Lighting the Advent Wreath
"Today we light the Christ candle as a reminder of Jesus, the Light of our world and the light shining in our hearts. We read from John 1:1-9."
As the candle is being lit, the reader says, "We light this candle because the Light of Jesus was born on Christmas and now makes all things bright."
Prayer of Christmas Adoration (from Psalm 96)
Father God, we sing to you a new song! Today we declare your marvelous deeds to the world. For you, O Lord, are great and are most worthy to be praised. You, O God, dwell in splendor and majesty, strength and glory. But by your tender grace, you have brought all of this majestic glory down to our world through your most precious Son. Today we worship you in the splendor of your holiness and in the shining radiance of your grace. We join the cosmic chorus of earth and heaven, of angels who sing and trees that clap their limbs in joy. Great are you, O God, and most worthy to be praised. Through the Child, Amen.
Blessing (from Titus 2:13-14)
Now from him who is our blessed hope, from him who gave himself to redeem us and purify us, from our only wise God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit to you, his people: may the grace, mercy, and peace of the Child be and abide with you all, Amen!
Text: Luke 2:1-7
In his brilliant novel Mr. Ives's Christmas, Oscar Hijuelos shows us the lifelong spiritual odyssey of Edward Ives. A deeply religious man, Ives had always found Advent and Christmas to be the most moving, spiritually significant time of the year.
But then one year, just before Christmas, Ives's son, Robert, is shot and killed by a mindless street thug. This senseless murder shatters Ives's ability to enjoy Christmas. How could he ever enter this time of the year again without remembering this awful event? Ives's journey through the years is chronicled in the novel, climaxing in his return to a Christmas service in which he is finally able to see Jesus again. But now it is no longer the innocent, baby Jesus he sees but the pierced, resurrected Jesus who knows and heals our pains.
As preachers we need to remember that there may be a lot of "Mr. Ives" types sitting before us on any given Christmas Day. Some may have a perennially difficult time with the holidays. But there may be others who have never had a bad Christmas in their lives— until this year. Perhaps a divorce is pending. Perhaps a job will be ending as of January 1, and the specter of unemployment clouds holiday cheer. Perhaps a dear spouse or parent or child died in the last year, and now there is an achingly empty chair at the Christmas Day dinner table.
Luke tells us that Jesus was born into the real world—a world ruled by a powerful Caesar and crawling with his lackeys; a world of poverty and of disenfranchised people. Luke shows us a cruel world where babies sometimes had to be delivered in barns amid steaming piles of manure and the acrid stench of cow urine. Luke very deliberately sets the world stage for Jesus' birth as a reminder that this event was not hermetically sealed from reality.
Indeed, all of the evangelists are skilled at showing this. Matthew follows up his Christmas story with the horror of Herod's slaughter of the innocents. Luke shows us Caesar in his faraway Roman splendor but then, by contrast, presents God's Son in a manger. Even before John can get to his wonderful "The Word was made flesh" line, he includes the unhappy verse, "He came to his own, but they received him not." The gospels want us to know that Jesus came to the real world in order to suffer for that world. This is the Jesus whom the apostles sketch out for us.
One day a man was sitting in church with his little granddaughter. During the sermon the child was scribbling furiously with her crayon on the back of the children's bulletin. "What are you drawing?" the grandfather whispered. "I'm drawing a picture of God," she replied. "Hmm," the man mused, "but no one knows what God looks like." "They will when I finish this picture!" the bright-eyed girl shot back.
"No one has ever seen God," John wrote, "but Jesus the Son has made him known." Well, take a look at the Son the gospels present. He is born in poverty, misunderstood by family and friends, derided by the religious authorities, killed off by the occupying Roman authorities. He truly is a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. "No one knows what God looks like." But the New Testament evangelists, all scribbling furiously with their Spirit-inspired quills, assure us: "You will when we finish this picture!"
The birth of Jesus truly is good news—it deserves the rejoicing of heaven and earth and all the joy we can muster on a day like Christmas. But as we've seen all through this Advent series, the best part of the Good News gets eclipsed from view if we over-sentimentalize "Christmastime" as a season that can give no quarter to hurt and sadness. As Christian preachers we dare not trivialize Jesus' advent by glossing over the suffering and sadness and sorrow for which he came. Jesus deserves our honest treatment of his advent. So do the hurting people in front of us.
Luke shows us a cruel world where babies sometimes had to be delivered in barns amid steaming piles of manure and the acrid stench of cow urine.
Don't miss the opportunity to order one set of thirty-four daily devotions for each household in your congregation. These warm and challenging devotions are based on the Scripture and themes introduced in this service planning series and provide a way of linking what happens on Sunday with home devotions during the Advent and Christmas seasons.
The following sample will give you an idea of what to expect in HomeLink. For order information, see the inside back cover of this issue.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 24
Read Mark 13
Perhaps you have seen this bumper sticker: "Jesus Is Coming Again. Look Busy!"
Behind the humor, many of us detect something we've worried about at one time or another. After all, we know that the Bible tells us to watch for the return of Jesus. Passages like Mark 13 warn us not to be caught "sleeping" when Jesus comes again. But what does that mean?
Back in the days when many Christians frowned on theater attendance, parents sometimes asked their children, "Would you want to be at a movie when Jesus comes again?" The idea was that you wouldn't want Jesus to catch you doing something sinful—especially at a time when it might be too late to say you're sorry!
Mark 13 makes clear that no one knows when Jesus will return. So since we don't know the time and the day, we need to be ready at all times for his coming. That's not easy. After all, at the very moment when the sky splits open, it is unlikely that every Christian in the world will be in church singing a hymn, in church school learning more about the Bible, or at a rescue mission ladling out soup to the homeless.
Suppose that when the last trumpet sounds you are having an envious thought. Suppose you are literally asleep in bed. Suppose you're on vacation, lounging in a lawn chair while sipping some lemonade. Suppose you're having an argument with someone or cheating on a test. Then what?
Happily, the Bible assures us that because of God's grace, it won't matter exactly what we're doing when Jesus comes again. God's love will never let go of us. He'll forgive our sins on that last day even as he forgives the sins we commit every day of our lives.
Why am I asking you to think about this? To help prepare you for Advent. That may strike you as strange. After all, we usually think of Advent as a time to focus on Christmas. But Advent is really about two things: one is the birth of a Baby in Bethlehem; the other is the coming of a mighty King at the end of time.
So in these devotions and in our church services over the next five weeks, we will try to get ourselves ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But we must understand that a big part of what it means to be ready for Christmas is to be ready also for the day when Jesus the King returns.
What does it mean to watch and be ready for Jesus? Let's think and pray hard about that question during these next few weeks. Let's make this Advent a time to get ready not just for the baby Jesus but also for the crucified Jesus who died to save us and who will one day return to make our world beautiful for God once again.
Something to Think About
Think about the words get ready. When you and your friends or members of your family talk about getting ready to go on vacation, what do you mean? How do we get ready for Christmas?