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Coming Home for Christmas, page 1 of 2

An Advent and Christmas series that reaches out to inactive members and neighbors

Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go! Do you remember singing this bouncing little piece as a child? I sure do!

It was my song.

And it didn't seem to matter that the trip from Battle Creek, Michigan, where I grew up, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where Grandma and Grandpa Brown lived, didn't include a single river crossing and hardly any woods.

This song was mine!

Like Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy finding Nar-nia through a mysterious wardrobe door, the mere hint of the tune suggested everything that I loved about my grandparents' home: the unalloyed affection of the one person in my life—Grandma Brown—who couldn't define grace but lived by it; the mysterious smell of Grandpa's R. G. Dunn cigars (long before anyone worried about second-hand smoke); the prospect of high adventures with cousins rarely seen; and, of course, the cornucopia of "goodies" that graced her table of love!

Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house we go! This was my song!

I am no longer a little boy, and my heart has been tuned to sing other songs for Christmas, but the longing to return home—especially at Christmas— has never left me. As the Scriptures for this year's season of Advent and Christmas attest, this desire to come home is lodged deep in the human heart. We all long to go to our Father's house. Listen to Isaiah's call to come home:

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out ofZion shall go forth instniction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem."












—Isaiah 2:2-3, NRSV

Centuries ago, Augustine told the tale of everyone's heart: "You arouse [humankind] to take joy in praising you, for you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you."

As you plan for worship during this season of Advent and Christmas, perhaps the natural longing for the heart's true home—piqued as it is during this wonderful season of joy—can be joined to the ministry of pastoral care and evangelism. Surely your congregation has members who have fallen away and who need to be called home. Surely your neighborhood has some who need to hear the gospel's call to come home. If Isaiah and Augustine are right, these folks and others may indeed be willing to come "home" to your church for Christmas. In fact, recent research suggests that the biggest reason why many on the periphery of the church are not coming closer to the center is that they haven't been invited in.

In addition to some of the usual worship helps and sermon-building ideas, you'll find a pastoral letter (p. 17) that could be sent to inactive members who have not yet been removed from the church rolls. I hope these modest suggestions prompt the thinking and praying of your elders, evangelism committee members, and/or others groups charged with the responsibility of the spiritual oversight of your congregation and parish.

May God bless our efforts in calling many home for Christmas!

Note: The suggested sermon texts in this series are taken from Isaiah and the gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A. The calls to worship, prayers, and benedictions are based on some of the other lectionary readings for each Sunday.

For lighting the Advent candles each week, invite a small group of congregational members to participate at the beginning of each service. I've found that a group of four is large enough to draw on the rich diversity of the congregation, but not so large as to be overpowering. I encourage you to take the readings from the Bible you use in your pews, except when I suggest using excerpts from The Message by Eugene Peterson. The Scriptures used here are otherwise taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

Traditionally the Advent wreath includes a purple or dark blue candle for each week of Advent; sometimes a pink candle is used for one Sunday to express more joy. In this series, the four candles for the four weeks of Advent follow the sequence of hope, joy, love, and peace. The white Christ candle is lit on Christmas Day.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
CALL TO WORSHIP

(from Psalm 122)

I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go into the house of the LORD!"

Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

"May they prosper who love you. Peace be within
your walls, and security within your towers."
For the sake of my relatives and friends I will
say, "Peace be within you."


For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

LIGHTING THE ADVENT WREATH

The group should come forward, light the candle, and say the following:

First Person: [lights the first purple candle] }esus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

Second Person: Why do we light the first candle?

Third Person: Because it is the HOPE candle. Its light flickering in our sanctuary reminds us of the prophets' call, "Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!"

Fourth Person: Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus, we are open to your Spirit. We await your full presence. You alone are the world's true hope! Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

While we ask, Lord, for an Advent season filled with your Spirit, we sadly confess to having done so little with so much. Forgive us Lord, for not bending the knee, not reading the Book, not searching our hearts and 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 glorify Christ. Amen.

