When Heaven Came Down

This series began as sermons often do: in a brief conversation with one of our members. She had been reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope—Wright’s evocative exploration of eschatology—and she found that the book clarified her own views of the relationships between earth and heaven, death and resurrection, hope and eternity. She recommended the book to me and suggested it as a topic for our Adult Forum, a large-format lecture-style adult class. I was intrigued enough to buy the book and read it. Although this series does not follow Wright’s argument or quote from him, his ideas infuse it.

Summer is a time for shaping next year’s sermons. By the end of July I always hope to have at least the concepts for the sermons for each of the seasons of the year—from fall through Eastertide and into the next summer. For the sermons from Labor Day through Christmas, I try to have by summer’s end a fully articulated plan with an introduction to the series as a whole and an outline of each service, including texts, major points, and suggestions about other elements of worship.

These service outlines go to the musicians (as well as to the elders and to the other members of the worship staff), who begin to mark them up with suggestions for hymns, choir anthems, and other liturgical elements. We usually have at least one meeting of the worship staff near the end of summer to review the plans and to begin work on the fall season. Six weeks or so before Advent we hold another worship meeting to focus specifically on Advent.

When the draft liturgies presented by the musicians come back to me, I make suggestions for revisions and additions. Members of the staff are assigned readings and prayers. A script is prepared for the contemporary service. I add a paragraph for the front of the bulletin giving worshipers a few clues about what is coming (see service plan for each week). Lately I also have been adding a set of questions for children about the reading and the sermon.

When Heaven Came Down: The Concept

Christians frequently speak of “going to heaven.” This idea is not foreign to the Bible. Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). But “going to heaven” is not the characteristic idiom of the Bible. More characteristic of the Bible is to speak of heaven coming down.

The Bible is framed by two instances of heaven coming down: Genesis 3, where God walks in the garden in the cool of the day; and Revelation 21, which describes the descent of the New Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God, from heaven to earth. In between are many other instances

—too many to cover in a single Advent season. In the Abraham story alone, there are several: the Melchizedek story (Gen. 14), the three visitors (Gen. 18), and even the ram caught in the thicket (Gen. 22). In the Exodus story, heaven comes down in the cloud and the smoking mountain (19-34). In the Elijah story heaven comes down in the fire and then in the still, small voice. Heaven comes down when the glory of God fills the temple and God takes his place on the throne, symbolized by the ark of the covenant and the cherubim. Tragically, heaven also leaves in Ezekiel’s vision of the chariot of God rising up out of Jerusalem and disappearing into the night.

But none of these Old Testament stories of heaven coming down figure in our Advent series. Our focus in Advent is on the incarnation. Four incarnational passages frame the series. I have already mentioned Genesis 3 and Revelation 21. Between these I chose two others: the announcement of the coming of Christ and Mary’s response (Luke 1:26-38; 46-55), and Paul’s discussion in Colossians of our identity in Christ and the way the church incarnates this identity (2:6-12, 16-3:4).

In biblical terms, earth and heaven are not two places so much as two dimensions. Heaven is always present, though not always visible. An image that I frequently invoke is the curtain that separated the sanctuary of Solomon’s temple from the throne room—the Holiest Place. If such a curtain exists between earth and heaven, the curtain sometimes is blown aside, and for a moment we can see heaven. One day the curtain will be taken down, and earth and heaven will be one. Advent is the season of waiting for the day when the curtain comes down and the citizens of earth and heaven will be one.

Week 1

When Heaven Walked the Earth

Scripture: Genesis 3:1-9

Sermon Notes

Imagine a starlit night. In the distant horizon, you see the farthest object that one can see with the naked eye: the Andromeda galaxy. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms you. Tears begin rolling down your cheeks. A great loneliness seizes you, a pain in the center of your being.

The Bible suggests that this loneliness comes from a sense that things that belonged together have gotten separated; an original unity has come apart. This is the story of that separation. What has come apart are earth and heaven.

Originally they were one. God walked in the garden in the cool of the day. What was once one has become two. But here’s the good news, the great truth of the Bible: God longs for Eden, for the original unity, as much as we do.

Advent is about reawakening this longing within us, the longing for Immanuel, God-with-us.

