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Planning for Advent and Christmas Season, Year C

Advent Wreath - Eastern Europe

Advent Wreath from Eastern Europe. Public Domain

On November 29, 2015, Advent begins and we move into Year C of the lectionary. During this year of the three-year lectionary cycle, we will read through Luke's gospel, hear the stories and proclamations of the prophets, and spend considerable time in the epistles of Galatians, Colossians, I and II Timothy, and II Thessalonians. During August 2016, we’ll also complete the readings from Hebrews begun toward the end of Year B.

While the readings for each Advent in the three-year cycle vary from year to year, the pattern of these readings is always the same. We always begin with the end of all things in mind. Week 1 focuses on the second coming of Christ. Week 2 brings us the story of the ministry and prophetic role of John the Baptist. Week 3 is the message of John the Baptist, which, while a message of judgment, is always counterpoised by the call to rejoice. And week 4 focuses on the role of Mary.

By starting at the end and then unfolding the fulfillment of promises that lead toward it, Advent invites us into a different story of time and history than that of North American culture’s version of December, “Christmastime.” “Christmastime” lures us into shopping malls, online retailers, and parties. It lulls us into the drowse of manufactured memories of the perfect bliss of a snowy winter’s day. And it seduces us to break our bank accounts to purchase more and more new things.

Advent could not be more different. Advent forces us to ask whether our marketplace practices can stand before the judgment seat of Christ. It awakes us to the radical disjunctures between God’s dream for creation and the mess we have made of it. And it calls us to give our all, not for our own pleasure or that of our dear ones, but in pursuit of God’s mission of making all things new.

Why all the attention to disjuncture, brokenness, and judgment?

Because this is exactly what we need to ready ourselves for Christmas Season.

Yes, there is light in the land of darkness, there are angels and shepherds announcing and celebrating the birth of Jesus. But that is only the beginning, indeed, only the beginning of the beginning. That is just Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day comes the announcement that sets the course for the real work and purpose of this season. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.” Christmas Season is an extended time for contemplating the ramifications of the incarnation of God, and both the hope and the significant threat God’s becoming flesh has been and continues to be to the kingdoms of this world and those who rule and defend them.

Advent calls us to wake up— to become conscious of what’s really going on and what’s really at stake so that as we come to Christmas, beholding the glory of the only-begotten Son of God, we do so with eyes wide open to the opportunities and threats that lie before those of us who have been made or are preparing to be made the children of God by water and the Holy Spirit.

“The days are surely coming,” Jeremiah reminds. “Even so, come Lord Jesus,” the church in Revelation replies. May our reply in the ways we keep these seasons in worship and in discipleship join this chorus of all the saints, here and now and in the age to come.

The Advent and Christmas Texts and Themes for Year C

From Advent through Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday after the Epiphany), the lectionary texts were selected to coordinate with one another. Do not settle for generic themes or ideas, such as the “Love, Joy, Peace, Hope” banners one often finds at church supply houses. The Scriptures for these seasons are richer, holier, and more challenging than that. Spend time in your worship planning team listening as deeply as you dare to the biblical texts themselves for the themes that emerge directly from them. Listen and look for the interplay not only among the texts, but between the texts and the realities you see around you in the lives of the people of your congregation, the community, and the larger world, always being attentive to the groaning of the Holy Spirit.

Advent 1 “Sending a Righteous Branch”
Jeremiah 33:14-16. “The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise” the prophet tells the people of Judah in exile in Babylon. The promise is for a leader, a “righteous branch” from the house of David, to bring justice and righteousness to the land then lying in ruins. This promised leader would later be known in Judaism as “Messiah,” and the reign he would establish would be called “the messianic age.” Is your congregation or community in exile? How do such promises speak to you where you are? Where do you see signs of the promised Leader and his reign at work? What are you still waiting to see?

Psalm 25:1-10 (UMH 756). This Psalm was selected, as all the Psalms are, as a response to the first reading. Pray and hear it today in the voice of those in exile who have waited and still wait. In your waiting, confess with them the need for God to sustain you daily, to cleanse you from sin, and lead you in paths of righteousness here and now.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Today’s reading can flow directly from the Psalm as a kind of blessing. In Jesus, the love and righteousness longed for have been provided. In the community called church, such love and righteousness may both abound and continue to make us perfect in holiness until the final coming of Christ.

