Share |

Looking for Life in All the Right Places: An Advent series based on John 1

To guide your worship during this Advent season I comend to you the prologue to the gospel John. I even have a suggestion for a series title: "A Believer's Guide to Virtual Reality".

What in the world is "virtual reality"? Even if the term doesn't suggest much to you, it will speak volumes to anyone in your congregation of college age and under. Virtual reality is the newest and best in a long line of 21st century hi-tech computer games designed \\ give the player a sense of "really" being where the action is. Rather than consigning players to a few square inches of display screen, elaborate headgear with extraordinary graphics capabilities hurtles the players through a meteor shower, throws them into a ring, or sends them slithering through a dark jungle. "Our aim," say its designers, "is to create a sense of 'real life.'"

Real life?

Are you and the people in your congregation looking for real life? Then look no further!

The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.

Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness could not put it out.

We all live off his generous bounty,
gift after gift after gift.

We got the basics from Moses,
and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
this endless knowing and understanding—
all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.

No one has ever seen God,
not so much as a glimpse.
This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
who exists at the very heart of the Father,
has made him plain as day.
—John 1:1-5,16-18 from The Message

by Eugene Peterson, pp. 184,185

On the pages that follow, you will find suggestions for worship on each of the four Sundays of Advent: scripts for members of the congregation to use in lighting the Advent Candle, prayers of confession, personal testimonies, and texts for the congregation to memorize. The largest contribution will be suggested themes from the text for the day: Advent 1, John 1:1-5; Advent 2, John 1:6-8; Advent 3, John 1:9-13; and Advent 4, John 1:14-18.

I will leave the idea of "virtual reality" behind from this point on. But if it seems a helpful touchstone to you, by all means pick it up. The theme of real life and its source for a world lost in a virtual reality is certainly appropriate for the Advent season.

THE FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Todays passage takes us to the very beginning. "In the beginning was the Word...." Our focus will be life in the living God. Henry David Thoreau worried that he might come to the end of his days and never really have lived. Listen for the way in which the gospel writer answers that anxiety.

Scripture Memory

For centuries the vast majority of God's people encountered the Word of God orally. Even today, large expanses of Christendom have no access to the printed page. In solidarity with those who haven't the luxury of the printed Word of God, and for all the beneficial effects of committing the Word of God to memory, I encourage you to invite the congregation to memorize this rich Word.

For each Lord's Day I will suggest a memory verse. The pastor should be encouraged not only to memorize the verse but also to recite it in the context of the preached Word. Ask church school classes to spend time each Sunday of Advent in memorizing the suggested verse for the day too. Some may even choose to memorize the entire prologue to John's gospel. Praise God!

For the first Sunday of Advent the passage to memorize is John 1:1,4: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...in him was life, and the life was the light of all people" (NRSV).

I suggest that the memory work be done from whatever version of the Bible your congregation has in its pew. Although I will refer often to Eugene Peterson's brilliant new paraphrase, The Message, I do not recommend that this or any other paraphrase be used for Scripture memorization. If you are going to hide the Word in your heart for a lifetime, let it be one of the best and more commonly accepted translations.

Lighting of the Advent Candle

Invite a small group of congregational members (a group of four works well) to light the Advent candle at the outset of each service, using the words of the Scripture youVe asked the congregation to memorize. (The Scripture below has been taken from the New Revised Standard Version. You will probably want to take these readings from the Bible you use in your pews.) Be sure your participants reflect as rich a diversity as your congregation offers. The group should come forward, light the candle, and say the following:

First Person: This is the first Sunday of Advent. The light of this candle, flickering in the sanctuary, tells us of the coming of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Second Person: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... (John 1:1 NRSV).

Third Person:... in him was life, and the life was the light of all people (John 1:4 NRSV).

Fourth Person: The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).

Pastor/Worship Leader: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen (Rev. 22:21).

