2023 Reading Recap

selfie of me, taken along Laurel Fork

Summary: 

 202120222023
Total books read 545353
Fiction848
Poetry (and about poetry)561
History/Biographies131713
Theology and ministry[1]162219
Essays/Short Stories836
Humor413
Nature6913
Politics335
Memoirs10114
Writing (how to)221
Titles by women14716
Read via Audible202026
Books reviewed303439[2]

The numbers do not add up as some of the books fit into multiple categories.

A few additional insights into my reading:

Of the books read this year, I have met 14 of the authors. 

I’m still reading a lot more non-fiction than fiction, but I read more fiction in 2023 than 2022.

This year I read only 9 non-American authors (and the nine include Canadians and British authors).

My favorite fiction book of the year is Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead. My favorite non-fiction would be Wendell Berry’s The Need to be Whole. Both books have a lot to say about healing our broken world.  Below, I highlight a monthly favorite with the photo.

According to Goodreads, I read 15,475 pages this year for an average of 292 pages per book. To see my Goodread year end summary, click here.

January

Picture of book cover for "Horizon"

Sherry Blackman, Tales from the Trail: Stories from the Oldest Hiker Hostel on the Appalachian Trail

Earl V. Shaffer, Walking with Spring (second reading, first read this book in the mid-80s)

Barry Lopez, Horizon

Robert Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (I might come back and review this book if he would finish his final volume on LBJ)

Harlow Giles Unger, Henry Clay: America’s Greatest Statesman

Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

Christopher A. Hutchinson, Rediscovering Humility: Why the Way UP is Down

February

Book cover for Demon Copperhead

John Burgess, After Baptism

C. Lee McKenzie, Shattered

Merrill Gilfillan, Chokeberry Places: Essays from the High Plains

Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

Thorpe Moeckel, Down by the Eno, Down by the Haw: A Wonder Almanac

March

Book cover for A Speckled Beauty

Douglas Tallamy, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of our Most Essential Native Tree

Rick Bragg, The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People

Mills Kelly, Virginia’s Lost Appalachian Trail

Joel B. Green, 1 Peter

Barbara Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Tony Horwitz, Spying on the South: Travels with Frederick Law Olmstead in a Fractured Land

Jeff Darren Muse, Dear Park Ranger (I read an advance copy, the book was published in May)

April

Book cover for One Summer, America 1927

Bill Bryson, One Summer: America 1927

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

Caroline Grego, Hurricane Jim Crow: How the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 Shaped the Lowcountry South

Fleming Rutledge, The Undoing of Death: Sermons for Holy Week and Easter

Martin Clark, The Substitution Order

Katherine Stewart, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

May

book cover for Cadillac Desert

Mark Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water (I read most of this book in the mid-1990s, this time I listened and re-read interesting selections)

Adam Neder, Theology as a Way of Life: On Teaching and Learning the Christian Faith

Shelby Foote, Jordan County: A Novel

June

Book cover for Ride with Me Mariah Montana

Sara Seager, The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir

Larry L. King, In Search of Willie Morris: The Mercurial Life of a Legendary Writer and Editor

Ivan Doig, Ride with Me, Mariah Montana

July

Book cover for Big Hair and Plastic Grass

Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (2nd time read, first read in 2001)

Dominic Ziegler, Black Dragon River: A Journey Down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires

Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Dan Epstein, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s

August

Book cover for The Old Man and the Boy

Robert Rauk, The Old Man and the Boy (This is my 4th time reading this book since I was in Jr. High)

Ben McGrath, Riverman: An American Odyssey

September

Book title for The Rise and Fall of Dispensationalism

Daniel G. Hummel, The Rise and Fall of Dispensationaliam: How the Evangelical Battle Over the End Times Shaped a Nation

Patrick Wyman, The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shocked the World, 1490-1530

Colin Thubron, The Amur River: Between Russia and China

October

Need to be Whole book cover

James S. Currie, The Kingdom of God is like… Baseball: A Metaphor for Jesus’s Kingdom Parables

