Advent Devotional: The true vine

Isaiah 11:1

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The true vine

Next time you are in St. Timothy’s sanctuary look up. Look up and to the right that is. Tucked away in the far corner, above the choir are four blue stained glass windows, our advent windows.

Among these four is in odd sight, a stump. It sits all alone, set upon a field of blue light. But this is no yule log, no husk of a Christmas tree; it is the “stump of Jesse.”

In ancient times before Jesus was born, before Rome was built on the banks of the Tiber, during the times of the royal kings of Israel, David sat on the throne in Jerusalem. It was God who promised King David that his family, his family tree that is, descended from his father Jesse, would rule forever. Years passed and the seat of David passed on to his son Solomon and from him to Rehoboam and so forth and through the years until the time of the prophet Isaiah. A funny thing happened along the way, however. The once mighty and faithful tree of David fell further and further from God. The kingdom weakened. Conquerors came and went. Until all that could be seen from the mighty glory of before was a poor measly stump of that royal family tree. Every hopeful, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that one day God’s kingdom, promised through the line of Jesse, would once again return to glory.

And there the stump sat and waited as if in its own perpetual Advent. It was not until many centuries later that a shoot began to emerge. Jesus is born, descended from the house and lineage of David, and it is he, the true vine, who sends forth new branches, announces a new kingdom, and takes form in ways greater than any earthly king could ever imagine.

Back to the windows. Do not let your eyes remain on the blue. Let them travel. Follow the shoot that bursts forth from the stained glass stump. The green, full of vibrancy and life, travels all around our church. It snakes and weaves from one panel to the next surrounding all who are gathered in the reality of the all-encompassing love and mercy of our king, Jesus Christ, the true vine from the stump of Jesse.

Pr. Daniel Joyner Miller

Advent Devotional: The first song we sing

Luke 1:76

And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways

The first song we sing

The early morning sky is still dark as the monks rise from their brief but needed sleep. The vigil prayers, said in the middle of the night, are just a few hours behind them, but the monks still rise all the same, this time to sing and chant the first prayers of the new day. The song they sing at this first prayer of the day is an ancient one, taken from the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. The song is the Benedictus, the song of Zechariah, a priest of Israel, who upon seeing the birth of his son John the Baptist burst out in joyful exhortation. Zechariah’s melody proclaimed that his son John would be the prophet of a mighty savior, to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to people by the forgiveness of their sins.

Every morning the monks sing this song; there is not a day that passes when it is not. And so it has been for two millennia. By singing the song of Zechariah the monks prepare their hearts to receive Christ each and every day, to embolden their prayer, inspire their hearts, enliven their minds, and strengthen their bodies for work.

During this beginning of the Advent season the song of Zechariah should be a song on our lips as well. This is the rising of our new church year and though we sit in darkness we know that the dawn of Christ’s natal star is on the horizon. By singing our song of Zechariah we prepare our hearts to receive the infant Christ this Advent, to embolden our prayers, inspire our hearts, enliven our minds, and strengthen our bodies for the holy work of welcoming him whose birth the angels, monks, we, and all creation sings.

Rev. Daniel Joyner Miller

Advent Devotional: Old St. Nick

The Feast Day of St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

Old St. Nick

We take a break from our scripturally inspired devotion to reflect on the legacy of a Christmas figure who looms large over our holiday but who can’t be found in the nativity stories. He has many names, in France he is Pere Noel (Father Christmas). Take a trip across the border to Germany and shouts of the Weihnactsmann (Christmas Man) are heard. Scuttle up to Norway and Julenissen (Christmas gnome) rings from lips. In Russia he is Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost). And all the way in the east in Japan little children speak of Hoteiosho (A priest bearing gifts). This is of course, Santa Claus, the man in red pajamas who drives a sleigh pulled by reindeer and stuffs himself down our chimneys to give us gifts of Christmas cheer.

