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Remembering the future: service plans and sermon sketches for Advent and Christmas, page 1 of 2



FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Service Plans and Sermon Sketches
for Advent and Christmas
Scott Hoezee, with Kenneth Bos and Maria VandenBosch

One of the most striking features of the Christian faith is the claim that in Jesus our future has already appeared in the past. Jesus is, paradoxically, the “remembrance of things hoped for.” In his godly way of life, so fragrant of forgiveness and redolent of gentle grace, we see both what we will become in God’s future kingdom and what we are to strive for now. In his God-forsaken death, so stark in its hellish sense of divine abandonment, we see that the death that awaits each of us has already been conquered. In his God-empowered resurrection, so startling in its undeniable reality, we see our future as body-and-soul persons in God’s new creation.

What we are to be now and what we will become later can all be seen in the distant past. These service plans and sermon sketches for Advent and Christmas remind us of the kind of spiritual “time travel” Christians engage in when pondering the great things of the faith, starting with the birth of the Messiah. We will think about the end of the world and its connection to a birth two millennia ago. We will think about a far-off figure like John the Baptist and what his message tells us about our lives right now. We will ponder ancient history but then see how those very events should create a quiet center of reflection in our lives today and into the future.

The gospel lessons, as well as other supporting passages, are all based on the Common Lectionary, Year C. My thanks to Kenneth Bos for selecting organ literature and hymns based on these passages and to Maria Vanden Bosch for selecting children’s music and Advent wreath material.

Service Elements

Gospel Reading: Luke 21:25-36

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 50)

The mighty God summons the earth from the rising of the sun to the place where it sets.

Our God comes and will not be silent. God calls, and we respond to his love.

The heavens declare God’s righteousness.

We tell out God’s glories!

Offer up to God your thanksgiving.

SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT

And our God will hear us, save us, and stay with us forever.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

As we enter this season of Advent, may the love of God the Father, the grace of Jesus the Son, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all.

Amen!

Advent Wreath Suggestions

Note: Up to three children could participate in the Advent Wreath liturgy each week: one to light the candle, one to do a reading, and one to lead in a closing prayer.

Song: “People in Darkness Are Looking for Light”SFL 119

Each week the children’s choir can open the service singing stanzas of this song. On this first Sunday in Advent sing only stanza 2 before the Advent Wreath is lit (sing an additional stanza each successive Sunday in Advent).

Reading

Today we light the candle of hope as we anticipate the coming of Jesus, who is our hope now and forever. We read from 1 Peter 1:3: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope.”

Prayer

Dear God, as we light this candle and begin this new Advent season, shine the light of your hope into our hearts and world. Amen.
Sermon Sketch

A year ago much of the world was filled with apocalyptic speculations. What would the year 2000 bring? The much-touted Y2K computer glitch, not to mention predictions of terrorist activities, led some to hunker down last New Year’s Eve in basement bunkers surrounded by sacks of flour, cans of Spam, and loaded rifles. Even within the church there were some who proclaimed that all such events were possible harbingers of Christ’s return.

And then . . . nothing happened. Zip. The terrorists stayed home and drank champagne. The only Y2K glitches were humorous incidents like the man who brought back a video, only to be charged $10,000 for returning it 100 years late! But that was it. The lights stayed on; no one went to war; Jesus did not put in an appearance. Eschatology once again became what it had traditionally been—namely, a part of theology that rarely occupies the forefront of believers’ minds.

But as we begin Advent 2000, has anything really changed? Does anyone know any more or any less this year about the final ringing down of history’s curtain than they knew last year? For that matter, can preachers capture people’s attention with talk of the end times as easily as they could last year?

Whatever the specific state of mind in which the world, or a congregation, finds itself, the lectionary reading for the first Sunday in Advent forces Christians to bend their thoughts not toward the serene manger in Bethlehem but to a set of images that is anything but “calm and bright.” Advent begins by recalling the finite nature of reality as we know it.

These days many people are aware of the sometimes-grim things science tells us about our universe. We saw what the fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy did to Jupiter a few years ago. The twenty-one fragments (or meteors) that hit Jupiter ripped astonishingly huge holes into Jupiter’s atmosphere—some of those holes were larger than the entire planet Earth! If even one such meteor were to impact our planet, the likelihood of global catastrophe and loss of life in the billions would be very high. And scientists say there are lots of meteors out there.

But there are also other indicators of entropy and decay. The sun only has so much fuel and will one day burn out. Granted, it’s got about five billion years of life left to it, but it is finite! And so is the entire universe. It will either keep on expanding until it flattens out or, like a rubber band, it will snap back and collapse in on itself. If all of this seems faraway and unreal, we are altogether too aware that we human beings have, for half a century now, held in our twitchy hands weapons that could destroy all life on this planet many times over.

