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He Will Come: Seven themes for Advent and Christmas, page 1 of 2

 

In the film Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella hears a mysterious voice prompting, "If you build it, he will come." The first to come to the baseball diamond that Kinsella builds in a cornfield is "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a player long ago exiled from baseball because of the "Black" Sox scandal. Then Terence Mann, despondent radical from the sixties, is dragged from hiding to recover his zest for adventure. Next, the deceased "Doc" Graham nobly surrenders his baseball ambitions again to be the compassionate healer. Finally, the father Ray never really knew in life returns as a hopeful, young baseball player and plays catch with his unrecognized son.

The film Field of Dreams rehearses the human longing for resolving rifts in relationships and for fulfilling the fantasies of fellowship between parent and child. Across the "field of dreams" parade the heroes who are at once elevated to legend and painfully flawed. Each one's visit is as healing for that individual as it is for Ray.

Unlike sports that use a play clock, in baseball a scoring rally can be kept alive as long as each successive batter hits safely. The decay of time is temporarily held at bay.

Like Kinsella and the other "heroes" in the film, we each yearn to be liberated from our brokenness, anxious for the redemption of our own selves and of our heroes. From Ponce de Leon's quest for the fountain of youth to the undertaker's art, we wrestle with clock and calendar to deny the inevitability of our decline and death. We will pay any price, perform any absurd actóeven make movies about baseball diamonds in the middle of cornfields—on the off chance of escaping the inevitable. The more implausible the price, the more power we assign to the "remedy." Yet, someone always makes the third out, and time snaps us up again.

Every Advent reminds us that the clock is running. We are waiting for redemption as God's people have waited throughout the centuries. Advent stirs up our yearnings for harmonious relationships and for an environment of wholeness in which everything works right. Our Advent recollections of the generations waiting for God's Messiah to come point out the paradox of the way we wait for our Savior to come. We fragment our energy into seeking justice and prosperity, peace and power, in family, career, community, government, and even church. The measure of our present effectiveness is disjointed frustration and a glimpse of impending success. We must wait for Jesus to come to integrate our work and our hopes. We are building with the expectation that he will come.

Christmas reminds us that grandiose misconceptions of what or whom to expect prevented most people from recognizing Jesus as God's chosen Christ when he did come. From the baby in a manger, to a poor carpenter turned itinerant teacher, to the "criminal" hanging on a cross, Jesus did not appear to be the one people were expecting to come. Part of the problem is that while Christmas is a major turning point in God's redemptive drama, it is not the climax. Rather, it opens a new era of waiting. God has planted a hidden kingdom. All who recognize its incognito King are invited to start living as its citizens, by faith participating in God's work of revealing its full glory. We are still building with the expectation that our King will come.

As we build, we are stalked by a deadly and stealthy foe: the temptation to believe that our act of building allows our Lord to come. The parade of heroes needed Ray Kinsella to build the field of dreams before they could come. But, though Jesus extends to us the opportunity of building by faith in his kingdom, he is in no way dependent on us. When Jesus comes, he will unveil the full splendor of his kingdom.

Our worship during Advent and Christmas not only equips us to wait for his coming but encourages us to celebrate in anticipation. As we worship, God uses the exhilarating expectation of the coming kingdom to stimulate our desire to build, so that our waiting tensions are not only bearable but creatively energetic.

These service plans for the four Sundays of Advent, Christmas Eve or Day, and the two Sundays of Christ-mastide are intended to infuse a congregation with both jubilation at the stunning reality of the incarnation as well as the anticipation that Jesus will come. They are based on the Advent and Christmas readings from the Common Lectionary for Year C. These services, drawn principally from the passages in Luke, are interwoven with the other lectionary readings.

This Advent and Christmas, celebrate together that he who has come, will come!

The hymns in these service plans were selected from the most recent editions of the following hymnals: The Presbyterian Hymnal (PH), Psalter Hymnal (PsH), Rejoice in the Lord (RL), and Trinity Hymnal (TH).

 

 

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Beware the Trap

 
Gospel: Luke 21:25-36
Epistle: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Old Testament: Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalter: Psalm 25:1-10

The steel jaws are disguised with twigs and leaves. The sensitive trigger is coated with succulent bait. The victim is not thinking, "Oh, I'll try to get caught in a trap by walking through that pile of leaves or nibbling on this treat." No, part of the terror of the trap is that it snaps shut unexpectedly. Advent opens with Jesus warning us that the day he comes will close like a trap on the unsuspecting.

