Human nature is such that we prefer the sweet to the sour, the easy to the hard, the light rather than the darkness. But for the light to seem bright, we first need to spend time in darkness. Similarly, we need Advent to comprehend the gift of Christmas. This series allows us to dwell in Advent, to notice that we’re living in between the two advents, to dare to look at the world’s darkness in order to better see the brightness of Christ’s light.
This series is based on passages from the gospel of Mark from the Revised Common Lectionary for this year. Note that although the series does not line up exactly with the lectionary, we trust you’ll find the notes and suggestions listed here helpful.
In the next three issues of RW, our Series for the Season will also focus on the gospel of Mark. If you are a pastor, please note the information regarding the Fall Preaching Conference, which will be available online as an audio file at a later date. —JB
Be Followers of Christ
We all do our fair share of following in life. Following isn’t too difficult if the leader promises that the road we are traveling together ends up somewhere good. But what if the leader you want to follow says right up front that the path he and his followers must take is going nowhere? This is the situation facing the disciples in Mark 8. They want to follow Jesus, they really do. But suddenly it looks like Jesus is intent on taking the proverbial “road less traveled”: a path heading the opposite direction of where the disciples want to go.
To understand this conundrum better, we need to look at verse 27. Jesus climaxes the first half of Mark’s gospel with the famous question, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer is at once right and wrong—right in the sense that he correctly identifies Jesus as God’s Son, the Messiah sent to save the world. And wrong in the sense that Peter’s definition of Messiah is incorrect. Peter thinks the Christ will be an earthly king with political clout. The disciples want to follow Jesus all right, but they’re hoping that the path will lead to a throne in a palace somewhere. They want jobs in the West Wing, not a seat in the bloody muck at the foot of a cross. But Jesus goes on to say, “If you want to follow me, go under the sign of the cross, the sign of a living death. Lose your life so that you may find it.”
In Advent too few people ask, Who is Jesus? We’re too busy, too distracted, content to let the baby sleep quietly in the manger. But we in the church need to ask the Advent question. Who is the Jesus whose birth we all celebrate each year? Who do other people say Jesus is? Who do you say he is? The answer is that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He invites us to follow him—not just to Bethlehem but through all the twists and turns his ministry takes and then straight on toward that cross that Jesus talks about before Mark 8 is finished. If we’re not willing to follow Jesus to the cross, then we’ve no real business hanging out in Bethlehem to celebrate his birth either.
Confession and Assurance
Prayer of Confession
Christ, we are sorry for the times we have denied you by what we have said and done. Sometimes we are frightened of where you may lead us or embarrassed by what you might call us to do, so we ignore your leadership. Other times we think we know a better way, so we try to take over the lead. Still other times we get so busy with our holiday preparations that we forget to listen and focus on what you call us to prepare for. Forgive us, Son of God, and help us follow where you lead us as we wait for your coming. In your name we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
The good news of Advent is that Jesus Christ has come into the world, has led the way through death that we may have life, and is coming again to make all things new. Hear these words of assurance from Romans 5: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
When thinking of visual images for worship, begin with an element of worship such as a Scripture text, a prayer, or the sermon. The art should enhance the congregation’s actions of praising, lamenting, thanking, or being inspired, convicted, or comforted. Connecting visual images to an element of worship keeps the artwork purposeful rather than isolated and focused on itself.
When reading these passages from Mark, you’ll want to dwell with the text long enough to consider illustrative artworks that might deepen or sharpen insights from the text. However you connect art to Scripture, be sure that the connection will be clear for the majority of the congregation. In some cases it may be necessary to explain your choice by using a description. Your goal is to deepen, not dampen, the congregation’s understanding of how the visual arts can enrich worship.
Here’s an example. The question “Who do you say that I am?” harks back to the scene of Moses at the burning bush. Timothy Botts’s art reinforces for us the Old Testament connection the disciples were most likely making. At the same time, its flame-like shapes connect to the season, reminding us of the points on a Christmas star.
