From Mourning to Exultation: Seven Themes for Advent and Christmas with Art for Bulletin Covers

If you've ever waited for something important to happen, then you understand the significant feelings surrounding the Advent season. Advent is like an expectant mother waiting to give birth. She and her husband have spent months, perhaps even years, talking about and planning for this child. Advent is the last stretch of the planning. The time is coming close now. Is everything ready? Suitcase packed? Doctor and hospital phone numbers close at hand? Is it time? Now?

And then, Christmas! Yes. The Child is coming, entering the birth canal. Mother gives a few more painful pushes and the baby's whole body appears. Now you can give him his name. Now he becomes a person. Tears of joy overflow as anticipation becomes fruition. The pain of waiting is over.

Christmas! Jesus Christ arrives after years of planning, generations of anticipation, and centuries of preparation. And there's so much joy at his coming that it's no wonder churches in years past celebrated worship on the second and third days of Christmas as well as on Christmas Day itself. It's too bad that New Year's Day comes so quickly on our calendars, bringing Christmas celebrations to an abrupt end. There's so much more to celebrate, so much more joy that needs expressing.

Reflecting that need, the service plans on these pages offer themes for the four Sundays of Advent as well as several themes for Christmas services—themes that might be used in services on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Sunday after Christmas.

In these service plans we're following the Old Testament readings from the Common Lectionary for Year B, which predominantly reflects on Isaiah passages and relates them to the Psalms. You'll find the correlation quite intriguing as you trace the mood of Advent from mourning to hope to expectation to anticipation to joy to excitement and exultation.

And, of course, what it's really all about for the contemporary church is that our anticipation of the second coming of Jesus so closely parallels the Old Testament church's anticipation of his first coming that we go i through the same feelings: We experience the same emotions of excited anticipation, waiting for the proclamation of the Messiah. The joy of Christmas heralds the joy of his second coming.

The First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 63:16-64:8; Psalm 80:1-7

Advent begins with somber sobriety. The psalmist (in Psalm 80) sings of eating tear-stained bread and drinking tears by the bowlful. He remembers how it used to be, when God was powerful and people revered him. He's keenly aware that "the faith" does not command the respect it once did and that worship is not the exciting event it once was. And that's where the mood of Advent should begin in our congregational worship too.

A year ago most of us celebrated Advent and Christmas, and at that time we had a real sense that the coming of the world's Savior was going to make a difference in the world. But things didn't all turn out the way we thought they would—not for the world and not for us. So we begin Advent with a sense of disappointment.

How should we respond to this frustration? The prophet Isaiah leads us to respond in contrition, confession, penitence. He notes that we blame God for what's going wrong in our world, but the real truth is that we haven't even thought of "laying hold of God" (Isa. 64:7). There's no god as glad to help as our God (64:4), but no one appeals to the mighty God anymore (64:7). We've been "shriveling up like a leaf" (64:6) and "wasting away because of our sins" (64:7).

The first thing God's people need to do in Advent is to remember how powerful and loving God can be and has been in history. And then we need to confess that sometimes we don't even think of relying on him. That's where Advent begins.

Hymns
"Hear Us, O Shepherd of Your Chosen Race" (PsH 80)
"Out of the Depths I Cry to You" (PsH 130, 256; RL 134)
"O Christ, Come Back To Save Your Folk" (PsH 330)
"On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry" (PsH 327; RL 187)

Anthems
"O Come, O Come Immanuel,"
John Rutter. Plainsong, SATB, Cat.
#84,194 Oxford University Press
(medium difficulty)

"Savior of the Nations Come,"
Busarow. Concertato, Flute and
Organ, SAB, Fortress, 3-8305
(medium difficulty)

The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-13

If you were able to sustain the somber mood suggested for the first Sunday of Advent, then your worshiping community will be more than ready to hear the resounding "comforts" of Isaiah 40. In response to our confession, God comes with an incredibly strong assurance of comfort. Double comfort! Why do you suppose the word is repeated if not to make sure we hear it? Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her her hard service has been completed. She has put in her time. The time for punishment is over, and the time for salvation has come.

