Isaiah is our anchor text for this Advent worship series. But Psalms gives us the mood, theme, or even soul. “I was glad when they said to me ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” The opening line from Psalm 122 captures something of the Advent spirit this year. From “I was glad” to “go to the house of the Lord.” We are singing a song of ascent this Advent season.
Let us go up. Up, why up? Going to God is always up. Going to worship is always up. That was a geographic reality for the Jewish people. Jerusalem was built on a hill, so no matter which direction you approached, you were going up. And since true worship could only happen in the temple, let us go up to worship is the description of the approach.
But what are we approaching? Well, worship of course. And something more. This is Advent, the season of anticipation, of watching and waiting – active waiting. Christmas? Well, no and yes. We’re not trying to be mysterious here, but there is definitely a no and yes to that question.
No, the season of Advent isn’t really designed to be a countdown to the celebration of Christmas. It is a time of preparation for Christ’s return and the establishment of the kin-dom of God. It is a reminder that we are heading someplace; we are works in progress; we are longing for something more. That’s the upward call of Advent. We sing an Advent song of ascent as we climb up to worship in that new reality, that new way of being in the world. Not that this is a human-made reality, but that we are longing for this completion. We are looking forward.
At the same time, we are indeed looking back. Yes, we are anticipating Incarnation, the time when God broke into our history and became present in an astonishing way. And we look forward to when Emmanuel – God with us – will be how we live always. We remember Christmas, the real depth and power of this singular act and the child who lived God’s presence among us, something that even the worst of the commercialism cannot ultimately overcome. We can grumble about how we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas in this crass and cynical age, and perhaps we should. But we can also be surprised at how something pure and wonderful can appear in the most unlikely places, from the most unlikely sources to remind us that we are all longing for something more, something of eternity and of the beloved community described by the one whose birth we celebrate. That is anticipation worthy of singing Advent songs of ascent.
It’s Advent! Surely the season speaks for itself; no need for notes from us, right? Well, there are always some questions that we ask this time of year. How soon should the Christmas decorations go up? When can we start singing Christmas carols? All those are the usual questions the worship leaders struggle with year after year. While we might have recommendations and there might be traditions and theological reflections on practice that can inform your responses to these and similar questions, in the end, it is up to you to determine what works best in your context. How do you best prepare your people, your community, and your neighborhood not just for another celebration of the Christmas season, but anticipation of the fulfillment of the process of the kin-dom of God? How are we looking forward and living out that call in our worship and in our living as the body of Christ in this place?
We believe that anticipatory joy is the characteristic of this season that best embodies this living in hope that Advent evokes. We sing of this joy; we move in this joy; we pray in this joy; and we go out in this joy, week after week after week. We invite you to an Advent Song of Ascents.
This is not a blind joy or a joy that neglects the brokenness and the need that surrounds us. If anything, it opens our eyes to what is really happening in the world and in us. It calls us back to a sense of watchful waiting for signs of God’s kingdom breaking out in surprising places, at unexpected times, among people we might not have chosen. Our worship then turns us outward this season. We ask, “What do we see? What do we hear, followed by what are we doing about it?” How are we living the promise in our communities right now? How are we lighting a light that others might see and find their way into this relationship?
What stories will we tell? What examples will we live out? How will we make our space ready to receive the one who comes and the family invited to share? We can choose songs about anticipation and hope, not just completion. We can pray prayers that lean into the not yet and the invitation. We can pledge ourselves to the task of preparing the way and shouting in the wilderness that God is near to the brokenhearted. We can light the lights that speak of our confidence and joy that God is among us and desires to be known.
The rituals we perform in this season also point to joy. Whether they are familiar, like lighting the candles on an Advent wreath, or new ways of praying or moving during the worship time, rituals give shape to our experience and help us deepen our emotive connection. Even “low church” worship that seems liturgy free has rituals and patterns that move throughout the gathered time – gathering, Word, response and sending in its simplest form. But whatever your pattern, Advent is a journey upward to praise and restoration. Let us move forward with joy.
Rev. Dr. Derek Weber, Director of Preaching Ministries, served churches in Indiana and Arkansas and the British Methodist Church. His PhD is from University of Edinburgh in preaching and media. He has taught preaching in seminary and conference settings for more than 20 years.