Experienced trappers camouflage their work with the materials their prey would expect to see every day in their natural environment. Similarly, preoccupation with "the anxieties of life" (Luke 21:34) keeps us from recognizing the day of the Lord. Like animals rummaging for nuts and seeds in the leaves and twigs of the forest floor, we can become so absorbed in career advancement, upward mobility, personal fulfillment, individual rights, and community welfare that we are unprepared for the coming of the kingdom and we miss the trap peeking through the litter of our busyness. Worse yet, we are enticed by these illusions of happiness to gnaw on the trap trigger, oblivious to our own peril.

Advent is an opportunity to renew our perspective, to sort the enduring from the transitory, to glean the valuable from the worthless. When we witness the arrogance, greed, and violence of international strife; when we experience the distrust, decay, and hopelessness of our communities; when we are frustrated, dissatisfied, and full of stress in our jobs and homes—then we know we need the day to come when God "will fulfill the gracious promise" (Jer. 33:14). This first week of Advent calls us to recover a hope in God that is more real than our paychecks and bills or the nightly news (Ps. 25:3).

Despite our correct doctrine, the day of Jesus' return seems distant, if not unreal. We do not live with the expectancy that he will come. We have given up waiting and have focused our attention on the immediacy of today's tasks. Though we Christians fight over exactly how to understand and describe the accuracy, reliability, and authority of the Bible, we have lost confidence in Jesus' promise to come and reveal his kingdom.

This first week of Advent, Jesus assures us that though the earth seems so permanent to us, it will pass away.

His words, which seem so ethereal to us, will endure (Luke 21:33). If the expectation of the day when Jesus comes again defines our daily reality, the kingdom of God will replace our petty ambitions and anxieties. We will seek spiritual strength to be blameless and holy in the presence of God (1 Thess. 3:13). We will recognize and avoid the pitfalls of pouring our energy into routine existence. This Advent begins with Jesus opening our eyes to the all-encompassing reality that he will come.

Bulletin and Banner

The symbol for the bulletin and banner piece for the first week of Advent is a steel-jawed trap, open and ready to spring. Construction and use suggestions can be found on the facing page.

Worship Feature

One way of involving a number of people in the worship service is to have a different person or group of people light the candle(s) of the Advent wreath at the beginning of the service each week. One week it might be a family with children

(preschool, school age, or adolescents). On other Sundays two or three single adults, an older couple, or an elderly adult could do it. When the candles are lit, one of the group may lead the congregation in the Call to Worship.

To the Children

Show the group a stack of calendars. Talk about how hard it is to wait for special occasions such as birthdays, vacations, and Christmas.

Advent is the time of waiting for Christmas.

Explain that God's Old Testament people waited a long time—about two thousand years from the time God made the covenant promise to Abrahamófor Jesus to come. Just as he finally came the first time, he will come back to make everything that is wrong right. We, too, have been waiting a long time for Jesus to come back, but we know he will come.

Psalms, Hymns, and Canticles

"Of the Father's Love Begotten" [This hymn can be used to set a worship tone each week of Advent or Christmastide; use the final stanza as a seasonal Gloria.]
(PH 309, PsH 342, RL 190, TH 122)

"Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies"
(PH 462,463, PsH 481, RL 463, TH 398)

"Day of Judgment! Day of Wonders!"
(PsH 614, TH 319)

"Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates"
(PH8, RL185,TH198)

"Lo! He Comes, with Clouds Descending"
(PH 6, PsH 612, RL 605, TH 318)

"O Christ! Come Back to Save Your Folk"
(PsH 330)

Psalm 25
(PH 178, PsH 25, RL 94, TH 694)

"The Glorious Gates of Righteousness"
(PsH 179)

"The King of Glory Comes"
(PsH 370, TH 240)

 

Anthems

Gospel
"See the Fig Tree" [2-part, moderately easy]
Heinrich Schutz/Bowman (G. Schirmer)

Epistle
"E'en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come" [SATB, moderately difficult]]
Paul Manz (Concordia)

Old Testament
"There Shall Be a Star" [SATB, medium]
Felix Mendelssohn (Lawson Gould)

Psalter
"Show Me Thy Ways" [SATB, guitar and C instrument, medium]
Walter Pelz (Augsburg)

General
"Prepare the Way" [2- or 3-part, easy]
Allen Pote (Carl Fischer)

 

THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

The Refiner's Fire

 
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6
Epistle: Philippians 1:3-11
Old Testament: Malachi 3:1-4
Psalter: Psalm 126

Who doesn't dread a tax audit? As if the confusion of laws and the fear of an arbitrary auditor were not enough, self-doubt runs rampant. Are my records complete enough and in acceptable form? Have I interpreted the regulations properly? Are my calculations accurate? How do I balance being confident and compliant? Yet, a tax audit is minor compared to facing Jesus Christ when he comes again.

