Category Archives: Music

Simeon’s Song: Worth the Wait

(a sermon for December 30, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on  Luke 2:22-40)

Sometimes the only thing you can do is sing.

An old friend of mine from my seminary days, a bright and bubbly older lady who went by the name of “Mickey,” used to tell the story of how one snowy winter morning in Maine she’d decided to go cross-country skiing along a beautiful wooded trail that she knew, one that stretched far from any nearby roads, houses or people. The idea, she said, was for some spiritual solitude, but as fate would have it somewhere deep in the woods Mickey fell off her skis and managed to fracture her ankle; so now not only was she injured and unable to make her way home, but also, ironically enough, she was totally alone!

Now, given that this was a time long before cel phones and with no other way of calling out for help out there deep in the Maine woods, most people might have panicked under those circumstances; but not Mickey!  Surely, she reasoned, on this beautiful snowy morning someone else would be out skiing or snowshoeing and happen by, so she’d simply wait there in the snow until someone came by who could help her!  And that’s what she did; however, as the hours began to pass and the snow accumulated all around her Mickey started to wonder, however fleetingly, when or if help would ever come!

So she started to sing.

Actually, she started by reciting psalms and other passages of scripture she’d known from childhood (“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:1-2] Actually kind of fitting when you think about it, she said afterward) And then, it was Christmas songs, followed by verses from all the old hymns and snippets from choir anthems that she’d sung at one time or another and had always remembered. And as that long day went on Mickey just kept on singing, singing everything and anything she knew how to sing and even a few songs she didn’t!  She sang through her pain and she sang through her fear, and she even sang a bit through her doubt, but above all Mickey sang out of a faith-borne assuredness that the Lord was with her and that she would be alright!  And when eventually, just as darkness had begun to descend, another pair of skiers did happen by so to bring her to safety, they asked how she was doing and Mickey simply smiled and replied in very typical Mickey fashion, “Oh, I’m fine… I hadn’t run out of songs yet!”

Sometimes, you see, the only thing you can do is sing… but when singing is an act of faith, that may well be enough!

In our text for this morning, Luke’s gospel tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,” and Luke makes a point of letting us know that this Simeon was a good man, “righteous and devout,” and as The Message puts it, living “in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel,” that is, waiting for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah.  We’re also supposed to surmise from this passage that Simeon was quite old and that he had been, in fact, waiting just about all his life for this singular event to take place; but, you see, that was alright. For as Luke tells the story, “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon and that same Spirit had “shown him that he would see this Messiah of God before he died.”  That’s it… no angel making an “annunciation,” as what was given unto Mary, nor even any heavenly rebuke as what happened to old Zechariah back at the temple; and as for that “heavenly host” that they’d heard about from a bunch of random shepherds?  There was certainly none of that for Simeon; no miracles or signs or wonder, just simply and profoundly this continued assurance from a truly Holy Spirit that this thing was going to happen, it would happen in Simeon’s lifetime… and it was definitely going to be worth the wait.  So keep the faith, Simeon… keep on singing and just wait for it.

So now it’s about 40 days after the child was born in the manger of Bethlehem; which means that Jesus was around a month and a half old and the time had come both for “their purification” (which actually had more to do with Mary than with Jesus, as it was required by every Jewish woman after childbirth) and for Mary and Joseph to come to the Temple and offer up a sacrifice (which because of their poverty, amounted to “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”), so to consecrate their child to the Lord.  Understand this was a sacred ritual, a duty required and performed by all faithful Jews; and so you have to imagine, as David Lose puts it, that Mary and Joseph “must have been in a reverent, even solemn mood that day, the way many young parents in our congregations are when their first child is to baptized.”  So also imagine, then, how started, even frightened Mary and Joseph might have been when in the midst of this quiet procession into the holy courts of the Temple, here comes “Simeon, old beyond years and beaming with ecstatic revelation, coming up to them to touch the child,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, he starts singing!

