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Worship Planning for Advent 2013 (Year A)

Image credit: Cruzblanca's Hermanoleon website >Used by permission.

Advent marks the beginning of the new Christian year in Western churches. In 2013, Advent begins December 1. Purple and blue as signs of royalty are the most common colors for the season. Pink, a sign of joy, is often used on the Third Sunday of Advent, a day especially given to rejoicing.

During the major or "axial" seasons of the Christian year (Advent/Christmastide and Lent/Eastertide), all of the lectionary texts are selected to relate to one another in support of the seasonal emphasis and the gospel reading for that day.

The wider culture in the United States tends to start piling on lots of "Christmas festoonery" right after Thanksgiving, if not sooner. But Advent is not Christmas. Neither is Advent a season for pomp or impressive decoration. Advent historically has been to Christmastide what Lent is to Eastertide: a season of preparation for (primarily) the second coming of Christ and for baptism (at Epiphany or Baptism of the Lord), and, for a number of centuries, a season of penitence. In the Eastern Churches (Orthodox), this season is called the Nativity Fast, a period of forty days before the celebration of the Nativity beginning on December 25 (after sunset, December 24). These are among the reasons the primary color for Advent has often matched that for Lent -- purple.

Though Advent is now less frequently penitential in the West, it is no less solemn.

And like Lent, it remains a time for getting back to the basics.

The basics may be simple, but they are not simplistic. They are frequently hard to live into. They require diligent attention and practice. Ask any coach or athlete, or any music teacher or musician. They will all tell you that if they can the basics right, everything else can fall into place much easier.

Advent is a season for remembering and practicing the basics.

Advent 1: Remembering the end.
In the end is our end, our purpose for engaging and joining God's reign wherever and however we can. Ignorance, warfare, and strife will end among nations (Isaiah and Psalm). So we are invited to learn all we can, seek peace, and work for reconciliation here and now. The "works of the flesh" come to an end (Romans). So we are challenged to refrain from such works here and now, and to end any habits that support them. Christ will return at a time when life seems normal (Matthew). So we are called to be ready and make ourselves ready every day, day by day.

Advent 2: Justice and Righteousness.
Isaiah prophesies that from the stump of Jesse will spring a righteous and just judge, a new king who will judge with righteousness and not "as the eye sees." Paul reminds the church at Rome that they, as the body of Christ, are called to continue to fulfill the work of the just king, Jesus, through their hospitality toward all. This week's reading about the ministry of John the Baptist (Matthew) reminds us that we are not righteous simply because we have some relationship with God, but because we obey God and so "bring forth fruits worthy of repentance." Righteousness and justice are to become real practices bearing real fruit in our lives, fruit that will endure the coming judgment.

Advent 3: Expecting Reversal of the Powers That Be.
Isaiah and the Song of Mary tell us to expect God to turn the world order upside down, for there to be springs in the desert (Isaiah), and for the mighty to be cast down, the lowly lifted up, and the rich sent away empty (Luke). James reminds us to wait for such reversal with patient expectation and without anxiety, like a farmer waiting for the crops to bring the harvest (James). And Jesus assures the followers of John the Baptist that John's confidence in Jesus' role was not misplaced, not with arguments but with a simple direction: "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard here — blind people receive sight, poor people receive good news, deaf people now hear, and dead people are raised. The reversal hoped for was already happening everywhere around Jesus. And it's still happening today. May we have hearts to expect it, eyes to see it, and lips to bear the good news!

Advent 4: The God of Those Ends, That Justice, and Such Reversals Is with Us
Advent 4 is a bridge Sunday. It sums up all that has come before. It also leads into the celebration of the incarnation we begin on Christmas Eve.

Since today's gospel is Matthew's account of the birth of Jesus, it may seem we are beginning to celebrate Christmas Season already today. Matthew, however, is less interested in the birth itself, and more interested in its meaning: "God is with us," and more particularly, this God, the one born in these odd circumstances, is with us. The God who is with us in Jesus is the God prophesied by Isaiah, the one proclaimed by Paul and John the Baptist and Mary, this God whose presence changes and often reverses everything. This God is with us.

This isn't a theologically trivial point. Say the word "God," and all kinds of images and ideas pop up that are quite incompatible with the One we encounter in Law, Prophets, Writings, and in Jesus. Christians insist that it is indeed this God who does the very things we've recounted these past three weeks, and summarized today, who has come among us in Jesus and abides with us still in the power, presence, and person of the Holy Spirit.

It is this "God with us" who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead as harbinger of new creation. And it is this God with us whose incarnation and birth we celebrate during Christmas Season and seek to follow all the days of our lives.

Questions to Help You Keep it Basic

  1. What does it take for your community to learn and live these basic messages of Advent?
  2. 2. What "extra decorations" (if any) will help your congregation and community focus on living the Scriptures and keeping the basics they reflect this Advent? Hint: If anything you might "usually" use distracts from that purpose, consider not using it.
  3. How might you use social media (Twitter, Facebook, email lists) or social networks (face to face, telephone) both to help people practice what you focused on each Sunday and to prepare for the practices to be undertaken in the week ahead?
  4. How might choral and other musical groups help enhance and enrich the congregation's singing rather than primarily taking center stage themselves?
  5. Advent is a time when some people who may not ordinarily attend worship may seek out or return to your congregation. How will you prepare to be hospitable to strangers and people "returning" alike?
  6. How will you keep "people value" in the forefront over "production value" in this season? In particular, how will you ensure the testimony of people in your congregation and community to the reality of the kingdom of God coming and culminating in Jesus Christ is heard throughout this season?

For more guidance and multiple options for planning Advent and Christmas Season this year, see "Celebrate Advent and Christmas Season Fully in 2013/2014" on The United Methodist Worship Blog.

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