“If You Then Want to Follow Me” SNT 53
“What Fabled Names from Judah’s Past” SNT 61
“Christ, Who Is in the Form of God” SNT 196
“The First Place” SNT 199
“Come and Stand Amazed, You People” PsH 338
“Lead Me, Guide Me” PsH 544, SFL 220, WR 498
“This Is Your God/Meekness in Majesty” SNC 109
Don’t Be Deceived
As Mark 13 opens, the disciples are like tourists, gawking at the more striking features of “the big city” they were visiting for the high and holy festival of Passover. Their enthusiasm is so great that they cannot resist pulling Jesus into the action. He seems oddly unmoved by the ramparts and architectural heights of Jerusalem. He’s the only one not craning his neck and mugging for the camera. So the disciples try to bring him around. “Teacher! Look! Isn’t that one massive hunk of limestone!? Isn’t the craftsmanship on these carvings impressive? Imagine what it must have taken to raise up such a high edifice!”
Jesus meets their breathless enthusiasm with a shrug of his shoulders. “Yes, I see them. But you know what? Even the biggest of these stones will soon fall and be thrown down. One of these days, there won’t be a single building to look at here.”
That sure puts a damper on things. Taken aback, the disciples say nothing. Mark’s account suggests that the disciples are shocked into silence. Only later when they are on the Mount of Olives—though still within sight of the Temple—do four of the leading disciples muster the courage to ask Jesus what he meant. “Tell us, when will these things happen?” You can almost hear their voices shaking. “Will there be any signs, any warnings ahead of time?” There’s fear in that question. It’s the equivalent of asking, “Will we have time to get out of the way?”
Jesus, of course, doesn’t answer. Instead he warns them not to be fooled into concluding these events will happen sooner rather than later. The disciples may have worried about saving their hides, but Jesus wants to make sure they are not deceived in their hearts. They want to know when it will be. Jesus tells them to worry more about when it will not be so they don’t get led down any false paths.
Like the disciples, we think that if we know the timetable, we can somehow control our destiny. Jesus’ answer to them suggests otherwise. We should be far more concerned about being deceived in the meanwhile of life than about being around at the end of all things.
The church has always made sure to include a meditation on apocalyptic texts like Mark 13 as a part of Advent. We know that the only way Jesus’ first advent in Bethlehem can have any real meaning is if a second advent is coming. We always find ourselves between Jesus’ two advents as we allow the joy of his birth in Bethlehem to whet our appetites for the joy that will come when he returns to make all things new. Meanwhile, though, we have work to do and a gospel witness to give. That calling is renewed in us each time we ponder Jesus’ first advent as a way to look forward to his second and final coming.
Confession and Assurance
Prayer of Confession
Jesus Christ, we worry about the future. We struggle to make plans for our lives and we forget that you’re in control. Forgive us for focusing so much on the things of this world that we forget about you. We are sorry for the times we have been deceived by our financial status, social standing, medical condition, or our own busyness. Teach us to live each day in the confidence that you are in control of the world, and give us eager anticipation for your second coming when you will make all things new. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
The good news of Advent is that Jesus Christ has come into the world, has led the way through death that we may have life, and is coming again to make all things new. Here these words of assurance from Psalm 103: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.”
The season of Advent is filled with juxtapositions: silence and song, hopes and fears, things permanent and temporary, warnings and comfort, now and not yet, king and servant, grandeur and nearness, the incarnation and the second coming. Choose art that visualizes the “space between” the two advents. Avoid art that is concerned with only one side of the story.
One way to do this is through analyzing the elements of design in a visual image. Is there a balance of light and dark? Repetition but also contrast? Does the artwork feel earthbound as well as transcendent? Does it speak of the past, present, and future? Bethlehem Star by James Fissel (see RW 85 cover) beautifully speaks of a transcendent immanence and that space between the two advents. Note also its fittingness while reading the psalm selection for this week.
