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Advent is Hope: God's promises are for people fresh out of optimism

Give or take a year, 1884 was the year Clarence Wexler founded the town that bears his name. He drifted west from Paterson, New Jersey, prospecting not for gold but for coal. Coal mines were as good as gold when they were close enough to the Boston/New York/Trenton furnaces to connect by rail, and far enough west to ensure cheap labor. So it was that Clarence Wexler settled in mid-Appalachia to begin his dig.

Within ten years Wexler was a thriving mining town. Small at first, it drew hungry families from their languishing farms to share the hope of prosperity. New mining companies competed for land and labor. Main street was marked by Ted's Tavern on the south and First Methodist Church on the north. Within one generation Wexler had added a school. After two, Wexler had its own doctor, post office, and library.

The stories told at family tables and holidays began to change as Wexler took on a history of its own. As memories of Clarence Wexler and the East dimmed, the town of Wexler generated legends and a lore of its own. The stories moved between prosperity and tragedy, progress and disaster. "Remember when" became a favorite pastime on winter evenings and at summer picnics.

The people felt undercurrents of hope and fear in the stories. The fear of disaster deep in the mine shafts was always there, kept alive by the stories of the fires that took the lives of eleven fathers and brothers on one day and of nine other workers six years later. Reliving minor episodes that resulted in escape or rescue fanned hope and made the fear manageable.

While the stories of yesterday pointed to tomorrow, the skills for escape and rescue were needed today. All the mine workers were trained by veteran miners in escape techniques. These miners described desperate situations and taught survival skills and escape routes. They knew how to ration diminishing supplies of air, food, and water. If escape was possible, they knew how.

The townsfolk were trained in rescue operations. They staged practice runs involving men, women, and children. They could mentally draw maps of the mine shafts and knew the shortest and safest rescue routes. The miners knew what it would take to escape; their families knew how to rescue.

So when the people of Wexler felt the rumble on that May morning, everyone knew An explosion somewhere had caused a slide. Where was it? Shaft number 4. Who was in there? Thirteen fathers and brothers. It was crisis time, the time to work and pray for escape or rescue.

The thirteen absorbed the shock and kept their cool. They remembered what they had learned and practiced often. They knew what to do and what not to do. They rationed their supplies. They calmed each other. They sent their veterans to assess the situation and probe possibilities. Soon they knew the truth: if tliey were to live, they would need to be rescued.

They imagined what was happening above and outside. They knew how the whole town would gather to plan and work for their rescue. So they waited, shared their diminishing supplies, calmed each other, and—listened.

Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap-tap-tap. They heard it. Hope and fear pounded against each other. Help was on the way. The promise of rescue was sounding. They held on until, one by one, all thirteen squeezed through the opening to light and air.

The people of Wexler had another story of hope to tell on winter evenings and at summer picnics.

Optimism and Hope

Wexler folks knew the difference between optimism and hope—though they were not able to name it. Optimism was something they practiced through their escape training, techniques, and efforts. If only we do the right things, we can get out of this mess. If we save our resources, probe the possibilities, use the right tools in the right way at the right time, and don't panic, we can get out of this disaster. Optimism says: we can escape.

Hope arose when, fresh out of optimism, the trapped miners heard the tap-tap of the promise. They knew the unspoken promise that was built into their way of life: the town would shut down for a rescue operation whenever it was needed. They could picture what was happening above and outside. But when they heard the approach of the rescue team and could distinguish voices, they knew that help was near. That's hope.

Advent Hope: Promise and Power

At the time of this writing, President Bill Clinton is in the early days of his new administration. A wave of optimism has swept through the United States. By the time of this reading, that optimism may have waned. And by the time Advent arrives, who knows whether that optimism may smolder in the ashes of despair?

But Advent does not depend on optimism. Advent is rooted in promise, the promise that makes hope a way of life for God's people. God's promises thread their way through the Scriptures and through history. Whether they are the promises spoken to Moses at the burning bush, to the elders of Israel when Moses brought his report, to David when he wanted to build a house for God, to the exiles who could not make their way home, or to Mary of Nazareth who had nothing to offer but herself, God's promises are the only sure source of hope. Because Advent is a season to rehearse the promises of God, Advent is a season for hope.

Hope empowers. Hope sets in motion familiar subthemes in the Advent season: prepare, anticipate, wait, and watch. None of these can be practiced apart from hope, and none of these is passive when it is linked to hope. Each is a spiritual discipline through which the hope rooted in promise is practiced. Advent hope keeps the church spiritually exercised.

Advent Preaching and Worship

The theme of hope rooted in promise and producing power can be taken as a faithful theme for preaching and worship during Advent 1993. However, to prevent this theme from becoming a repetitive topic for the four Sundays, it must be planted firmly among the lections for the day With the first Sunday in Advent the Revised Common Lectionary begins Year B. Even for preachers who do not regularly follow a lectionary these sixteen lessons— including the Psalms—for four Sundays provide rich possibilities for both variety and consistency. For preachers who have been considering lectionary preaching but have not yet made the plunge, Advent 1993 may be a good time to practice.

But the matrix for Advent preaching also includes what is happening in the church, community, nation, and world. It takes more than theme and text to grow a sermon; the events that shape the life and faith of the congregation also deserve a place. Is the congregation riding high on the crest of soaring membership and an exceeded budget? Are the members wounded because of a suicide or another divorce? Does full employment and prosperity bring a sense of guilt, arrogance, or indifference toward the reports of suffering and deprivation? Is the congregation divided over the issue of whether to spend money on an addition to the building? Have addiction and/or abuse taken their toll? Are there "doctrinal" questions that have been asked or that can be answered through pastoral sensitivity? Is there another international conflict that threatens to begin or promises to cease? Has the optimism present at the year's beginning given way to disappointment or despair?