Luke 21:25-36. (Worship & Song, 3050)The signs of the end Jesus announces look very different from what the folks who first heard Jeremiah’s prophecy may have expected. In the immediately preceding verses, Jerusalem is destroyed, not “established forever.” It is the destruction of Jerusalem rather than its restoration that marks the beginning of the end. It is worldwide suffering accompanied by unstoppable cataclysm, not the progressive development of a golden age of “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” that marks the promised redemption. Don’t be lulled! Stay awake and alert to suffering, Jesus says; that’s where you’ll see God’s reign coming in power, beginning now. How is your congregation staying alert to suffering in these days? How are you tempted to be lulled by “dissipation and drunkenness” at this time of the year? How are you helping folks to ”flee the wrath to come” so that instead of their hearts being weighed down and their lives ensnared in a trap, they can stand before Christ?

Advent 2 “Here Is Your God”
Malachi 3:1-4.
A century or more after the restoration of the city and the temple in Jerusalem, the word of the Lord through the prophet declares the coming of “my messenger” (Malachi, in Hebrew) who would radically purify the temple priesthood. How and where are clergy and lay leaders being purified where you are?

Canticle: Luke 1:68-79: (UMH 208 with sung response, 209 as a hymn setting; Upper Room Worshipbook, 10; Mil Voces Para Celebrar, 78 with sung response). Zechariah’s song identifies John the Baptizer as the foretold messenger of the Lord with a substantially broader mission than fixing the ritual anomalies and the broken spirituality in the priesthood Malachi had identified. A descendent of David was coming who would re-establish the whole people and save them from their enemies so they could worship and serve God in holiness and righteousness all their days. The ministry of the way-shower would prepare the “mighty savior’s” way by announcing and offering forgiveness of sins to all, even those in “darkness and the shadow of death.” Who is continuing to fulfill the ministry of way-shower—announcing and offering forgiveness of sins to all, and especially to those who are “in the shadows”—where you are? How are they doing it?

Philippians 1:3-11. Paul gives joyous thanks for his partnership with the church in Philippi. The graciousness and power he has experienced with them gives him every confidence that God will finish God's work in them to present them blameless on the day of the return of Christ, “having produced the harvest of righteousness” (verse 11). Paul’s “end-time” hope for them, and by extension for all Christians, is for all of them, as God’s people, to “serve God in holiness and righteousness all their days,” a living sign of the Promised One in their midst. How is the “messianic” harvest of righteousness being cultivated, cared for, and gathered in where you are?

Luke 3:1-6. Luke locates the ministry of John the Baptist historically within the timelines of the Roman Empire. He locates John’s ministry theologically within the context of the prophecy of Isaiah: The winding and difficult pathways between Babylon and Jerusalem were about to be turned into a straight and level highway for returning exiles so that all could witness God’s salvation. John announced this message, and more besides (which we’ll see and hear next week) in a ministry that took him up and down the Jordan River valley. In so doing, he sought out a fairly remote wilderness area inhabited by forgotten people and “little” people rather than the “bright lights” of Jerusalem. This is how he fulfilled his father Zechariah’s song. Where do you typically look for “way-showers?” Where do you typically find the real ones?

Advent 3: “Rejoice in Renewal”
Historically, this has been a “pre-themed” Sunday during Advent, a rough parallel to Laetare Sunday in Lent. While joyous expectation has been a motif in the epistle lesson every week so far, all of this week’s readings include that motif in one way or another. The Latin name of the Sunday, “Gaudete Sunday,” comes from the beginning of the reading from Philippians in this lectionary year—“Rejoice!” This text, and the association of the readings with joy, marks the reason some traditions have marked this Sunday with pink or rose colored paraments and vestments and a pink candle in the Advent wreath rather than purple or blue. If you have pink or rose things, go for it. If not, it’s fine to stay with what you have.

Zephaniah 3: 14-20: The prophet leads the singing of a new and almost raucously joyful psalm of thanksgiving. God has delivered the people from exile, will protect them from present and future enemies, and promises to make the name of this people renowned and praised everywhere on earth. That’s something to sing and shout about! Here’s a hymn setting of this text that may help. How will you help your congregation experience the “raucous joy” of this reading in worship today? Is reading it enough? Or might you be called to use it as a kind of launching pad for praise? How will you help your congregation “Rejoice and exult with all [their] heart” with this text?

