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Prepare the Way

Prepare the Way is a series created by the Wesleyan Church that features four weeks of spiritual preparation leading up to Christmas. Included are sermon outlines; small group lessons for children, youth, and adults; and more. Many additional resources, including PowerPoint backgrounds, devotionals, and family service ideas can be found at wesleyan.org/323/advent-2013-prepare-the-way.

God is preparing The Way. He is an active God who loves and wants to be loved. He is a God who is near and among us. Since we are made in God’s image, God shows us his favor. The first Christians—often called the followers of “The Way”—glorified God by living their lives like Christ. How will we glorify God today?

As God prepared the way for Jesus to enter into this world, and as we anticipate this birth, may you prepare the way for others to experience Christ and his love for them this Christmas season.

Series Summary

Lesson 1: Preparing the Way: He Is Near (Luke 1:1-25)
Lesson 2: Preparing the Way: He Is Among Us (Luke 1:26-38)
Lesson 3: Preparing the Way: He Shows Us His Favor (Luke 1:39-59)
Lesson 4: Preparing the Way: He Is Glorified (Luke 2:1-20)

WEEK 1

He Is Near

Responsive Reading

For the time is coming, says the Lord, when I will place a righteous Branch upon King David’s throne.

He shall be a King who shall rule
with wisdom and justice
and cause righteousness to prevail
everywhere throughout the earth.
And this is his name:
The Lord, our Righteousness.

For unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder.

These will be his royal titles:
Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God,
The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

His ever-expanding, peaceful government will never end.
He will rule with perfect fairness and justice
from the throne of his father, David.

He will bring true justice and peace
to all the nations of the world.
This is going to happen because the Lord of Heaven
has dedicated himself to do it!

The royal line of David will be cut off,
chopped down like a tree;
but from the stump will grow a Shoot
—yes, a new Branch from the old root.

And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might;
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord.

His delight will be obedience to the Lord.
He will not judge by appearance,
false evidence, or hearsay,
but will defend the poor and the exploited.

He will rule against the wicked who oppress them.
For he will be clothed with fairness and truth.

And Christ became a human being
and lived here on Earth among us
and was full of loving faithfulness and truth.

And some of us have seen his glory—
the glory of the only Son of the heavenly Father.

Lighting of the Advent Candle

The first candle of Advent proclaims the light of God, replacing darkness and evil with good. The search for a Messiah to come and free God’s people is over. Joy is in the world; the Lord has come! God’s light will overcome the darkness of evil, as light always overcomes darkness.

Sermon Notes

Text

Luke 1:1-25

Theme

Advent cultivates the difficult discipline of waiting. But that waiting and hope find fulfillment when God draws near.

Sermon Introduction

Advent is alive with a sense of restoration and stirring with the hope of redemption. It is heavy with the longing for God to rescue us and bring us back to himself. In our culture, the Christmas season is often associated with a fast-paced sense of hurry. The “holiday rush,” they call it. Inevitably, we will feel the tension of impatient shoppers and hectic schedules. But the Christian embrace of Advent is a counter-cultural act of intentional patience. We wait. We hope. Resisting the urge to rush ahead to the manger, we enter into the story of Israel and share their longing for a Savior.

Sermon Outline

The Patience to Wait

In the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, we find a microcosm of the larger story of Israel—and of all of creation. Theirs is a story marked by waiting and hoping. For years they longed to have children, but they had come to terms with the harsh reality that their eyes would never see the fulfillment of this hope and their hearts would never experience the joy of this longing. Exiled in the desert of waiting, they thought they would never see the promise.

This is the sense that marks the Advent season. It is a time of waiting, a time of longing, a season of hope. We remember our separation from God because of our sin. Our hearts ache for him to come and deliver us. We enter into the ancient longing of Israel, looking for the arrival of the promised Messiah. Will it ever happen? Will this hope ever become reality?

