What to Expect When You're Expecting: Six service plans for Advent and Christmas
Our Advent series was prepared by a group of Christian Reformed pastors and others from five different congregations in and around Listowel, Ontario. This peer mentoring group, which calls itself “The Preaching Group,” is also part of the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence program sponsored by the Christian Reformed Church and funded by the Lilly Foundation.
The Advent series presented here is the result of one project the group worked on as part of its goal to “raise the bar” in the area of sermon preparation and delivery. We found working together in preparation of this series to be a rich blessing. And each congregation represented added its own distinctive flavor, for example, in the artwork that was prepared and displayed.
—Jack DeVries (email@example.com)
Advent is the time that both ends and begins the Christian calendar. So often the focus during Advent is Jesus’ first Advent—his coming as a baby born in Bethlehem. As a preaching group we wanted to focus on Jesus’ second Advent—his soon-expected return. As we discussed what such a series of sermons might look like, we came up with the idea of “expecting,” drawing a parallel to the expecting that a couple does while awaiting the birth of their child. In this way we drew a close parallel between the first and second Advent of Jesus. What to Expect When You’re Expecting (by Arlene Eisenberg) is the title of a popular handbook for parents expecting the birth of a child. We borrowed that title for this series of six sermons. Our plan was to draw on some Scripture passages that compare the second coming of Christ to the pain and joy of childbirth.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT:
EXPECT BIRTH PAINS
Advent Candle Lighting
Lighting a candle is a simple yet profound act. It is a testimony to the power of light over darkness. When we look at the world around us we can see pain in suffering. But as we light the first candle of Advent we see that the light of one candle shines brightly in the darkness. As we light the candle, we begin our journey to Christmas in anticipation of the day when Christ will return in glory.
[Light one purple candle.]
Today we light the candle of hope. We press forward in our world of struggles and hardship as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ, who is our hope now and forever.
“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” (1 Pet. 1:3). In our hope of Christ’s return we find our strength for each new day.
Dear God, as we light this candle and begin this new Advent season, shine the light of your hope into our hearts and into our world. Amen.
Song: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” PsH 329, PH 1, RL 183, SFL 122, TH 196, TWC 135
All December long, children look forward to opening gifts. What can they expect to receive this Christmas? Parents expecting the birth of a child go through nine months of eager anticipation—perhaps also nine months of mixed emotions. What can they expect? Will it be a boy or a girl? Will the pregnancy go well? Will the mother feel sick? Will there be complications? Will the baby be healthy?
Jesus promised that he would come again. What can we expect as we expect his second coming? Expect birth pains, says Jesus (Matt. 24:8). Just as a woman experiences pain in childbirth, so too we can expect painful times before Jesus’ promised return. In seven verses (vv. 5-12), Jesus describes seven kinds of painful happenings that will take place before his return: false prophets and messiahs, wars and rumors of war, famine, natural disasters, persecution, people turning away from faith, and the love of many growing cold. Since that time, many Christians have read into the painful sufferings and natural disasters in the world as a direct sign that Jesus’ second coming is just around the corner. But Jesus reminds us that this is just the “beginning of the birth pains.”
A woman who feels birth pains is keenly aware that soon the baby will arrive. So too, as we see and feel the birth pains that precede Jesus’ return, we can be confident that Christ will come again. Jesus points out the lesson of the fig tree: as soon as the twigs get tender and the leaves come out, we know that summer is near, right at the door. And when these painful happenings take place, we know that Christ is at the door.
As we witness the “birth pains” that herald the second coming, we look ahead with eager anticipation to Christ’s promised return. As painful sufferings take place, we see Jesus’ prophetic predictions being fulfilled. Such knowledge enables believers to persevere—in spite of painful suffering. Our love for Christ should not grow cold; rather, we will stand firm to the end (Matt. 24:12-13; Rev. 3:14ff.). After all the birth pains are over, the end will come, and we will see the salvation of our Lord.