Sarah Clarkson, This Beautiful Truth: How God’s Goodness Breaks into our Darkness

Wendell Berry, The Need to be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice

November

Ernest Best, 2 Corinthians: Interpretations

C. K. Barrett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians 

Donna Giver-Johnston, Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants (review coming soon)

C. Lee McKenzie, Rattlesnake

December

Book cover for A Radiant Birth

Suzanne McDonald, Re-imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God

Richard and Elizabeth Raum, Drive-Through Christmas Eve and Other Christmas Stories

Tristan Gooley, How to Read Water: Clues & Patterns from Puddles to the Sea

Leslie Leyland Fields and Paul J. Willis, A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season


Click here for my reading list from 20222021 and 2020

Did you have a favorite book that you read last year? What’s the title and why did you like it?

Bloggers with recaps for their yearly reading:

AJ’s best of 2023

Bob’s essay on his 2023 reading

Kelly’s 2023 list of books

MaineWords

Kinga’s 2023 summary

And English Homesteader

If you’d like me to highlight your 2023 list here, just send me a link.

Photo of me walking along Laurel Fork
Selfie, hiking along Laurel Fork, 2023

Mark’s Prologue: Preparing for Jesus’ Ministry

Title slide with photo of a desert river

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
January 7, 2024
Mark 1:1-13

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on January. 5, 2024

At the beginning of worship:

Have you experienced temptation in your lives? How many of you have found yourself tempted shortly after experiencing something wonderful? Maybe you received a big promotion and then temptations came knocking at your door.

I have shared a lot with you about my ministry in Cedar City, Utah. Shortly after I arrived, the congregation set out to build a new facility to meet the need of a growing church in a growing city. We purchased the land and drew up plans. We raised money, broke ground, began construction. Exciting times. 

But as construction started, we began to lose members. Several of our members, most of whom worked for the Park Service and the National Forest, were transferred. Others moved because of personal situations. In the first half of 1997, we lost 7 families, all who moved out of state. 

It was a scary time. I worried if we were in over our head. I was temptation to throw in the towel. But all worked out. It became a reminder that life has its ups and downs, and we must trust God. Often, when we think we’re hot stuff, temptations overwhelm us. If we don’t learn to depend on God to provide, we faulter. 

It was no different in Jesus’ earthly life as we’ll see in our text for today. At Jesus’ baptism, he’s confirmed by God. Jesus rides high, but instead of celebrating or getting right to work, he’s led to the desert to be tempted. Expect temptations. 

Before the reading of scripture:

I plan to spend much of 2024 in the gospel of Mark. It’s the shortest of the gospels. Over the years, I’ve preached straight through much of the other gospels. And, of course, I’ve preached many sermons from Mark. But I have not gone through the book in a systematic fashion, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, seeing how the text lays out before us. Mark seems to be a good book for me to dig deep into to help us all develop a compressive understanding of the life and work our Savior. That’s my hope.

We must start somewhere. Matthew provides a genealogy of Jesus’, placing him in the line of David. Luke starts with angels setting up the birth of John the Baptist… John starts with Jesus’ being the Word present at creation.[1] And from these points they all go on to tell the story of Jesus.

Mark, however, doesn’t see himself writing a biography of Jesus. Instead, of a book, Mark writes a proclamation. He proclaims Jesus as Lord, as God’s son. He proclaims the truth found in Jesus.  As the opening line goes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…” 

In these opening verses of Mark, it’s as if we’re provided a heavenly vantage point of the drama around God entering history.[2]

The good news or “gospel” (as it can also be translated) was a common word to Mark’s contemporaries. At this point in history, it had not taken on the technical definition it later would as in referring to the gospel as a book.[3]  

The Greek word for the good news or gospel is where we obtain the English words evangelical and evangelist. The good news, the gospel, or the Greek evangelion, was used to proclaim a victory or a great event. At the time of Jesus’ birth, on Caesar Augustus birthday, people shouted evangelion, proclaiming Augustus as the leader who brings peace. 