Prelude

Call to Worship: Jeremiah 33:14-16

Hymn: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” (st. 1, 4-7) CH 245, PH 9, PsH 328, SFL 123, SWM 81, TH 194, WR 154

Greetings

Scripture: Romans 8:18-19, 22-24a

Song: “He Came Down” (st. 1) SFL 136, SNC 92, SWM 91, WR 402 (also see Songs for the Season on p. 28 of this issue)

[Lighting of the Advent Candle: Hope]

Today we light the candle of hope. The prophet said, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Isa. 9:2)

Song: “He Came Down” (st. 1) (see p. 28 of this issue)

Psalm of Expectation and Preparation: Psalm 25:1-10 (unison)

Hymn: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” Stuttgart: PsH 329, SFL 122, Hyfrydol: CH 244, PH 2, SWM 83, TH 196, WR 153

Morning Prayers

Offering/Offertory

Scripture: Genesis 3:1-9

Sermon: “When Heaven Walked the Earth”

Prayer

Hymn: “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” PH 5, PsH 341, TH 193, WR 232

Litany of Thanksgiving

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is our joy and our peace at all times and in all places, to give thanks to you, holy Father, almighty, everlasting God, through Christ our Lord.

Prayer

Song: “Holy, Holy, Holy” CH 3, PH 138, PsH 249, SWM 28, TH 100, WR 136

Our Confession

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ is coming again.

Prayer of Consecration

Invitation to the Table of the Lord

Sacrament of Holy Communion

Psalm of Thanksgiving: Psalm 103:1-5

Hymn: “Savior of the Nations, Come” PH 14, PsH 336, WR 168

Week 2

When Heaven Came Back

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38; 46-55

Sermon Notes

Suppose you grew up in a nice house in a nice neighborhood—a warm, welcoming, and orderly place. Years later you return to the house. Your family is still there, but something terrible has happened. Instead of order, you find chaos. Garbage is heaped up in the corners of the rooms. Nothing in the house seems to work. Those who live there are sullen and nasty to each other.

Something like this has happened to the human race. We started out in a lush garden, but now we live in a disorderly, dysfunctional world. We find garbage heaped in the corners. Violence is rampant. We are tempted to sing, “This world is not my home.” But indeed it is. And we need someone to set it right.

One day the Prince slips in, incognito, or nearly so. For the most part, the world fails to recognize him, but those who have been trained to see the clues find him. Mary is one such person, but because the Prince still walks among us, we too can see him, if only we know where to look.

So where do we look? Mary’s song is full of clues. Look among the poor, among those who have little, among those who suffer. In Advent we redirect our sight from the illusions that cover up the sad truth of the human race to the places and people among whom the Prince walks, and for whom the Prince has come.

Prelude

Hymn: “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” PH 3, PsH 194, SFL 121, TH 197, WR 155

Call to Worship: Isaiah 40:3-4

Hymn: “Hark, the Glad Sound! The Savior Comes” PsH 335

Greetings

Scripture: Isaiah 9:2, 6

Song: “He Came Down” (st. 1-2)

[Lighting the Advent Candle: Peace]

Today we light the candle of peace. The prophet said, “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (Isa. 2:4-5)

Song: “He Came Down” (st. 1-2)

Song of Zechariah: Luke 1:68-79 (unison)

Anthem: “What Is This Lovely Fragrance” (Alwes)

Prayers of the Congregation

Hymn: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” CH 255, PH 48, PsH 351, TH 221, WR 190

Offering/Offertory

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38, 46-55

Sermon: “When Heaven Came Back”

Prayer

Hymn: “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry” PH 10, PsH 327, WR 156

Benediction

Week 3

When Heaven Came to Us

Scripture: Colossians 2:6-12, 16-3:4

Sermon Notes

In her book Take This Bread, Sara Miles encounters the mystery of the sacrament. Wandering into a worship service at St. Gregory’s in San Francisco, she is moved to come forward. Someone puts bread in her mouth, and, as she puts it, “Jesus happened to me.”

The sacrament is one of the ways that Jesus gets inside us. Once Jesus is inside us, his story becomes our story. We find a new identity, both our own and Christ’s.

The peril here, as Paul reminds us in Colossians 2, is religion. Religion tries to make us conformists. Life in Jesus allows us to become what we are. Colossians 3 says that Jesus is the person who knows who we originally were and, underneath it all, still are. This identity is hidden in heaven, but even now, in Christ, we begin to recall it and live it anew. In this way, heaven comes to dwell in us. We become the community of those for whom the unity of heaven and earth has been restored, even if the restoration is still agonizingly partial.