The Answer to Prayer

Despite his disappointment, we still find Zechariah in worship. He hasn’t let his heartbreak become bitterness against God. He is in the temple worshiping, faithfully at work as a priest, when God breaks into his worship and reveals a miraculous message. An angel appears to him with this proclamation: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”
Isn’t this the great promise of Advent? Do not be afraid! Your prayer has been heard! We were in desperate need of a Savior, and God heard our prayer. Advent is the reminder that we serve a God who hears our prayers and moves with compassion and mercy to answer them. What prayer remains unanswered in your life? What longing is yet unfulfilled? What need, what fear, what obstacle threatens you? Do not be afraid. Your prayer has been heard. Trust God to answer according to his will, wisdom, and love for you.

The Miracle of Life

A strange thing happens when God starts to draw near. When Jesus shows up, life begins to stir in the most impossible places. From barren wombs to occupied tombs, life springs up where we would least expect it.

Isn’t it beautiful that God fulfills the age-old longing of Israel by answering the prayer of a small but faithful family? He sets into motion a plan that will rescue all of creation, but begins by answering the prayer of a single woman, Elizabeth. That is just like God, isn’t it? Simultaneously accomplishing a sweeping deliverance for a nation and a miracle for a mother.

The Question of Christmas

Despite the miracle unfolding before his eyes, despite the thrill of the long-awaited news, Zechariah responds with a question. He asks, “How can I be sure of this?” (Can’t you just imagine the angel looking around at the flaming light and heavenly holiness and thinking, “What more do you want, man?”) Zechariah goes on to list the obstacles against this becoming reality—I’m too old, my wife is too old, this kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like us. As a result of asking this question, his ability to speak is taken away until the promise comes to pass.

Does this mean that God punishes us for asking questions? Absolutely not! God welcomes our questions. He is big enough to handle them and help us as we wrestle with them. Do not be afraid to voice your questions to him. God knows that when you ask questions it is a sign that you think he has the answer.

In fact, Mary also asks a question when this same angel, Gabriel, appears to her (“How will this be, since I am a virgin?”). So what is the difference? Perhaps in Mary’s case we have a young girl who is asking honest questions about logistics, even while believing that this miracle is somehow possible for God. In Zechariah’s case, however, we have a seasoned priest who wants to know how he can be sure that God will do what he promised. This is an issue of trust. He is not sure that God is able to do the impossible.

But if Advent teaches us anything, it is that God is in the business of bringing about the impossible. After generations of waiting, longing, and hoping in the darkness, Advent is that first sign of dawn. We see that God is on the move, and the impossible starts to become the commonplace as he draws near.

Reflection Questions

  • Do you struggle with waiting?
  • How can you practice this difficult discipline during the Advent season?
  • How do you see the story of Israel aligning with your own life story?
  • What prayers seem unheard by God?
  • In what ways do you need God to do the impossible in your life?

Application

Practice the discipline of waiting. Remember the stories from Scripture when God hears the prayers of his people and moves in compassion. It will require divinely cultivated patience. But hold on to the hope that God is up to the impossible.

Song Suggestions

“Prepare the Way” LUYH 58, SNC 105, WR 174
“My Soul in Stillness Waits” LUYH 63, SNC 95
“Blessed Be the God of Israel” LUYH 67, SNC 104, WR 158
“Wait for the Lord” LUYH 480, SNC 96, WR 166

Litany/Prayer

An Advent Lament LUYH 62
Affirmation: Come, Lord Jesus LUYH 484

The first Christians—often called the followers of “The Way”—glorified God by living their lives like Christ. How will we glorify God today?

WEEK 2

He Is Among Us

Responsive Reading

For unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder.

These will be his royal titles:
Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God,
The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

His ever-expanding, peaceful government will never end.
He will rule with perfect fairness and justice
from the throne of his father, David.

He will bring true justice and peace
to all the nations of the world.
This is going to happen because the Lord of heaven
has dedicated himself to do it!

God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee,
to a virgin, Mary, engaged to be married
to a man named Joseph,
a descendant of King David.

Gabriel appeared to her and said,
“Congratulations, favored lady! The Lord is with you!”
Confused and disturbed,
Mary tried to think what the angel could mean.

