Six biblical characters, six traditions of faith: an Advent/Christmas series based on Richard Foster's Streams of Living Water, page 1 of 2

Some time ago, while reading Richard Foster’s book Streams of Living Water (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), it occurred to me that it would be a good idea to plan a series of worship services based on this book. I was also beginning to plan for the upcoming Advent and Christmas services. As I began to explore the possibilities of combining the two ideas, I was struck by how nicely the two fit together.    

In his book, Foster contends that the Christian religion is comprised of six great traditions of faith:

  • Contemplative: the prayer-filled life
  • Holiness: the virtuous life
  • Charismatic: the Spirit-empowered life
  • Social justice: the compassionate life
  • Evangelical: the Word-centered life
  • Incarnational: the sacramental life

Using the image of a river that swells as its tributaries flow into it, Foster refers to these traditions as “streams of spiritual life” that combine to produce a community of life and faith which he calls “a mighty river of the Spirit.” He notes that each of these streams developed independently from the others and was characterized by specific historical, cultural, and geographical features, but that “the astonishing new reality in this mighty flow of the Spirit is how sovereignly God is bringing together streams of life that have been isolated from one another for a very long time” (p. xv).

The best of the Reformed tradition incorporates all of these streams in its worship and witness. Perhaps the Evangelical stream, or the “Word-centered life,” as Foster also identifies it, comes closest to the Reformed tradition, since it affirms the primacy of God’s self-revelation in creation, Scripture, and Jesus Christ as the guide for thoughtful Christian witness. But certainly faithful Reformed worship will address such things as the need for personal renewal and social justice—issues which, historically at least, have frequently received more emphasis in Christian traditions other than our own. Could it be that each of these six streams beckons Reformed Christians to rediscover the best of their own tradition?

In his book, Foster identifies one biblical character who he believes best represents each of the streams. In my service planning I was especially intrigued by the discovery of how individuals associated with the Christmas story in the gospels also represent each of these streams. Another way that this series reflected these streams was the inclusion of a prayer written by a historical representative of each particular stream, as identified by Foster. The prayers are from The Complete Book of Christian Prayer (see review on p. 39).

I was able to use this series to plan for the four Sundays of Advent, Christmas Day, and the Sunday after Christmas. (In 2002, all six of these services fall in the month of December.) I used the assigned lectionary readings for all but the gospel lesson, instead choosing a passage related to the person who exemplified the particular stream.

The series helped us to see the big picture of the Christian faith. Many people appreciated the emphasis on the diversity of the Christian faith. They also expressed appreciation for the opportunity to discover how Reformed Christians could benefit from the contributions other Christians have made to the broader family of Christianity, and how Reformed folks have contributions to make as well.

While believers often focus on the differences between faith traditions, this series called us to remember the one thing that binds Christians of all time, places, and doctrinal distinctiveness together: the worship of the Child of Bethlehem. Preparing for the birth of Jesus in this context also stimulated our Advent hope for his return—when the one church of Jesus Christ will be cleansed of all that has divided it, and when those who have gathered around the throne of the Lamb, from which the river of the water of life flows (Rev. 22:1), will be eternally united in their worship of God.

First Sunday of advent

The Contemplative Stream: Mary

Isaiah 64:1-9
Responsorial setting of Psalm 80 SNC 100
1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38, 46-55

Lord! Going out from this silence, teach me to be more alert, humble, expectant, than I have been in the past: ever ready to encounter you in quiet, homely ways: in every appeal to my compassion, every act of unselfish love which shows up and humbles my imperfect love, may I recognize you: still walking through the world. Give me that grace of simplicity which alone can receive your mystery. Come and abide with me! Meet me, walk with me! Enlighten my mind! And then, Come in! Enter my humble life with its poverty and limitations as you entered the stable of Bethlehem, the workshop of Nazareth, the cottage of Emmaus. Bless and consecrate the material of that small and ordinary life. Amen.

—from The Complete Book of Christian Prayer (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc., 2000), p. 217.

Note: This prayer was written by Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941), a widely acknowledged English scholar and author of such pioneering works as Mysticism, The Ways of the Spirit, and Worship, a study of the liturgical practices of a number of church traditions. A pioneer in the British retreat movement.

