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A Universe of Promise

Five Services for Advent

How far and deep does the meaning of Advent go? Christmas can easily become sentimentalized with nativity scenes or mistakenly celebrated as the beginning of an escape to heaven. Our worship planning group tried to bring out a sense of the deep adventure that Advent really is by drawing in the cosmic scope of Christ’s incarnation in the world.

We called the series “A Universe of Promise”—universe because we wanted to demonstrate the scope of Advent as widely as possible. There is not one cubic centimeter over which Jesus does not declare “I am coming for you!” This divine rescue certainly includes human souls, but the operation stretches as wide as the creation itself. We confess, “our world belongs to God” because we see a holy worldliness at the core of God’s dealings with us, God’s creatures.

Yet God’s rule and rescue is not static. Rather, it is dynamic, ongoing, caught in the to-and-fro of a covenant relationship. So much is midway in the process of restoration! We still experience destitution, destruction, division, and death. The testimony of sovereignty and redemption comes to us as a promise—something that already is, but is also yet to be fulfilled.

That is what Advent is all about: waiting and working, groaning and growing, yearning and yielding to God’s Spirit on the move. Desire and dissatisfaction mingle in our hearts. Recognizing Christ’s first coming brings hope, as does his coming in our lives each day, but we still await his second and final coming when all will be made new.

We used the first four chapters of N.T. Wright’s book Simply Christian (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006) to focus our Advent series. (For more from N.T. Wright, see his articles in RW 89, 90, and 91). Wright suggests that we are hard-wired for God and God’s kingdom in Christ. The evidence of this can be found within our own hearts, in the “echoes of a voice” that we intuit in all aspects of our life.

Wright zeroes in on four vivid examples: justice, beauty, relationship, and spirituality. Within each of these dimensions of life, he claims, we yearn for something more. Where there is injustice, we long for justice. Beauty seems to call us to something higher and better, as does our restless spiritual nature. Finally, the whole planet strains for loving relationships, but the quest often ends in frustration. Could these frustrated aspects of the creation be signposts in the mist of something yet to come?

Wright emphasizes the uniqueness of this insight for the Christian faith. In pantheistic religions, no waiting is necessary because we are already one with God—we only need to recognize it. In deistic or atheistic worldviews, God is so far removed from us—if God exists at all—that intimations of a coming divine order can only be illusions. It is only in the Judeo-Christian worldview that God is separate from but interacting with the planet and is working out a plan of redemption yet to come. If in pantheism heaven and earth are identical, and in deism heaven and earth are separated by a gap, only in the Bible do they overlap in places and fill us with a promise of things yet to come.

The four dimensions of life Wright explores are indicative rather than comprehensive examples of this promise, and they could coincide with many different Advent texts. We decided to stick to Luke 2:1-20 as our basis for readings. We found parts of the text that referred to each of these four dimensions and we felt that the repetition of the text had potential for drawing us in deeper. On a similar note, we repeatedly featured the song “The Promise” by Michael Card (www.michaelcard.com), although it was presented in a variety of ways, including dance, solo, and congregational singing.

Ideas for lighting an Advent wreath can be found in Reformed Worship 29 (“Circle of Light”) and RW 85 (“Linking the Advent Wreath to Our Faith Stories”).

Here are the four Advent Sunday themes. The climax falls at Christmas, where the focus is on Christ as the promise of God for all creation.