But with Mark, there’s a subtle difference. The Romans used the word in the plural. Caesar birth or a victory on a battlefield was only one piece of good news among many. It might be the headline story in the evening news, but there were others. Mark and the other gospel writers use the word in the singular. Jesus is the good news; there is no other.[4]

Read Marks 1:1-13

Mark begins his gospel (again, it’s not a book, it’s a proclamation) with John the Baptist. The role the baptizer plays shows God fulfilling divine plans set forth centuries earlier. As we have in the other gospels, the Baptizer is heralded as the one fulfilling Isaiah’s promise. 

We are provided a bit more insight into John the Baptist in Mark than in John’s gospel, which we looked at during Advent.[5]However, Mark is still concise, especially when compared to Matthew and Luke. He portrays John’s role to prepare for Christ, then quickly moves to Jesus’ baptism. Mark isn’t proclaiming John, only using him to point to the subject of his proclamation.

During this era of Judaism, there was a belief Elijah would return before the Messiah. For Mark, John role portrays an Elijah-like[6]character who serves as the forerunner to the one “more-powerful.”[7] Like Elijah, John is associated with the wilderness and his dress, which would have been as unusual back then as today, was Elijah-like.[8] Elijah also wore a garment of animal hair with a leather belt.[9]

What Mark suggests to us about John’s baptism is that it’s symbolic. It points to what’s coming. John prepares people for the one who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit, a prophecy fulfilled on Pentecost.[10]

Mark doesn’t provide us with a dialogue between John and Jesus prior to his baptism as does Matthew,[11] nor does he give us a first-person account of it. Instead, he reports Jesus’ baptism something that has happened. Instead of focusing on the details in the Jordan, Mark reports on God’s action. As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart as the Spirit descends as a dove. And then God speaks. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” When God speaks, grammatically the text shifts from the past tense to the present. 

The rending of heaven and God’s proclamation show us something miraculous and cosmic happens. God steps into history. Here, at the baptism, the three persons of the Trinity are represented. The Son, who was baptized, the dove who symbolizes God’s Spirit, and the voice of God the Father. 

Mark, it’s generally assumed, wrote for a Gentile audience, and draws less from the Old Testament than the other gospels.[12]Gentiles would have not been as familiar with the Old Testament; yet his narrative around Jesus’ baptism is steeped in the Hebrew Bible. Like the humble servant of Isaiah, God’s splendor is displayed in the Son. And God refers to Jesus as the Beloved, which reminds us of Abraham’s love of Isaac, who was to continue to carry the promise.[13] Mark wants to place Jesus in the lineage of what God started with the call of Abraham.

Furthermore, by referring to Jesus as God’s Son, we see the bond between the Father and Son, the one in which the Son is not only of God, nor can only speak for God, but is God. As we go through Mark, we’ll see the Son doing the things of God: forgiving sin, healing the sick, casting out demons, controlling the weather, and challenging the religious authorities of the day. 

After his baptism and confirmation, we’d think Jesus would punch in on the time clock and start working. But before Jesus starts, or to change metaphors before he gets off pit-row and onto the racetrack, there’s a speed bump. God has an adversary who wants to destroy this new challenger on earth before he can get very far. 

Unlike Matthew and Luke,[14] Mark only provides the bare minimum of information about Jesus’ temptation. But like both other gospel writers, it occurs right after Jesus’ baptism. All three Gospels speak of God’s Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness where he faces temptations. But instead of telling us about the type of temptation he faced, Mark provides only a few bits of information. The wilderness experience lasted forty days. Satan tempted Jesus. During this period, Jesus lived among wild beasts. And angels waited on him. 


This brief description of the temptation continues Mark’s display of God directing and controlling the events. It’s an overhead view of what happens before Jesus starts his ministry. Mark has set the stage. Next week, God willing, we’ll watch as Jesus’ ministry unfold. 

These opening verses in Mark’s gospel are like the opening of John’s gospel. They serve as a prologue. They prepare us for what is to come, reminding us that Jesus is not just a special man, but is God’s answer for the human situation. Jesus is the good news. To him we are to praise, and to follow. In him, we find life and our hope. Amen. 