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT:
EXPECT GOD'S PATIENCE
“Toda la tierra/All Earth Is Waiting” SNC 93
“Abba, Abba, Hear Us, We Cry” SNC 211
“In Labor All Creation Groans” SNC 270
2 Peter 3:1-15a
Advent Candle Lighting
Waiting is hard in a fast-paced society. We want the stoplight to change quickly, the grocery line to move fast, and Christmas morning to arrive soon. We forget that before good things happen, preparations must be made.
[Light two purple candles.]
Today we light the candle of peace, knowing that Jesus alone can make us feel at rest in this chaotic world. He calms our hearts as we await his second coming.
In Philippians 4, Paul writes, “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.” May God grant us peace as wait for Christ’s glorious return.
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.
Song: “People in Darkness Are Looking for Light” SFL 119
Second Peter 3 deals with the delay of Jesus’ second coming. The people to whom Peter was writing were experiencing a crisis of faith. Why had Jesus Christ not yet returned as he promised? Many of them were becoming objects of mockery and scorn (vv. 3-4). The threat of some of these Christians falling away from the faith was real. Peter writes to encourage these Christians to persevere, to make their calling and election sure (see 1:5-11).
He reminds them that God’s Word is not only powerful but it can be trusted, and gives them the examples of creation and the flood. He goes on to explain that God’s timetable is not our timetable: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (3:8). The reason Jesus has not yet returned, says Peter, is because God “is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (v. 9). God’s “patience means salvation” (v. 15). But, he says, Jesus will not always delay. The day of the Lord will be like a thief whom no one expects. When that day comes the present earth and heavens as we know it will be destroyed, and God will usher in the new earth and heaven.
Jesus’ delay is not a time for people to be complacent about trusting and obeying God. God’s patience with us is an urgent call for people to come to repentance. Those who have repented of their sin and who believe in Jesus ought to “make every effort to be found spotless, blameless, and at peace with [God]” (v. 14).
“My Soul in Stillness Waits” SNC 95
“View the Present Through the Promise” SNC 90
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: EXPECT GODLESSNESS
“O Christ! Come Back to Save Your Folk” PsH 330
“O Lord, How Shall I Meet You” PsH 331, PH 11, RL 368, TH 156
“Wait for the Lord” SNC 96
2 Timothy 3:1-17
Advent Candle Lighting
Jesus is coming; shout for joy! In a world that finds pleasure in the abundance of material possessions, we find our true joy in Jesus Christ. We take joy this Christmas season as we look forward to his glorious return, when he will set us free from this godless age. Joy to the world is the message of the season.
[Light two purple candles and one pink candle.]
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.” May we experience the joy of God as we wait for Christ to return.
Dear God, give us joy in our hearts now and forever. Help us to tell other people about this joy too. Amen.
Song: “Joy to the World” (st. 1, 3, 4) PsH 337, PH 40, RL 198, TH 195, TWC 146
Expectant mothers often have wild cravings for specific foods. Picture a husband frantically going out to the grocery store to get pickles and ice cream to satisfy his wife’s food cravings. Paul warns his young protégé, Timothy, that in the last days people will have wild cravings for godless living. Paul gives a long list of the terrible things that will happen in the days preceding the return of Christ. People will go from bad to worse (v. 13). They will continue down a path of folly that leads to their ultimate doom and destruction. Many believers will become unfaithful; they will have the form of godliness but deny its power (v. 5). This is as true today as it was in the days of Paul. We live during a time in which we can reasonably expect godlessness in our world, even within our churches. Our hearts are stuffed full of things that don’t belong there. Many will be led astray by false teachings. Those who live a godly life will face persecution (v. 12). In the face of persecution it is most difficult to maintain integrity in the area of godly living. But Paul knew from personal experience that godless living can be avoided: “You knew all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings . . . the persecutions I endured” (vv. 10-11). God rescued Paul from being trapped in paths of godlessness. Now Paul reminds us that we too can be thoroughly equipped for every good work. The key is continuing in the teaching of Scripture we learn as children from our parents and throughout our lives from many other sources. Scripture is the agent of change that helps us continue along the path of godly living. Rather than crave the godless things of this sinful world and our sinful flesh, we ought to crave the inspired Word of God.