As theologian and physicist John Polkinghorne says, when we look squarely at the things science shows us about our decaying universe, the vital question theology must answer is this: In the end, will all be well? Will I, my children, my future descendants be OK? Science has no answer to that. Only faith can see such cosmic indicators of decay and still say, “Lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near.”

Why begin Advent this way? Because there’s precious little sense in doing much celebrating in the next four weeks if the birth of that little one in Bethlehem cannot somehow take account of the “death and decay in all around we see.” As we wish one another the season’s good cheer and say our “Merry Christmas” greetings, we do so knowing that Somebody’s coming. Even if the worst happens and heaven and earth pass away, the Word of the One who is the Alpha and the Omega will never pass away, and that Word is resurrection life! Believe that message and you will have more than sufficient cause to celebrate Christmas, the Advent of the Christ, with great joy, childlike hope, and lasting peace.

Service Elements

Gospel Reading: Luke 3:1-6

Call to Worship (from Psalm 126)

The Lord has done great things for us!

And we are filled with joy!

Our God has turned our weeping into singing,

Our tears into songs of joy!

O Christ of God, advent anew in our hearts this day,

and remain in us forever.

People of God, grace to you, and peace, from the One who was, is, and is to come; from the Alpha and the Omega, the ever-living One.

Amen.

Advent Wreath Suggestions

Song: “People in Darkness Are Looking for Light” SFL 119

Have the children sing stanza 2 (repeated from last week), followed by this new stanza composed by James Vanden Bosch to accompany the joy candle of the Advent Wreath:

People in sorrow are longing to smile.

Come, come, come, Jesus Christ.

People with sadness need joy all the while.

Come, Lord Jesus Christ.

THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT

These days of adventure when all people wait are days for the advent of joy.

Reading

Today we light the candle of joy because the good news of Jesus’ birth brings us and all people the greatest joy. In Luke 2:10 the angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ, the Lord.”

Prayer

Dear God, give us joy in our hearts now and forever. Help us to tell other people about this joy too. Amen.

Sermon Sketch

Luke was a stickler for detail, often being careful to list the governors, kings, and high priests of his day the way he does in Luke 3:1-2. Luke told his readers right up front that he had “carefully investigated” all these historical matters (Luke 1:3), and the fruits of his research show. Yet it is clear in this chapter that Luke has something more up his sleeve than just nailing down the historical frame of his narrative.

With a fine sense of irony Luke takes readers from the heights of Roman power and splendor in the person of Tiberius Caesar, down through some of his lesser lackeys in the empire, still further down through the ranks of the Temple hierarchy, finally arriving at the bottom of the heap: a lowly man named John, who called the desert his home. And it’s only when we arrive in the dead wasteland of the wilderness that we encounter the Word of God. God’s Word does not come across Caesar’s marble desk. It is not to be found in Herod’s inbox. It is not even heard by Annas and Caiaphas. Instead it is received in the most unlikely of places by the most unlikely of people: a bizarre self-caricature of a person named John.

This is the perfect sequel to the Son of God’s having been born in a barn. This is the God, after all, whose Son will shortly compare the kingdom to things like yeast hidden in dough and mustard seeds buried in the soil. But there is something still more going on in Luke 3, and it has to do with the message that John proclaims: repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Somehow it is oddly apropos that this message be heard in the wilderness. In the rarified circles of society where the Caesars dwell, folks don’t like to admit they have problems. Politics is about solving other people’s problems, not about admitting to your own. Certainly this is not the arena in which to admit that you are soiled right down to your soul’s innermost depths! Indeed, even when politicians borrow the pious language of confession, it is difficult to overcome the suspicion that it may be an effort to further political ambitions. When President Clinton sought forgiveness two years ago, a few took it to be sincere, many scorned its apparent utilitarian invocation, but no one could be completely sure.

The realm of the powerful and the elite is not generally the place to find arrows pointing to a better way to live righteously. Those who already live on the mountaintops of life don’t want to hear John saying that “every mountain and hill shall be made low.” If the promise of the valley’s exaltation is good news to those who live on the low-lying margins of life, it is bad news for those hungry to maintain power over the valleys.

But on this second Sunday in Advent Luke invites us to the desert. He wants our feet to feel the scorch of the hot ground, our eyes to be irritated by the sting of bright sunshine and blowing sand. John aims to unmake us by exposing all that is wrong with us and our world as the natural prelude to letting God, by grace, remake us.