SERMON-BUILDING IDEAS

Scripture Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

The passages for the first Sunday of Advent point us toward the Lord's second coming in resplendent glory and away from his first coming in sequestered obscurity. While the very prospect of the Lord's return instills great fear, Isaiah intends Israel to awaken to a very hopeful possibility. The Coming One is surely a judge, let there be no mistaking that, but his presence alone will stop our warring madness and catechize us in the way of an uncommon peace.

Matthew's vision is a wake-up call for the faithful: "Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour" (Matt. 24:44). Hearing this, I am reminded of a character created by writer James Thurber called the Get-Ready Man. Dressed like sorrow and smelling of hard times, he shuffles through the city streets wearing a sandwich board. THE END IS NEAR warns the front panel; JESUS IS COMING SOON! proclaims the back. With a raspy voice, the man cries out, "Get ready!"

When preaching from these passages, you will want to turn a careful ear to the very hopeful rhythm beating beneath and within each of them. Because you will likely have children in your worship service (and those who still have the grace to gather in the truth like a child), you may want to read a hopeful scene from C. S. Lewis's children's classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You recall that a large lion named Asian takes center stage in a mysterious land called Narnia where trees walk and animals talk. Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy have just heard from Mr. and Mrs. Beaver that this regal creature is reported to be on the move, and they are not at all sure that they want to meet him.

"Is he quite safe?" asks one of the girls. "I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver. "If there's anyone who can appear before Asian without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."

"Then he isn't safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you."

I have learned over the years that preaching may have the accuracy of arithmetic or the artistry of music, but unless it also has the alchemy of grace, it will not be effective. Somewhere between Isaiah's glorious vision of this remarkable judge who will do for warring nations what they cannot do for themselves and Jesus' unrelenting wake-up call, the mystery of grace will be heard. My prayer is that those whom you have invited to worship with you will have the strange and wonderful sense that they have come home at last.


SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
CALL TO WORSHIP

(from Psalm 145)

Men: I will extol you, my God and King,

Women: and bless your name forever and ever.

Men: Every day I will bless you,

Women: and praise your name forever and ever.

All: Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable.

LIGHTING THE ADVENT WREATH

Follow the pattern established for the first Sunday of Advent. Invite as wide and interesting a cross section of your congregation as possible to share in this rich and lovely tradition.

First Person: [lights two purple candles] Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

Second Person: Why do we light the second candle?

Third Person: Because it is the JOY candle. Its light flickering in our sanctuary tunes our hearts to sing the angel's joy, "Glory to God in the highest!"

Fourth Person: Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus, we are open to your Spirit. We await your full presence. You alone are the world's true hope! Amen.

Subscribers to RW may reproduce this bulletin cover.

Coming Home for ChristmAS

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

(based on Romans 15:4-13)

Living God, with whom we trifle at our own peril, you have given us the Book that we might have hope—but we seldom read it; you have bid us to welcome our neighbors and widen the circle of your love—but we prefer "our own."

Forgive us our sins, O God, and soften our hardened hearts that we may enter once again into the joy and peace of believing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

SERMON-BUILDING IDEAS

Scripture Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

The lessons for today are a finely woven fabric with multicolored strains hemmed by a single thread: hope. Isaiah looks down the corridor of time, strewn with the wreckage of human corruption, blood-soaked with the primal antipathies that pit predator against prey, pockmarked by political intrigue. And what "to his wondering eyes does appear"? A day when "the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea!" He sees through the lens of revelation, a hopeful lens.

The apostle Paul also sings a song of hope punctuated by praise: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."

And the gospel writer—though he stands on Jordan's bank, hears the Baptist's strident call for repentance, and feels the threat of the blade of the ax at the root of the tree—knows that all of it "prepares the way of the Lord." He knows the way of revelation, a hopeful way!