You see, on that day of days Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to go – go now (!) – to the Temple because there at long last he would see the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise and the consolation of Israel.  And so, make no mistake, there’s absolutely no reluctance, hesitation or even any kind of appropriateness here on Simeon’s part; I mean, you don’t just run up to new parents and just pick up their baby, but here’s old Simeon fairly well running into the Temple and scooping up the baby Jesus away from Mary and Joseph, all so he can hold this child in his arms; and once Simeon’s seen that angelic little face, once he’s touched his little fingers, maybe counted his toes and then marveled how something so tiny and so delicate can be so… divine, that’s when Simeon’s song begins, a song of praise and thanksgiving for this child who was and is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Latin, it’s referred to as the Nunc Dimittis, which means “now send away,” and it’s actually used today both during services of holy communion and as a funeral liturgy, for not only is this song this incredible proclamation of God’s salvation prepared for all people, it’s also Simeon’s joyous affirmation that now that the Spirit’s lifelong assurances of a Messiah had come to fruition Simeon himself could die in peace.  In other words, my waiting is over, your work is done, so as in the elegant words of the old King James Version of scripture, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

There are some, you know, who tend to read the words of Simeon’s song as something rather morbid; I mean, why would he even want to talk about death and dying at a time like this, when the light and life of Christmas, to borrow a line from Jean Shepherd here, is at its zenith and all is right with the world?  But you see, Simeon knew that everything in his life had led up to this particular moment of this particular day, and that now that he’d literally seen and held God’s promise in his hands, “after touching and feeling the promise of life which God had granted to him through Christ…” (David Lose, again) then he could accept death “courageously and confidently in the light of God’s promised salvation.”  He could let go now, because the promise had been fulfilled and it had most definitely been worth the wait.

Of course, it needs to be said there that Simeon’s song wasn’t entirely one of joy and praise.  After he’d blessed this child and his parents, Simeon then looked to Mary, and as though to perhaps warn her of what was to come (?), he sings a second verse of his song, of how this child was to “be a sign that will be opposed,” – a “figure misunderstood and contradicted” – “so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”  And, oh yes, Mary, by the way?  “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It turns out, you see, that there will be more to this story than merely a tale of angels and shepherds and Magi from the Far East bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This child, this baby whose is named Jesus, Emmanuel, Messiah, Christ the Lord… his story will continue; beginning with a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan through great acts of healing, miraculous signs, teachings that change lives and the world, and at the last a triumphal entry into Jerusalem that leads inescapably to the cross.

Even after the shepherds have gone back to their flock; even once the star overhead has faded to blend in with the rest of the night sky and the Magi have opted to go home another way; even after Mary and Joseph settle in to the business of raising an infant even as they’ve had to flee to Egypt as refugees, the story goes on. The baby Jesus, you see, grows up… and his journey, as well as ours, is just beginning.

You know, it’s always struck me as a bit odd that we inevitably end up viewing Christmas as an ending rather than really what it should be, a new beginning.  I realize that this comes in large part because since before Halloween (!) this world has been wholly focused on the run-up to everything surrounding the Christmas holiday, and so once December 26 comes along even the most ardent of Christmas elves are apt to breathe a sigh of relief!   And even here in the church, for over four weeks we’ve devoted ourselves to Advent waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; and so yes, I have to confess that there’s a palpable sense of conclusion in our finally arriving at the manger.  In other words, we’ve come to worship, we’ve sung all our songs and now it’s time, like the shepherds and wise men before us, to return to life and the world and business as usual.

But I ask you, is that actually the case? Is Christmas truly over?   Have we really run out of songs to sing?

Not yet.

Because despite whatever closure we have by our taking down decorations or switching to music other than the holiday variety (!), the fact our journey to Christmas has not so much ended as it is just beginning!

