care suffer. Do what you can to help others as you praise Jesus’ name and so prepare the world for his return. 

This week, one of the easiest things to do is invite family and friends to our Christmas Eve service, where it’s all about Jesus, born in a manger. And yet, this humble Jesus, also rules the universe.

To Jesus Christ, who loves us
and freed us from our sins by his blood 
and made us to be a kingdom, 
priests of his God and Father, 
to him be glory and dominion forever.[10] Amen. 

[1] Saint Athanasius (c.297-337, AD), On the Incarnation (Public domain texted formatted and printed by Cliff Lee, 2007). 

[2] Gerald Sloyan, John, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 13. 

[3] See Matthew 3:1-12, Mark 1:1-8, and Luke 3:1-18. 

[4] Upon learning of her pregnancy, Mary goes to Elizabeth’s home. Elizabeth six months pregnant with John. See Luke 1:36-45. 

[5] Luke 3:7-14

[6] Matthew 3:7.

[7] Luke 3:19. See also Matthew 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-42. 

[8] Matthew 3:4-6 and Mark 1:6.

[9] John 12:20-21. See also

[10]From Revelation 1:5-6

bird on a Christmas tree
from my Christmas Tree

Doubly Late on the Silver Meteor

This past week, I was on vacation, which is why there was no sermon on Sunday. I reworked this story for posting here. You may have read a lot of my train stories, from all over the world, but this was my first overnight long distance trip. I made the trip in December 1986. I can’t find photos of this trip, which was long before digital photography became available.

picture of me in front of a steel mill
That’s me, 1989, in front of the old Homestead Steel Works, outside of Pittsburgh

Suddenly, everything slid forward. Brakes squealed. To keep upright, I grabbed the overhead luggage rack and held on tight. There was a bang, then a clicking sound ran outside of the car, for the length of the train. We stopped. 

The conductor had been walking down the aisle toward me. He, too, grabbed the overhead bar to keep from falling. His face immediately changed, displaying concern. From his expression, I knew whatever had happened wasn’t normal. As soon as we stopped, he started speaking into his radio as he turned around and headed toward the front of the train. Still not sure what had happened, I looked outside. Shingles, boards, and bits of insulation littered both sides of the tracks.

After about five minutes, the conductor came over the intercom. He informed us we’d just hit a house and were indefinitely delayed. I headed back to the lounge car, where I ran into Marylin. We headed to back of the train. In the fading light, from the back window, we could see two halves of a house sitting beside the tracks. I joked that Abe Lincoln had nothing on me: “I, too, have seen a house divided.” 

We were 30 or 45 minutes from West Palm Beach, riding through orange groves south of Sebring, Florida, when the accident happened. I had just left my new friend, Marylin, a grad student studying genetics at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown. We had seen each other in Pittsburgh when we both boarded the train but didn’t get to know each other until waiting to board our second train in Washington. I was heading to West Palm Beach to meet up with my sister while she was going home for the holiday break in Miami. 

A friend had dropped me off at the Pittsburgh train station in the predawn hours the day before. In contrast to warm and sunny Florida, it was a dreary December day in the Steel City. But that wasn’t unusual, almost all winter days in Pittsburgh are dreary. My train, the Capitol Limited which runs from Chicago to Washington, was late. I sat on my luggage reading and napping as my stomach gnawed. I had planned to eat breakfast on the train and there was no place in station to get anything to eat. 

The train finally arrived just as it was getting light. After finding a seat and having my ticket punched, I headed to the dining car for a French toast breakfast. The train ran along the Monongahela River, past the old J&L and Homestead Steel Mills. A few mills were still running and from the window I saw the glow of the furnaces. At McKeesport, the tracks followed the Youghiogheny, a river I’d never paddled, but knew of its reputation from my kayaking days. The rain and fog made everything seem sad. 

Along the way, the train kept having to stop. Late that morning, talking to the conductor in the lounge, I learned that one of the baggage cars had a hot wheel that kept overheating. Every time we stopped, we lost another half hour or so. I worried if I would miss my connection south. We were several hours late arriving in Cumberland, Maryland, where the tracks began to follow the Potomac River toward D.C. In Harper’s Ferry, they uncoupled the train and placed the trouble car off on a siding. It was too late. We’d arrive in Washington after my train to Florida was scheduled to depart.