Perhaps the most helpful image of all is the "shoot that comes out from the stump of Jesse." Those in your congregation who have "returned home" for Christmas will need to hear again of the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. How beautiful and hopeful is the image of the shoot of new life rising out of the stump of death!

  • To the well-dressed couple sitting near the back of the sanctuary, angry at themselves for letting their love die and the marriage dissolve: "a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse!"
  • To the steely-eyed atheist who doesn't believe a word of what you are saying but wants to hear you say it anyway: "a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse!"
  • To the hollow-eyed teen afraid of being shut out, and to the hand-wringing elderly person tenified of being shut in: "a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse!"

All of this hopefulness is hanging like ripened fruit on the branch that has grown out of the root of Jesse.

Enjoy Eugene Peterson's poem "The Tree," and consider reading it to your congregation:

Jesse's roots, composted with carcasses
of dove and lamb, parchments of ox and goat,
centuries of dried-up prayers and bloody Sacrifice, now bear me gospel fruit.



David's branch, fed on kosher soil,
blossoms a messianic flower, and then
ripens into a kingdom crop, conserving
the fragrance and warmth of spring for winter use.




Holy Spirit, shake our family tree;
release your ripened fruit to our outstretched arms.
I'd like to see my children sink their teeth



into promised land pomegranates
and Canaan grapes, bushel gifts of God,
while I skip a grace rope to a Christ tune.



—From Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, © 1993 by Eugene H. Peterson, Wm. B. Eerdman Co. Used by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.

Subscribers to RW may reproduce this bulletin cover.

Glory to God in the Highest


THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
CALL TO WORSHIP

(from Psalm 96, The Message by Eugene Peterson)

Sing Yahweh a brand-new song!
Earth and everyone in it, sing!
Sing to Yahweh—worship Yahweh!
Shout the news of his victory from sea to sea,
take news of his glory to the lost,
news of his wonders to one and all!






For Yahweh is great, and worth a thousand Hallelujahs!

LIGHTING THE ADVENT WREATH

First Person: [lights three candles] Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

Second Person: Why do we light the third candle?

Third Person: Because it is the LOVE candle. Its light flickering in our sanctuary unplugs our ears to hear the good news "that God shows his great love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us!"

Fourth Person: Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus, we are open to your Spirit. We await your full presence. You alone are the world's true hope! Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

(based on James 5:7-10, The Message by Eugene Peterson)

Gracious God, who through Jesus Christ has called us "friends," hear our embarrassed prayers through him. You bid us wait patiently; we grab and grasp like there is no tomorrow. You call us to build bridges to friendship; we build dividing walls of hostility. Thank you, Lord, for putting up with us this long. Let now our ordered lives confess the beauty of your peace.

SERMON-BUILDING IDEAS

Scripture Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:47-55; fames 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Our passages for today pulse with contemporary application. Isaiah envisions a great and glorious day of homecoming for God's people—a day when the wilderness will flower, the weak will ripple with vitality, ancient predators and prey will be joined together, and heartbroken sorrow will flee in the face of pursuing joy. The way home will not be a winding backwoods path but a superhighway called "the Holy Way"! Matthew's gospel tells us that when John the Baptist asks Jesus if he is indeed the "Coming One," Jesus cryptically but clearly tells him yes, then adds: "And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." Offense? Why would anyone take offense at Jesus? Spend some time thinking about this question.

We have come across this word "offense" before. New Testament Greek uses the word scandalon, from which we get our word "scandal." But don't let the association throw you off. Scandalon in the ancient sense had little to do with public response to the moral failings of the rich and powerful; rather, it meant "obstacles on the path." These obstacles include things that keep people from coming home. Matthew is trying to tell us that people stay away because they can't see Jesus clearly. Theological obstacles stand in their way.

James mentions another kind of obstacle, a social/relational one. "Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged" Qames 5:9). In your sermon, cast a vision of the "Holy Way" and find a way to clear up some of the wreckage that obstructs the return. Apparently Isaiah, Matthew, and James were all attempting the same holy task.

