One challenge to Advent observance is convincing people that it is not yet the season to be jolly. In principle, Advent is supposed to parallel Lent as a season of reflection and repentance. In one case, we prepare ourselves to, in humility and gratitude, celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, in the other, the mystery of the Resurrection. But the world wants to party and so it does.
In the cultural context of Venezuela, everyone is given time off for most of December and the first week of January. In the past, most have used this free time for vacations in the mountains or the beaches, or for visits with family members (even if these are relatives that they see every other day of the year anyway). Because of the current economic cristis, much of this activity has been scaled way back. But still too many have forgotten the real reason to celebrate in due time.
The long national holiday includes the closing of all schools, which is a rule that we must live by. So during the first week in December, we had our Christmas party for the preschool children and their parents. This was an opportunity to present the true message of Christmas as well as share food and gifts. One couple, Samantha and Sandro, parents of our preschool student, Juan Diego, portrayed Mary and Joseph. Their newborn son, Sandro Dionel, stood in for the Christ Child.
The following Sunday, December 8, Eduardo Garrido, a former preschool student and recipient of a scholarship for Christian education from the LeadaChild mission society, received the gift of eternal life in Christ through holy Baptism. The appointed text was Luke 21:25-26, and as I said in the sermon, the promise of the new covenant in Christ is for all nations. The hallmark of this new covenant is not circumcision as in the old covenant, but the baptism that Eduardo Garrido will receive today. No matter our race or tribe, we are Abraham's heirs in the water linked to the Word of God. Therefore, our hope is not only for Christmas next year, but for the day when Christ comes again in glory. Because in baptism we are also heirs of eternal life that Christ won for us on the cross. He was punished for our sins on the cross, but let us share in his resurrection from death because of baptism. Christmas points to Holy Week. Jesus was born in this world to suffer and die on the cross. He began his way to the cross with His baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. Like the baptism of Jesus, the Father's voice spoke from the heavens and the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, in each Christian baptism, the Father and the Son send the Holy Spirit to live in us.
The following Sunday, December 15, Juan Diego and Sandro Dionel were baptized. The appointed text was Matthew 11:2-10. As I said in the sermon, "He who is least in the kingdom of heaven" means any believer in the new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ. John did not baptize with the Holy Spirit, but Jesus Christ did. The same Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism was poured out on the church on the day of Pentecost. Today Sandro Dionel Pérez and Juan Diego Rodriguez will receive new life in Christ through baptism. I am not John the Baptist, but I baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit with the same authority as the apostles. In addition, according to the old covenant, only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place once a year to sacrifice the blood of animals for the sins of the people. But Christ sacrificed Himself once forever and now every Christian can enter the Most Holy Place, that is, the presence of God, at any time by the blood of Christ. Because of His baptism, every Christian has more power and authority than the high priest in the Temple of Jerusalem. The priests are not only the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, but all consecrated in the baptism of Jesus are heirs of the priests, prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament. According to the old covenant, only the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year to sacrifice the blood of animals for the sins of the people. But Christ sacrificed himself once forever and now every Christian can enter the Holy of Holies, that is, the presence of God, at any time by the blood of Christ. Because of his baptism, every Christian has more power and authority than the high priest in the Temple of Jerusalem. Priests are not only the descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, but all consecrated in the baptism of Jesus are heirs of the priests, prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament. The miracle of baptism that will occur today is greater than thunder and lightning on Mount Sinai, larger than the division of the waters of the Red Sea. In baptism we have the promise of eternal life and in that the peace that surpasses all understanding. Amen.
A rude awakening
We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve and the following Sunday, December 29. On the evening of December 31, we celebrated the circumcision and naming of Jesus. The service went well, but at 3 a.m., January 1, Luz Maria and I were awakened by the cries of our neighbors. There was a fire in the church! A ventilation fan had been left on, and it short-circuited and burst into flame. One fellow jumped on his motorcycle and went throughout the neighborhood alerting everyone of the fire. Thanks to everyone’s help, we were able to put it out before there was irreparable damage (except to the fan). But all the smoke had left a layer of stickly soot over everything but the altar (which was covered by a plastic sheet. We do that to prevent damage to the altar cloths from flying insects and birds). Fortunately, we were able to clean it all and repaint the walls before Sunday.
At the same time that volunteers were cleaning and repainting the chapel, Luz Maria and I led a vacation Bible school on the work and mission of the church and the means of grace. There were perhaps as many adults as children in attendance.
First communion on Epiphany
We celebrated the Epiphany on January 5, and also the third anniversary of the dedication of our chapel. Karla Valeria Frías Torrealba received her first communion that Sunday. Her mother, Yudy Torreabla, who joined our congregation by affirmation of faith, was by her side.
I included in the reading of the story of the Magi the account of the massacre of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. The visit of the Magi signifies that the promise of salvation is by grace (or gift) for believers of all nations. But the confirmation vow reminds that we must, with the help of the Holy Spirit, persever in our confession of faith, even under pain of death. We remembered in prayer the persecuted Christians of Nigeria, China and other parts of the globe.
Lord God, revealed in the Christ as the One whose foolishness is wiser than men and whose weakness is stronger than men, help those who suffer for the sake of truth to find Your strength in their weakness, to see your glory in what is despised, and to feel Your presence in what is desolate. Help them to understand that in Your gentleness there is power, that in Your grace there is strength, and that in Your forgiveness there is life. Relieve them from torture and pain, from strain of the emotions, and from temptation, danger and agony of soul. Use their suffering for the conversion of those who torment them, for the strengthening of those who love them, and for the welfare of Your people everywhere. Keep them in your steadfast love in Christ, our Lord, for His sake. Amen.
Lutheran Book of Prayer, Concordia Publishing House, 1970.