The Places of Christmas: Six Weeks of Service Plans for Advent and Christmas
How often do we really think about “place” in connection with the Christian life?
In our highly mobile culture, many of us know what it means to feel displaced or removed from “home.” When I first returned to my childhood home in southwestern Ontario, I was struck by the sense of solidarity I had with this place—not merely with the people, but also with the topography and landscape that had been part of my childhood background. This place had shaped me.
For Christians the importance of place goes deeper than our roots and childhood home. We have a God who intentionally created our place, this world. Furthermore, God called a specific people, Israel, to journey to a particular place, the promised land. Even the end of the biblical story points not only to redemption, but also to the gift of a place where God will dwell with his people.
In this Advent series, we explore this concept of place. We start with the Garden of Eden—from which we were quickly displaced as a result of the fall. But Christ, in his coming, came to our place—to redeem not only us but the very places we live and call home. In the confidence of Christmas, we look forward to our final place, when we will complete this journey of displacement—when God brings home down to us.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT-DISPLACED
Place: The Garden of Eden
Genesis 2:4-25; 3:1-13, 22-24
This sermon will explore the goodness of place, particularly of that first garden—a place of God’s caring and love. When Adam and Eve sinned, they were sent out of that place.
That’s the way it is with us too. Through our sin and disobedience, we have transplanted ourselves out of the place of God’s caring and love (Isa. 59:1-2).
One way to view the story of salvation is as God’s plan to “re-place us.” That plan, already promised in Genesis 3:15, points to one who picks up where Adam and Eve left off in the Garden. The weight of being kicked out of the Garden will be shouldered by the promised One (as seen in Gethsemane).
And so we wait. . . .
“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” SNC 77, TWC 539
“Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling” TH 479, TWC 441
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” PsH 329, RL 183, SFL 122
“Hark, the Glad Sound!” PsH 335
“Bless His Holy Name” PsH 627, TWC 36
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
THE JOURNEY OF FAITH
Place: The Journey to Canaan (Ur to Haran to Canaan)
Genesis 11:31-12:5; 15; Hebrews 11:8-12
Many years after God’s people are displaced from the Garden, God chooses a man to start the journey back home. Born in Ur, but now living in Haran, Abraham is called forth to begin the pilgrimage to Canaan, the promised land.
What was this journey like for Abraham? Imagine him—no sense of place, wondering where he might sleep, what the land might offer, who he might meet, whether friend or foe. (Explore the psychology of the journey.)
In faith, Abraham journeyed to a new place where God and humanity would again meet. Yet, for Abraham, this journey was never completed. Even in the promised land he was “like a stranger in a foreign country” (Heb. 11:9).
Who will complete this journey? Who will find the place where God and humanity can once again dwell in peace, in shalom?
And so we wait. . . .
“O Come, O Come, Immanuel” PsH 328, PH 9, RL 184, SFL 123, TH 194, TWC 133
“If You but Trust in God to Guide You” PsH 446, PH 282, RL 151, TH 670, TWC 636
“Step by Step” SNC 17
“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” PH 363, SNC 130, SFL 214, TH 611, TWC 642
“Will You Come and Follow Me” SNC 267
“Lead Me, Guide Me” PsH 544
“Precious Lord, Take My Hand” PsH 493, PH 404, TWC 638
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
A PLACE TO CALL HOME?
Place: The Temple in Jerusalem/The Holy of Holies
1 Kings 8:1-12, 54-61; John 2:19; Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:19-25
Home for humanity is being reconnected with God. For the Israelites, who have made it to the promised land, this place of reconnection is the temple—the place of God’s presence, the place where God dwells in the heart of Israel. No wonder the Jews put such hope in the temple of Jerusalem.
a.d. 70—the destruction of the temple. Where was God? How could God dwell with his people if the only acceptable place of his dwelling was destroyed? And without the temple, where was home?
We too long for a place of rest, a place where God dwells with us, his people. Who will show us the way home?
And so we wait. . . .
“I Will Enter His Gates” SNC 13, SFL 9
“I Love to Be in Your Presence,” Paul Baloche and Ed Kerr
“Shine, Jesus, Shine” SNC 128, SFL 239, TWC 721
“Come into the Holy of Holies,” John Sellers
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT-AN UNLIKELY
PLACE OF UNLIKELY PEOPLE
Ruth 1:22; 1 Samuel 16:6-13; Luke 2:1-7
Bethlehem was a small town, five miles out of Jerusalem. Literally, the name means “house of bread.” In this sermon, we set up three snapshots of Bethlehem:
- a Moabite widow moving into the strange new town of her embittered mother-in-law;
- an old prophet meeting with a sheep farmer and his sons;
- a young married couple, expecting any day, traveling for the census.
We take a close look at the unlikely aspects of each of these snapshots:
- How could a Moabite woman be in the kingly line?
- How could the youngest son from Hicksville be anointed the next king, especially with the present king alive and well?
- Why were Joseph and Mary making this trek together, especially with Mary in her state?
The first two stories can be fleshed out to their unlikely conclusions, but leave the Luke passage hanging with a question: Who is this baby and what’s his significance in this unlikely place?
And so we wait. . . .
“Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” PsH 345, PH 31, RL 196, TH 203, TWC 171
“O Come, All Ye Faithful” PsH 340, PH 41, RL 195, TH 208, TWC 173
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” PH 44, RL 194, TH 201, TWC 155
DECEMBER 25-OUR PLACE
Place: London [Your Community]
John 1:1-15 (esp. v. 14)
Here we explore the God who made and makes his dwelling in our place. As The Message puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” In this sermon, we tie in the previous themes in light of Jesus:
- picking up in the Garden where Adam and Eve left off
- his journey of faith—a stranger in a strange land, which led to death on a cross
- dwelling among us—so we become the temple of God
- using unlikely places and unlikely people in his “re-placement” plan
But more than that, we will explore the reality that this Jesus dwells here, in this community, at this time in history. We need not wait, but rather believe and live in the reality that God is among us, calling us to love and serve in this place.
As we do so, we find home, we are replanted in the place of God’s caring and love. For he came to our place, and made it his. But this is not the end of the story.
And so we wait. . . .
“Away in a Manger” PsH 348/349, PH 24/25, RL 213/214, SFL 129, TH 204/205, TWC 147/149
“What Child Is This?” PH 53, RL 217, TH 213, TWC 150
“Angels We Have Heard on High” PsH 347, PH 23, RL 206, TH 214, TWC 152
“Joy to the World” PsH 337, PH 40, RL 198, SFL 137, TH 195, TWC 146
“Glory to God” PsH 214
FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
A FAMILIAR YET NEW PLACE
Place: The New Jerusalem
Hebrews 11:1-2, 10; 12:22-29; Revelation 21:1-5
Here is a picture of God redeeming a new place—a place where we will all find rest and home. Finally, the full re-placement plan has been completed. God dwells with his people—for all of the earth has become his temple-palace. (The dimensions of the Holy City equal to the size of the known world in John’s day.)
Here we can explore what it is we hope for in this descending city. And we find ourselves not unlike Abraham. With eyes of faith, we eagerly await what we cannot see. Although we can experience some sense of re-placement, the fullness of our true home, our final place of rest, is yet to come.
And so we wait. . . .
“Christians Awake” PsH 350, RL 197, TH 209
“Oh, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” TH 535, TWC 477
“Jerusalem the Golden” PsH 618, RL 579, TH 539, TWC 754
“As with Gladness Men of Old” PsH 358, PH 63, RL 228, SFL 143, TH 226, TWC 181
“Soon and Very Soon” SNC 106, SFL 194, TWC 677
Banner: The New Jerusalem
[No image; just solid bright gold fabric.]
Advent and Christmas Banners:
Places Where God Is with His People
In the fall of 2003, Willemina Zwart, pastor of congregational life at First CRC of London, Ontario, Canada, came up with an idea for an Advent sermon series based on a journey through the redemption story. On the journey the congregation would stop at six places where God is with his people in distinct ways. Zwart and pastor Pieter Pereboom fleshed out this theme on the four Sundays of Advent, Christmas Day, and the Sunday thereafter. They asked me to make “a banner” that would focus on these six specific “places.”
Upon careful consideration, I decided to tackle these places one at a time, creating an additive series of banners: each week we would add a new banner to the one(s) from the week before, reminding the congregation of where we had been and helping them anticipate where we were going.
My challenge was to come up with an image that would physically and symbolically represent the essence of the specific “place” each week. The format for the banners as a group was dictated by the spatial and aesthetic limitations of the woodwork below the organ pipes at the front of our sanctuary. Each banner is eighteen inches wide and eight and one-half feet long, constructed of a solid-colored fabric. Since Advent celebrates our journey from utter darkness to the brilliance of the Christ child/king’s coming, the banners begin in a somber purple tone and progress, increasingly lighter, to lavender on the fourth Sunday of Advent, then white (cream) on Christmas Day and gold on the Sunday after Christmas. The first five banners feature gold-framed images in their upper portions. The images are composed of calico cotton components iron-appliqued onto a rectangular ground in cloissonee style (dark outlines).
For me, the weekly act of designing and constructing a banner turned into an intense and sacred time of prayer, creativity, and worship.
An Idea That Grew
Although it was not originally part of the plan, I continued to use the Christmas banner with the London logo as a central image/theme throughout the rest of the liturgical year. It provided continuity, reminding us where we have been and where we are going—this time on a micro scale, rather than on a macro scale. My most consistent method was simply to “play with” appropriately colored fabric and see where the Holy Spirit would lead me. The resulting installations usually were meant to evoke something of the essence of the season or day in an expressive, associative, or symbolic manner.
I used the Christmas banner for the following seasons and celebrations in the following ways:
- Epiphany: The Christmas banner flanked on either side by solid gold banners.
- Lent: The Christmas banner hung centrally, in front of a solid purple draping that was swagged and twisted in the middle at about eight inches above the floor (see photo).
- Palm Sunday: Five palm branches suspended in mid-air (on fish line) in an angled, vertical drop arrangement, directly in front of the Christmas banner and Lenten draping.
- Good Friday: The Christmas banner completely shrouded in black; in front of it we placed a rough wooden cross with a set of candles used in the liturgy and the communion table (see photo).
- Easter Day and Season: The Christmas banner was hung centrally in front of a bright, white satin draping that reached to the floor in a sweeping curve and formed a neatly folded cloth in the central hollow (see photo).
- Pentecost: The Christmas banner was hung in front of a solid red draping, the edges of which cascaded down onto the floor in a central hollow (see photo).
- Trinity Season: The Christmas banner hung in front of a green calico panel which, in turn, was hung in front of a solid pea-green panel (see photo). This arrangement was designed for easy disassembly/reassembly given the length of the season and the frequency of weddings, and the like. For funerals an additional solid purple panel was added between the Christmas banner and calico panel.