It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, all around the world." At some point during the upcoming holiday season we will almost certainly hear those familiar lyrics on the radio, on a TV special, or at the mall. What's more, we will know intuitively what those words imply—like most people, we know what is required for the world to start looking and feeling "like Christmas." Christmas means thousands of shimmering lights gracing trees, bushes, front porches, and sometimes entire houses, transforming the familiar landscape of our neighborhood into a cozy fantasy kingdom. Christmas means switching off the stark, incandescent illumination of our table and floor lamps and replacing it with banks of scented red candles and the softer, warmer light they provide. Christmas means seeing the shining eyes and flushed faces of children as they come alive to the wonder of the season. In general Christmas means mustering an attitude of "good cheer" as we all strive to create an aura of serenity, stillness, and peace on earth.
Hence, the ideal Christmas is one that is hermetically sealed off from anything sad or unsettling. Whether we know it or not, this "Merry Christmas" ethos is something we all buy into. For instance, if in mid-July we hear of a fatal car crash, we may sadly shake our heads at the tragedy. But if we hear of such an accident the week before Christmas, we feel worse. Unsettling news and sadness obliterate what we've come to believe the season is all about, so that we may even find ourselves thinking, "Well, so much for that family's Christmas!"
Such is Christmas in the modern world. However, as we will see, very little of that has anything to do with Advent. As our lectionary readings from Luke will make clear, true Advent requires a focus on topics that are anything but calm, bright, gentle, or cheery. Advent requires that we be unsettled and perhaps even saddened as we listen to the doomsday message "The End Is Near!", as we acknowledge our sin and evil, as we hear the bracing message that God abhors this world's proud fat cats.
Of course, as preachers, teachers, and worship planners, we do not wish to deny the genuine good news of Christmas or the proper sense of spiritual cheer that Christ's birth brings. But neither do we want that gospel to be larded over by the outer trappings of the season. Because for the good news to be truly good, it needs to come to the real world—a world that does not stop being harsh, evil, and dark just because it's Christmas. In fact, it's precisely that harsh, evil darkness that properly reminds us why a Savior needed to "advent" into our time and space in the first place.
(Note: The suggested sermon texts in this series are based on the gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary Year C. The Calls to Worship, Prayers, and Benedictions are based on some of the other lectionary readings for each Sunday.)
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Call to Worship (from Psalm 25)
Lift up your souls to the Lord.
Lighting the Advent Wreath
[Each week two children lead in this portion of the service: one as a speaker/reader, the other as the candlelighter. The lines to be spoken and the passages to be read are provided for each oftlie four Advent services. As soon as the candle is lit each week, consider having a children's choir sing the opening anthem for the service (the same anthem each week) —something such as Michael Bedford's "Prepare the Way for the Lord."]
First Sunday Reading
"Today we light the candle of hope as we anticipate the coming of Jesus, who himself is our hope for today and for the future. We read from Isaiah 40:1-6."
As the candle is being lit, the reader says, "We light this candle as a symbol of our Hope, who has come into the world."
Prayer of Confession (from Psalm 25)
Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Remember not our sins or our rebellious ways. For the sake of your holy name, O Lord, forgive our iniquity, for it is great. But you, O God, are good and upright as you instruct sinners in your ways. So also guide us to do what is right. Help us to live each moment in the light of that last moment still to come when you return in glory. On the day, grant that we may be found ready, waiting, and eager to take our place in your kingdom of shalom. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.
"Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus PsH 329, PH 1, 2, RL 183, SFL 122, TH 196, TWC 135
Blessing (from 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13)
May the Lord make your love increase and overflow. May he strengthen your hearts so tha youmaybebLelessandholyinthepresenceo
And being found in human form, he humbled himself...
Bulletin cover design based on o banner from Calvin Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Text: Luke 21:25-36
A scant three after the United States observes Thanksgiving Day, those of us who are pastors will be asked to wrench people's thoughts away from autumn and harvest thanksgiving toward winter and Advent. As if that is not a difficult enough transition, our text for the first Sunday in Advent actually directs us to consider not the first, long-ago advent in Bethlehem feedbox but Jesus' second, yet-to-come advent at the end of history.
Successfully training people's though toward that second coming is, to put it midly, a daunting task. This is all the more
true because many people no longer understand Advent. Once considered a solemn, deeppurple season of preparatory pentince, which gave equal time to Christ's first and second advents, Advent is now a four-week, extended reflection on the Christmas story and the over-sentimentalized way in wich it is usually told.(Indeed, some churches have now officially shifted the focus away from preparatory penitence-symbolized by the liturgical color purple-to a more generic time of Christmas anticipation, now symbolized by a new Advent color of light blue.)