“Don’t be frightened, Mary,” the angel told her,
“for God has decided to wonderfully bless you!
Very soon now, you will become pregnant
and have a baby boy,
and you are to name him ‘Jesus.’”

“He shall be very great and shall be called the Son of God.
And the Lord God shall give him the throne of his ancestor, David.
And he shall reign over Israel forever;
his kingdom shall never end!”

Mary asked the angel, “But how can I have a baby?
I am a virgin.”

The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit shall come upon you,
and the power of God shall overshadow you,
so the baby born to you will be utterly holy—the Son
of God.”

Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant,
and I am willing to do whatever he wants.
May everything you said come true.”

And then the angel disappeared.

Mary responded, “Oh, how I praise the Lord!
How I rejoice in God my Savior!”

Lighting of the Advent Candle

The Advent season is a time of the year that takes preparation. When we think of Christmas we think of preparing for family, decorations, caroling, church activities, church musicals, social gatherings, and Christmas Day itself. It is no secret that celebrating Christmas takes a lot of work before it actually happens.

During the very first Advent there was preparation too. God had to get things ready. The angels, shepherds, and kings all made preparations for the first Christmas. Even Mary, Joseph, and Caesar Augustus were doing their best to be ready for the Christ child.

The two candles we light this week in the Advent wreath, remind us that we too are to prepare our hearts and homes to receive Jesus Christ.

Sermon Notes

Text

Luke 1:26-38

Theme

Discover the mystery, the mission, and the motivation of Advent.

Sermon Introduction

As we prepare the way in our hearts for the arrival of the Messiah, we see a peculiar truth. Almost every other religion in the world is structured so that humanity has to make its way to God. But in this upside-down, backwards kingdom of Jesus, God comes to us. In today’s passage we examine Gabriel’s announcement to Mary: God is about to be among us. And in this exchange we catch a glimpse of the mystery, mission, and motivation of Advent.

Sermon Outline

The Mystery

In this passage we are told about one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith: the incarnation. Incarnation simply means “in the flesh.” At this stunning moment in history, God’s plan for redeeming his people is revealed, and no one could have anticipated his approach. He would set out to save humanity from the inside. He would become one of us. This thought would be scandalous and sacrilegious if it weren’t true. But true it is. What a mystery! The Son of the Most High God will also be the son of the humble Mary. Our God is not a far-off deity who demands that we make our way to him. He comes to us. He is near. He is among us.

The Mission

The mission behind the mystery is singular: redemption. In this passage we learn not just how God will come to us, but why. He is on a rescue mission of redemption, and to accomplish it he steps into our world and plants himself within our context. As Eugene Peterson puts it, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message). The mystery of the incarnation sheds light on the mission of Jesus. It shows us that God is always coming to us, to bring us to him.

The Motivation

The motivation behind the mission is clear: love. Advent is a proclamation of God’s unthinkable love for his people. It is a love that is more than sentiment or intention. It is active and overflowing and even reckless. He risks it all because he is driven by love.

Conclusion

Advent is about the mystery of “God among us.” It is about the mission of rescue through Jesus. And Advent reminds us that God’s motivation in both is his rich, reckless love for all creation. May we live in response to this!

Reflection Questions

  • Have you ever acted out of the motivation of love?
  • What did you risk?
  • How can you practice “incarnation” as modeled by Jesus (putting God’s love “in the flesh”) in your community?
  • God is always moving to be found among those he loves. Who are you “among”? Only Christians and church members? How can you become more involved in the lives of people outside the church?
  • How are you involved in God’s mission to love the lost around us?
  • What is your driving force? What is your motivation?