[1] Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 1:5-25, and John 1:1-18.

[2] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (1991, Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 32

[3] Hooker, 33. 

[4] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 24. 

[5] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/12/17/a-voice-crying-out-in-the-wilderness/

[6] As we saw in the John passage, the Baptizer didn’t see himself as Elijah, which is why I use the term “Elijah-like character.” See John 1:21. 

[7] Edwards, 29. 

[8] Edwards 32. Edwards cites 1 Kings 1:8 for Elijah’s dress, obviously a typing error that was not caught in proof-reading. 

[9] 2 Kings 1:8

[10] Acts 2ff. 

[11] Matthew 3:13-15.

[12] Edwards, 26. Mark may have been written in Rome and uses more Latin terms. See William Lane, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 24-25.

[13] Edwards, 36-38. See Isaiah 49 and 42:1 and Genesis 22.

[14] See Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13.

Photo of the Sevier River in Utah
The Sevier River near Marysvale, Utah. It’s a desert river, like the Jordan, that never makes it to the sea, but eventually evaporates.

Theological and Devotional Book Reviews along with an update on my recent absence

display of the books reviewed
Steaming oysters poured out to be eaten
My brother dumping a pot of steaming oysters

Next week I plan to post my annual 2023 reading update. But before I get to that, let me update some of my recent readings (I have a couple more reviews from 2023 that have nothing to do with theology, which I hope to post later in January). 

After Christmas, my daughter and I headed to Wilmington to celebrate my father’s birthday and to see family. As usual, we had oysters for my father’s birthday party. I also got to spend an afternoon and an early morning walking on the beach. On my early morning walk, I took this photo: 

And now, to my reviews: 

Sunrise over the surf at Carolina Beach, NC on December 30, 2023
Sunrise at Carolina Beach on December 30, 2023
Book cover for "A Radiant Birth"

Leslie Leyland Fields and Paul J. Willis, editors, A Radiant Birth: Advent Readings for a Bright Season(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2023), 211 pages

I generally pick a book to read during the Advent/Christmas Season.  A Radiant Birth was this year’s book. I am familiar with both editors from Calvin University’s Festival of Faith and Writing and have developed a friendship with Paul Willis over the years. This is a collection of readings for both Advent and the 12 days of Christmas. The genre varies, from poetry to prose, from scripture to sermon, from modern authors to those in the ancient world. I especially enjoyed John Chrysostom’s “Sermon on the Nativity, which he preached in Antioch in AD 386. Both Fields and Willis have pieces in the collection.

This book is a delight and for anyone looking to make the season more meaningful, I recommend this book.

book cover for "Re-Imaging Election"

Suzanne McDonald, Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others and Others to God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 213 pages.

I met Suzanne McDonald last March at the Theology Matters Conference in Hilton Head, SC. She gave a dynamic lecture on John Owen’s “Beatific Vision.” Several of us afterwards spoke about how we wish our theology professors had her energy and excitement for her topic. Wanting to get to know more about her thoughts, I picked up this book, which I think must have been taken from her doctoral dissertation. This was the most difficult book I read all year and several parts of this book I had to read multiple times to fully grasp what she was attempting to say. I also kept my smart phone handy while reading so I could look up words. That said, a month after finishing this book, I find myself still thinking deeply about her thesis. 

McDonald’s title says it all. God’s elects’ individuals and peoples (such as Israel) for two purposes. Election isn’t just about individual salvation but about participating with God in God’s work in the world. I have often said in sermons that God doesn’t save us just to fill up a hotel room in heaven. We’re saved because God has work for us to do. McDonald essentially says the same thing. Our “election” is for representing God to others (to be God’s agents within the world) and to representing others to God (intercessory prayer is an example). It sounds simple but throw in a hundred or so technical terms and Latin phrases, and you’ll see it’s not so simple.