  • First Sunday: Justice, the Political Economy, and Caesar (peace candle).
  • Second Sunday: Beauty, the Arts, and the Angels (joy candle).
  • Third Sunday: Relationship, Social Psychology, and the Shepherds (love candle).
  • Fourth Sunday: Spirituality, Humanities, and Mary (hope candle)
  • Christmas: Jesus Christ, All Dimensions of Life (Christ candle)
First Sunday of Advent

Justice, the Political Economy, and Caesar

Theme
From Roman Empire to God’s Empire: God’s Promise of Justice

Old Testament Scripture
Exodus 20:2
Isaiah 61:1-4

Text
Luke 2:1-20

Song Suggestions
“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” PH 408, PsH 602, WR 591
“O God of Every Nation” PH 289, PsH 606, WR 626
“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” Stuttgart: PsH 329, SFL 122, Hyfrydol: CH 244, PH 2, SWM 83, TH 196, WR 153
“Alleluia, He Is Coming”

Sermon-Building Ideas
“All people know, in cooler moments, that this strange thing we call justice, this longing for things to be put right, remains one of the great human goals and dreams. Christians believe this is so because all humans have heard, deep within themselves, the echo of a voice which calls us to live like that” (Wright, p. 15). And somehow, in the coming of Jesus, that voice is no longer an echo.

Do some research into the nature of Roman imperialism. Describe how vast the empire was. Tell how the Romans kept the people subject, setting up puppet kings and ruthlessly crushing any resistance. Explain how Caesar was considered a god and his subjects were seen as his children.

Contrast this with the humble, pregnant Mary and Joseph scrambling to follow imperial orders. Draw out the difference between the ways of Caesar and the ways of God: Caesar uses armies and wealth and power; God chooses the quiet and unobtrusive carpenter family. The irony of the situation is remarkable: Caesar thought he owned the world, but a few hundred years later his empire was finished and the followers of Jesus had spread across the known world.

As Wright has said elsewhere, empires are driven by the love of power, but God’s kingdom in Christ is driven by the power of love. Power-hungry empires come and go, leaving us with a longing for that one empire of love that lasts forever.

Name some contemporary examples of empire, and include stories of justice work that your community is pursuing while waiting for the King to return.

Testimony
Invite one or more government or business workers in your community to give testimony about how they discern God’s call in their work and how they resist the machinations of empire while promoting the advance of God’s empire.

Second Sunday of Advent

Beauty, the Arts, and the Angels

Theme
From Dull and Dreary to Full-Fledged Beauty: God’s Promise of Glory

Old Testament Scripture
Exodus 33:12-23
Isaiah 6:1-4

Text
Luke 2:1-20

Song Suggestions
“For the Beauty of the Earth” CH 793/182, PH 473, PsH 432, SFL 90, SWM 54, TH 116, WR 40
“Beautiful Savior” PsH 461, WR 105
“Gloria, Gloria” PH 576, SFL 134, SNC 115, SWM 93, WR 240
“Angels We Have Heard on High” CH 278, PH 23, PsH 347, SFL 133, SWM 90, TH 214, WR 188
“This Is My Father’s World” CH 143, PH 293, PsH 436, SFL 95, SWM 62, TH 111, WR 21
“The Savior of the World Is Coming” Debbie McNeil

Sermon Building Ideas
“The present world really is a signpost to a larger beauty, a deeper truth. It really is the authentic manuscript of one part of a masterpiece. The question is, What is the whole masterpiece like, and how can we begin to hear the music in the way it was intended?” (Wright, p. 47)

Offer the congregation a language for the longing they have for God’s beauty by describing in detail the dullness and dreariness of Caesar’s announcement and contrasting it with the vitality and majesty of God’s announcement. The first comes with decrees, soldier-messengers, and a giant bureaucratic machine. The second comes with music, choirs, and angels.

Name some of the ugliness of our contemporary world and the difficulty that many in the arts have in being valued (even in the church!) Point out that the background for the beauty of this scene in Luke 2 is suffering, and how this makes our longing for God’s kingdom more poignant. Include examples of how we can creatively strive towards making our lives and our church more like a work of art.

Testimony
A group of young dancers presented a liturgical dance accompanied by the song “The Promise” by Michael Card. A soloist sang during the dance.