On this second Sunday of Advent, then, the church receives God's promise that he has heard her crying and is ready to begin the process of bringing the Savior into the world. A voice cries—prepare the way. Make the highway straight. Raise the valleys. Lower the mountains. All people will see the glory of the Lord revealed.

Do we dare to hope for the salvation of the world? The second voice cries: if it were just people promising, you wouldn't dare hope. But the word of God stands forever. So, preachers (v.9), preach the good news: the Sovereign Lord comes with power, gently nurturing his flock, carrying them close to his heart. Stretch your imagination to create word pictures that will capture the gentleness of our Lord's power.

The suffering is coming to an end. Things are getting better. The Savior is coming (again). We hardly dare hope for the world's salvation because the media keeps announcing the bad news. The preacher's job in Advent is to prepare the way for the good news.

Hymns
"Comfort, Comfort Now My People"
(PsH 194; RL 169; TH 148)
"Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding"
(PsH 332)
"Lord, You Have Lavished on Your
Land" (PsH 85)
"O Come, O Come Emmanuel"
(HB 147; PsH 328; RL 184; TH 147)

Anthems
"Every Valley," John Ness Beck. (Isaiah 40:4,5) SATB, BP 1040 Beckenhorst Press (Medium difficulty)
"Hail to the Lord's Anointed," Roy Hopp. Concertato, SATB, (Psalm 72) CRC Publications, 241-072-00

The Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11; Luke 1:46-55

The third Sunday of Advent finds the imaginary couple we spoke of in the introduction to this series beginning to feel the movement of their expected child. As the child takes shape in the womb, the expectant parents also begin to give "it" shape in their minds.

Isaiah urges us to think "expectantly" on this third Sunday of Advent. This is what the Savior will look like, this is what he'll say, this is what he'll do, this is the message he will present, and this is the kingdom he will establish. This is how it will be one day.

The period of Advent calls for the largest faith. There is so much "not yet" about God's kingdom and so much evidence against it in our world today. We who live near the end of the second century after the first coming of our King have still not seen the kingdom that Isaiah envisions. It's difficult to be an Advent Christian.

And yet, we believe. We believe that this is how it will be when he comes:

—The poor will have the good news preached to them.
—The brokenhearted will be made whole.
—The captives will experience freedom.
—Prisoners will be released from their darkness.
—Those who have gotten away with murder will experience God's vengeance.
—The mourning will be comforted;
—The faithful will receive a crown in the place of ashes.

Holding that vision before our eyes is the sense of expectation that captures the spirit of the third Sunday of Advent.

Hymns
"Hark, the Glad Sound!"
(PsH 335; RL 251; TH 162)
"Savior of the Nations, Come"
(PsH 336; RL 189; TH 165)
"O Lord, How Shall I Meet You"
(PsH 331; RL 368; TH 119)
"Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus"
(HB 151; PsH 329; RL 183; TH 145)

Anthems
"The King Is Coming," Wm. J. Gaither. Vocal solo with piano; G-0156 Alexandria House (easy to medium)
'Alleluia! Let Praises Ring," P. Nicolai/S.D. Wolff. (Wie Schon Leuchtet Der Morgenstern) SATB, 98-1911, Concordia Publishing (medium difficulty)
"Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise," Dale Grootenhuis. SATB. Available from the composer, 240 3rd NE, Sioux Center, IA 51250 (easy).

The Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7: 8-16; Psalm 89: 1-4, 19-24

As Advent continues, expectation becomes anticipation. On this year's calendar (1990), tomorrow is already Christmas Eve. And Christmas Day is only two more nights sleeping, as children count time. In many churches, this is the big Christmas weekend for worship. Some churches may have as many as four different worship services in three days. It is important, then, to be very clear about the unique focus of each of the worship services. It is also important that this fourth Sunday of Advent remain still clearly Advent.