Application

  • How are we embracing the mystery of the incarnation that we celebrate during this season? How can we follow Jesus’ lead and “move into the neighborhood?”
  • What is our neighborhood? Is our church impacting our neighborhood with this great news of Jesus? Do we just drive in for church and then drive back out? How can we invest here? How can we give ourselves away in this community?
  • Let’s ask ourselves a difficult question: Would our community miss us if we were not here?
  • What is your mission? Every follower of Jesus is called to engage with God’s mission in the world. We don’t only celebrate a baby in a manger. We follow our Master out of our places of comfort into the lives of the broken.
  • What is your motivation? Are you driven by God’s love for the lost? How can you demonstrate that love this week and this Christmas season?
  • How can our church engage with God’s mission in our community? What are some tangible examples of this? What are we going to do in response to God’s love for us and for the world?

Song Suggestions

“Lord, You Were Rich Beyond All Splendor” LUYH 75
“Hark, the Glad Sound! The Savior Comes” LUYH 60, PsH 335
“Lord, You Have Lavished on Your Land/Psalm 85” LUYH 65, PsH 85
“Imagine” LUYH 72
“O Love of God, How Strong and True” LUYH 583, PsH 463, TH 81

WEEK 3

He Shows Us His Favor

Responsive Reading

About this time Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor,
decreed that a census should be taken throughout the nation.

Everyone was required to return
to his ancestral home for this registration.

And because Joseph was a member of the royal line,
he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea,
King David’s ancient home—
journeying there from the Galilean village of Nazareth.

He took with him Mary, his fiancée,
who was obviously pregnant by this time.
And while they were there, the time came
for her baby to be born.

And she gave birth to her first child, a son.
She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in a village inn.

That night some shepherds were in the fields outside the village,
guarding their flocks of sheep.
Suddenly an angel appeared among them,
and the landscape shone bright with the glory of the Lord.

They were badly frightened, but the angel reassured them.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said.
“I bring you the most joyous news ever announced,
and it is for everyone.”

“The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—
has been born tonight in Bethlehem.
How will you recognize him?
You will find a baby wrapped in a blanket,
lying in a manager.”

Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others
—the armies of heaven—praising God.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,” they sang,
“and peace on earth for all those pleasing him.”

When this great army of angels had
returned again to heaven,
the shepherds said to each other,
“Come on! Let’s go to Bethlehem!
Let’s see this wonderful thing that has happened,
which the Lord has told us about.”

They ran to the village and found their way to Mary and Joseph.
And there was the baby lying in the manger.
The shepherds told everyone what had happened
and what the angel had said to them about this child.

All who heard the shepherds’ story expressed astonishment.
But Mary quietly treasured these things in her heart
and often thought about them.

Then the shepherds went back again to their fields and flocks,
praising God for the visit of the angels,
and because they had seen the child,
just as the angel had told them.

Lighting of the Advent Candle

It is amazing to think that God would use shepherds to spread the word about Jesus. Shepherds were a despised class of people and thought of as being unreliable witnesses. Yet they became effective witnesses of Jesus Christ.

Think about why Jesus came to earth on that night so long ago. Remember and marvel again that, because of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, you don’t have to suffer God’s just punishment for your sins. Instead, you have been saved from them.

Sermon Notes

Text

Luke 1:39-59

Theme

Discover that God’s favor is poured out on us for his glory and for the sake of others.

Sermon Introduction

As we prepare the way for the arrival of the Messiah, we are humbled that God would show his favor to us. Why would he do this? What did we do to deserve it? How should we live in response to it? In today’s passage we look once again at Mary and Elizabeth, and we discover through their example that God’s favor is poured out on us for his glory and for the sake of others.

Sermon Outline

What Is Favor?

It is crucial to understand what we mean when we talk about the favor of God. This is important because it is an idea that we hear thrown around all the time, especially by pastors. How often have you heard well-meaning Christians or excited pastors use this term in relation to some sort of good break? Upgrade on the flight, free tickets to the big game, nice deal on the next purchase. It’s common to label these as God’s favor. But this is not what we mean when we speak of favor. As we look at the biblical idea of God’s favor, we can’t escape the fact that it is often attached to this theme: God trusting us to bear a difficult mission. It is his grace poured out on us for the sake of others.

Why Elizabeth and Mary?