And he will come, so get ready. He expects you to be blameless and holy (1 Thess. 3:13), pure and filled with the fruit of righteousness (Phil. 1:11). No wonder Malachi cries, "Who can endure the day of his coming?" (3:2). But God does not leave us to our own devices for the eternal spiritual audit. God initiates a preparation program.

This second week of Advent we hear God's thundering mercy from John the Baptizer. "Repent!" he shouts, "for the forgiveness of sins." We can't cling to the comfortable anxieties of life that we stared down last week. We have to let God take them. He will scrape our most exalted ambitions down to ground level. He will lift our darkest griefs into his healing light. None of our human fallenness will hinder Jesus Christ (Luke 3:4-5).

We know that in order to appreciate the significance of the Christmas celebration, we need to be prepared during Advent by John's call to repent. Were it not for our broken humanity, God would not have sent his Son on the most amazing service-repair call of history. The Son of God was born as a human baby to mend our broken humanity.

However, the Advent preparation called for by John the Baptizer goes far deeper than seasonal readiness. He invites God's people, those who want to be faithful, to willingly submit to God's refiner's fire (Mai. 3:2) and to expect God to consume impurities through life's pains. This is not a single experience from which one emerges spotless. Rather it is a lifelong process through which God will complete the work of getting us ready to face Jesus until the day he comes again (Phil. 1:6).

If our reality centers around the daily anxieties we confronted last week, then we are tempted to elevate routine annoyances to personal persecutions, and our lives become meaningless. However, when we see reality in terms of the kingdom of God, then even profound pain comes in the context of significance. This does not mean that we should assign some mechanistic lesson to each hurt, but rather that we should acknowledge that suffering connects human fallenness with God's redemption. The sowing of tears yields a harvest of joys (Psalm 126:5-6).

While the refiner's fire hurts, it consumes the impurities that dilute the complete righteousness God intends for his people. For English-speaking North Americans the end of the twentieth century, the anxieties of acquisition may be the chief contaminants that God must burn out to get the pure silver and gold of righteousness. Few things distract us more from the kingdom of God than our houses, our cars, our fun, our success, and the fear that we might not get them all. This second week of Advent is the occasion to invite God to keep the refiner's fire going to eliminate these impurities until the pro cess is complete for the day when Jesus comes again.

Bulletin and Banner

The symbol for the bulletin and banner piece for the second week of Advent are the flames of a refiner's fire. Construction and use suggestions can be found under the heading "How-to" on page 4.

Worship Feature

To make the connection between the purifying work of Jesus announced by John the Baptizer and our redemption in the covenant community of faith, include the reading of the questions and answers relating to baptism from the Heidelberg Catechism (Q & A 69-74) as part of the service.

To the Children

Show the group several kinds of soap and detergent packages: hand soap, bath soap, bar soap,liquid soap, dish detergent, laundry detergent. Talk about how we use soap and water to get our hands, bodies, clothes, and dishes clean. Explain that, in the same way, we use water in baptism to remind us of how God makes us clean on the inside, spiritually.

Encourage children to pay attention to the reading of questions from the Heidelberg Catechism about baptism and being clean. Of course, we know that it is not the water of baptism that makes us clean for God. No, God does that through Jesus' death and resurrection. Once we have been washed, God wants us to stay clean and to confess our sins when we do wrong.

Psalms, Hymns, and Canticles

"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"
(PH 1-2, PsH 329, RL 183, TH 196)

"On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry"
(PH 10, PsH 327)

Psalm 126
(PH 237, PsH 126, RL 133, TH 360)

"The People Who in Darkness Walked"
(PsH 192)

"The Race That Long in Darkness Pined"
(RL 167)

"Watchman, Tell Us of the Night"
(PH 20, RL 168)

 

Anthems

Gospel
"Every Valley" [SATB, moderately easy]
John Ness Beck (Beckenhorst)

"This Is the Record of John" [SAATB, tenor solo, optional strings, moderately difficult]
Orlando Gibbons (Lavvson-Gould)

"Advent Message" [variable voicing, easy]
Martin How (Boosey & Hawkes)

Epistle
"He Which Has Begun a Good Work in You" [SAB, moderately easy]
Jan Bender (Concordia)