“There Will Be Signs” SNT 50
“Take Heed, the End Is Coming Soon” SNT 51
“Surely, Surely” SNT 115
“Soon and Very Soon” SNC 10, SWM 149
“Built on the Rock” PsH 503, TH 351, WR 546
“Lord, You Give the Great Commission” CH 757, SFL 194, SNC 106, SWM 149, WR 523
As noted in Week 2, in Advent Christians ponder not just the gentle, quiet, and silent first advent of the Christ into our world, but also the grand, glorious, nobody-could-miss-it second advent at the end of history.
The final word of Mark 13 is “Watch!”—reminding us that Christmas and its season of light mean nothing (and could just as well be skipped) if the rest of the year we are not in a state of expectant watchfulness.
If the first advent of Christ has any meaning whatsoever, it is only because he is coming back to judge the living and the dead. If he is not coming back, then there is nothing to celebrate at Christmas. But to state the obvious: visions of a darkened sun and moon, stars falling from the sky, and heavenly bodies being shaken are about as far removed from our ideas of Christmas as we can imagine.
Mark 13, of course, is very close to the end of the gospel, and hence very close to the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. But that fits, when you think about it. Ours is a world of upheaval, of genocide, pride, selfishness, greed, and violent acts perpetrated on the innocent and unsuspecting. In December lots of neighborhoods get decked out with Christmas lights. And if the world looked just that pretty and serene most of the time, it would need no Savior.
If ditties along the lines of “Have a holly jolly Christmas” could cure what ails us in this life, then there never would have been any need for God’s Son to go through the bloody trouble of coming here in person.
We need a frank, honest assessment of history’s perils, the present moment’s terrors, and the future’s all-but-certain calamities because that’s the only way to frame Advent and Christmas correctly.
Confession and Assurance
Prayer of Confession
God, our Savior, we confess the brokenness of our world. It’s filled with unrest, uncertainty, violence, and greed. We are sorry for the times our selfishness and pride have hurt you, your creation, and other people. We also confess the times our comfort has made us oblivious to the suffering of others. At times when things seem to be going well we have even forgotten that we need you as our Savior. Forgive us, and help us rely on you for healing in our lives and in the world around us. We pray in Jesus’ name and the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
The good news of Advent is that Jesus Christ has come into the world, has led the way through death that we may have life, and is coming again to make all things new. Hear these words of assurance from Psalm 85: “The Lord forgives the iniquity of his people and covers all their sins. He sets aside his wrath and turns from his fierce anger.”
The meditation for Week 3 reminds us of all the visuals that convey trite sentiments during this season of the year. In the midst of this image saturation we are called to discern carefully the message we send through our choice of visuals in the church. Avoid pieces that are sentimental; instead offer pieces that help the congregation deepen their wonderment, engage their imagination, and encourage their expectant watchfulness.
Laura James’s Love One Another is accessible to all ages. It helps us ponder our place among the people of the world while we stand between the times of Christ’s two advents.
“View the Present Through the Promise” SNC 90
“Wait for the Lord” SNC 96, WR 166
“My Soul in Stillness Waits” SNC 95
“There Is a Mighty Question” SNT 49
“People in Darkness Are Looking for Light” SWM 85
“Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers” PH 15, PsH 333
We need John the Baptist if Advent is going to have any real traction in our lives. But he’s a tough sell. As Fred Craddock once put it, John is not the kind of holiday guest most people would care to have at their parties. John is shrill. He’s given to dramatic gestures. He’d probably spill eggnog all over someone’s nice Persian rug as he waved his arms through the air, urging people to take stock, to straighten up and fly right before the face of God.
John reminds us that Christmas is not a serene season of light and goodness. John reminds us that if we don’t greet the Savior with repentance, contrition, and a sincere desire to change our ways, then the Savior we meet may well have some unpleasant things to say to us.