You might have noticed that our text this morning contains a bit of an epilogue to this story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and Simeon’s song of praise and glory.  It seems that there in the Temple was also “a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” Anna was an 84-year-old widow, and in fact pretty much lived at the temple, “worshipping night and day with her fastings and prayers,” [The Message] and we’re told that at the very same moment Simeon was offering up his tribute, Anna also showed up and “broke into an anthem” of her own, one of “praise to God,” and one that was apparently reprised again and again as she began “to speak about the child to all who were look for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

That’s the key, you know… that’s how Christmas becomes for us the starting place of our journey rather than its conclusion.  It’s in our proclaiming the good news of his coming; it’s about telling the story of his holy birth, yes, but it’s also continuing to tell of his presence and ministry among us and of the price he paid for our redemption before God.  It’s in the work of Christmas that we are called to do: in those powerful words of poet Howard Thurman:

“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”

Yes, to “make music in the heart!”  Christmas is always about singing out our praises unto the Lord each and every day that we live and breathe; it’s about singing through our pain, and singing through our fear, and even at times singing through our doubt; but it’s ever and always singing out of that faith-borne and faith-full assuredness that the Lord is with us and that we will be alright!

Christmas is not over, beloved; in fact, it’s just getting started!

So let that journey of prayer and praising and service begin with us here and now… and let’s keep singing, because there are plenty of songs yet to sing!

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 30, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Maine, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship


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The Song That Never Ends

(A Meditation for Christmas Eve 2018, based on Luke 2:8-20)

It is most decidedly not a Christmas song; and in fact, I’d suspect that the only way you might even know it is if you had little children in your life round about the early 1990’s.  As performed by puppeteer Shari Lewis and “Lamb Chop,” it went a little something like this:

“This is the song that never ends,
Yes, it goes on and on my friend.
Some people started singing it,
Not knowing what it was,
And they’ll continue singing it forever just because…
This is the song that never ends….”

You get the idea; this truly is a song that once begun, goes on and on and on… suffice to say it’s a melody tailor-made for long car rides and antsy kids (if not for the parents or grandparents on board who are at the end of their last frayed nerve!).  Indeed, it’s one of those songs that’s silly and fun and all manner of irritating, all at the same time!  And the truth of it is, and here’s the reason I risked putting that tune into your heads tonight, this is pretty much how some people feel about Christmas music!  Even I must confess that as much as I absolutely love the music of this season, nonetheless there are some songs in the holiday canon that just seem to be played on an endless loop! I mean, especially given all the discussion this year, how many versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” or “Santa Baby” can there actually be?  It’s no wonder that there are those out there who are very ready to be done with these songs for another year (not me, not yet…. I’m just sayin’!).

As much as I hate to admit it, I’m aware that even some of the sacred carols of Christmas – the beautiful songs that we’re singing here tonight – sometimes risk having that same effect on people; but I dare say for a different reason than sheer repetition.  After all, Christmas carols by their very nature are non-traditional and even a bit irregular, both musically and lyrically.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that (!); as the late Halford Luccock once put it, some of the best hymns are the ones that are labeled “irregular,” especially at Christmas.  “Irregular?” he wrote.  “I should say so! The whole thing was highly irregular!  A baby in a barn.  What could be more irregular than that?  Shockingly irregular!”  But then again, that’s the way of God, isn’t it; if there’s no room in inn, “God will find a barn or other place in which God’s new word can be born.”

The truth is, friends, is that ours is an irregular God who is utterly determined to come to us and abide with us, even in the guise of a tiny, helpless infant born in a stable surrounded by farm animals; and that is the reason that we sing… again and again, and on and on!

In our worship yesterday we talked a little bit about the angels’ glorious song of peace and joy on that first Christmas night, and also about the shepherds “living out in the fields” who were the ones blessed to hear it.  It was, in the words of the old hymn, “music of the spheres,” a heavenly song sung by a heavenly host, a song as bright and as bold as the star that shone overhead.  It was truly “good news of great joy for all the people… a Savior, who is the Messiah the Lord,” and it was, to say the very least, a singular, revelatory moment for the shepherds just as it was for all of creation; it was in every describable way, a song for the ages.

