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Planning for Advent, Year B (2014, 2017, 2020)

Happy New Year!

Happy Christian New Year, that is.

The first Sunday of Advent in 2014 is November 30, and we move into Year B of the lectionary. During this year of the three-year lectionary cycle, we will read through Mark's gospel, engage the stories of David's family, and spend considerable time in the epistles of Ephesians, Hebrews and James.

Advent is a season for remembering and celebrating the culmination of all things in Christ. During Year B, we are working with a gospel (Mark) that includes no stories about the birth of Jesus. So the focus on the culmination or end of all things this year is perhaps the most insistent of all three.

Consider these readings and this season a challenge, or perhaps an invitation, to see and experience Christmas, when it actually arrives (December 24 after sundown!), through the lenses through which most Christians since the fourth century have viewed it. Advent puts Christmas into its proper place, not as a comforting destination or early winter way station, but rather as nothing less than the completely disruptive inbreaking of the God who, through this birth, makes all things new.

Advent helps us understand just how the news of the birth of Jesus we celebrate during Christmas Season (December 24-January 6) is so very good. In Advent we see, decisively, how God's reign marks the breakdown and end of every other reign. What the biblical writers knew, and we still know, is that every human reign is disordered, sinful, full of injustice and oppression. Those who hold power find ways to make their disordered reigns seem normal or even good. But those damaged by such disordered reigns-- the silent or silenced ones including the poor, the sick, the dying, the outcast, the hungry and the persecuted, among others-- know in their bodies and often carry in their psyches for generations wounds and scars that give a very different testimony.

Advent tunes us in to their voices. Advent reminds us that the good news we seek, indeed the only really good news there is, is precisely for them and those of us among them, and becomes good news for all only in their redemption. Advent lays before us starkly their usually silenced voices, the voices of prophets who speak to them from God, and the assurance that indeed the worlds that try to keep them silenced for their own benefit have only one future -- utter destruction and replacement by God's reign.

As such Advent can, if we let it, disorient us from the dominant culture's experience and expression of "Christmastime" and its many ways to ignore or domesticate the wild prophet, Jesus, loudspeaker and embodiment of this world's end and God's reign coming upon us.

When the gospel readings switch from Mark to John in the third week (December 14, 2014), we hear the testimony of John the Baptist that his own radical ministry that called people to repent and be baptized was only foretaste of what the Coming One would do. When we hear from Luke in the fourth week, it is not to the "comforting manger" that we go, but to a teenage girl who is told that she will be made pregnant by God and that the baby she will bear will sit on David's throne, deposing all other claimants and pretenders, forever.

Forever.

The old world ends. The awareness of the destructiveness of our world prepares us for the joy of the world being remade in Jesus. That's why we call the message of Jesus "gospel."

Let the celebration of Advent help you and your worshiping community celebrate this good news!

The Advent Texts & Themes for Year B

Church supply houses continue to sell banners, wreaths, colored candles, bulletin covers, and other Advent "Doo-dads" that promote the idea that the Sundays of this season can be directly connected to specific themes of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love (in some permutation of that order).

That sort of "theming" of Advent could have made some sense in the context of some pre-Vatican II lectionaries. But that was nearly fifty years ago. Today, these themes bear little if any connection to the actual readings that most Christians, Roman Catholic and Protestant, use in the Roman and Revised Common Lectionaries. The effect of such "theming" often means we are tempted to force the texts to fit the themes, rather than hear the radical claims of the texts themselves. "Hope, peace, love, and joy" are often presented as feelings we seek or hope to find in this life, and all too often in an individualistic sense. These texts are anything but individualistic. Hope, peace, love and joy, as typically "packaged," often seem to suggest we can find salvation in ways that uphold the current order. These texts remind us that the arc of God's salvation judges and destroys this order, beginning with the inbreaking of God in the birth of Jesus.