But Luke 21:25-36 gives no quarter to sentimentality. This is a bracing text, chock-full of terror and apocalypse. It is an arresting way to begin Advent, but also oddly apropos. For this text reminds us of the reason why Jesus was born in Bethlehem: to make all things new by eliminating evil, banishing the wicked, and cleansing the cosmos of sin. Hence, Advent must never point merely to Jesus' first coming but must remind us of his second coming, without which Jesus' birth makes no sense.
So on this first Sunday in Advent we need to allow the stark imagery of Luke 21 to hit people between the eyes. One way to do this would be to contrast Jesus' first and second advents. The first advent is touted—even in some of our own Christian carols— as a still, silent, midnight-clear event. This is a story adorned by beatific smiles on the faces of children listening with rapt wonder as the stars gently twinkle and the landscape glistens.
The second advent, however, does not lend itself to sugarcoating. It's difficult to imagine Hallmark producing rosy greeting cards about the stars going dark and falling from their orbits. It's hard to imagine children listening with beatific smiles on their faces to a story about boiling oceans and people everywhere fainting from terror.
Contrasting these two advents is one way to uncover the true nature of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem. For if we are unwilling to celebrate and acknowledge advent number two, then the first advent means nothing. So we begin at the end, starting Advent 1997 by going "back to the future," understanding the past and present only in that holy light.
"We light this candle as a symbol of the joy that the angels spoke of..."
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Call to Worship (from Luke 1:68-79)
Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel!
For he has raised up salvation for us!
Praise be to God, who has remembered all his promises.
All of God's vows are "Yes!" in Christ, the Babe of Bethlehem.
Let us worship God.
Praise be to God, the bright and morning star, shining on us and guiding us toward peace.
Lighting the Advent Wreath
Second Sunday Reading
"Today we light the candle of joy, knowing that the coming of the gospel message through Jesus is the only way we can know true joy and happiness. We read from Luke 2:8-12."
As the candle is being lit, the reader says, "We light this candle as a symbol of the joy that the angels spoke of, the joy of knowing the Christ."
Prayer of Confession (from Malachi 3:1-4)
O Lord God, who among us can endure the day of your coming? Who among us can stand when you blaze before us in all your terrible holiness? We confess, O Sovereign God, that we have sinned. We have not loved you above all, and thus we have found it the more difficult to love our neighbors, who bear your image. Purify us horn all unrighteousness. Pour upon us your refiner's fire; wash us by your Holy Spirit. By your grace alone make us acceptable again in your sight, that we might stand with you in the blazing holiness ofjesus, our Lord, in whom we pray, Amen.
"Blest Be the God of Israel" (Song of Zechariah) PH 601, 602, TWC 332
Blessing (from Philippians 1:3-11)
May your love abound and increase day to day. May God himself, through Christ, make you blameless and pure until the day of Christ. May you be filled with the fruit of righteousness through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever, Amen.
Texts: Luke 3:1-6; Isaiah 40:1-11
All four gospels include the "make straight a highway" citation from Isaiah 40, and all four do so in connection with the work of John the Baptist. Because next week's text will deal directly with John the Baptist, it is perhaps best on this second Sunday in Advent to zero in on Isaiah's words about God's holy highway and their meaning for Advent and Christmas.
In Isaiah 40:3 the word translated "highway" is variously rendered as "road" or simply as "way" in the New Testament. That is probably because the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) flattened out the original Hebrew word, translating it into the ordinary Greek word for "road." But in the original Hebrew the word in verse 3 is very distinctive, referring to a carefully and intentionally constructed elevated road (a "high" way). Such highways were the major conduits for international trade and the only safe routes to travel between major cities and empires. They featured drainage ditches, paving stones, and good visibility so as to give no easy hiding places for robbers or wild beasts. All of this was particularly important for highways through the desert, as wilderness travel would otherwise carry with it a host of perils. In other words, the highway of Isaiah 40 is a carefully planned, intentionally built road.
But notice: this is a highway for our God. This is the road God designs, builds, and then travels upon to get to us, and in that little textual nugget is the whole gospel of grace. Most world religions acknowledge that life is a journey a pilgrimage of some kind. We are people "on the way" from birth to death to whatever lies beyond. To help insure a good sacred journey, most religions proffer various paths by which to journey into God's favor.