Prelude: “What Child Is This” (Puvis)

Call to Worship: Isaiah 61:1-3

Hymn: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” CH 277, PH 31/32, PsH 345, TH 203, WR 185

Greetings

Scripture: Zephaniah 3:14-17

Prayer

O God, you make us glad by the yearly celebration of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer)

Song: “He Came Down” (st. 1-2)

[Lighting the Advent Candle: Joy]

Today we light the candle of joy. “‘Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.’ With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. In that day you will say: ‘Give praise to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.’” (Isa. 12:2-6)

Song: “He Came Down” (st. 1-2)

Scripture: Philippians 4:4-7 (unison)

Anthem: “Joy to the World” (Handel/Rutter)

Morning Prayer

Offering/Offertory

Hymn: “Away in a Manger” CH 261/262, PH 24/25, PsH 348/349, SFL 129, SWM 87, TH 204/205, WR 203/205

Scripture: Colossians 2:6-12, 16-3:4

Sermon: “When Heaven Came to Us”

Hymn: “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” CH 258, PH 29, PsH 356, SFL 131, TH 224, WR 218

Week 4

When Heaven Comes to Stay

Scripture: Revelation 21:1-5

Sermon Notes

This climatic passage in the book of Revelation tells us of what might be called the “greater Christmas”: the final coming together of earth and heaven. The New Jerusalem descends. God takes up residence among us. All, at last, is restored.

This is set against the backdrop of the destruction of the old world order. In a surprisingly contemporary note, the merchants of the earth watch as the great Babylon, consumer of the world’s goods, goes up in flames. “In one hour such great wealth has been brought to ruin!” (Rev. 18:17).

But as chapter 19 makes clear, this wealth has been built on violence. When the whole structure comes tumbling down, and death and Hades are themselves thrown into the lake of fire, the earth greens in preparation for the restoration of heaven to earth.

For now, that means that there is a sharp divide between those who belong to Babylon—the current world order—and those who long for the coming of this greater Christmas. Which are you?

Prelude

Hymn: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” CH 250, PH 44, TH 201, WR 180

Call to Worship: A Promised Ruler from Bethlehem: Micah 5:2, 4-5a

Hymn: “Once in Royal David’s City” CH 286, PH 49, PsH 346, TH 225, WR 183

Greetings

Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-3

Prayer

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen. (TWS D.1.4.8 from Book of Common Prayer, p. 212, P.D.)

Song: “He Came Down” (st. 1-2)

[Lighting the Advent Candle: Love]

Today we light the candle of love.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. (1 John 4:7-9)

Song: “He Came Down” (st. 1-2)

Scripture: 1 John 4:16b-18a (unison)

Anthem: “Sing to the Child” (Scott)

Morning Prayer

Hymn: “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice” CH 273, PH 28, PsH 355, TH 207, WR 198

Offering/offertory

Scripture: Revelation 21:1-5

Sermon: “When Heaven Comes to Stay”

Hymn: “O Christ! Come Back to Save Your Folk” PsH 330

Benediction

Christmas Eve

Waiting for Heaven to Come Down
Candlelight Service

Scripture: Luke 2:8-14

Sermon Notes

In one of his last poems, W. H. Auden describes a Christmas he celebrated in the English countryside with a few close friends. During the week of Christmas, the area was ensconced in a thick fog. No one could go outside; they were forced to settle back and enjoy the warmth, the season, and each other. The poem ends with a line that Auden may have meant as a kind of benediction on his own life: “Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog.”

Christmas Eve services, after the bustle of the season, are often such moments. The preparations are done. Christmas is upon us. The choir begins to sing. And for a moment we have only the story, the promise, and each other. We hold candles aloft and sing “Silent Night.” Peace and calm descend on us.

We live in an age of fear. Max Lucado calls fear “the bully in the high school hallway.” Fear drives us to try to produce the perfect Christmas, and to despair when we inevitably fail. Fear drives us to try to produce the kingdom of God on earth, and when we fail at that, to blame other people. Fear prevents us from seeing and hearing what the angel has come to say: “Fear not.”

And just when it seems all words, the angel pulls back the curtain, and there is the whole chorus of heaven singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” For a moment, earth and heaven touch. At Christmas, perhaps in the singing of “Silent Night,” God pulls back the curtain, and we are joined by the angel chorus. It is enough to sustain us. It’s enough for those waiting for heaven to come down.

Christmas Eve

[Individual candles are distributed as worshipers enter.]

Prelude: Songs of the Season

Anthem: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (Helve Larson)

Call to Worship: Isaiah 9:2-3a, 6-7

Carol: “Angels We Have Heard on High” CH 278, PH 23, PsH 347, SFL 133, SWM 90, TH 214, WR 188

Greetings

[Lighting of the Christ Candle]

Carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” CH 250, PH 44, TH 201, WR 180

Prayer

Scripture: Luke 2:1-12

Anthem: “Joy to the World” (Handel/Rutter)

Scripture: Luke 2:13-14

Carol: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” CH 277, PH 31/32, PsH 345, TH 203, WR 185

Scripture: Luke 2:15-20

Anthem: “Sing to the Child” (K. Lee Scott)

Scripture: Matthew 2:1-12

Anthem: “What Is This Lovely Fragrance” (Alwes)

Poem: “Christmas Questions” by Clayton Libolt (see sidebar)

Carol: “As with Gladness Men of Old” CH 290, PH 63, PsH 358, SFL 143, TH 226, WR 236

Offering

Offertory: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” (Brahms)

Prayer

Anthem: “On This Still and Silent Night” (Koerts/Cook)

Scripture: Philippians 3:20-21

Sermon: “Waiting for Heaven to Come Down”

Prayer

Carol: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” CH 249, PH 41/42, PsH 340, SWM 102, TH 208, WR 182

[Lighting of the Candles]

Scripture: Isaiah 60:1-3

Carol: “Silent Night! Holy Night!”