Third Sunday of Advent

Relationship, Social Psychology, and the Shepherds

Theme
From Loneliness to Love: God’s Promise of Community

Old Testament Scripture
Exodus 34:6-7
Isaiah 35

Text
Luke 2:1-20

Song Suggestions
“O Come, O Come Immanuel” CH 245, PH 9, PsH 328, SFL 123, SWM 81, TH 194, WR 154
“Wait for the Lord” (Taize) SNC 96, WR 166
“Hark, the Glad Sound! The Savior Comes” PsH 335
“Go, Tell It on the Mountain” CH 258, PH 29, PsH 356, SFL 131, TH 224, WR 218
“Good News” SFL 132

Sermon Building Ideas
“We all know marriages apparently made in heaven sometimes end not far from hell. . . . How is it that we ache for each other and yet find relationships so difficult?” (Wright, p. 29).

Relationships are another “signpost in the mist” that points us to somewhere we all long to go. We get these intimations of heaven and yet we know we are far from arriving. “Why is it,” asks Henri Nouwen, “that many parties and friendly get-togethers leave us so empty and sad? . . . Loneliness is one of the most universal sources of human suffering today” (Reaching Out, p. 25).

The shepherds represent the vast majority of humanity that works and lives on the margins of society. They represent too the lonely part of ourselves, the part of us that yearns to belong.

Describe how shepherds were part of Israel’s nomadic past, and how the settled life of an agricultural civilization—the city—may have regarded them as somewhat primitive, if not representative of a lower class. Both Amos 7:14 and Zephaniah 2:6 suggest that shepherds were second class at best. In Jesus’ time, shepherds were considered untrustworthy. They had no civil rights and could not be witnesses in court.

Yet of all people, God chose to announce the Savior’s birth to these despised shepherds. God takes those who are humble and outcast and draws them into his community of love. Note how the shepherds “pay it forward” by going out and spreading the good news to everyone else.

Paint the sad picture of loneliness in our society today and contrast it with examples that offer hope of God’s coming kingdom of love and fellowship. Call the congregation to a humble boldness that invites others to find a spiritual home in your church.

Testimony
Invite someone who works in community-building—a social worker, a teacher, or a leader of an organization—to talk for five minutes with the congregation about the frustrations and break-throughs that demonstrate the “already/not yet” of community life on this side of God’s new world.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Spirituality, Humanities, and Mary

Theme
From Faint Intimations to a Long Obedience: God’s Promise in Spirituality

Old Testament Scripture
Exodus 40:34-38
Isaiah 55

Text
Luke 2:1-20

Song Suggestions
“Spirit of God Who Dwells Within My Heart” PH 326, PsH 419, TH 338,
“As a Deer Pants for the Water”
“Hope Is a Star”

Sermon-Building Ideas
“Many people today hear the very word ‘spirituality’ like travelers in a desert hearing news of an oasis. This isn’t surprising” (Wright, p. 18). Wright says that the skepticism we’ve been taught for the last two hundred years made spirituality out to be “a private hobby, an up-market version of daydreaming for those who like that kind of thing.”

Bookstore shelves are full of self-help spiritual manuals today. Why? Because the human soul cannot help but cry out to its Maker. St. Augustine said long ago, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” It is as if the reality of divine promise were hard-wired into human nature. We are thirsty for connection with the divine.

“People who have been starved of water for a long time will drink anything,” says Wright, “even if it is polluted.” This is the deep problem of our time. Much of what goes for spirituality is a form of therapy, if not outright narcissism. It is couched in a naïve skepticism of tradition and slips into a self-defeating relativism. “This is what is true for me,” becomes the new creed.

This was not so for Mary. When she was confronted by the angel she was called to give her allegiance to a great movement of the Spirit of God. She recognized that this movement included bringing down rulers from their thrones, lifting up the humble, and feeding the poor. Most of it involved a long obedience. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said. “May it be to me as you have said.”

The spirituality of Mary seems quiet in the midst of all the activity of that first Christmas. But it was a spirituality that was ready to embrace promise, ready to embrace angels and miracles, and was ready to live a long obedience.