“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” SNC 77
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT: EXPECT SPIRITUAL GROWTH
“Thy Word” SNC 86
“O Word of God Incarnate” PsH 279, PH 327, RL 387, TH 140, TWC 310
Advent Candle Lighting
Out of darkness light shines. This light points us to the One whose love overcame the darkness of this world and whose love will be our light in the world to come. As we wait for Christ to return, we can see his love grow.
[Light three purple candles and one pink candle.]
Today we light the candle of love because we know that Jesus is love. It is our hope that his church will grow as we share his love with each other.
In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul writes, When we “speak the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” May we grow in love as we await Christ’s return.
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.
Song: “O Come, O Come Immanuel” (st. 1, 2, 7) PsH 328, PH 9, RL 184, TH 194, TWC 133
One of the sure signs of expecting a child is growth. By the end of the first trimester the mother might begin to notice the swelling of her womb. This is a sign that the baby is healthy and growing. A good mother does everything she can to make sure that her baby is healthy. She takes proper vitamins, eats healthy food, and refrains from smoking and drinking alcohol.
A growing economy is a healthy economy. A growing plant is a healthy plant. It sprouts new shoots and leaves. You’ll see lots of evidence of fruit (or flowers). Healthy Christians are growing too—growing spiritually. We see signs of health in the fruit we bear. Jesus reminds us that we will recognize a tree by its fruit (Matt. 7:16). A good tree bears good fruit. An evil tree produces evil fruit.
In Romans 13 Paul refers to the present evil age as the night. He points out that “the night is nearly over, the day is almost here” (v. 12). He’s speaking here of the Christian hope that soon Jesus Christ will return. In light of Jesus’ expected return, Paul encourages us to “put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” (v. 12). Clothed with Jesus Christ we are to act as he would act, with love toward one another (v. 8). Love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is the outward expression of an inner renewal. Since the day of Christ’s return is almost here, we ought to expect Christians to do everything they can to remain healthy and demonstrate spiritual growth evidenced by the good fruit of love for one another.
“Come, Lord Jesus” SNC 103
“Open Our Eyes” SNC 263
CHRISTMAS DAY: EXPECT VICTORY
“Not for Tongues of Heaven’s Angels” SNC 275
Advent Candle Lighting
God’s promise of a redeemer is fulfilled! Christ is born! We have complete victory over death and evil through the birth of Jesus Christ! Eternal victory is ours both now and forever!
[Light all five candles.]
Today we light the Christ candle because Jesus, the light of the World, is born. As this candle burns, we remember that Jesus brings us hope, peace, joy, and love, now and forever. We remember that Jesus is coming again some day and will bring us to his kingdom to enjoy all these good things forever.
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). Through this child, this son, we have complete victory!
Dear God, thank you for sending your Son, Jesus, to our world and for giving us victory over death and evil. Fill us with the power of Jesus, to stand firm against the enemy both now and every day. Help us to live so that others will be able to see Jesus in us. Amen.
Song: “Joy to the World” PsH 337, PH 40, RL 198, TH 195, TWC 146
Bringing a child into the world is a battle. Mothers have to struggle through a labor that can be both painful and humbling. When the virgin Mary brought her child into the world, did she know that it was going to be such a battle? Like all mothers, Mary had to struggle through labor. She had to change her priorities and make sacrifices. But there was a larger battle going on. In Simeon’s words, “a sword would pierce her own soul too” (Luke 2:35). Did Mary know about the spiritual battle that was being fought around her? Did she know that the one thing Satan had been trying to do since he had been cast out of heaven was to prevent the safe entrance of her baby into this world?
Revelation 12 gives us a picture of the spiritual battle that surrounded the birth of Jesus. This is a very different nativity story from the one in Luke 2. There is an intense battle going on between the woman who is giving birth and the red dragon whose purpose is to devour the child.