Benediction

[Please extinguish your candle before leaving the pew.]

Brass Postlude

Excerpts

Bulletin Note Week 1

Today is the first Sunday in Advent—the season of expectation and longing for the coming of the Lord. For four weeks we prepare to hear again the announcement of the angel: “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 the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

Our theme this Advent season is the great theme of the Bible: the reunion of earth and heaven. In these four weeks we will journey from the moment when heaven and earth were separated to the moment when they will at last be united again. This journey begins in sorrow and longing; it ends in joy and reunion.

Bulletin Note Week 2

Last week we began to tell a story—a story that spans the Bible and is, in fact, its core story. It’s a story about earth and heaven, about how they were once one, how they got separated, and how they will be one again. It’s a story about home—home for us and home for God. The old song says, “This world is not my home; I’m just passing through.” But the Bible speaks of the reunion of earth and heaven, of God coming down to dwell among us and make earth his home.

Bulletin Note Week 3

What if you are not who you think you are? You were once someone else before you settled into this life. Although you don’t remember much, images of what you once were sometimes float through your mind. Now you have been told that someone is coming from the old country where you once lived to tell you about this other life. You wait with fear and anticipation. What will the messenger say? Who are you really?

A similar scenario lies behind the Scripture we will look at this morning. Who are we really? The messenger is coming to tell us.

Bulletin Note Week 4

Christmas is almost here! As much as anything, this is the theme of Advent. Advent—the word means “the coming”—is the season of longing for the coming of the Lord. “What?” you say, “didn’t the Lord already come long ago? Isn’t this the story we tell of angels and shepherds and magi?” Yes, but this story is part of a larger story of the coming of the Lord, of heaven coming to earth, of a greater Christmas that all will see. Today we remember, celebrate, and anticipate the promise of this greater Christmas.

Christmas Questions

When Mary held you close
in Bethlehem that night
and loving you buried
her face into your flesh,
while animal sounds and smells
filled your natal stall,
did she then from fresh skin
sense the faint fragrance of heaven?

Or did she hear
in your whimpering cries,
faint echoes of
another world?
Or touching you
for a moment touch eternity?
Or in a shepherd’s torch catch a facing glimpse
of glory of a king?

Did she that night in the sweetness of a kiss
taste what no mother had
before or ever after
tasted?
Or was it then,
as now it is,
faith that made her see,
hope she touched and smelled,
and love that she
in your newborn smile
knew to be
the meaning of her child?

—Clayton Libolt

Two Hints for Christmas

In addition to the traditional Christmas Eve candlelight service, we offered the following alternate Christmas Eve service in which the children presented a Christmas drama.

Notes

After the drama, while the children were still on the platform—sheep, villagers, shepherds, angels, Mary, Joseph, and the child—I tried to give people a few hints to enhance our appreciation of the story.

The first hint is that the story should make us younger. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, the older we get, the younger we must get spiritually. One of the things that Christmas exposes is the childlike heart of God (for more on this, see G. K. Chesterton).

The second is that, contrary to what religious types have said for many years, God loves flesh. Incarnation seems to have been God’s intention all along. The bright trappings of Christmas—lights, decorated trees, packages wrapped with shiny paper, fancy dishes, parties—are part of being flesh. Those who shake long bony fingers at the fun of Christmas have no part with God in this. Christmas and a certain extravagance belong together.

Prelude

Lighting the Christ Candle

Call to Worship

Carol: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” CH 249, PH 41/42, PsH 340, SWM 102, TH 208, WR 182

Greetings

Scripture: Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

Christmas Drama

Meditation: “Two Hints for Christmas”

Carols

“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” CH 251, PH 38, TH 200, WR 191

“Silent Night! Holy Night!” CH 253, PH 60, PsH 344, TH 210, WR 186

Benediction

Postlude: “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” CH 258, PH 29, PsH 356, SFL 131, TH 224, WR 218

 

Looking for a Christmas program that kids and adults will love and that you can pull off with only one rehearsal? Check out the Quick & Easy Christmas Dramas at www.FaithAliveResources.org.

Clayton Libolt (clay@riverterrace.org) is pastor at River Terrace Christian Reformed Church, Lansing, Michigan.