Consider leaving the themed "doo-dads" in their boxes this year. From Advent through Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday after the Epiphany), the lectionary texts were selected to coordinate with one another. Rather than focusing worship on generic themes or ideas that distract from the concrete message and promises in these texts, spend time in your worship planning team listening as deeply as you dare to these texts. Look for the themes emerging from them that will help your congregation "get" what Advent is truly about. Look for the interplay 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. Let themes emerge from the Bible, Spirit, and community -- not from pre-packaged soundbites that you can find at your favorite publisher or website (including this one!). Let Scripture and Spirit set the agenda, and trust Scripture and Spirit to speak and show you the way.

Advent 1: The End We Need to Come

Isaiah 64:1-9: The prophet calls for God to appear decisively, to "tear open the heavens" so the nations would tremble. He also confesses the need for such decisive intervention -- the utter sinfulness of humanity, even of those who are part of God's covenant. Finally, he changes metaphors -- from earthly catastrophe to remaking pots, begging God to be merciful when God comes.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19: The people cry out for restoration from the midst of exile. "Restore us, Lord God of hosts. Shine the light of your countenance upon us, that we may be saved!"

I Corinthians 1:3-9: In the midst of offering a greeting to the Christians in Corinth, Paul points to the end -- the coming Day of the Lord -- to call them to continue to grow and be faithful in using their spiritual gifts.

Mark 13:24-37: Jesus' description of the end and his clear instruction always to be on watch for signs of it.

Advent 2: Getting Ready for the End to Come

Isaiah 40:1-11: Three prophecies declare the hope of God's coming to rescue the exiles from captivity. In verses 1-4, a voice is to cry out "Prepare God's way" as a highway forms across the desert from Babylon to Judea. In verses 5-8, a second cry announces human ephemerality and the eternality of God's word. In verses 9-11, whoever may still be keeping some sort of watch in Jerusalem, a city still in ruins, is called to declare from the highest height the victory of God bringing the exiles home and sustaining them.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13: A response of thanks and trust in God's deliverance.

2 Peter 3:8-15a: The coming fiery destruction or purification of the world as we know it means that we now, in the face of that, must strive for lives of holiness, making already now, in our midst, a place where righteousness is at home even, as we wait for new heavens and earth after that great conflagration.

Mark 1:1-8: The gospel begins with the ministry of John the Baptizer, calling all to repentance and baptism for forgiveness to get ready for the kingdom of the one to come, the one who baptizes not simply with water, but with the Holy Spirit.

Advent 3: Good News… for Those Who Are Being Saved

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11: The Spirit of the Lord anoints a prophet to bring good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, and the mourning -- good news that includes "the day of vengeance of our God." Why? None of these folks will get much good news in the current social order unless that order is destroyed. When that order is destroyed, rebuilding God's "ancient ruins" can begin (verse 4). In the meantime, the prophet rejoices, clothed in the hope this good news brings (verses 8-11).

Psalm 126: A Psalm of Ascent, one of the Psalms sung by pilgrims as they made their way to the temple after it was rebuilt after the return from exile, as prophesied by Isaiah.

I Thessalonians 5:16-24: Final greetings include a prayer that the people may now be and remain "sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (verse 23).

John 1:6-8, 19-28: The witness of John the Baptizer concerning his own identity (not the Messiah, but the voice of one speaking in the wilderness) and so pointing to the reality that the one to come, the Messiah, would have an even more radical ministry than the baptizing prophet had introduced. "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals" could be roughly paraphrased, "If you think I'm the Messiah or even claim to be, you ain't seen nothin' yet!"

Advent 4: Glorying in the Promised End to Come

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16: Nathan brings good news and a reality check to David. The good news: God intends to establish David's lineage permanently, though conditionally. The reality: God has been present with God's people by being in their midst as they have traveled (the tabernacle, or in Christian theological terms, "incarnation"), so God has no need for David to build a temple.

Luke 1:47-55: The Song of Mary. If you don't hear and feel Mary pregnant with the end of this age and the hope for the coming one in this song, you're not listening or singing her song yet!

Romans 16:25-27: A concluding doxology that enters the eternal praise of God for revealing the mystery of salvation intended for the whole world in Jesus Christ.

Luke 1:26-38: The angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become pregnant by God and bear the Son of the Most High whose throne will be eternal. She consents. Do we?

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