The book begins with McDonald contrasting the writings on election by John Owen and Karl Barth. Owen, a Puritan, would have a stricter interpretation of election, while Barth’s view is gentler). She plays critical attention to the role Christ and the Spirit plays in each’s understanding of the work within an individual. Next, she explores the meaning of election as seen in both the Old Testament with Israel and the church in the New Testament. While she keeps going back to Owen and Barth, she introduces a host of other voices into the dialogue on election such as Miroslav Volf, N. T. Wright, Lesslie Newbigin, George Hunsinger, and Walter Brueggemann.

If you’re interested in going deep into theology, I recommend this book. And if you read it, let me know. I’d enjoy discussing it. 

Book cover for "Drive-Through Christmas Eve"

Richard and Elizabeth Raum, Drive-Through Christmas Eve and Other Christmas Stories (Rapid City, SD: CrossLink Publising, 2020), 107 pages

Rick Raum has been a good friend of mine since we meet as Pastors of neighboring churches (25 miles apart) in Lake Michigan Presbytery. We have kept in contact over the years and have often seen each other at the meeting of the General Assembly and Theology Matter’s Conferences. A few years ago, while he had retired from preaching and was working for a Presbyterian College in North Dakota as a fundraiser, he and his wife (who has written many non-fiction books for middle school students), published a delightful collection of Christmas stories which had their genesis in Christmas sermons. This is a short, easily read, book. If you’re looking for new Christmas illustrations, I recommend this book. 

book cover for "Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart"

Donna Giver-Johnston, Writing for the Ear, Preaching from the Heart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021), 136 pages.

While I have not met Donna Giver-Johnston in person, we have exchanged emails and have several shared friends. Currently, she is the director of the Doctor of Ministry program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Prior to this position, she served as pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Ben Avon, where I was a half-time student pastor during my senior year at Pittsburgh. Brent, the pastor of the church at the time, became a mentor and a friend. I wrote about his tragic death in 2006 in the Presbyterian Outlook and at some point, will share that article here. All that just goes to illustrate my draw to Diver-Johnston’s book on preaching. 

Sermons cannot be written in one medium, Giver-Johnson insists, and then delivered in another. Speaking and writing are different things. In this book, the author describes her process from being a manuscript preacher to one who preaches without notes. While she still writes a manuscript, she doesn’t use the manuscript in the pulpit. She also doesn’t memorize it. Instead, she preaches shorter sermons as she recalls the themes of her message. I admit that I have not tried her method. Yet, like her I have a set ritual for writing my sermons and for memorizing them. 

Giver-Johnston draws on many top teachers of homiletics, biblical scholars, and communication experts. I’ve read most of these and have studied under a few of them: Walter Brueggemann, Diana Butler Bass, Neil Postman, Brian McLaren, Eugene Lowry, Fred Craddock, Alyce McKenzie, Tom Long, Barbara Brown TaylorN. T. Wright, And Paul Scott Wilson.

While I appreciate learning about her style of preparation, I am still debating whether I will try to give up the manuscript. Not all those Giver-Johnston draws upon preaches without manuscript (Barbara Brown Taylor is an example of a manuscript preacher who, like me, has internalized much of the text so that by Sunday doesn’t read the sermon). The key, I think, to preaching is to have internalized so that you don’t just read what’s on paper and you have freedom to change things if necessary. 

I recommend this book to preachers, but it also has something to say to writers and others who depend upon words to convey a message. For those interested in writing for the ear, I would also recommend G. Robert Jacks’, Just Say the Word: Writing for the Ear. I think it’s out of print, but I read this book nearly 30 years ago and it changed the way I prepared and preached. I would also recommend Jana Childers, Performing the Word: Preaching as Theater. Childers draws upon her theater background and introduces “blocking” and other techniques into the preacher repertoire, which helps internalize the message we are bringing to a congregation. I have adopted some of her suggestions which help me internalize the message. 

Book cover for "Dinner with Jesus"

Timm Oyer, Dinner with Jesus (2023), 94 pages. 

I met Timm shortly after moving to Hastings, Michigan in January 2004. At the time, he was the pastor of the Nazarene Church. For the next eight years, we remained close. Then he went and retired and moved out of state. But we keep up, often through Timm’s reading of this blog and responding with an email or a comment.