Prayer of Confession
While we ask, Lord, for the most meaningful Advent season ever, we sadly confess having done so little with so much.
Forgive us Lord,
for not bending the knee,
for not reading the Book,
for not searching our hearts,
for not facing our sins.
Deal with us according to your tender mercies, O God!
Grant that when Christmas morning breaks for us this year,
we may have a fresh sense of your presence, and a renewed
resolve to live
to the praise of Christ's glory. Amen.
The Message

With the help of Eugene Peterson's insightful new paraphrase, let's begin to think about LIFE! Recently I happened to see a single-caption cartoon in which a small boy asks his father, who is planted before a television screen, a prophetic question: "Daddy are we live or on tape?" The prologue to the gospel of John has an important answer to that question—an answer to our question!

You would think, after all these years, that we would finally get it right, but the answer to the origin of life eludes us still. The October 11,1993 edition of Time magazine makes still another false start. Listen to the spine-tingling introduction to J. Madelaine Nash's article entitled, "How Did Life Begin?"

The molecule was not alive, at least not in any conventional sense. Yet its behavior was astonishingly lifelike When it appeared last April at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, scientists thought it had spoiled their experiment. But this snippet of synthetic UNA—one of the master molecules in the nuclei of all cells—proved unusually talented. Within an hour of its formation, it had commandeered the organic material in a thimble-size test tube and started to make copies of itself Then the copies made copies. Before long, the copies began to evolve, developing the ability to perform new and unexpected chemical tricks. Surprised and excited, the scientists who witnessed the event found themselves wondering, 'Is this how life got started?'" (p. 69)

Is this how life got started? Hardly! You want to know how life really got started? Listen to this: "The Word was first, the Word present to God, God present to the Word. The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one. Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!—came into being without him."

There are some extraordinary things to be learned from the prologue to John's gospel about the true identity of Jesus— namely, his preexistence—"The Word was first. . ,"; his intimate union with God—"... the Word present to God, God present to the Word"; and his divine nature—"The Word was God, in readiness for God from day one." But, let there be no mistaking it, what is written larger than anything else is this: life, meaning, and purpose (the sort of thing you have, or you have nothing at all) is not handmade, it is heavenmade.

In today's message be sure to underline what this gospel writer most surely wants to be heard saying: "Everything was created through him; nothing—not one thing!—came into being without him. What came into existence was Life, and the Life was Light to live by."

THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Today's concern is meaning. John the Baptist's existence was defined in terms of his importance to God's eternal plan: "He came as a witness to testify..." At the heart of twentieth-century malaise is a world-and-life view that has written God out of the script. Through today's service you will be given opportunity to respond to that.

Scripture Memory

"There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him" (John 1:6-7).

Lighting of the Advent Candle

■ First Person: This is the second Sunday of Advent. The light of these candles, flickering in the sanctuary, tells us of the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord.

■ Second Person: There was a man sent from God, whose name was John (John 1:6).

■ Third Person: He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him (John 1:7).

■ Fourth Person: The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).

■ Pastor/Worship Leader: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen (Rev. 22:21).

Prayer of Confession

Almighty God,
You who shaped out of nothing all that is,
forgive us for returning empty-handed.
You who called forth light,
forgive our preference for the dark!

You who sent John to be a voice crying,
forgive our unwillingness to say anything at all!
Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew right spirits
within us.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Message

Today's passage, John 1:6-8, introduces us to John the Baptist. I love Frederick Buechner's description of this wild and rare servant of God:

John the Baptist didn't fool around. He lived in the wilderness around the Dead Sea. He subsisted on a starvation diet, mid so did his disciples. He wore clothes that even the mmmage sale people wouldn't have handled. When he preached, it was fire and brimstone every time.
Peculiar Treasures, p. 69

I am struck by the way that the description of John seems to barge in on the prologue. The rest of the prologue tells us about Jesus. These few words tell us about John. A moment ago we were talking about preexistence and the expanse of God's created order, and then, like a lightning bolt, "There was a man sent from God... ." Isn't that interesting? The infinite and the finite, the transcendent and the immanent, the eternal and the temporal are joined in a single breath.

Is it possible that the gospel writer is attempting to tell us we need to reshape our vision of things? Maybe there is more to our lives than meets the eye. John's life and ministry, seen through the structure of the prologue, rises up from the eternal purposes of God.

I wonder if your life, or mine, is any different? Do our days have meaning? Are we merely specks on a vast sea of nothingness? This is a pretty important question to put straight to the heart. It's one of the questions Arthur Miller examines in his penetrating play Death of a Salesman.