Expectation builds now as you move from the more general work of the Messiah to anticipation about the person of the Messiah-baby in Mary's womb. She's only about fifty hours from being delivered; the world is that close to salvation.

The emphasis of the lectionary readings for this fourth Sunday of Advent is on the Messiah as the guarantor of the covenant that God made with David—the promise that a successor of David would rule forever over Israel (vv. 12-13). The context shows that David has just become king (2 Sam. 5), has proven his military prowess (chapter 6), guaranteeing the peace and prosperity of Israel, and is now interested in restoring the religion of Israel.

The real Advent impact of this passage is in 2 Samuel 7: 11: The Lord himself will establish a house for himself (see the excellent notes in the NIV Study Bible). The ultimate fulfillment of this promise is Christ, the King, born of the tribe of Judah, the house of David. This baby we're expecting in a few days will be the eternally enthroned King of kings.

Hymns
"The God of Abraham Praise"
(HB 89; PsH 621; RL 595; TH 32)
"Forever I Will Sing of Your Great
Love, O Lord" (PsH 89)
"Joy to the World, the Lord Is Come"
(HB 161; PsH 337; RL 198; TH 149)
"Of the Father's Love Begotten"
(HB 7; PsH 342; RL 190, 191; TH 122)

Anthems
"Jesus, Immanuel," K. Tee Scott. 1, 2 or 3 part, with keyboard. Code #566 A.M.S.I., Minnesota (easy to medium)
"The King Shall Come When Morning Comes," James Melby With oboe or violin and organ. Concordia Publishing House, 98-2660 (easy)

Christmas Eve or Christmas Day
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96

The baby is here. The days of waiting are over. The joy that now wells up in the hearts of the eager people of God knows no bounds. God has been true to his word: the baby has come. It remains to be seen whether the kingdom he has promised will also be established, but that's for a later day, when there's time to reflect again on the enormity of this moment. For now, we celebrate.

The lectionary brings us to the birth announcement of Isaiah 9:6. Notice how the prophet leads up to the birth announcement: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light." Israel had experienced military humiliation; they were powerless and insignificant in the eyes of other nations. The prophet wants to give them hope, so he reminds them of the miraculous way in which Gideon defeated the Midianites.

Our enemy, too, will soon be destroyed. But defeat will come through the surprise of a birth announcement (v. 6). Just when you think the prophet will announce some new military strategy to destroy the ever-threatening Goliaths, he surprises us with—a BABY!

And just when we want to object that that's no way to defeat the enemy (Satan), the prophet tells us what his name will be: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He will reign on David's throne forever.

Sing to the Lord that new song: The Lord reigns! The baby is here now! The time of waiting is over! Long live the King!

Hymns
"Sing To The Lord, Sing His Praise"
(PsH 96; TH 65)
"The Royal Banners Forward Go"
(RL 286, 287)
"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence"
(HB 148; PsH 341; RL 188)
"Come and Stand Amazed, You
People" (PsH 338)

Anthems
"For Unto Us," Natalie Sleeth. With trumpet or flute, SA, #340 A.M.S.I., Minnesota (easy)
"What Is This Lovely Fragrance?" Healy Willan. (Old French Carol) SATB, with organ, Cat. #42.171, Oxford University Press (easy)
"For Unto Us a Child Is Born, G. F Handel. SATB, Messiah (difficult).

Christmas Day
(Additional) Isaiah 62:6-7, 10-12; Psalm 97

The primary focus of our Christmas worship is, of course, on the King of kings. If you used the previous suggestions based on Isaiah 9, then you will have given the Christ child proper focus in your worship.

But now, if you have a second Christmas service, you need a different focus. Isaiah 62 provides that for us by drawing our attention to the fact that the Messiah's arrival changes the status of Zion, the Messiah's family. Her image is transformed. No longer will she be known as "Deserted" or "Desolate"; she will now be called Hephzibah ("my delight is in her") and Beulah ("married").