That said, however, I wonder how it was for those shepherds “after the angels had left them and gone into heaven,” and after the song was done and all that was left was the enveloping quiet of that holy night, a calm only broken by the occasional bleat of the sheep who’d been sleeping nearby.  We know, of course, that their first instinct was to go immediately to Bethlehem to “see this thing that has taken place,” but what I want to know is if as the shepherds went “with haste,” as Luke puts it, were they singing?   That incredible song just sung by a literal choir of angels; was that still going round and round in their heads?  Was the song on their lips, were they trying to emulate the melodies and harmonies as they rushed into town, or could they have been simply whistling as they went?

Well, Luke doesn’t say exactly; we’re only told that just as they’d been told they could, the shepherds did find the manger and Mary, Joseph and the child within, and that when they did see this new, holy family, the shepherds were compelled to tell Mary and Joseph about everything that they’d seen and heard earlier that night.  And don’t know about you, beloved, but I have to believe that as they did, those shepherds sang!  And you know they sang with joy, they sang with enthusiasm, they sang loudly and maybe even a bit off key (!); the kind singing you do when you’re so filled up that you don’t even care how it sounds to those around you!

And the thing was, those shepherds were just getting started!  Even as they left the manger, even as they knew they needed to get back to the fields and the business of tending the sheep, all the while they were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”  And why not? The child was born, the Messiah had come and now the world and their very lives had changed forever!  This song, the song the angels sang, the song that was forever on their lips and in their hearts, this song of God’s redeeming love in Jesus who is called Emmanuel… this was, and is, the song that never ends!

And even now, over 2,000 years later, we still sing – again and again, and on and on – in joyful praising of the God who loves us so much that he will not rest until each and all of us have been embraced and so caught up in his tremendous and infinite love that we have no other choice than to sing!

Beloved, if I have but one prayer for you on this holy night, it would be that you’re singing; really singing, not just tonight in the beauty of candlelight and in the fellowship of kindred hearts together on Christmas Eve, but always… after Christmas Day, into the new year and beyond… that you will be so moved by the gift of this holy child and in him the presence of the living God that you will be singing with joy and faith and purpose that divine song of peace and love that never, ever ends.

The late Ann Weems once asked if “there are still those who long to hear an angel’s song and touch a star?  To kneel beside some other shepherd in the hope of catching a glimpse of eternity in a baby’s smile?  Are there still those who sing ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all’? If there are,” Weems prayed, “then O Lord, keep ablaze their flickering candle in the darkness of this world!”

Well, here on Mountain Road in Concord, the candles are flickering and the light of the Christ Candle is about to be shared among us in this beautiful and sacred space, cutting through the darkness of this night and of the world that surrounds us.  May this light truly fill us with all HOPE in believing; may it awaken us to the PEACE that only Christ can bring; may it fill us with JOY and make us aware of divine and infinite LOVE…

…and may it inspire us, today and always, to SING!

Merry Christmas, my dear friends, thanks be God, and


c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 24, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Joy, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series


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Mary’s Song: Present Perfect

(a sermon for December 2, 2018, the First Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Luke 1:39-56)

Of this time of the year, at least one thing can be said for certain: ‘tis the season for singing!

I don’t think I have to tell you that one of the things I like best about the Christmas season is the music.  All of it, both the sacred and secular; from Handel’s Messiah to Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and just about everything in-between from every musical genre you can name, this quite literally is the soundtrack of my life from about the first of November (that’s right, I admit it!) to New Year’s Eve.  Part of it is nostalgia, I suppose; so much of the music of this season has a way of bringing forth fond memories of Christmases past and of the loved ones who shared those times with us.  Moreover, not only can these songs lift our spirits in the midst of difficult times, they can also be very cathartic at times in bringing forth some much needed tears!  And let me just add here that as far as this pastor is concerned some of the most beautiful, familiar and faith-stirring hymns we have in the Christian tradition are the ones we’re going to be singing over the next few weeks in celebration of Christ’s birth; so get ready, friends, for lots of carol singing!

