Prepare the Way Worship Series, week 4: WELCOME
December 23, 2018 — Fourth Sunday of Advent
Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. A former district superintendent and director of congregational development in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, he is currently the pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Warrington, Pa. Dr. Cotto is the author of Fiesta en la Casa de Dios, a book on pastoral reflections regarding worship. He has led training workshops for lay missionaries and has written training modules for the National Hispanic Latino Plan.
Key words: joy, hospitality, encouragement
This week’s word is “Welcome.” I can see how any local church would raise the volume of its proclamation. We are getting closer to the coming of the Messiah. We are one day away from the birth of Jesus, and so the image of the manger is becoming more intense and the days of sorrow, judgment, anxiety, and fear are left behind. It’s also important to note that although this is a time of welcome and celebration, this can be a time of loneliness or intense sorrow for some people. Be sure to to look at Blue Christmas resources to address those concerns.
This is why it is so important that as we get ready to welcome the Savior, we also welcome our neighborhoods, especially those who are suffering the most during the holidays.
The gospel for this fourth Sunday of Advent places us at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is pregnant and is paying a visit to her cousin. As expected in any culture, it is always a happy time when relatives come to visit. We hear the bell ringing and little kids running and jumping, while we hear them saying, “They’re here...” While mom and dad, are also saying, “They’re here” with a slanted tone; “We haven’t finish all the cleaning; dinner is still half way done....oh my, there are more relatives than we initially expected.” Especially in my own experience with my loving extended family, you can’t always be sure how many people are going to show up. A fact of life! So, you move on and you get ready. “It’s party time!”
Elizabeth was happy, and being farther along in her own pregnancy, the baby in her womb jumped of joy, as if knowing that his baby cousin Jesus is in his mommy’s womb. Elizabeth is excited to see Mary, and her baby John is equally excited to hear who’s at the door. Elizabeth says, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy” (Lk. 1:44). What a powerful Advent image! Elizabeth already knew that the baby carried by Mary is her Lord and Savior (v.44). Can we also be that excited each time we gather for worship? Can we communicate this joyful anticipation through our preaching? Are people truly excited about Jesus?
The passage from Micah serves as a preview of the nativity story. Bethlehem and Mary are the recipients of coming Lord, and as the people of Israel and Elizabeth, we are to open the door and welcome the God who has decided to set up tent in the midst of our neighborhood and who is more fascinated with each one of us than with a throne surrounded with angels and archangels (Jn. 1:14; Phil. 2:6-8), facing all the risks and passions of all human beings.
Most likely a Judean prophet during the eighth-century before Christ, Micah was responsible for delivering the divine oracle to God’s covenant people. We are told that “the prophecy about a new ruler to come from the town of Bethlehem (5:2), and the response to the question of what the Lord requires of them, signal Micah’s importance.”1
By December 23, our nation will have experienced midterm elections. Hopefully, the people newly elected or reelected will have the integrity to follow through on their promises. Hopefully, their promises will be in harmony with God’s concern for the “least of these.” The sermon for this entire Advent season and in particular for this fourth Sunday of Advent serves as a way to acknowledge and warmly welcome those who visit our church, those we meet in our paths, those who are thirsting for love, fellowship, help, and counsel. The sermon can encourage people to serve as volunteers serving hot meals, visiting nursing homes, setting up a caroling church group. The sermon can raise open questions that invite people to find their answers after the worship service is over, or posit a list of possibilities by which people can incarnate the message of welcoming. This may mean hospitality among their own circle of friends and acquaintances, but especially beyond. Offer an invitation to widen the circle, to knock at the doors of others, and to open our doors to others.
Preaching on this Sunday should be full of joy and encouragement of the gathered saints. To hear an uplifting message is always a good thing, but especially so during Advent, as we are approaching Christmas day and the end of another year. What a wonderful way to encourage people to cling to the promises of God and to live out more intentionally their Advent-Christmas vocations. People might decide to become more involved in causes that promote, justice and love; they may choose to support people going through transitions: mourning, surgery, relocation, sending kids away to college; they may stand alongside the poor and oppressed, incarcerated men and women, orphan kids, missionaries on furlough, and others.
The Gospel of Luke emphasizes “God’s concern for the lowly, the hungry, and the disadvantaged, and God’s judgment upon the self-indulgent.”2 A part of our Wesleyan DNA is ministry for and with the poor. Just as Advent leads us toward encountering the infant Christ in a stable and with the announcement of the Good News being first shared with lowly shepherds, so we are invited to become more mindful and aware of ministries with and for the excluded. The sermon serves a profound pastoral purpose if it offers words and images of hospitality helps us to be more receptive toward people who are hurting, abandoned by their families or the social system, or who are church visitors.
For personal reflection and sermon preparation:
- How do I and my congregation welcome Jesus into our area of greatest weakness, brokenness, or loss?
- Do I leap for joy when I spend time in Scripture, worship, and fellowship with God’s covenant people?
- How can I inspire parishioners to make the poor and the oppressed the center of their Christian concern and witness?
- At some point in the sermon, pose an inductive question, such as “Who am I in this text?Am I Micah, the carrier of good news? Am I Mary who is welcomed by her family? Am I the leaping child in Elizabeth’s womb, excited about the presence and coming of Christ?”
- Is this congregation a fellowship of excitement, an Advent community with a contagious faith and neighborhood involvement?
- How can I set the tone through preaching for a greater passion for justice?