Whereas in Isaiah 40 the way was to be prepared for the coming of the Messiah, in Isaiah 62 the way is to be prepared for the coming of the people (v. 10). The gospel has been proclaimed (v. 11), and now the peoples of the world are streaming through the gates. That's the Savior's reward and recompense: that people will be converted and that society will be transformed.

If you began Advent with the sobriety of Isaiah 63, then this is a most fitting conclusion to your congregation's celebration of Christmas. We have moved from feeling nearly totally ignored by God, to crying to him for help, to anticipating the arrival of him who would redeem us, to celebrating his arrival, to now being renewed and revived in a life-changing faith.

Psalm 97 joyfully celebrates the effects of Christ's kingship over the whole world.

Hymns
"Once in Royal David's City"
(HB 462; PsH 346; RL 201; TH 639)
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"
(HB 163; PsH 345; RL 196; TH 168)
"O Come, All Ye Faithful"
(HB 170; PsH 340; RL 195; TH 151)
"Good Christian Friends, Rejoice"
(HB 165; PsH 355; RL 218; TH 159)
"Christians Awake"
(PsH 350; RL 197)

Anthems
"Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates," William Matthias. (Psalm 24:7-10) SATB, Cat.#42.380, A304, Oxford University Press (difficult)
"Star Carol," John Rutter. With optional children's chorus, SATB, X233 Oxford University Press (medium difficulty)
"E'en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come," Paul O. Manz. A Capella, SATB, 98-1054, Concordia Publishing House (medium difficulty)

Sunday After Christmas
Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98

The true culmination of Christmas joy is telling the whole world that its salvation is at hand. Our joy increases as we share our good news with others. Their pleasure in our joy increases our joy The good news of Christmas is essentially an evangelistic message. We miss out on the opportunity to have our own joy increase when we do not invite others to the celebration. It's like having a party but not inviting anyone because you want to keep all the food and games for yourself.

The church invites the world to sing (Ps. 98:9). Its song is not now the penitent dirge of the first Sunday of Advent. It is now a burst of enthusiastic praise (Ps. 98:4), with trumpet blasts and shouts of joy before the Lord (Ps. 98:6). Seas need to resound, rivers need to clap their hands, mountains need to reverberate with songs of joy (Ps. 98:7-8).

This final Sunday in this year's Advent and Christmas series needs to give the church the global vision of Christ's redemptive work. What began about a month ago, with a small group of people feeling despondent and wondering whether God would ever do anything again, culminates now in a growing mass of people with bold faith telling the world that God has indeed come with power to save. "The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God."

Hymns
"Our God Reigns"
(PsH 195; cf. RL 175)
"Go, Tell It on the Mountain"
(PsH 356; RL 224)
"O Earth and All Stars "
(PsH 433; RL 33)
"At the Name of Jesus"
(HB 143; PsH 467; RL 336; TH 124)
"Once in Royal David's City""
(HB 462; PsH 346; RL 201; TH 639)

Anthems
"Sing, O Heavens," Lloyd Webber. (Isaiah 49:13; 51:3), SAB, M.T. 1372 Novello and Company (medium difficulty)
"The Lord Is My Light," F. Allitsen/Stickles (Psalm 27).SATB, Octavo #10288, G Schirmer,
New York (easy to medium)
"Go Tell It on the Mountain," arr. Vangeloff. Spiritual, SATB, SP 804 (difficult)

All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version. All hymn suggestions are from the Psalter Hymnal (PsH), Rejoice in the Lord (RL), the Trinity Hymnal (TH), and/or The Hymnbook (HB).

The bulletin cover art on the following pages was created by Chris Stoffel Overvoorde, professor of art at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Subscribers to RW may reproduce this art for their own use.

Peter Hogeterp is pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Chatham, Ontario, and was a member of the editorial council of Reformed Worship.

 

Chris Stoffel Overvoorde is a professor of art (emeritus) at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is also a Reformed Worship editorial consultant.