Our passages for today remind me of a scene from C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. Wormwood, a rank-and-file demon assigned to keep an earthling from Christianity, has failed. His assigned person has become a believer. Screwtape, Wormwood's superior in the guild of ensnaring Christians, provides some encouragement and counsel. "My Dear Wormwood," he writes.

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. . . . There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy's camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour. One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through out all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer. .. bustling up to offer him a shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbors. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like 'the body of Christ' and the actual faces in the next pew.... Keep eveiything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

Can you see the "obstacles in the path" keeping the people of God from their promised return? Spend time working the angles of this life-and-death concern!

Did you and your congregation enjoy last week's poem by Eugene Peterson? Here is another that you may profitably share:

The bawling of babies, always in a way
inappropriate—why should the loved and innocent
greet existence with wails?—is proof that not all
is well. Dreams and deliveries never quite mesh.




Deep hungers go unsatisfied, deep hurts
unhealed. The natural and the gay are torn
by ugly grimace and curse. A wound appears
in the place of ecstasy. Birth is bloody.




All pain's a prelude: to symphony, to sweetiiess.
"The peart began as a pain in the oyster's stomach."
Dogwood, recycled from cradle to cross, enters
the market again as a yoke for easing burdens.




Each sword-opened side is the matrix for God
to come to me again through travail for joy.

—From Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, © 1993 by Eugene H. Peterson, Wm. B. Eerdman Co. Used by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.


FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
CALL TO WORSHIP

(from Psalm 24, The Message by Eugene Peterson)

[Begin with a trumpet fanfare followed immediately by the following call to worship:]

Leader: Wake up, you sleepyhead city!
Wake up, you sleepyhead people!
King-Glory is ready to enter. Choir or Praise Team: Who is this King-Glory?



Congregation: God of the angel armies: he is King-Glory!

LIGHTING THE ADVENT WREATH

First Person: [lights all four purple candles] Jesus said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."

Second Person: Why do we light the fourth candle?

Third Person: Because it is the PEACE candle. Its light flickering in our sanctuary invites us to breathe deeply "the peace of God that passes all understanding."

Fourth Person: Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus, we are open to your Spirit. We await your full presence. You alone are the world's true hope! Amen.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

(based on Romans 1:1-7)

Living God, you have spoken to us in many and various ways, through prophets and apostles past. Forgive us for translating their words to fit our times:

They called themselves servants;
we prefer independent agents.
They lived in community;
we prefer autonomy.
They walked in humble obedience;
we're more comfortable with alternate lifestyles.
They relished grace and received apostleship;
we'll relish grit and receive nothing on our investment.








Open wide our hearts, O God, and fill us afresh with your grace and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

SERMON-BUILDING IDEAS

Scripture Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

A few years ago the rock diva Joanne Osborne made millions singing a song titled, "What If God Was One of Us?" Apparently, centuries after the fact, people are still interested in the incarnation.

Isaiah and Matthew are joined together by a sign. "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.

Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14). "All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel" (Matt. 1:22-23).

Please don't quibble with the congregation over the differences between Isaiah's "young woman" and Matthew's "virgin." These texts have been wedded for centuries by God's faithful. They point to one another and they point to Christ. And they urge us to live in the hopeful anticipation of still another coming!

I don't mean to race ahead to Christmas, but the combination of today's passages suggest that we ought to be talking about signs of Immanuel's presence today. I think it will be especially helpful for those who have responded to your invitation to "come home" to know that God indeed lives among us. People are still looking for a sign.

Simone Weil, a mystic and social reformer from an earlier part of this century, writes in her spiritual autobiography, Waiting for God, "I think, and so do you, that our obligation for the next two or three years, an obligation so strict that we can scarcely fail in it without treason, is to show the public the possibility of a truly incarnated Christianity." If she were with us today, perhaps she would amend this to say "our obligation until the Lord returns is to show the public the possibility of a truly incarnated Christianity."

We are still looking for a sign!