I know; there are some songs of the season that can become kind of grating upon hearing them over and over and over again all through the month of December (my nomination for that, by the way, would be the ubiquitous “Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, and the very next day you gave it away,” which as I point out to my family on a regular basis actually has nothing to do with Christmas at all, but I digress!); and yes, maybe a few of these songs with all their sentimentality end up reflecting more of how we imagine Christmas should be, as opposed to how it really is in this chaotic and conflicted world in which we live.  But I still love the music; for me every “jingle bell,” “fa la la la la” and “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” we sing not only speaks to the best part of our selves as God’s people, but also points directly to how the world ought to be and will be all because of God’s wondrous gift to us of a Savior in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And that alone is ample reason for us to be out there singing Christmas music, and also cause for rejoicing at this most wonderful time of the year!

Actually, when you think about it, so much of this particular season of the church year – that is, the season of Advent, because it’s not Christmas yet – is built upon this very dichotomy of what is and what will be.  On the one hand, these Advent weeks of waiting, watching and preparing all lead up to our joyous celebration of an event that has in fact already taken place: the birth of Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.  And yet, as Christians, just as we believe that he died and rose again, we also know that Jesus will come again, bringing with him the fullness of the kingdom of God.  And so, for us in the church Advent is also about preparing ourselves for his promised return, by prayer, penitence and self-examination. That’s why over the centuries the church has often referred to the season of Advent as “a little lent,” and why purple, which is the color of penitence, adorns our altar and the neck of your preacher; because preparing our hearts for the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises both present and future does call for some humility on our parts and at least a modicum of spiritual reproach.  But that said, Advent is also about acknowledging that while our world – and us in it – does not yet match up to that promised vision of God’s kingdom here on earth, by God’s grace and infinite love made manifest in Jesus our Emmanuel, it will be… soon and very soon, it will be; and that, dear friends, is cause for true rejoicing!

… which brings us to the first of our “First Songs of Christmas” from Luke’s gospel, which is Mary’s Song of Praise; also known as the Magnificat.

As we pick up the story in our text for this morning, we’re actually in that time in between the angel Gabriel’s having given Mary the news of her bearing this child “who will be called the Son of the Most High,” (Luke 1:32) and that silent, holy night months later in Bethlehem when the baby would finally be born; and as anyone who has in any fashion awaited the time for a child to be born will attest, this most certainly was a time of great expectation and all manner of preparation; not to mention time for “pondering” what the reality of having a baby who was the Son of God was going to mean for her and for the world around her.  Luke tells us that soon after Gabriel’s announcement, “Mary set out and went with haste” to a town in the hill country of Judea to visit with family in those first months of pregnancy; and there, in the words of Shawnthea Monroe, was “an intimate encounter between two extraordinary women.”  I love how Monroe describes that encounter; she says, “There is the elderly, once-barren Elizabeth and her newly expectant young cousin Mary.  As Luke tells it,” Monroe continues, “God is at work through the lives of both women and their words express nothing but joy.”