Thus Hinduism offers four paths by which to attain what God desires. Buddhism teaches that to achieve the serenity of nirvana one needs to follow an eight-fold path. Taoism also teaches us how to journey along the right roads to the divine. Indeed, the very word tao means "the path" or "the way." Even Islam rests on five pillars of discipline by which to please Allah and attain paradise.
Christianity alone among the world religions tells us that the beginning and end of our salvation is not how well, carefully, and diligently we travel to God but rather that our God in Christ came to us! Through the wilderness of chaos and evil that our world has become due to sin, God has carefully built a highway for himself. In Advent we prepare our hearts again to embrace the grand truth that God the Son took this road into our world, coming to us by grace "while we were yet sinners."
In a season where the Santa Glaus myth directs us to thinking about who's been "naughty or nice," the sermon for this second Sunday in Advent reminds us that God is no Santa. Instead, we fall back again on grace as God generously travels from heaven to the manger, gathering up his flock and tending it like a shepherd.
When the Lord arrives on this well-built highway, Isaiah's shout goes up: "You who bring good tidings to Zion, behold! Your God comes to you!"
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Call to Worship (from Isaiah 12:2-6)
God is our salvation! We trust in him and are not afraid.
The Lord is our song and our strength. Him alone do we worship.
Give thanks to the Lord; call on his name!
We sing to the Lord, for he has done marvelous things.
Let us worship God.
Let us shout aloud and sing for joy, for great is the Holy One who has advented into our time and space!
Lighting the Advent Wreath
Third Sunday Reading
"Today we light the candle of love, knowing that Jesus is the ultimate expression of the love of God. We know what love is because Jesus shows it to us. We read from 1 John 4:7-12."
As the candle is being lit, the reader says, "We light this candle as a symbol of Christ's love that has come into the world."
Prayer of Confession
O God of grace, we hear the Baptizer's cry, and we repent. Forgive us for words spoken that should have remained unspoken, and for words we kept to ourselves that could have brought cheer to someone's heart. Forgive us for doing deeds that harmed and for leaving undone deeds that could have helped someone. Forgive us through Jesus our Lord, we pray. By your Holy Spirit, now produce in our lives fruit in keeping with repentance. Cultivate in the garden of our hearts a generous spirit, an honest life, and a deep desire to glorify you. Through the Christ, Amen.
"On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry" PsH 327, TWC 136
Blessing (from Zephaniah 3:14-20)
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord take delight in you and quiet you with his love. May you rejoice in the Lord even as God rejoices over you, filling you now and always with his peace, Amen.
Text: Luke 3:7-18
No Advent figure has less of a "Christmas feel" than John the Baptist. But for that reason, no single biblical character can better reveal to us the hue, highly disruptive meaning of Advent than John—which is perhaps why he is so roundly ignored in most of our Christmas reflections. No one puts a John the Baptist figurine or statue into their front-yard creche (though Santa has been known to make an appearance!), no one hangs a John the Baptist keepsake ornament on their tree, and no one sends or receives any Christmas cards featuring John the Baptist.
Yet, according to all four gospels, John the Baptist is the necessary forerunner to Jesus. If you do not meet John the Baptist and heed his message, then you are unprepared to meet the Baby of Bethlehem. So the sermon for this third Advent Sunday must present John honestly, replete with his screwball oddities and his in-your-face message, "Repent or else!"
One way to do this would be to remind everyone what an immense impression John made in his own day. As the well-known writer Fred Craddock points out in his marvelous sermon "Have You Ever Heard John Preach," a great many people were certain that John was the Christ. Indeed, as late as the days after Pentecost, the apostles kept bumping into John the Baptist churches on three continents. Even the great preacher Apollos needed to be pulled aside by
Priscilla and Aquila after they heard Apollos proclaiming John to be the Messiah.
To put it mildly, John's preaching struck a chord, catching and holding people's attention. It should do the same for us today. For John knew that the Messiah was coming to die for sin, to banish evil, and to inaugurate shalom. So if you are to meet and greet this Messiah correctly, you must admit that you need him in the first place. If you don't, then you'll have no use for Jesus once he's born. John did everything he could to attract attention, shake people up, and so make them see things in a new light. John deliberately shocked and titillated, purposely pulled the rug out from underneath folks, was intentionally iconoclastic. He did everything he could to insure that people would be eager to welcome the Savior when he arrived.
Only those willing to turn their lives over to God are ready for the Christ. The rest, John says, are fuel for the fire. None of that is very Christmaslike. Or is it? A more poignant question we preachers could not pose.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Call to Worship (from Luke 1:45-55)
Our souls magnify the Lord!