But we need John. In Mark’s gospel, first John and then Jesus simply appear, walking straight out of the heat waves rising up from the desert floor. “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” Mark writes as his opening sentence. This is where the gospel begins—not in a stable, not in a manger, but out in the desert, of all places.
Mark begins where Isaiah began: in the place of death, the place of uncreation, in the chaos that once characterized the entire universe before God stepped in to impose his creation cosmos. God builds his highway to salvation and he begins it in the desert. But then, where else would we need this particular highway?
How very different our own holidays are! We’ve so allowed Christmas to be turned into a happy-only season that we can scarce conceive of a gospel that finds hope in the midst of death. But this, Mark says, this is the beginning of the gospel. The gospel begins with John the Baptist. Because if it doesn’t, we will never be ready for the Jesus whose way John prepares.
Confession and Assurance
Prayer of Confession
Lord Christ, as we look forward to celebrating your first coming at Christmas, we are often distracted by the festivities around us. We get busy with the stress and joy of family gatherings. Forgive us for not preparing your way in the world; forgive us for adding to the distraction of others. As we look forward to your second coming, we are surrounded by the duties and expectations of everyday life. Forgive us for being too scared or overwhelmed to prepare the way for you. Help us, in this Advent season, to live in the joy of your first coming and the hope of your second coming so that those around us may see the difference your coming makes. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
The good news of Advent is that Jesus Christ has come into the world, has led the way through death that we may have life, and is coming again to make all things new. Hear these words of assurance from Isaiah 40: “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Your sin has been paid for.’ The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.”
The meditation of Week 4 returns us to a host of juxtapositions—confession and assurance, desert and oasis, death and life, chaos and order. Any depiction should pick up on the hope coming out of this desert scene.
Michael Angel’s Waterfall II connects the place of death with the life-giving waters that we long for in the deserts of our journey and are reminded of in our baptism.
Visuals for Advent should go beyond simply what comforts us to what also challenges or instructs us. When disciplined and guided by the text these visuals can further illumine its meaning, ask a question, or convict us to action. Work with a team to plan what visuals you might use. Learn from the insights of others.
“On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” PH 10, PsH 327, WR 156
“Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding” PsH 332
“Comfort, Comfort Now My People” PH 3, PsH 194, SFL 121, TH 197, WR 155
“Prepare the Way of the Lord” SFL 124, SNC 105, SWM 84, WR 174
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” CH 244, PH 2, PsH 329, SFL 122, SWM 83, TH 196, WR 153
“A Man Called John” SNT 2
“Isaiah Gave the Promise” SNT 1
Fall Preaching Conference
Explore preaching and the Gospel of Mark with Thomas G. Long,
Bandy Professor of Preaching,
Chandler School of Theology, Emory University
Thursday, October 9, 2008
Calvin Theological Seminary Chapel
Advent Candle-Lighting Litany
Each week the candle-lighting litany is extended by adding a portion that is retained for the remaining weeks, till on the fourth Sunday the whole litany is read. The final two lines are read each week.
Reader 1: God calls us to worship today as followers of his Son, Jesus Christ. We light these candles as a symbol of the coming light of our Messiah.
Reader 2: Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29)
Reader 1: Each day the world asks us the same question Jesus asked Peter: Who is coming?
All: With Peter, we declare that Christ, the Son of God, is coming.
Reader 2: When Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be that sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:3-4)
All: With the disciples, we wonder when Christ will come.
Reader 1: Jesus warns us not to be deceived but to watch and wait.
Reader 2: Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13:26-27)
Reader 1: Where will Christ come?
Reader 2: Jesus comes to this world filled with pain, suffering, and death.
Reader 1: As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:2-3)
All: With John, we call to our world, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Reader 2: As we wait, we celebrate his first coming as a baby and his life of sacrifice.
All: But even more, we look forward to his glorious second coming when he will make all things new.
Further comments, observations, textual points, and illustration ideas can be found on the website of The Center for Excellence in Preaching (http://cep.calvin
seminary.edu) under Sermon Starter Archive.