It really is quite the reunion, with Elizabeth “[singing] out exuberantly, ‘You’re so blessed among women, and the babe in your womb, also blessed!” [The Message] and the child in Elizabeth’s womb quite literally leaping for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice (More about that next week)!  It was, in fact, a sign for both women that everything that was happening was in fulfillment of the Lord’s plan.  And to this, Mary responds with a song; those familiar words of praise and nearly inexpressible joy that have been set to countless pieces of music over the centuries: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations shall call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

Beautiful, powerful, and utterly surprising words; yet not as surprising as you might think.  It’s interesting to note here that in Mary’s song we hear echoes of other faithful women through the ages, most especially in the “Song of Hannah” from 1 Samuel, which was sung nearly 1,000 years beforehand and which in fact began in a very similar fashion as Mary’s song:  “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.” (2:1) What this tells us is that at least in some fashion Mary understood that there was more to this than simply the fact of a baby being born, however unprecedented and miraculous this was to be; no, Mary was finding herself in the midst of long tradition of God’s work of restoration and redemption that was now was coming to full fruition in this child in her womb who would be named Jesus, and so, of course, her spirit would rejoice!

And this is what makes what Mary sings next even more amazing and joyous.  She goes on to tell of all the great and glorious things that God has done:  “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”  Incredible; this is no less than a proclamation of the whole world and its idea of power being turned upside and inside out!  But did you notice something there?  Mary’s actually singing in the present tense!  She’s not praising God for what God will do, but proclaiming what God has done; which is kind of odd, given that this child who is supposed to bring about all of this change hasn’t even been born yet!

Moreover, even a casual survey of Israel’s current situation (not to mention Mary’s!) would reveal that this vision of a just and peaceful world had no basis in reality.  I mean, here’s this young, impoverished, insignificant girl – probably 13 or 14 years old at best – hailing from some backwater village in the hills of Galilee, and unmarried and with child; moreover, her people are oppressed and living under the thumb of the Roman Empire.  One thing is for certain: at that moment in time the proud were not scattered, the hungry were not fed, and the powerful were very comfortably ensconced on their thrones!  Mary’s words didn’t even sound like a word of prophecy in the sense of what God was about to do in the world; and yet, given all that she’s still singing as though it’s already happened!

I looked it up, friends; and in English grammar there’s a word for that:  it’s called present perfect.  Technically speaking, present perfect is used to describe an action that has already begun, may not be finished yet but will continue; and so it is as if it’s already done.  In other words, for Mary to sing this song in present perfect is the ultimate expression of HOPE; more than simply proclaiming the Lord’s promises of a just and peaceful world she’s claiming those promises as a present reality.  To quote David Lose here, “When Mary sang, she didn’t just name those promises but she entered into them.”  Mary knew that because of this tiny child just beginning to grow inside of her, she’d already been drawn into this sacred rel ationship with the God of Israel, the same God “who had been siding with the oppressed since the days of Egypt and keeping promises since the time of Abraham.”  It’s not, you see, that everything that Mary sings about has been accomplished but that that those promises are so sure and so certain that it is as if it were already a reality in the world.  For Mary – and for us, beloved – “the world has begun to turn and [we] feel ourselves invited into the turning.”

And that is, as I said before, most certainly cause for rejoicing!

You know, as I said before, I love all the songs of this season; but I think the songs I love the most (truly, in these days the songs I need the most) are the carols and hymns that boldly proclaim those sure and certain promises of God coming to pass in the birth of the Christ Child.  And the reason I love them so much is because I know that they’re true.  Not that it’s a present reality in the world as we know it; but by God’s grace and infinite love it will be and for now, as we watch and wait for signs of Christ’s coming, that is enough.  Alan Brehm writes that “In Advent we sing because we look forward to something better than the violence and suffering and injustice all around us.  We look forward to the kindness and generosity and compassion of our God being fulfilled for all the peoples of the world.  We sing because we look forward to ‘peace on earth, and mercy mild.’  This is the heart and soul of our faith, friends; the HOPE that is ours in Jesus the Christ who comes into this world and into our hearts definitively to set everything right and to make all things new.”

The good news, beloved, is that despite all the uncertainties that continually seem to surround us, God is at work in the world, and his advent is nigh. So as our advent waiting begins for another year for the coming of the Christ Child and his return in glory, let us truly watch for signs of his coming; and even here and now let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 2, 2018 in Advent, Joy, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series


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