Song Suggestions
“Song of Mary” PsH 212
“Tell Out, My Soul” PsH 478, RL 182, TH 26, TWC 350
“Song of Mary” SFL 125
“Song of Mary/My Soul Proclaims with Wonder” SNC 102
“We Will Glorify” SNC 21, TWC 118
“How Majestic Is Your Name” SNC 24, TWC 61

Sermon-Building Ideas
“The contemplative life is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us,” says Richard Foster. “It is ‘an intimate sharing between friends,’ to use the words of Teresa of Avila” (Streams, p. 49). At the heart of this prayer-filled life is attentiveness to who God is and what God is doing. Of course, God is much more than our friend, but the reason why we can be attentive to God is because of the attention God has given to the humble individuals Mary alludes to in her song. Mary’s song exemplifies the contemplative tradition because it celebrates the activity of God in human life. While she is initially troubled by God’s plan for her, she agrees to partner with God in the accomplishment of his will. And today we celebrate that very reality in our lives. The contemplative tradition emphasizes the fact that God is mindful of us and continues to invite us to play a role in the doing of his will in the world. Ann Weems summarizes it well in her poem, “Mary, Nazareth Girl” (see sidebar).

Reading for the Lighting of the Advent Candle
The Advent wreath is a circle with no beginning and no end. It is a symbol of God’s unending love and faithfulness.

The prophet Isaiah said, “The Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” (Isa. 7:14)

The angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Greetings you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28)

We rejoice that we too have found favor with God.

God’s mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation.

And so we join Mary in the song she sings.

All sing: “Magnify the Lord” PsH 622, SFL 13

Nazareth girl:
What did you know of ethereal beings
with messages from God?
What did you know of men
when you found yourself with child?
What did you know of babies,
you, barely out of childhood yourself?

God-chosen girl:
What did you know of God
that brought you to this stable
blessed among women?
Could it be that you had been ready
for the footsteps
of an angel?

Could it be there are messages for us
if we have the faith to listen?

—from Kneeling in Bethlehem by Ann Weems. ©1985, 1987, Ann Weems.

Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press.

Second Sunday of advent

The Holiness Stream: Joseph

Isaiah 40:1-11
Responsorial setting of Psalm 85 SNC 201
2 Peter 3:8-15a

Sermon Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Let your goodness, Lord, appear to us, that we, made in your image, conform ourselves to it. In our own strength we cannot imitate your majesty, power and wonder; nor is it fitting for us to try. But your mercy reaches from the heavens, through the clouds, to the earth below. You have come to us as a small child, but you have brought us the greatest of all gifts, the gift of eternal love. Caress us with your tiny hands, embrace us with your tiny arms, and pierce our hearts with your soft, sweet cries. Amen.

—from The Complete Book of Christian Prayer, p. 376.

Note: This prayer was written by Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). Born in France, Bernard was a key figure in the Cistercian movement, which sought to bring reform to the monastic system. His outstanding life, hymns, and practical piety have continued to influence Christian worship practices worldwide.

Song Suggestions
“Lord, I Want to Be a Christian” PsH 264, PH 372, SFL 40, TH 530, TWC 563
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” PsH 329, PH 1, RL 183, SFL 122
“Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” PsH 481, TH 398
“Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” PsH 568, PH 376, RL 464
“Shine, Jesus Shine” SFL 239, SNC 128, TWC 721

Sermon-Building Ideas
The world does not place a great deal of emphasis on holiness. It cramps our style. It restricts our freedom. Contemporary voices frequently emphasize the importance of keeping one’s religious devotion a private matter, severed from public morality. Add to this the fact that our world often equates holiness with being “holier-than-thou,” and the challenge of affirming the contributions of the holiness tradition to Christian faith and life is all the greater. Yet Christians are called to the pursuit of holiness. Both the Old and New Testaments affirm that we are to be holy because God is holy. The closer we get to God, the more like God we become. Richard Foster puts it this way: “Holiness is progress in purity and sanctity. We are set apart for divine purposes” (Streams, p. 84).

No wonder Joseph—a righteous man who earnestly seeks to do God’s will, no matter the cost—is such a good representative of this tradition. Joseph models holiness, what Foster calls the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. Have you ever noticed that Joseph does not speak a single word in the gospels? His actions matter more. And among his actions, his decision to reevaluate his concept of righteousness stands tall. Joseph had every right to divorce Mary. The law was on his side. But God’s message to Joseph made it clear that the baby Mary was carrying redefines righteousness.