Our spirits rejoice in God our Savior!
The Mighty One has done great things for us.
Holy is his name!
Let us worship God.
For he is our Maker and our Redeemer,
from generation to generation he gives his mercy.
Lighting the Advent Wreath
Fourth Sunday Reading
"Today we light the candle of peace, knowing that Jesus alone can bring peace to our hearts and also to our world. We read from John 14: 25-27."
As the candle is being lit, the reader says, "We light this candle as a symbol of the peace that Jesus has given to us—a peace that passes all understanding."
Dwight Baker, member of Calvin Christian Reformed Church, designed this Advent banner, which is 53" wide by 9' long, painted on linen, moving from very light blue/white at the top to a very deep blue at the bottom.
Prayer of Confession (from Hebrews 10:5-10)
O God, you do not desire outward sacrifices and offerings. What you desire is a changed heart, an inward turn to you in every way. We confess, dear Lord, that though our lives often look good from the outside, although we often do the right things and say the right words, our hearts are often far from you.
Sometimes we do even our most pious deeds grudgingly. Forgive us, we pray. Through your Son, the perfect sacrifice for all our sins, restore us by your grace. Purify us inside and out, making us holy through the offering of Jesus' body once for all, Amen.
"Hark! the Glad Sound" PsH 335, RL 251
Blessing (from Psalm 80)
May God make his face to shine upon you, assuring you of his salvation. May God's face shine down upon you, filling your homes, friendships, marriages, and places of work with his holy light, and so give you and all around you peace, Amen.
Text: Luke 1:46-55
As we cap off this Advent series in which we've been seeing how un-Christmaslike the Bible is, we turn to one of the few Christmas songs that has a solid biblical base: the Magnificat of Mary. But, not surprisingly, this song is as unlike a Christmas carol as you can imagine! Here you will find no midnight clear, no little town of Bethlehem sleeping tenderly in the night, no gentle bleating of sheep or silent suckling of the Christ Child. No, instead we find violent images of political overthrow and the banishing of the rich. Small wonder that C. S. Lewis once called this "a terrible song." By "terrible" he did not mean to imply that the quality of this song is poor. Rather Lewis meant "terrible" in that word's original sense of something that evokes dread or terror. In this last Advent sermon we preachers need to uncover what it is about Mary's song that is so terrifying and what this very unsettling message reveals about the true nature of Christmas.
It will come as no surprise to discover that this song has become a favorite of this century's Liberation Theology movement. For contained here is a fine vignette of a legitimate biblical motif: God's concern for the poor, downtrodden, oppressed, exploited, and neglected of the earth. Mary begins her reflection on this world's disenfranchised by looking in the mirror. As she regards her own humble status—keep in mind the exceedingly low position that women occupied in her day—she realizes anew that this is how God has worked throughout salvation history. God is forever reversing expectations, using the weak, the foolish, the runt of the family to accomplish his purposes. Mary is just the latest example of a very old, very biblical pattern. The sermon could perhaps point out other biblical examples of God's choosing the most unlikely of candidates for the job.
But the message can also point out that in Luke's gospel, this theme of the poor comes up again and again. Indeed, Mary's Magnificat contains a capsule summary of the gospel according to Jesus, her Son (as Jesus himself made clear in places like Luke 4 and 6).
The Magnificat poignantly reminds us that in Advent, and at all times, we are to examine our own hearts and lives. How faithfully do we incarnate the patterns of kingdom living as traced out by Jesus? At a time of the year when so many of our lives drip with fatness, when we spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on gifts and food, this may not be a popular— and it certainly will not be a comfortable—message to preach. But perhaps the sermon can point out contemporary examples of economic and social injustice. Perhaps, by way of redress, local agencies of ministry to the inner city could be held up as worthy of our volunteer time and money. Mary's song, like the figure of John the Baptist, doesn't fit into what Christmas has become for most people. Strong-armed lyrics of violent overthrow and reversal of fortunes discomfit us at a time when we want to be filled with good cheer. But if the lyrics of our favorite carols keep us from embracing the tmths of Mary's Magnificat, then it is not Mary's song that is "terrible" but our own songs, devoid as they sometimes are of the fullness of shalom that Jesus was born to bring.
Call to Worship (from Isaiah 9)
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light!
Here in the valley of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.
For unto us a child is born,
On this glad Christmas morning we hail him.
Praise be to you, our Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.
Let us worship God.
For he shall reign forever and ever!