Miller's main character, Willy Loman, is the consummate salesman. A salesman first and last. But he lives by the flimsiest of convictions: "The man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates a personal interest, is the man who gets ahead."

Among Willy's many problems is his inability to persuade his favorite son, Biff, to buy into this absurd way of looking at life. Willy keeps badgering Biff to become something he isn't— to buy into Willy's vision of things.

Finally the boy erupts, throws his father's dreams back in his face, and walks out. As Biff leaves, Willy rages, "May you rot in hell!"

If you know the play, then you know that Willy ends up killing himself. At the funeral, Biff comments, "He had all the wrong dreams—all, all wrong."

John the Baptist had the right dreams. What did he dream of? Why did he come? "He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in" (Eugene Peterson, The Message). His purposes were intimately tied to God!

THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

The theme for today deals with believing and receiving the Incarnate One. With deep humility, and complete dependence upon the leading of God's Spirit, pray that God will call people in your congregation to faith in Jesus Christ. Consider making provision for seekers to meet with spiritually discerning elders or pastors after the service. Give people the opportunity to personally respond to the gospel invitation.

Scripture Memory

"He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" (John 1:11-12).

Lighting of the Advent Candle

■ First Person: This is the third Sunday of Advent. The light of these candles, flickering in the sanctuary, tells us of the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord.

■ Second Person: He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him (John 1:11).

■ Third Person: But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:12).

■ Fourth Person: The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Rev. 22:20).

■ Pastor/Worship Leader: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen (Rev. 22:21).

Prayer of Confession

Bid the congregation to offer up their own silent prayer of confession. At the conclusion of the prayer a soloist, the choir, or the worship leader could sing the first stanza of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and invite the congregation to join in singing the fourth stanza.

The Message

Today's passage brings us to the point of decision. Will we be like those who rejected Jesus when he came? Apparently the question is still up for grabs! Title this sermon "Does God Have a Future?"

Actually the title is not mine. It belongs to the last chapter of Karen Armstrong's recent work with an ambitious title, A History of God. She claims that the idea of God has been so bullied through the centuries by angry ideologies, so pulled and padded by scheming means to meet particular political ends, and so stained by the raw sewage of the human soul as to make the whole idea of God dysfunctional.

"How will the idea of God (ever) survive in the years to come?" Armstrong wonders.

For 4000 years it has constantly adapted to meet the demands of the present, but in our country more and more people have found that it no bnger works for them, and when religious ideas cease to be effective they fade away. Maybe God really is an idea of the past? (p 377)

God—"an idea of the past"? Could that possibly be true? It may seem far-fetched, but if I understand the concern of the gospel writer, he shares it! If people didn't receive Jesus then, why should we receive him now?

When I was a boy, growing up in the shadows of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Battle Creek, Michigan, I and some of my buddies would play in the churchyard. Every so often, we'd screw up the courage to sneak into that dark old place of worship and just look—much like time travelers in another century.

I remember candles burning everywhere, doors creaking, and the odor of incense. But my most vivid memory of all is of the larger-than-life crucifix that hung above the altar. It was the saddest face I had ever seen. Jesus looked so alone hanging there—rivened side, bleeding hands, crown of thorns. I often wondered if he could see me and what I would do if he ever called my name.

The gospel writer wonders the same thing. As you ponder this idea together, you may want to share with your people T. S. Eliot's penetrating analysis:

It seems that something has happened that
has never happened before:
though we know not when,
or why,
or how,
or where.

Men have left God
not for other gods, they say,
but for no gods;
and this has never happened before

that men both deny gods and worship gods,
professing first,
Reason,
and then Money,
and Power,
and what they call Life, or
Race, or
Dialectic.

The Church disowned,
the tower overthrown,
the bells upturned,
and what have we to do

But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards

In an age which advances progressively backwards?

—T. S. Eliot, from "Choruses from the Rock,"  in Collected Poems 2909-1962, pp. 163-4

The heartbeat of the gospel writer moves us in another direction. His conviction, born of his experience with the One of whom he speaks, says that those who receive Jesus, who believe in his name—that is to say, those who have a hunch that God's future is as bright as his past—become something they could not become on their own. They are given the power to become the children of God.