No one likes to hear they need to repent. Nobody. In the last couple decades of the twentieth century there was much discussion about downplaying messages of sin and guilt—these topics were perceived to be “non-starters” for Baby Boomer seekers interested in returning to the church. But what’s new about that? Seldom, if ever, have people relished having a bony finger wagged in their faces accompanied by the message “Repent!”

We don’t like being told we’re wrong, and we don’t like going to the deserts of life to hear such things. If anything, we scrape and claw to get out of the wilderness to secure a place up on the heights where the beautiful people dwell. Luke reverses course on us in chapter 3, telling us with subtle historical irony the same thing Jesus would say: it’s by losing your life that you save it.

That is the hard message of John, which we need to go out into the wilderness to hear and appreciate. That is the gospel truth we must accept to receive the Christ whose advent this season is all about. For what does it say about us when we are willing, with great historical inaccuracy, to put the glittering Magi into our manger scenes without ever finding a place for John to stand?

Service Elements

Gospel Reading: Luke 3:7-18

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 85)

Show us your unfailing love, O God, our Savior

And grant us your salvation.

Listen to what the Lord our God says:

He promises peace to his people, who are his beloved saints.

The Lord will indeed give what is good.

Righteousness goes before him and prepares the way for his steps.

May the Lord make his holy face to shine upon us in this time of Advent worship. May we see God’s face and so know peace.

Amen.

Advent Wreath Suggestions

Song: “People in Darkness Are Looking for Light” SFL 119

FOURTH SUNDAY IN ADVENT

The children’s choir sings stanzas 1 and 2, plus the additional stanza provided for the second Sunday in Advent.

Reading

Today we light the candle of love because we know that Jesus is love, and he teaches us how to love each other. In 1 John 4:7 John wrote, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

Prayer

Dear God, we love you because we know that in Jesus you loved us first. As we light this candle, make us love each other more and more, and help us to tell about the love of Jesus to the whole world. Amen.

Sermon Sketch

Many of us bristle at what could be called the  “saccharinization” of Christmas. The generic sentiments of Hallmark cards seem wide of the Advent mark as the message of “peace and joy” gets neatly divorced from the One who is the source of peace and joy. The holidays have become associated with generalized feelings of goodwill and charity. There is no escaping all those sugary holiday movies and TV specials that reduce Christmas to a time when you help your neighbors a little more or when Scrooge wakes up a changed man and sends Bob Cratchit a goose.

But all such stories, sentiments, and movies neatly leave out the Christ of Christmas. The ACLU never threatens to have “A Christmas Carol” banished from airwaves the way they try to remove crèches from public spaces. What would be the point? This kind of “Christmas spirit” is about as wispy and insubstantial as the ghosts who visit Ebenezer Scrooge in the night. Preachers who want to help their congregations resist such a stripping down of the season do well to focus on themes like those that have emerged in the lectionary passages of the past two weeks: themes of Jesus coming again in judgment and of John the Baptist’s call to repent.

So how striking it is to discover in today’s reading some sentiments that end up sounding strangely similar to Hallmark-like reductions of the season to a bit of charity and goodwill! John the Baptist got the attention of the people of his day. His zany attire and shrill preaching brought out the crowds. John did all that he could to offend people in the hopes that in the throes of such offense the people might be rattled enough to change and repent.

It worked. Verse 10 has the people crying out in apparent desperation, “What should we do then?” In answer John encourages the cultivation of what could be called “Advent fruit.” Amazingly, however, John does not suggest holy pilgrimages or a more earnest prayer life. Instead, his advice veers quite close to the kind of neighborly goodwill often associated with a nonreligious Christmas. “Share your things with others!” His words could serve equally well as the slogan for a Toys-for-Tots campaign. “Be honest in your jobs! Don’t overcharge customers!” This too could be seen as general advice for good citizens. “Be content with what you get paid; be kind to others.” Ann Landers could not have said it better.

Be honest. Be good. Be content. Be nice. How simple! This is not the kind of Advent fruit you might expect John to cultivate. Yet perhaps the mundane nature of John’s advice tells us something about the Jesus whose birth we celebrate. Too often, even for Christians, the entire story of Jesus, starting with his birth, can seem so otherworldly. It contains events, portents, and miracles the likes of which we’ve never experienced.

Yet John brings Advent and Christmas down to street level. The flip side of John’s advice to the penitent people at the Jordan River reminds us that some things never change: the world is filled with temptations to be greedy and stingy, to exploit others for our own gain. These ugly facets of reality never change, and they are exactly why the Christ of God came. No one who came to John with the question, What should we do then? ever heard John reply, “Well, let’s see here. . . . Why, I really cannot think of a single thing you need to change! You’re all set!”