Canticle: Isaiah 12:2-6: One joyous song leads into another. This one is often called “The First Song of Isaiah.” For a complete musical setting, see "The First Song of Isaiah,” 2030 in “The Faith We Sing,” with the congregation joining the chorus (in the pew edition), while choir or praise team or ensemble or soloist sings the verses (Singers or Accompaniment edition).

Philippians 4:4-7: After calling for the local bishop, Syzygos, to intervene by actively reconciling a conflict, Paul reminds the congregation at Philippi that in and through all challenges that may face as a community they can and should rejoice in Christ who is near and offer prayers and thanksgivings without anxiety. As they do these things, they will experience the peace of God sustaining them. How does joyous praise help you and your congregation “let go and let God” in prayer and in daily life? What happens when you do this? How will you continue to help your congregation to do that in worship today—in praise, in prayers, and around the Lord’s Table?

Luke 3: 7-18: Last week we heard what seemed like a joyous backdrop to John’s ministry. This week, we encounter words that seem far from joyous! “You brood of vipers!” “The ax is lying at the root of the tree. Produce good fruit, or it’s the flames for you!” But the people grow in joyous expectation because John offers a way out of “viperhood.” They could live differently. Even those with “problematic” careers could begin producing good fruit. The baptism they would receive from John would be the effective pledge of God’s forgiveness as they turned away from their former ways of life. In offering such teaching and baptism, John was clear he was not the messiah. There is one to come who baptizes with Spirit and unquenchable fire. While this sounds like more bad news, Luke writes, “Thus he gave good news to the people, proclaiming this and many other things.” Where have you seen the clarity of coming judgment help people take bold steps to live differently and so rejoice? How will you help your congregation get ready to experience even these hard words as reasons for rejoicing today?

Advent 4 “Blessed are They Who Believe”
Micah 5:2-5a: Micah proclaims the coming of a "brand new David" who will “feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.” The shepherd imagery evokes both compassion for the people and commitment to their protection. The coming one will be a real shepherd for the whole people and so be for them “Peace.”

Canticle of response: Luke 1: 46b-55 (UMH 199). "My soul magnifies the Lord… for the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant." In Mary’s Song, often called “Magnificat” after its opening word in Latin, the lowliness of Mary recapitulates the lowliness of Bethlehem in the prophecy from Micah, and the “strength of God’s arm” acts as both defender against oppressors (the proud, the mighty, the rich) and provider for the rest (the lowly, the hungry).

Singing Mary’s song in response to the reading from Micah may help the congregation connect both with the text itself and with the ways if fulfills the prophecy. You can find metrical versions of the "Magnificat" at 198 or 200 in The United Methodist Hymnal or 17-20 in Upper Room Worshipbook. If you consider chanting the canticle, use Tone 3 in F major with the canticle and response version (UMH 198). You may also want to consider using this text as the basis of the sermon and/or as a confession of our messianic faith on this day.

Hebrews 10:5-10: Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Psalm 40:4-6 (a variant form of the Septuagint reading of this text is used in Hebrews) by offering his whole life in obedient service to God. In so doing he simultaneously ended and replaced the sacrificial system of the Aaronic priesthood.

Luke 1:39-45: This is the story before Mary’s song. Elizabeth, a priest’s elderly and miraculously pregnant wife, welcomes unwed Mary and her unborn child into her home and breaks forth in blessing and wonder. Elizabeth's baby even leaps in the womb when Mary greets her. Elizabeth turns prophet at that moment, saying, “Blessed are you among women! Blessed is the fruit of your womb!

How can this happen to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

For as soon as the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped with joy!”

In the other readings today messianic prophecy is recorded or fulfilled. Here, and in Mary’s song we see prophecy happening in “real time,” as it were. What signs of the Lord coming into your midst cause folks where you are to have something in them “leap for joy” and begin to overflow with blessing and wonder? Who and where are the “Marys” that would greet us? How might worship today help us hear Mary’s greeting again and respond as Elizabeth did?