Does God have a future? Yes! And ours is tied up with his!

THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

We bring our consideration of the prologue to John's gospel to a close today standing in awe of the Word become flesh. The theme for today is God's grace.

Scripture Memory

I hope that your experience in congregational Scripture memorization has gone well. Henri Nouwen once told a parable of a sculptor who was chipping away at a large block of marble when a young boy asked, "What are you doing?" The sculptor responded wryly, "Come back in a month and you will see."

A month later the boy returned to see the marble block miraculously transformed into a beautifully shaped lion. The young boy gasped with amazement, "How did you know there was a lion in there?"

The answer to the boy's query speaks to the need for Scripture memorization. The Scriptures, "Dwelling in us richly" (to borrow an image from Paul), construct deep paradigms in our mind. We are able to perform righteously in the world because we have hid righteousness in our hearts. Continue to find ways to renew this ancient and priceless means of grace.

Today's Scripture memory passage takes us to the heart of our faith: 'And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a fathers only son, full of grace and truth. . . . From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace" (John 1:14,16).

Lighting of the Advent Candle

■ First Person: This is the fourth Sunday of Advent. The light of these candles, flickering in the sanctuary, tells us of the coming of Jesus Christ our Lord.

■ Second Person: And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

■ Third Person: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace (John 1:16).

■ Fourth Person: The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. (Rev. 22:20).

■ Pastor/Worship Leader: The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen (Rev. 22:21).

The Message

Among the volumes that could be said about the incarnation, I want to commend to you something "tremendous" and something "transferable."

First, grasp the tremendous reality of the incarnation. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. ..." Four weeks into Advent our minds may be too crowded with yuletide crooning, our eyes too filled with yuletide dazzle, and our minds dulled by too much distilled yuletide cheer to sense any longer the tremendous claim being made. 'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." What that means is that God has moved in next door. Even as we speak, our mighty God is knocking at the door—and I doubt very seriously that he needs to borrow a cup of sugar!

Do you remember the poignant lines of Dorothy Sayers, the English playwright-theologian, concerning the incarnation? "We may call that doctrine exhilarating or we may call it devastating; we may call it revelation or we may call it rubbish; but if we call it dull then words have no meaning at all."

Second, be sure to dwell on the transferable nature of the incarnation. Transferable? Does that sound like the right kind of word to us in this "theologically charged" atmosphere? To "transfer," says Noah Webster, in whatever worn edition of his many dictionaries I have sitting on my desk, is "to convey carry, or send from one person, place, or position to another." When John describes the staggering interplay between the incarnate God and the children of God in these terms, "And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace ...',' "transferable" is honestly the first word that comes to my mind.

Let me share with you in simple pastoral terms how this works out, in hopes that it will call to mind similar experiences from the pastoral casebook of your congregation. Come with me to the bedside of a dying saint named Al, just a few days before his long and arduous battle with cancer ended. True saint that he was, he wanted to talk about his funeral.

Al's cancer left him virtually unable to speak. He communicated in low, raspy whispers at very best. Motioning for me to come near him, he simply said, "Preach on Hebrews 7:25."

Hebrews 7:25? "Consequently he [Christ Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them."

Al, nodding his affirmation of my Scripture memory, motioned me closer still. "Do you know who my favorite Bible character is?" he whispered ever so faintly.

"Tell me, friend," I responded quietly.

"The thief on the cross."

"The thief on the cross? Why ever the thief on the cross, Al?"

"Because," he said, with the look of a man who is moments from glory, "he, like I, was a sinner saved by grace."

"And from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace..."

Apparently God's amazing grace is transferable!

Confession of Faith

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, as we reflect upon the glory of the incarnation, you may want to conclude the sermon with these lines from the contemporary confession of faith of the Reformed Church in America, Our Song of Hope (st. 3 and closing prayer):

Our only hope is Jesus Christ.
After we refused to live in the image of God,
He was born of the virgin Mary,
sharing our genes and our instincts,
entering our culture, speaking our language,
fulfilling the law of God.

Being united to Christ's humanity,
we know ourselves when we rest in Him.

Come, Lord Jesus:
We are open to your Spirit.
We await your full presence.
Our world finds rest in you alone.