Why does God pour out his favor on Elizabeth and Mary? The word is used to describe both women (vv. 30, 43). And both seem equally surprised to be favored. Read Elizabeth’s response to seeing Mary in verses 41-45. She is blown away by the honor. Look at the theme of Mary’s song in verses 46-55. She is overwhelmed and humbled. So what attributes set them up for this gift? What actions and accomplishments put them in the path of such blessing? None, as far as we can tell, apart from humble surrender and simple faith. And what is the purpose of this favor? Is it the elevation of Elizabeth and Mary? Is it for their fame, prosperity, or advancement in their community? No. It is for the blessing of the world as they deliver our deliverance in the form of the Forerunner and Messiah. This favor is to prepare the way for the arrival of redemption. This favor is God’s grace poured out on them for the sake of others.

Why You and Me?

That raises the next question: why does God pour out his favor on us? He has, hasn’t he? When was the last time you paused to consider the favor poured out on you? To take account of your blessings? To express your gratitude for the good gifts from God? This is the perfect time of year to look back on the ways in which you’ve been blessed. Let’s pause, even right now, and contemplate God’s goodness to us. (Consider allowing several minutes of silence for your congregation to reflect.)

So why you and me? Why have we received such favor and blessing? Once again, God has poured out his grace on us in these ways for the sake of his glory and for the sake of others. We must always look for ways to respond to this favor by giving God glory and giving ourselves away for the sake of others.

Conclusion

Favor is far more than a few good breaks. Favor is far more than reward for right living. That would be called karma, and it has no place in the Christian faith. Favor is God’s grace toward us for the purpose of his glory and for the sake of others.

Reflection Questions

  • How would you define favor?
  • What are some tangible examples of God’s favor in your life?
  • Why do you think God has given his favor to you?
  • How will you respond to this favor?
  • How can you respond in a way that gives away favor for the glory of God and for the sake of others?

Application

  • Seize an intentional moment every day this week to reflect on God’s blessings in your life.
  • Thank others for being a source and channel of God’s grace to you.
  • Find three intentional ways to be a channel of grace to others.

Suggested Songs

“Told of God’s Favor” LUYH 68
“My Soul Cries Out with a Joyful Shout” LUYH 69
“Humbly in Your Sight” LUYH 733
“I Surrender All” LUYH 739, TH 562, WR 625
“Here I Am” LUYH 740
“Take, O Take Me As I Am” LUYH 741, SNC 215
“Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God” LUYH 746
“I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me” LUYH 854, PH 369, WR 574

Prayer

“Prayer of St. Francis” LUYH 860

WEEK 4

He Is Glorified

Responsive Reading

Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, in Judea,
during the reign of King Herod.

At about that time some astrologers from eastern lands
arrived in Jerusalem, asking,
“Where is the newborn King of the Jews?
For we have seen his star in far-off eastern lands,
and have come to worship him.”

King Herod was deeply disturbed by their questions,
and all Jerusalem was filled with rumors.
He called a meeting of the Jewish religious leaders.
“Did the prophets tell us where the Messiah would be born?” he asked.

“Yes, in Bethlehem,” they said,
“for this is what the prophet Micah wrote:
‘O little town of Bethlehem,
you are not an unimportant Judean village,
for a Governor shall rise from you to rule my people Israel.’”

Then Herod sent a private message to the astrologers,
asking them to come to see him;
at this meeting he found out from them
the exact time when they first saw the star.

Then he told them, “Go to Bethlehem and search for the child.
And when you find him, come back and tell me
so that I can go and worship him, too.”

After this interview the astrologers started out again.
And look! The star appeared to them again,
standing over Bethlehem. Their joy knew no bounds!

Entering the house where the baby and Mary his mother were,
they threw themselves down before him, worshiping.
Then they opened their present and gave him gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

But when they returned to their own land,
they didn’t go through Jerusalem to report to Herod,
for God had warned them in a dream to go home another way.

After they were gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.
“Get up and flee to Egypt with the baby and his mother,” the angel said,
“and stay there until I tell you to return,
for King Herod is going to try to kill the child.”