Christmas EveLight in the Land of Darkness
Isaiah 9: (1), 2-7:
Isaiah speaks of new hope to come in his own day for the war-torn regions of Zebulun and Naphtali. Spend some time reflecting on what it means to live in a region known first as a war zone and then as a “dumping ground for undesirables,” as these territories became as a result of the Assyrian exile. Help yourselves and your congregation get a sense of the depths of the darkness there had been, and what Isaiah in his day, and later the gospels were claiming when they spoke of God sending light there. Where are the places of “deepest darkness” where you are? What has made them so? As the Father sent the Son, so the Son sends us. How are you dwelling in such places as light?

Psalm response: Psalm 96 (UMH 815).
Jubilant praise for the glorious reign of God. If you want a chant tone for the provided response, try B-D-G-B; E-C-B-A. Or, use the refrain from "O Come, Let Us Adore Him" (UMH 234) and, for chanting, G-F#-A-G; B-A-C-B in G-major. Also consider the choral fanfare setting of part of this Psalm as a call to worship.

Titus 2:11-14
The grace of God has appeared in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God's grace in Christ cleanses and frees us from the power of sin. This means we can become thoroughly committed to good deeds. Christ brings light and hope amidst the shadowlands of our sinful lives.

Luke 2:1-20
Jesus is born. Luke reports this as a matter of fact. The scene shifts away from the birth site to fields beyond the town, where angels appear to proclaim the birth of the Messiah… to shepherds, and the way they would be able to identify the child when the find him. He will be swaddled, nothing unusual there. But he will be in a feedbin, sign of the way he would later become sustenance for all creation, including but not limited to the Eucharist. They arrive, offer their homage, and Mary “ponders all these things in her heart.” In so doing, she becomes sign for our work in this season, contemplating all that the incarnation of God in Christ began and continues among us.

Christmas Day “The Word Made Flesh Now Dwells among Us”
Isaiah 52:7-10:
The LORD returns to Jerusalem. The exile is over. "All the ends of the earth shall see our God's salvation" (verse 10). Does this sound like a Christmas text to you and your planning team? If not, perhaps it’s time to listen more deeply to what the incarnation means. This is not just God becoming one of us and being able to understand our plight. It is God taking direct action to bring about our deliverance from exile, and not only ours, but the whole universe. Where do you see signs of exiles getting good news of their imminent return where you are?

Psalm response: Psalm 98 (UMH 818). A song of praise for God's intervention to save God's people. "For the Lord comes to judge the nations with righteousness, and the peoples with equity." This psalm is also the basis of the hymn, "Joy to the World." If you plan to sing the psalm, sing Response 2 with Tone 1 in D major or use D-C#-B-A; A-B-C#-D" in D major.

Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12): “Christmastime” in popular culture makes much of angels. The church in the Bible and in its lectionaries over the centuries makes far more of Jesus. In Jesus, God has given us no mere angel or messenger, but "the radiance of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being. . . [who] sustains all things by his powerful word." Contemplate that, and give glory!

John 1:1-14 This is the fundamental Christmas text. The Word is made flesh, dwelling ("pitching tent") among us, and empowering us to become children of God. Where is the Word still pitching tent among you? How are you living out your status as co-children of God where you are?

First Sunday after Christmas Day: “Growing in and Learning the Way”
1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26: Christmas isn’t just about the birth of Jesus. We are not called during this season to remain fixated at the manger. Christmas Season also includes what it meant for him (and for us) to grow up into the person he would become.

So today we read how Samuel grew, learning his teacher’s craft and growing in wisdom, skill and favor with all as he did.

How are children being trained up to become leaders in worship and ministry in your community?

Psalm 148 (UMH 861): All creation is called to join in the praise of God who has established leadership to deliver and protect the people. If singing the psalm, use Tone 3 in E-flat major or E-G#-A-B; A-G#-F#-E with the response. Or use a paraphrase such as that in The Upper Room Worshipbook, 69, 364, or 365.

Colossians 3:12-17: Paul exhorts the readers to clothe themselves with “holy tempers” and practices that embody the peace of Christ ruling in their hearts and the teaching of Christ dwelling among them richly. As Samuel grew up, and Jesus grew up, so are we to grow up in all ways into Christ. And these are significant ways in which we do.