On Christmas Day we celebrate the fact that on that day Satan did not win the victory. Herod attempted to destroy the Christ child under the pretense of worship. Later he attempted to destroy the child by ordering the murder of all babies under two years old. But Herod failed. So did the dragon. God protected Joseph, Mary, and the baby by directing them safely into the desert to Egypt.
Frustrated by his inability to kill the baby Jesus, the dragon set his sights on all those who believe in Jesus (Rev.12:17). But God promises believers complete victory. The sword pierced Mary’s soul as she saw the life of her son ebb away on the cross. But while Jesus was gone those three days, he completely destroyed the power of the dragon once and for all. We share in the victory of Jesus Christ (v. 10). God will strengthen us against the attacks of Satan through the blood of the Lamb and the Word of our testimony (v. 11). Satan’s days are short (v. 12). Heaven is already preparing for the victory celebration. And the story of redemptive history will end in complete victory.
”Psalm 98: Sing a New Song to the Lord” SNC 112
“Come and Stand Amazed, You People” PsH 338
“Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” PsH 343, PH 26, TWC 158
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” PsH 345, PH 31, RL 196, TH 203, TWC 171
FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS: EXPECT COMPLETE JOY
A wonderful joy takes place when a woman gives birth to a child. During all the months of pregnancy there have been long days of expectation. The weight has at times become burdensome. Feelings of nausea filled many days. The initial birth pains begin. Couples wonder anxiously if the time has come. Then the intense hours of labor. The pain becomes almost unbearable. But as Jesus tells us in John’s gospel, “when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world” (16:21). This is the way it will be for all Jesus’ followers. They will go through a painful time, but once Jesus comes again, their sorrow will turn to joy (v. 20).
John writes about the disciples’ feelings of sorrow and grief. Jesus had just told them that he would leave them “for a little while”—most likely referring to the time when Jesus would be crucified and buried. After a little while the disciples would see him again (v. 19). But the early Christians also saw this referring to Jesus’ going to the Father (vv. 17, 28). Jesus would leave them at his ascension, but in a little while he would return again. In this “short” interval of time, believers will not always have it easy. They will experience pain and suffering. But when a believer sees the Lord again, either at her death or at Christ’s second coming, her sorrow will turn to joy. We will be in that place prepared for us by Jesus (John 14:1-4), a place where there will be no more death, no more sorrow, no more pain, and no more night (Rev. 21:4; 22:5). In the words of Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” When Jesus returns, there will be no more nights—only rejoicing, with a joy that no one can take away (v. 22). Our joy will finally be complete (v. 24).
“Soon and Very Soon” SNC 106
“Joy to the World!” PsH 337, PH 40, RL 198, TH 195, TWC 146
“The King Shall Come When Morning Dawns” PsH 615, RL 607, TWC 277
Advent Candle Lighting
We asked student intern Ryan Braam to put together a special selection of readings and prayers that coincide with and reflect the themes for each service to be used during the Advent candle lighting. Families who participated in this part of the liturgy received the following instructions:
- Come up to the Advent wreath during the singing of the final stanza of the song just prior to the Advent lighting part of the service.
- Use the microphone provided by the table so that the congregation will be able to hear.
- Singing of songs proceeds unannounced.
- If more than one person is involved in the candle lighting, let each person do a part: one can do the Bible reading, one can read the words to introduce and light the candle, one can pray, and so on.
- Light the candles where indicated in the program. Pay special attention to how many candles are lit and which color candles are lit.
This banner design is an adaptation (or accompaniment!) of the projection art described on the back cover but is made out of fabric pieces attached to a background of black fabric. Make this banner two-sided to allow for the change from Advent design and colors to Christmas.
For Family Devotions
Consider using this series for your family devotions at least once a week. Make an Advent candle wreath using four candles (one for each week), with a fifth candle in the middle to represent the Christ candle to light on Christmas Day. Read the Advent candle lighting litany appropriate for the week, followed by the prayer (there is no candle lighting for the first Sunday after Christmas). You may then want to read the suggested Scripture text and use the sermon notes as a devotional reading, concluding with one of the suggested songs.