The story of the historical Saint Nicholas are as wild and wide ranging as his names around the world. Most of his stories sound as real as a man driving a herd a reindeer through the skies. Did he really chop down a tree possessed by a demon? How did he rescue three children who had been murdered and put in brine by a butcher planning to sell them as pork? When did he calm the sea and how true is it that he slapped the early church heretic Arius?

Stories lost in time. Except for one. People regularly tell the story of how in times of need St. Nicholas would give gifts from his families great wealth to anyone in need. I’m glad this is the story that stuck. It has become commonplace in our culture to critique the rampant consumerism of one of the church’s holiest days. And yes to an extent I agree. At the same time giving, gift giving in all its forms, is a rich Christian calling and tradition. St. Nicholas passes this legacy down to us. And if we follow the advice of our good and “jolly” Christmas gnome or Grandfather frost, may we give out of our abundances, of wealth or spirit or cheer or faith, whatever we can give to a world in need. When we do this type of giving we do truly honor the life of our enigmatic man in red.

Rev. Daniel Joyner Miller

Advent Devotion: The Sign of Jonah

Luke 11:29

When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

The Sign of Jonah

I can still feel the warmth from all of those candles. Every Christmas Eve growing up we would attend the late candle light service. We would sit in the balcony and then as is tradition, during the singing of O Holy Night through Silent Night, along with the entire congregation, we would light our candles. The heat from all of those candles would rise up into the balcony where we were then standing, and you could feel it all around you. My whole body seemed enveloped in an unmistakable 10 degree swing, as if stepping into a sacred sauna. Light and warmth.

Darkness and cold. That is the opposite of the feeling I just described. It is also the sign of Jonah that Jesus refers to here in the 11th chapter of Luke. Imagine you are Jonah. This ancient prophet was flung from his boat during a storm into the icy sea and then swallowed by a giant sea creature for three days. Is there a colder darker place than the belly of a great fish at night? Perhaps only the cold, dark, and death-ridden stone tomb in which Jesus was placed after the crucifixion for three days rivals Jonah. There is a reason why Jesus pairs these two images, the sign of Jonah and his own tomb. The darkness and cold and threat of death is palpable. But as sons and daughters of the resurrection we know how the story ends, both stories. Christ rises from the tomb and Jonah heads to the desert city of Nineveh. Light and warmth returning once more.

The sign of Jonah is a sign for Advent and Christmas as well. This is the darkest and coldest time of year. Every day that we travel closer to the winter solstice we can feel the light disappearing and the winds howl more bitterly. Soon, however, we will step into church on Christmas Eve, and we will light candles. And we will feel it. Our bodies will be enveloped both by the warmth and brightness of those candles and our souls will be warmed by the light, life, and love of Christ

The Sign of Christmas

Rev. Daniel Joyner Miller

Advent Devotion: Home for the Holidays

2 Samuel 7:18

Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?”

Home for the Holidays

I’ll be home for Christmas / You can plan on me / Please have snow and mistletoe / and presents under the tree / Christmas Eve will find me / Where the lovelight gleams / I’ll be home for Christmas / if only in my dreams

Home is a strong and enduring image of Christmas. Returning home from school. Returning to the house you grew up in. Having people over to your home. Decorating your home. We even fashion mini representations of the first home that Jesus ever had by putting up crèche scenes on our lawns or on our mantles.

In ancient Israel, under the rule of the great King David, home was on the king’s mind as well. In his dreams he pictured an everlasting home for God. King David wanted to build a great temple in which God could reside. God had other ideas. God told David that God’s home didn’t have to have four walls and a roof. God would instead find a home within the house of David—specifically David’s family line. King David is of course confused. “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house?”

King David would never truly find out the answer to his question within his lifetime. Centuries later, however, in the little town of Bethlehem, without four walls and without a proper roof from an inn or his own home, God finally found a home, and in so doing answered the ancient king’s plea. Jesus, descended from the house and family of David, was truly God’s home.

In all that happens this year at your home, whether it be empty or full, covered in loud lights or hushed by silent candle flames, graced by muffled stockings or the stomp of snow clad boots, may we always find our way back home to Jesus.

In Christ we will always be home

Rev. Daniel Joyner Miller