How are you concretely teaching, challenging and supporting people to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness and, above all, love?

Luke 2:41-52: During the family's annual Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jesus, now "of age," stays behind to engage in rabbinic debate with the teachers in the temple. The final verse is a direct reference to today's reading from I Samuel.

But go deeper. Luke is not just comparing Jesus to Samuel. The phrase “after three days” is significant in the gospels. It’s a sign of death and resurrection to come. Where his parents found Jesus “after three days” is significant. He was “in my Father’s house.” And what he was doing there was no less significant. He was engaging in active conversation with the teachers of the law. This indicates just how significant the teaching ministry of Jesus would be. It was nothing less than the resurrection of the teaching of God to Israel. And Jesus would later engage it in just the same way—with listening and questioning.

How do you ensure that teaching and learning—involving both listening and questioning—becomes and remains central within your Christian community?

Epiphany “Joy and Danger in the Light”
Isaiah 60:1-6:

We come full circle from Christmas Eve, returning to images of light and darkness. Now the promise is enlarged. It is not just that those in darkness would see light, but they would become radiant with light that streams out to the whole world. In the later words of Simeon’s song, they would become “a light to enlighten the nations,” a light so compelling that, as the prophet puts it, “nations will stream to your light” (verse 3) bringing with them gold and frankincense (verse 6).

The end of Judah’s exile and their return from captivity in Babylon to rebuild their lives in their homeland was no small thing happening in a remote corner of the earth, affecting no one else, the prophet proclaims. It was a sign of God’s delivering love and mercy that would have radiating effects across the globe.

Though we read this text this day in part because the gifts of the Magi echo the end of our reading, the Magi story more deeply reflects the globally radiating effect of God’s deliverance from subjugation and exile and the return home even more profoundly. This, as much or more than the gifts, reflects the heart of the Christian celebration of Epiphany.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (UMH 795)
Today’s pairing of Old Testament reading with this particular psalm may be the most helpful match with Psalm 72 in the lectionary. Just as the prophet foretells all nations streaming in and bringing tribute, Psalm 72 praises the righteous king who would receive tribute from all nations. Sing using Response 1.

Ephesians 3:1-12: What does imprisonment have to do with Epiphany? Everything, Paul reminds us. Paul's imprisonments have made given him access to proclaim the gospel to all sorts of leaders, all the way up the ladder of the Roman Empire. And what he has proclaimed is the mystery that they, too, are invited to become co-heirs with Jesus Christ. In this case rather than captivity constraining the vision of God’s deliverance, it came to be a channel to transmit that good news to places and people Paul himself may never otherwise have been able to reach.

Even in the midst of threat and danger, and even by the means used to inflict threat and danger in response to the threat and danger the powers that be feel at the proclamation of the gospel, God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ shines.

Matthew 2:1-12: While we may commemorate and perhaps somewhat domesticate the story of the coming of the Magi from Iraq in charming or exotic pageants and song (“We Three Kings”), this story as a whole is far from merely charming or exotic. It is nothing less than revelatory. The birth of the Christ has been revealed to and by the constellations. Isaiah’s prophecy of persons from Babylon (exilers!) bringing tribute to a king in Judea (formerly exiled by Babylon!) is fulfilled. The actual king-like ruler in Judea is terrified and threatened by this news and plans to use the magi to track down the child so he can execute him. Armed with news from Scripture that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, the Magi now use the appearance of the constellations to provide more pinpoint navigation to find the child and offer their tribute. The star ceases to shine where the child is, because there the Promised One shines. And then, the dreamworld calls them to another way home, bypassing Herod’s people and foiling Herod’s first plan. An angel addressing Joseph in a dream later foils Herod’s Plan B.

It’s a story of revelation of Incarnation and subversion of the kingdoms of this world everywhere, and in and through all levels of revelation: the heavens, the people of the Book, the Scriptures themselves, dreams, and angels. God’s deliverance is proclaimed. Those who are bound rejoice. Those who have enforced the binding tremble and seek to respond with violence.

Epiphany is the decisive line in the cosmic sand. The light of God’s deliverance shines, heralding both joy and danger, evoking adoration and attempted genocide.

So do the waters of baptism we will remember next week, both for Jesus and for us. And so does his call to become his disciples, which the season to come will unfold.

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