There are two trains daily that make the run from New York to Miami. The first, the Silver Star, was my train. Luckily, there was room on the second train, the Silver Meteor. It runs a couple hours behind the first train. I called my sister and let her know that I’d be on the later train. She wasn’t home, but I left a message. I ate dinner in the crowded station (the Washington station was in the process of being rebuilt) as I passed the hours reading. 

It was night by the time we boarded. After a beer in the lounge car, I headed off to sleep, enjoying the rocking of the southbound train rolling through Virginia and the Carolinas. The long day of waiting on top of a long semester in school had taken its toll. I was tired.

I woke to the sun rising in a clear sky. We ran though forests of pines and wire grass, paralleling Interstate 95. The flat land was strangely familiar. I’d grown up in such country. The weather was also warmer. I changed from my jeans to shorts and a tee-shirt and found my flip flops, before heading to the lounge car for coffee.

We got into Savannah around mid-morning. I got off the train and stretch my legs as it made a 15-minute stop. I’d learned that during the night, we’d lost several hours of time. I again tried to call my sister. I left her another message, telling her to be sure to call Amtrak before driving to West Palm to pick me up.  Sometime after Savannah, I met up again with Marylin, the grad student from West Virginia. We spent much of the day in the lounge car talking with each other and to other students. We also spent time napping in her roomette. The two of us made an interesting couple. I’d just finished my first semester of seminary and she was Jewish but considered herself an atheist. It was her company that I had just left when I headed back to pack up by stuff when the accident occurred. 

Sadly, with the train running so late, they ran out of food. The dining car didn’t have enough grub to open for dinner and what few sandwiches were available in the lounge car were quickly snatched up. They tried to make it up for people by offering a free drink, but they quickly ran out. We waited. The operating crew had to be replaced. Railroad rules: if you’re in an accident, a drug test was required. Seeing a house in the middle of the tracks almost sounds like someone was on drugs, but this was too real. Also, a safety crew had to inspect the train before they could move again. We sat in the dark in the middle of an orange grove. 

Rumors spread. They may have been true, but we had no way to know. This was long before smart phones. One had to do with the fact that we had two engines pulling the train as they were trying to make up time. Normally, when the southbound trains arrived in Orlando, they split the train. One group goes to Tampa, the other to Miami. Both trains are pulled by a single engine. Having two engines worked in our favor, as the first we learned had been badly damaged by the metal I-beams which supported the house. We were told by the new crew that luck kept the train from jumping the track, which would have made the collusion much worse. After the inspectors checked out, they were able to back us up on the second engine and reroute us on a different track.

The other tale had to do with the house. The tracks were built up and the semi pulled the house up on the tracks, but it bottomed out. Knowing they were in a pickle; they disconnected the semi from the house instead of walking around the curve and placing flares to warn the train and perhaps give the train enough time to stop. 

After about five hours of waiting and grumbling, we finally resumed our journey. When I debarked in West Palm Beach, there was my sister. She was nearly as exhausted as me.

Had I been on the Silver Star, the train I was supposed to be on, I would have arrived early that morning in West Palm. She had worked that night in the hospital and then, since she was closer to West Palm, was to pick me up. She waited and never saw me get off the train. When she asked, they told her that all passengers coming from the West had been rebooked on the Silver Meteor. They suggested that before she return to the station, she should call to make sure of the time as the train was already running several hours late. She did, but since she lived almost an hour from West Palm, in Stewart, she left home about the time of the accident. While I waited on the train, she waited in the station.

It was after midnight when we got to her home. The next day, she had planned to take me to Epcot for my Christmas present. So, we got up early to make the drive to Orlando. We had a great time, but we were both exhausted. 