Timm, along with the Reverend Jon Carnes, has published a study guide that looks at the meals Jesus enjoyed and how they might inform our own dining habits. Tim wrote a short insight into each text(s), often drawing on personal experiences around his own table or of others. He concludes each of the 13 lessons with questions to encourage the reader to reflect on how to interpret and utilize the message. Jon wrote a centering prayer for each of the passages.  This book could be used in a group study, or an individual could work their way through the lessons, spending time in thought and prayer over each one. 

Kure Beach Pier
Kure Beach Pier, December 28, 2023

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

Expectations

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. 

cucumbers
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,
Jeff 

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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCf3lvUpWL4

[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. 


[1] https://www.businessinsider.com/doritos-creates-ai-software-that-silences-chewing-noises-2023-11?op=1

[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.

My First Job, Part 3

Title slide showing items from Wilsons Supermarket and cigarette ads

Bert called me into work early one day in 1974. Coming into the store, tying my tie as I walk over to the time clock, I saw Bert talking with Ed. He was one of the two brothers who owned the chain of stores. They called me over and told me I need to take a lie detector test. I was shell-shocked and didn’t have time to object before we were in the office where a stranger sat by a machine. They had me to sit down and the man, whom I’d never seen, explained how the machine worked and said he’d ask me questions. I immediately begin to recall eating a few bananas or grapes that were never paid for while moping the store at night. 

Bert and Ed left the room. The man put clips on my shaking fingers, much like oxygen sensors used in a doctor’s office. A cuff, like one used for blood pressure, was applied to one of my arms. He started off with a bunch of easy questions, most of them personal, like name and age and hobbies and such. Then came the big one. 

“Have you ever stolen anything from the store?”

Knowing my goose was cooked, I admitted eating a few grapes and a banana or two while there late at night mopping. I tried to rationalize saying there was no one to pay and pointed out that other times I weighed the fruit and left the money on a cash register. The man asked more questions about stealing money or about taking things out of the store. Finally, he got to cigarettes and spent some time asking if I or if I knew of anyone who’d stole cigarettes. My answers were honest. I knew of no one who’d stolen money or merchandise. 

I was sweating like a pig when he finally finished. Thinking I was in trouble for my petty thief, I asked him how I did. “I’ll make a report, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” he said. “But what about the bananas and grapes?” “Don’t worry,” he said laughing. “That’s not what this is about.” 

That night, while closing, Bert called me aside to tell me what this had been about.

In one of the other stores, they’d discovered a regular criminal ring. Another high school student, like me, who handled the tobacco products was stealing them blind. He would order more cases than needed. As this was back before barcode scanners, the only way to know how much product one sold was by how many items were missing from the shelves. According to Bert, the guy stashed the extra cases behind a dumpster. At night, when no one was looking, he’d stash the cases in his car. He’d been stealing five or so cases a week. Each case held 30 cartons. He sold the cases to someone who took the cases up north, where cigarette taxes were higher, to resale on the black market. 

When the Wilson brothers discovered the ring, they brought in a lie detector detective. All all key employees (those who handled lots of money such as the managers, the cashier supervisors, as well as those who handled tobacco products) take a lie detector test. Even Bert and John had to take the test. I had no idea whether it was legal. but I was glad to have survived and to know that I wasn’t going to be fired for being the great grape thief. 

About six months after I started working at Wilson’s, the guy who’d handled the cigarettes went off to college. Bert asked me if I’d be interested. I’m sure he was hoping he’d have me for several years in the position, which turned out to be the case. Furthermore, I was a good candidate because I didn’t smoke.

At this time, it was legal to smoke in North Carolina when you were fifteen, but the store’s policy was to use non-smokers to handle tobacco products. This was in the fall of 1973 and at that time, in North Carolina, a carton of regular cigarettes (ten packs) sold for $1.89. Do the math. Today, a pack of cigarettes will cost you more twice what a cartoon cost in 1973. Back then, if you wanted the longer cigarettes, you had to pony up a dime more for a carton. By the time I left the store in the summer of 1976, cigarettes had jumped to $2.39 and $2.49 a carton.