As Frederick Dale Bruner puts it, “from the instant that Jesus appeared on the world scene, even at his conception, he caused righteous people to rethink what was righteous.” This transformation is

precisely what every believer experiences. Jesus redefines righteousness because he is himself the righteousness of God, who reveals God’s holiness, models it perfectly, and invites us to participate in it.

Reading for the Lighting of the Advent Candle
The Advent wreath is a circle with no beginning and no end. It is a symbol of God’s unending love and faithfulness.

Its light reminds us of Jesus, the Light of the world. “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4, 5)

“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” (Eph. 5:8)

“If we walk in the light, as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)

“For you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.” (1 Thess. 5:5)

Jesus said, “Everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (John 12:46)

All sing: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” PH 43, RL 193, TWC 154 (st. 4)

Third Sunday of advent

The Social Justice Stream:
John the Baptist

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Song setting of Psalm 126: “When God First Brought Us Back from Exile” SNC 210
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Sermon Text: Luke 3:1-20

Here is a gaping sore, Lord: half the world diets, the other half hungers; half the world is housed, the other half homeless; half the world pursues profit, the other half senses loss. Redeem our souls, redeem our peoples, redeem our times. Amen.

—from The Complete Book of Christian Prayer, p. 151.

Note: This prayer was written by John Bell (b. 1949), Scottish-born musician and ordained minister in the Church of Scotland. A prolific musician and hymn writer, Bell is a music leader of the Iona Community in Scotland who is much sought as a speaker and workshop leader.

Song Suggestions

“On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” PsH 327, TWC 136

“Let Me Be Your Servant, Jesus” SFL 244

“Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love SFL 251, PH 367, TWC 436

“Toda la tierra/All Earth Is Waiting” SNC 93

“God of Justice Ever Flowing” SNC 101

“When a Prophet Sings of Justice” SNC 264

Sermon-Building Ideas
While the contemplative and holiness traditions focus inward primarily, cultivating a prayer-filled and virtuous life, the social justice tradition compels us to look beyond ourselves to a world that aches for redemption and release. Many of us tend to live such sheltered lives that we fail to see the reality of human existence in the world at large. According to one study, if the entire world’s population were reduced to a village of 100 people, this is what life in that village would be like:

  • 57 inhabitants would be Asian, 21 European, 14 from the Western Hemisphere, and 8 African
  • 70 would be people of color, 30 Caucasian
  • 70 non-Christian, 30 Christian
  • Half of all the wealth would be in the hands of 6 people and all 6 would live in the United States
  • 70 would be illiterate, 30 literate
  • 50 would suffer from severe malnutrition
  • 80 would live in sub-standard housing
  • only one person would have a college or university degree
  • no one would have a computer (The percentage of people who have a computer is so low that it doesn’t even equal half of 1 percent of the world’s population.)

These staggering figures point out the urgency of bringing the witness of the gospel to the world around us. As Foster writes, we practice the social justice tradition when “we feed the hungry. We help the helpless. We reach out to the orphan, the widow, the weak, the shoved aside” (Streams, p. 174). The preaching of John the Baptist confirms the importance of living the compassionate life—repenting of injustice and oppression and working to achieve the shalom of God’s kingdom here on earth. That’s particularly appropriate to remember during this Advent season, when we give expression to our hope for the return of Jesus. When Jesus comes back he will bring his kingdom to earth completely. Whatever sin has made crooked, Jesus’ justice will make permanently straight once more.

Reading for the Lighting of the Advent Candle
The Advent wreath is a circle with no beginning and no end. It is a symbol of God’s unending love and faithfulness.

Isaiah the prophet calls us to prepare for the coming of Jesus by making straight all that is crooked:

“A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isa. 40:3)

“Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isa. 40:5)

Let us prepare the way for Jesus, the Christ, who is anointed by God “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners.” (Isa. 61:1)

“For as a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.” (Isa. 61:11)

All Sing: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” PsH 328, PH 9, RL 184, SFL 123, TH 194, TWC 133 (st. 7)

Peter Hoytema ( is senior pastor at Midland Park Christian Reformed Church, Midland Park, New Jersey.


Reformed Worship 65 © September 2002, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.