The human heart longs for the one true God—not for some figment of our imagination. We walk the path of God’s promises every day. This is the path of expectation: that we will see heaven come to earth before us, and someday this will happen completely.

Testimony
Invite someone to tell the story of a deep spiritual experience that took place in his/her life: someone who has had a vision, seen an angel, or felt God’s presence in a vivid, moving way.

Christmas Day

Jesus Christ, All Dimensions of Life

Theme
A Universe of Promise Made Flesh: God’s Promise in Jesus

Old Testament Scripture
Exodus 6:1-8
Isaiah 9:6

Text
Luke 2:1-20

Song Suggestions:
“Earth and All Stars” PH 458, PsH 433, SFL 98, WR 642
“O Little Town of Bethlehem” CH 250, PH 44, TH 201, WR 180
“Joy to the World” CH 270, PH 40, PsH 337, SFL 137, SWM 94, TH 195, WR 179
“Angels We Have Heard on High” CH 278, PH 23, PsH 347, SFL 133, SWM 90, TH 214, WR 188
“When Love Came Down to Earth” Stuart Townend CCLI #3359138
“Emmanuel” Bob McGee CCLI #12949

Sermon-Building Ideas
This is the climax of Advent: the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the birth of Christ. This is not simply a cute stable scene or a private exchange for a heavenly ticket when we die. It is a full universe of promise: all our yearnings for justice, beauty, relationship, and spirituality are fulfilled in the person of Jesus.

Wright drives home the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. He insists that Jesus is the New Adam that Israel failed to be, and that he is their promised Messiah who offers new life, full and free:

With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once for all. A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut. It’s the door to the prison where we’ve been kept chained up. We are offered freedom: freedom to experience God’s rescue for ourselves, to go through the open door and explore the new world to which we now have access. In particular, we are all invited—summoned, actually—to discover, through following Jesus, that this new world is indeed a place of justice, spirituality, relationship and beauty, and that we are not only to enjoy it as such but to work at bringing it to birth on earth as in heaven. In listening to Jesus, we discover whose voice it is that has echoed around the hearts and minds of the human race all along (p. 92).

Give people a sense of that door swinging wide open to a new world. The congregation needs to feel that God dwells with us, that God’s presence can be felt in every part of our lives.

This God is not a deistic god who is distant from us. God is as close as our own heart. Yet the pain and longing we still feel remind us that God has not fully come in every way. We have echoes of his voice. Advent is yet to be fully realized in this world. We work with the Spirit to bring it, but we still wait for the great day when Jesus returns in glory. On this side of the new earth, life is always a universe of promise.

Testimony
We sang some extra carols to celebrate this comprehensive view of Advent.

Excerpts

Advent Art Idea

We used an Advent banner to show a visual dimension of our theme “A Universe of Promise.” For the first week, the empire was represented by a road and town scene. In the second week, as we recognized God’s promise of glory, an angel was added to the banner. In the third week, God’s promise of community was represented by the addition of shepherds. In the fourth week, Mary and Joseph were added, and finally, Jesus appeared on Christmas Day. Each week we included a corresponding image on the bulletin cover.

The Promise

The Lord God said when time was full
He would shine his light in the darkness
He said a virgin would conceive
And give birth to the Promise
For a thousand years the dreamers dreamt
And hoped to see his love
The Promise showed their wildest dreams
Had simply not been wild enough
But the Promise showed their wildest dreams
Had simply not been wild enough

The Promise was love and the Promise was life
The Promise meant light to the world
Living proof Jehovah saves
For the name of the Promise was Jesus

The Faithful One saw time was full
And the ancient pledge was honored
So God the Son, the Incarnate One
His final Word, his own Son
Was born in Bethlehem
But came into our hearts to live
What more could God have given
Tell me what more did he have to give
What more could God have given
Tell me what more did he have to give

At last the proof Jehovah saves
For the name of the Promise was Jesus.

—Michael Card
© 1987 Birdwing Music/Mole End Music. All rights reserved. Used by permission.