When the theme of hope is planted among the lessons for each Sunday, and when the lessons are placed in dialogue with the faith and life of the congregation, the sermon can be born through patience, prayer, and labor.

SERVICE FOR THE FOUR SUNDAYS OF ADVENT

The following order of worship is intended to be repeated throughout the four weeks of Advent. The repetition of several elements will help to unify the focus of worship during Advent as congregations prepare to celebrate the first and anticipate the second coming of Christ. The different hymns

Expectation

Prelude

Lighting of the Advent Wreath (in silence)

Voices (from within the congregation):

Voice 1: I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.

Voice 2: My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.

Hymn: "Out of the Depths"
[PsH 256:2-3]

I wait for God, I trust his holy word;<> he hears my sighs. <> My soul still waits and looks unto the Lord;<> my prayers arise.
I look to him to drive away my night—
yes, more than those who watch for morning light.
Hope in the Lord: unfailing is his love;
in him confide.
Mercy and full redemption from above
he does provide.
From sin and evil, mighty though they seem,
his arm almighty will his saints redeem.

Leader: O people of God, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord is steadfast love, and with him is plenteous redemption.

People: And he will redeem us from all our sins!

Leader: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

People: Amen!

Hymn [see box on p. 7 for weekly suggestions]

Presentation of Jesse Tree Symbols
[this assumes that the symbols aw based on the lessons]

Proclamation

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture Lessons and Psalm for Singing

Sermon

Celebration

Hymn
[see box]

The Congregational Prayer

The Offering of Gifts

The Lord's Supper

Leader: As followers of Jesus Christ, who live in his world, we joyfully declare that he is our Savior and Lord.

We gratefully recall God's promise to reconcile the world to himself, to come among us in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word made flesh.

Jesus is the long awaited Savior, fully conceived by the Spirit of God and born of the virgin Mary. He is the only Savior.

People: To him we offer our hearts and lives, dedicating ourselves to holy living. For his sake we feed the hungry, reaching out to others in need. In his name we speak words of hope, inviting others to be Ms disciples.

When he returns and we see him face to face, we will join in a new song to the Messiah who is our Savior, Jesus, the Christ of God. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Prayer of Consecration, concluded with the Lord's Prayer spoken in unison

The Bread and the Cup

[The following section from Revelation 21 may be read as indicated, or the congregation may sing a setting of this text (see PsH 236). Perhaps have the choir sing the first half of every stanza, and invite the congregation to join on the second part.]

Leader: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying:

People: Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Leader: The God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

People: 'Amen" (sung three times)
[PsH 365, PH 299]

Postlude

Excerpt
PSALM AND HYMN SUGGESTIONS
Expectation

Week 1: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"
[PsH 329, PH 1-2, RL 183, TH 196]

Week 2: "Comfort, Comfort Now My People"
[PsH 194, PH 3, RL 169, TH 197]

Week 3: "Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers"
[PsH 333, PH 15]

Week 4: "The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns"
[PSH 615, RL 607]

Proclamation

Week 1: (Psalm 80) "Hear Us, O Shepherd"
[PsH 80, PH 206, TH 349]

Week 2: (Psalm 85) "Lord, You Have Lavished on Your Land"
[PsH 85,RL 165,TH 341]

Week 3: (Psalm 126) "When God Brought Zion's Remnant Band"
[PsH 126, PH 237, TH 360; see resportsorial setting with "Rejoice in the Lord Always" as refrain in ftefomicd Ytorship 25, p. 27]

Week 4: (Psalm 89):

"Forever I Will Sing"
[PSH 89]

"I Will Sing of the Mercies of the Lord"
[PsH 169]

"My Song Forever Shall Record"
[PsH 593, PH 209, TH 99]

"The Praises of Thy Wonders, Lord"
[TH 41]

Celebration

Week 1: "The People Who in Darkness Walked"
[PsH 192]

Week 2: "On Jordan's Bank"
[PsH 327, PH 10, RL 187]

Week 3: "Hark, the Glad Sound"
[PsH 355, RL 251]

Week 4: "Tell Out, My Soul"
[PsH 478, RL 182, TH 26]

MAKING AND USING THE ADVENT BANNERS

This banner is designed as a scroll; each week, a different section of the banner is revealed. To make the banner, you will need a long piece of purple or blue base fabric—either felt or some other stiff material (or material that has been made rigid with a stiffener). The front material should be a white curtainlike cloth, the same size as the base fabric, that can actually be ripped from the bottom (see drawing).

The first circle should also be made of curtain-like cloth—probably a light lavender or a light blue to keep it more subtle and transparent. The second circle should be a pale or dull yellow. And the third circle should be white, preferably cut from a satin fabric.

The size of the overall banner should be determined by the architectural restrictions of your local sanctuary. But the basic proportions of the banner should be maintained as much as possible.

To prepare the banner for installation, roll it up on a large tube of some kind (a carpet roll will work very well, and should be readily available in 10' widths from any carpet or furniture store). Cut the roll to the proper width and close the ends with two pieces of solid wood. Attach a piece of Jf x 2" wood about 5" long to the closed ends. Drill a hole large enough to let a string or wire through at the end of each piece of wood. The banner can be installed in this manner against a wall or from floor to ceiling.

Week1

The rend should be torn, not cut. It should show clearly on the bottom of the banner to symbolize our hurts and our sufferings.

Week 2

Roll the scroll so the rend is still visible but smaller, and so the circle on the top becomes partially visible.

Week 3

Roll the scroll further so the second circle of pale yellow is completely visible. By now the rend should have almost disappeared.

Week 4

Roll the scroll further so the white circle becomes partially visible.

Christmas

The whole white circle should be visible. It should actually be below the center of the banner to emphasize the idea of having come down from above.