Other train travel stories:
Trains and Karl Barth (train ride from Danville, VA to Atlanta, GA)
Heading to Iona (Edinburgh to Oban)
Ride of a lifetime (in the cab of the V&T in Nevada)
From Bangkok to Seim Reap
Riding the International (Butterworth, Malaysia to Bangkok, Thailand
Malaysia’s Jungle Train (Singapore to Kota Bharu
Southwest Chief (Flagstaff, AZ to Kalamazoo, MI)
City of New Orleans (Battle Creek, MI to New Orleans, LA)
Morning train to Seoul (Masan to Seoul)

Waiting with hope

title slide with tree in fog

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
Mark 13:24-37
December 3, 2023

After the Advent Candle Lighting
We live in such a wonderful age where solutions to our problems appear regularly. Just this week, I learned Doritos, that’s right, the corn chip company, has unveiled an app for our phones and computers. Miraculously, it silences the sound of Doritos crunching in your mouth.[1]

When you’re on the phone or in meeting over the internet, you can stuff your mouth and crunch away. Imagine taking an online class, you can eat without disturbing anyone. Or if you have a phone call during an NFL game, you can continue snacking as you mumble as if you’re listening and not watching the game. Don’t we live in an incredible age? 

Perhaps because I’m old fashion enough to prefer potato chips to Doritos, I found myself asking why we need to eat when in virtual meetings. I mean, who takes corn chips into a staff meeting or a classroom. 

Science takes care of many problems but continues to struggle with the ones which really matter. Cancer hasn’t been eradicated, pollution causes premature deaths, plastics fills our oceans, and nuclear war remains a possibility. We need to do what we can to make this world a better place. Biblically, while we are called to work to better the world, we also are reminded that Christ will return.[2] Advent is not just recalling those waiting for Christ’s first visit, it’s about anticipating his return. 

Before the Scripture Reading
Today, we explore the end of the 13th Chapter of Mark’s gospel. This chapter takes on an apocalyptic flavor. We’re jumping into the middle of Jesus’ teachings. The stage was set earlier. Admiring the temple, Jesus foretells of its destruction. Then, when a group of disciples corner Jesus, they ask when it will take place.[3]Jesus talks about tribulations. But it’s not all doom, for he ends discussing his return. Of course, he doesn’t provide a clear understanding as to when this will happen, only that we are called to be ready.[4]

Advent is a season of waiting not just for Christmas, but for the hope we have in Christ’s return. 

Read Mark 13:24-37.

Keep awake…  That used to be so hard when I was a kid. Sermons were the worse. My eyes became heavy and slowly gravity won. But school could be just as hard, especially in a warm classroom before air conditioning. 

Keeping awake was difficult, except for on Christmas Eve, when you were told to go to sleep. You expected to awake to something magical. With so much anticipation, sleep was allusive. I’d roll and roll and when my parents looked in, pretend to be asleep. The clocked ticked away.  

Keep awake, you don’t know when this is all going to happen and when the Son of Man might appear. It’s been almost 2000 years since Christ left. We’re weary of waiting. It’s not something we’re good at doing. We fret when waiting in the doctor’s office. We stew when stopped for the construction along Highway 58. We brood if a waitress or waiter in a restaurant is inefficient. 

Waiting makes us feel out of control, unimportant, unwanted, and helpless. Yet, we must wait all the time. Children wait for Christmas morning. Parents wait on children to go to sleep. And the more we wait, the more our blood pressure rises. 

And then, Advent rolls around in the church calendar. A period of waiting. Advent challenges our desire for instant gratification. (Such as provided by the Doritos app). However, I suspect most people don’t mind waiting for Christ’s return. After all, we put off important things in life for another time. But that’s risky, Jesus says. It’s a gamble we shouldn’t take.

Mark provides us with a gloomy picture in this chapter. Much of the chapter refers to the destruction of the temple which occurred in 70 AD. It was a period of false Messiahs and great upheaval. But in verse 24, Jesus moves to discussing his return. Think of it this way. With the temple gone, Jesus, the risen Christ, becomes the focus. Jesus should live in our hearts and be present in the church… But he’s also coming back in person… The good news is that future is in his hands. 