Old Testament
"And He Shall Purify"
Handel (from Messiah)

General
"Come, Jesus, Holy Son of God" [2-part, easy]
Handel/Hopson (Harold Flammer)

"Savior of the Nations, Come" [Hymn con-certato for SATB choir and congregation]
Paul Manz (Concordia)

 

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT:

Sweet Fruit

 
Gospel: Luke 3:7-18
Epistle: Philippians 4:4-9
Old Testament: Zephaniah 3:14-20
Psalter: Isaiah 12:2-6

The third week of Advent is traditionally called "Joyful Sunday/' and that theme is amply reflected in all the readings except the gospel lesson. "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" (Phil. 4:4). "Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem!" (Zeph. 3:14). "Shout aloud and sing for joy, people ofZion"(Isa. 12:6).

John the Baptizer's call for "fruit in keeping with repentance" (Luke 3:8) seems a jarring juxtaposition. The contrast heightens the harshness of the montage of John's preaching. "You brood of vipers!" (3:7). "The ax is already at the root of the trees" (3:9). "He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (3:17). This counterpoint is not just the concoction of the lectioner. Luke concludes his account of John's preaching by writing that John "preached the good news" to the people (3:18). How is such caustic language "good news"?

John was not interested in a hellfire-and-brimstone style. He was not even trying to embarrass his critics. John was looking for "fruit in keeping with repentance" (3:8). He wanted to see people's lives turned toward righteousness. When that happened, it was indeed "good news" and cause for joy. If, on this third week of Advent, we are to experience the authentic joy of the sweet fruit of repentance, we must hold John's standard up against the anxieties of life that dilute our repentance to mere self-righteousness.

All of John's prescriptions instruct us to hold our possessions loosely. If you have more clothing or food than you need, share them generously (3:11). Don't take advantage of a privileged position (like the hated tax collectors and soldiers) to gain wealth by overcharging, extortion, or threats (3:12-14). In summary, don't pursue money; be generous to others. To our society, one that wildly seeks success in conspicuous consumption, John's direction hardly seems the route to satisfaction.

This third week of Advent, consider this alternate path to joy. As the refiner's fire consumes the anxieties of life, freedom blooms. The frantic slavery of seeking the next level of success can be left behind. If you no longer cling to the ownership of your things, energy sucked up by their acquisition and maintenance can be redirected to people. If you don't buy it, you don't have to pay for it, fix it, or throw it away. Instead, you can thrive on the smiles and thanks of people. You can become a partner in the growth of others. Such freedom!

John's message was and is welcomed by those who were and are waiting expectantly for the day of Christ's return. Awesome though it is, John's message explains the way to be prepared to joyfully face Jesus when he comes. To follow this word is to rejoice as a partner with God in reversing the burdens of oppression.

Bulletin and Banner

The symbol for the third week of Advent is a large fruit. Construction and use suggestions can be found under the heading "How-to" on page 4.

Worship Feature

Either develop your own Confession and Assurance of Pardon based on the Gospel text, or use something like this:

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.

 

What should we do then?

Those with more clothing or food than they can use at once should share with those who have none.

 

We confess that we think more of our own pleasure than the needs of others. What else should we do?

Don't collect more than is right or just.

 

We confess that we are greedy and seek to accumulate everything we can, even when it hurts other people. What else should we do?

Be content with what you have and be honest with others.

 

We confess that we are discontented, always wanting more and better things, and that we bend the truth to our own ends rather than having full integrity. We need God's grace to repent and leave these sins behind.

Hear this good news! Jesus Christ, who came and who will come, baptizes all who depend on him with the Holy Spirit and with fire, so they can produce fruit in keeping with repentance and know his forgiveness. Be encouraged and praise God!

To the Children

Prepare thinly sliced apples ahead of time. From a plate, serve one slice to each child. (If you expect large numbers of children, prepare several plates and arrange for some helpers). As the children eat the apple slices, talk about their sweet taste. Explain that we become "sweet" people when we give up doing things that hurt God, other people, or ourselves, and start doing things that help others and honor God.

Psalms, Hymns, and Canticles

"Comfort, Comfort Now My People"
(PH 3, PsH 194, RL 169, TH 197)

"O Come, O Come, Immanuel"
(PH 9, PsH 328, RL 184, TH 194)

"O Lord, How Shall I Meet You"
(PHll,PsH331,TH156)

"Wake, Awake, for Night is Flying"
(PsH 613, TH 317)

He Will Come: Seven themes for Advent and Christmas, page 2 of 2 >>