Alas, no. The ordinary circumstances of even the most typical of lives usually contain any number of characteristics or habits that could be changed for the better. The story of Jesus is not far removed from anyone’s experience—the application of Advent’s message is as near to us as the choices we face every day.

“What should we do then?” we cry. Share. Exercise kindness. Lift up the weak in justice. Be content and resist the incessant restlessness of mindless consumerism. Much of what it means to follow Christ into better ways of living seems so very mundane. But then, the word mundane comes from the Latin word mundus, which means “world.” God so loved the mundane that he sent his only begotten Son. Here is where Christmas comes home to us all—but not just for December. Instead, we follow our Lord everywhere, every day, nurturing Advent fruit on the branches of our lives long after the rest of society thinks such fruit is not in season.

CHRISTMAS DAY
Service Elements

Gospel Reading: Luke 1:39-56

Call to Worship (based on 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 God’s name!

Let us worship God.

For God is our Maker and our Redeemer; from generation to generation God gives mercy.

People of God, grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father, Christ Jesus our Lord, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Advent Wreath Suggestions

Song: People in Darkness Are Looking for Light SFL 119

The children’s choir sings stanzas 1-3, plus the additional stanza provided for the second Sunday in Advent.

Reading

Today we light the candle of peace, knowing that Jesus alone can make us feel at rest and calm in our hearts. We remember that in Philippians 4 Paul wrote, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Prayer

Dear God, give us the gift of Jesus and the Spirit so that our hearts can be calm and peaceful. Help us to know how close you are to us all the time, and help us to show you and your peace to other people too. Amen.
Sermon Sketch

Mary. She takes center stage in today’s lectionary reading, singing a remarkable song about the toppling of the proud and the exalting of the lowly. But although Mary proclaims truths that are near the core of the gospel, this does not mean she had it completely sewn up in her mind. The process of casting down and lifting up of which Mary croons will begin with the life and Mary. She takes center stage in today’s lectionary reading, singing a remarkable song about the toppling of the proud and the exalting of the lowly. But although Mary proclaims truths that are near the core of the gospel, this does not mean she had it completely sewn up in her mind. The process of casting down and lifting up of which Mary croons will begin with the life and ministry of her Son. Thus, Mary will end up being pretty close to the action, but it won’t be easy on her. Being close to God’s “action” in history seldom is.

When we read Bible stories about God’s chosen people, we tend to regard such chosen folks as the lucky ones. Perhaps at first the likes of Abram and Mary felt the same way. At first it looked as though being chosen was like winning the lottery. But suppose you were able to ask any of those people what it felt like to be a chosen saint. You might be startled by their answers.

Ask Noah how it felt to be the survivor even as he listened to the increasingly faint and diminishing cries of the drowning people outside the ark. Ask Abraham how he was enjoying being the father of the faith even as he prepared to plunge the dagger into his beloved Isaac’s chest up on Mount Moriah. Ask Mary how it felt to be the highly favored one of God when her Son turned her away one afternoon, claiming that his disciples were his real family now. Or catch up with Mary at the foot of the cross and ask her how she felt watching the life ebb away from her boy.

In Hebrews 11 we read a famous litany of biblical heroes. They all did wonderful things for God, the author writes. But in the end he sums up their saintly lives this way: “They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them from a distance . . . and they admitted that they were strangers on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).

Once God taps you the way he tapped Abraham or Mary or all the rest, you suddenly realize that you are a “stranger on the earth.” Suddenly you find your whole life staked to a passel of promises that—in this life—mostly remain just that: promises. We keep journeying toward what Shakespeare once called “the undiscovered country,” by which he meant the future. Along the way we see evidences of God’s presence and care. But at the end of the day, when our lives draw to their close, what we still cling to are the promises of God. It was no different for those we call “saints” or heroes.

But we resist such a scenario. We want the roads of the saints to have been smoother, their vision clearer, their sense of ultimate fulfillment keener. We prefer the confident Mary of the Magnificat to the Mary we meet elsewhere in the gospels: the mother who at times seemed confused, hurt, even peeved at the antics of her Son.

When Mary sang in Luke 1 about the exaltation of the lowly, could she ever have envisioned just how low her own Son would have to go on his path to exaltation (or how low it would drag her too)?

The last mention of Mary in Acts shows her in prayer. It’s a picture of an ordinary woman, not so very different from any one of us, struggling to keep holding on, albeit from a distance, to the promises of God in a world where it mostly does not look like the proud are in retreat in favor of the lowly. In that simple, humble posture of faith and prayer, we see the truth of the Magnificat as it should be seen also in our lives—that it is precisely such lowly folks whom God has lifted up and crowned with the good things of his grace.