In a commentary on this passage, a friend writes: 

“If the first advent of Christ has any meaning whatsoever, it is only because he is coming back to judge the living and the dead. If he is not coming back, then there is nothing to celebrate at Christmas….  If ditties along the lines of ‘Have a holly jolly Christmas’ could cure what ails us in this life, then there never would have been any need for God’s Son to go through the bloody trouble of coming here in person.”[5]

Our world has problems. As sinners, we’re a part of that problem and Christ is the solution.

Our passage begins with a description of terrible days.  The darkening of the sun and moon while stars fall out of the sky… If you ever witnessed a meteor shower high in the western mountains, long from artificial light, you get a sense of how this can be terrifying. Thinking of them as shooting stars, you wonder if any stars left in the sky. Of course, we know they just look like stars, but we can understand why such showers frightened to those in the ancient world. Mark envisions not just a darkening of the sky, but a collapse of things we take for granted. Chaos reigns.[6]

Perhaps we need to look at this passage in a less literal way. The lights of the sky, as in a theater, are lowered so that your focus remains on the action. In this case, the spotlight shines on Jesus Christ. With the distractions removed, everyone pays attention. The scene is scary and wonderful at the same time. It’s God’s great and final drama in history. 

This return involves the gathering of the elect, the faithful, those chosen by God through Christ. The faithful are brought into Christ’s presence. 

Jesus then returns to the question that started this discourse, about when these things (such as the destruction of the temple) will occur. He uses a fig tree as a lesson. Just a day or two before, Jesus cursed a barren fig tree. The tree shriveled and died.[7] The prophets used the fig tree as a symbol of Israel.[8]Now, instead of a fig tree withering, he speaks of when it blooms, which is later that most trees. The budding of the fig tree is a sign of when summer is at hand. 

Jesus likens the budding figs to when this will all happen. Jesus the Messiah rising into prominence as the temple, which will soon be no more, fades from history. We no longer see God in relationship to the temple. Instead, we encounter God through his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. The fig tree which appears dead in winter, puts forth new sprouts and is alive. Christ, who was dead, is resurrected. Christ who ascended to heaven, lives in our hearts. And he will return. 

Jesus doesn’t give an exact time for his return. We’re still waiting. 

What’s important is that we remain ready. “Keep awake,” this chapter ends, or as The Message translates the ending verse, “Stay at your post. Keep watch.”  As one commentator on this passage writes, “vigilance, not calculation, is required.”[9] Don’t try to figure out when Christ returns. Instead, be ready.

The use of the story about the slaves waiting on the master implies that they have assignments which must be fulfilled while the Master is away. Interestingly, with this section in Mark’s gospel, relating to the Master’s return, there are no signs given. The slaves don’t know what to look for, so they must continue with their tasks… Likewise, each member of the church has work to do and by doing that for which we’ve been called, we fulfill our obligation to “watch.”[10]

Christ has come, Christ will come again. But until he does, we are his hands and feet in the world. We should take care of one another while telling his story so that others will catch a glimpse of the hope the world has in Jesus Christ. “Stay at your post.” We do what we’re called to do so we might be ready when Christ comes. Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen. 


[2] I like this quote from James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 402: “If we dispense with eschatology, then the purpose and destiny of history fall into the hands of humanity alone. No one, I think Christian or not, takes solace in that prospect…” Human life needs to be “redeemed.” 

[3] Peter, James, John and Andrew asked Jesus when this will take place, setting the stage for this dialogue that starts in Mark 13:3. 

[4] Some scholars suggest that this passage is primarily focused on Jesus’ resurrected glory.  See N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 97.

[5] Scott Hoezee, Elizabeth Steele Halstead, Carrie Steenwyk, “Living in Advent: Worship Ideas from the Gospel of Mark” Reformed Worship 89 (September 2008), 9. 

[6] In Genesis 1, with creation, we see God bringing order to chaos. God has such power and will do it again. 

[7] Mark 11:12-14, 20-21.  Morna D. Hooker, Black’s New Testament Commentaries: The Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: A. C. Black Limited, 1991), 320. 

[8] See Jeremiah 8:13, Hosea 9:10, Joel 1:7, Micah 7:1.  See footnotes for Mark 11:12-14 in The New Interpreters Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003). 

[9] William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark: The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 482.

[10] Hooker 322. See also Lane, 484.