Every day I worked, I spent about half an hour filling the shelves with tobacco products. This also meant that I had to work more days to keep the shelves stocked. On Wednesday, it took me several hours as I first helped unload the truck. Then I rotated the shelves of product and fill the depleted ones. I would straighten up the tobacco room in the back and make a report on how many cartons of each cigarette we had in stock. Using that information, I made the order for the next week. I found it fun to project how many I felt we would sell. I knew people could become grumpy when we didn’t have their favorite bands. 

We sold lots of Winstons and Salems and Marlboros. If my memory doesn’t fail me, it seems I generally ordered 30 cases of each of those brands a week. We also sold a fair number of Camels as well as Virginia Slims, the choice cigarette for women. I often had to set up displays by the various Cigarettes. Marboros featured cowboys while Virginia Slims featured sexy women and the logo, “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” Having grown up with three grandparents who smoked heavily, I felt there was nothing sexy or macho about cigarettes. 

In the summer, we sold more as tourists would stock up before heading back north. There were a few smaller brands that we might only sell a carton or two a week. As you wanted to keep your product fresh, we’d only have five or six cartons in the store at any one time. Occasionally a tourist would come in looking for some old brand, like a Chesterfield, and buy us out. Then, when the regular purchaser of that brand came in, they would be disappointed that we didn’t have any. 

Another job that I assumed after about a year at the store was price changes. I was provided a printout of new prices and had a grocery cart with a bread rack tied to the top. In the part of the cart where the kids sat, I would stash the tools of the trade. A razor scraper, nail polish remover, rags, black magic markers, and a label machine. On my belt hung a price stamping machine. 

I would go to each product, remove the old price. It the item was cans or glass jars with a metal top, the prices were generally stamped in ink. I’d put the cans on top of the bread tray shelf, pour nail polish removal on the rag and wipe off the products. If there were a lot of such cans to change, I’d get a little high from the smell. Next, I stamped the new price onto the top and placed the product back on the shelf. If it was boxes or frozen items, I would have to ink out the price with a magic marker and then place a label over it.  Sometimes I would use a razor to scrape off a label.

When I first assumed this job in late 1973, after someone else had left for college or another job, I thought it was easy. I made the changes in prices in a hour or two each week. But if you remember the mid-70s, inflation began to skyrocket. By late 1974, it was taking me a full day and sometimes two to make all the changes. Instead of having a page printout, I began to have reams of papers. Some of the products that didn’t move off the shelf fast would have several changes on top. I found myself dreading certain changes, such a baby food. You can image how many jars of baby food a grocery shelf holds and to know that all the prices are going up by a cent or two. It’d take me hours. 

In the summer of 1976, between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I accepted a job at the bakery. Bert asked if I’d like to stay on and continue to do the cigarettes. I agreed. I trained Tom to do the price changes. At the time I left, I thought I’d be back at the store in the fall, when school resumed. Bert and Ed discussed with me about becoming what was known as “the third man,” in a new store being built at Monkey Junction. When the manager and assistant manager were off, I’d be in charge and would be required to close the store a few nights a week. 

The possibility of this new job as the third man sounded good to a college kid. But I finished my summer position at the bakery, the Production manager, called me into his office one day. Don told me he knew I was about to go back to school and wanted to see if there was a way for them to keep me employed. He suggested that I could have a second shift position and continue to go to school in the morning. He offered me a machine operator position and hinted that there might be a chance for me to become a supervisor. As they paid more than the grocery store was offering, I decided to stay with the bakery. I trained my friend Tom to take over the cigarette business at Wilsons. Two years later, I became a supervisor at the bakery.

Grocery Store Stories

My first job

My first job, Part 2

November 1976 and Tom

Bakery Stories 

Coming of Age at the Bakery

A College Boy in the Bakery

Harvey and Ernest

Frank and Roosevelt

The Perils of Working on the Christian Sabbath