That same night he left for Egypt with Mary and the baby,
and stayed there until King Herod’s death.

This fulfilled the prophet’s prediction:
“I have called my Son from Egypt.”

Lighting of the Advent Candle

During this Advent season we have been getting ready for the coming of Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus came should mean several things to us. It means that we can celebrate Jesus’ past, coming to Bethlehem as a baby. It means we can be encouraged because he still lives with us. It means that he is coming again to take us home to live with him forever. It also means that we can shout with the glad angels by saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests!”

The four candles shining together announce that Jesus came for each of us and he is the Light of the World!

Sermon Notes

Text

Luke 2:1-20

Theme

Discover that Jesus is glorified in all things—from the highest place to the lowest place.

Sermon Introduction

As we prepare the way in our hearts for the arrival of the Messiah, we are moved to worship him! We can’t help but sing out his praises as Christmas Day draws near. Everywhere we turn, songs flood the airwaves, rejoicing in the birth of Jesus. As we see in today’s passage, it’s been that way since the beginning of this story.

Sermon Outline

Glory in the Highest

At the announcement of Jesus’ birth, angels appear in the sky and fill the night with songs of worship. With contagious joy they sing, “Glory to God in the highest!”

What does this song of praise mean? They are saying that all the glory of heaven is wrapped up in this little baby wrapped up in a manger. They celebrate and praise his name because he is more than worthy of any worship we could ever give!

Glory in the Lowest

Yes, Jesus is worshiped in the highest, his glory filling all of heaven. But take note of which group receives this great news. This proclamation comes to a crew of shepherds working the night shift in the fields. Not the royal courts. Not the seat of government. Not the prestigious power brokers of the community. This song comes to the shepherds.

We need to understand that even though they now occupy a place of honor in the Christmas story, shepherds were considered anything but honorable by the people of that day. This is an interesting glimpse into the nature and scope of Jesus’ ministry. It sets the stage and offers clues for the unconventional kingdom Jesus came to build. At the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were considered outcasts in Jewish society and culture. Despite the rich history tied to the profession through David, there was no glory in being a shepherd. It was an undesirable job for undesirable people. Which is why it is remarkable that the good news of salvation came to shepherds first. Jesus’ message of love and grace was sweet to the ears of those watching from the outside. His gospel is not reserved for the elite, but crashes through walls and blows past boundaries to reach the outcast. He constantly goes to the least likely, redrawing lines, rewriting guest lists, and redeeming lost sheep (and shepherds).

They were among the lowest. Yet God chooses them to receive this news first. God reveals his glory to them in a miraculous way. Why? Because the glory of Jesus doesn’t just reach to the highest places. It reaches to the lowest as well.

Conclusion

This is the glory of Jesus! He is the highest, full of greatness and glory. But he humbled himself and made himself the lowest. At Advent, the One who fills all of the heavens and earth with his glory is contained in a manger. The high becomes low. And for that, we give him glory!

Reflection Questions

  • How is your life an ongoing act of worship to Jesus?
  • How would you describe his glory? What five words would you choose?
  • Who would be considered the “outsiders” in your community?
  • How can you reach out to them as an individual? As a church?

Application

  • Identify two ways that you can more intentionally worship Jesus with your everyday life.
  • Identify one person (or group) that needs to experience the love of Jesus. Follow the pattern of Jesus and reach beyond yourself to the outcasts in your community.

Suggested Songs

“Gloria/Glory” LUYH 77, SNC 116, WR 195
“Angels from the Realms of Glory” LUYH 81
“Gloria, Gloria/Glory to God” LUYH 83, PH 576, SNC 115, WR 240
“Ere zij God/Glory to God” LUYH 84, PsH 214
“Open the Eyes of My Heart” LUYH 537, WR 656
“Como el ciervo/Like a Deer” LUYH 504
“Better Is One Day” LUYH 506
“In Our Lives, Lord, Be Glorified” LUYH 861, SNC 43, WR 465