Planning -First Sunday After Christmas
A psalm of thanksgiving for God's salvation (in context, deliverance from exile).
Psalm 148 (UMH 861).
If you want to sing the psalm and bring some challenge and electricity to the Psalter, consider singing it to Tone 3 in E-flat major (see UMH 737 and the accompanist edition).
The theological importance of God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ: to be made perfect through suffering, to deliver us from the devil and the fear of death, to understand our lot completely to be a merciful priest, and to make a perfect atonement for our sins.
Matthew tells of the deliverance of Jesus (escape of the family to Egypt) and the slaughter of the innocent children by King Herod.
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It is still Christmastide! Keep singing Christmas hymns, perhaps especially today (given today's texts) those that are in a minor key, those that acknowledge the pain and suffering in the world, and those that focus more on God's decisive intervention in the incarnation than on baby Jesus, cute and lying in a manger.
This is the last calendar Sunday of 2010, and it is likely to be a "low" Sunday in many places, as people are on vacation; and choirs, musicians, and bands may have a Sunday off after a very busy few weeks in the lead-up to Christmas, and youth and young adults are on a variety of winter break trips.
That this may be a low Sunday in all of these ways, however, need not mean that there is anything "low" about the planning for worship today. Today's texts provide a variety of different points of entry into the mystery of salvation through the Incarnation, one or more of which may be particularly appropriate in your congregation or community. Live into these texts, listen for the echoes and cries of them in your congregation and community, and plan for worship today that is as rich as you can make it with whatever people and gifts may be available.
Watch Night (New Year's Eve) is on the near horizon, and many churches will observe a vigil for the coming New Year by holding Watch Night services. Click here for more details and resources. Next Sunday is the celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany, the "appearance" or "manifestation" of God with us to the nations.
In the sanctoral cycle (the calendar of commemoration of saints), December 28 was the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the remembrance of the children of Bethlehem that Herod slaughtered in a jealous rage (Matthew 2:13-23). As an alternative set of readings for Sunday, and in observance of Holy Innocents, consider Jeremiah 31:15-17; Psalm 124 (UMH 846); Revelation 21:1-7; and Matthew 2:13-23 (the same gospel reading).
While many Christmas songs speak much of a sleeping baby Jesus, equating heavenly peace with a baby's sleep, the texts for today do not do so at all.
The readings for this first Sunday after Christmas focus on the shadow of the Incarnation, the messy and painful side of the mystery of God with us in Jesus Christ. We gratefully acknowledge God's salvation and deliverance (Isaiah and Psalm), but even here we acknowledge the suffering that necessitated such deliverance in the first place. The readings from Hebrews and Matthew remind us of the other costs and consequences for Jesus and among us. Jesus was made perfect, Hebrews reminds, not as a "perfect, innocent little baby," but rather through what he suffered. It was through suffering with us that he could become for us a merciful high priest. It was through dying as one of us that he could conquer death and Satan. And it was through all that, and only through that, that he could make atonement for our sins.
But in order to do any of that, he had to survive his infancy. The reading from Matthew today reveals the painful cost to the families with infants and young children (toddlers) in the region around Bethlehem. Matthew's telling of the story does not dodge the pain. He leads the readers and hearers squarely into it, placing a reminder of a lament song from the days of the exile and the genocidal slaughters accompanying it in the midst of his narrative in a way that invites the readers to feel and even join the lament. We have here an early instance of what Jesus would later teach: "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are seizing it by force" (Matthew 11:12).
When God takes on human flesh, the consequences are neither safe nor merely benign for God or for us. Safety and security were not the point. The point was precisely to be among us, to be fully in solidarity with all who suffer from the power of sin and death. By this means, God effects both an ultimate reconciliation with us and an ultimate war among us about the powers that shall prevail. We as the reconciled are empowered to engage the struggle with sin and death as Jesus did, by suffering from both, even as we are being delivered from them, and by acting as witnesses to the One whose kingdom overcomes them in us and in the world.
As Christ's representatives in the world, we proclaim our citizenship and allegiance to God's reign in our baptismal vows, first by acts of renunciation of allegiance to the powers of this world that enslave and mangle the world and by a declaration of our pledge to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Imagery and quotes from the baptismal covenant would be potent and powerful symbols and reminders in the worship space today.
In the midst of whatever hubbub and disarray your congregation may experience in this post-Christmas season, which of these "messy" Incarnation narratives does your congregation need especially to hear, to move into, to be challenged by?
What is God already showing you and others in your community that affirms the reality of growth in God's strength, mercy and mission through suffering?
Where is the narrative more about thanksgiving for deliverance already accomplished?
How are you facing the reality that violence often happens as a response to the work of God's kingdom?
Where have you, or people in your worshiping community or wider community, experienced opportunities to offer solidarity with others who have suffered traumatic violence -- perhaps from war, or genocide, or bullying, or street wars, or drunk driving, or the rages of a domestic partner?
Look and listen for points of connection between these Scriptures, the stories of people's lives, and the overarching theme of the mystery of the Incarnation. What images or sounds stand out as resonating with your situations the most -- telling, or singing, or lamenting, or declaring God's story in the midst of your stories? Use those images and sounds and songs as the anchors for designing the flow and direction of worship today.
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Context: There is still war in Afghanistan, conflict in Iran and Iraq, and the Darfur region (indeed, much of Sudan!) is far from settled.
And of course, Bethlehem is not "still."
In the ecumenical cycle of prayer, we pray for many of the nations in the Middle East, including Israel and the Palestinian Authority, among others.
Some -- if not many -- people in your community may have lost jobs or are in some way affected by the ongoing unemployment and financial insecurity that has gripped this nation and has not yet quite let go.
New Year's Eve comes to us as a kind of secular "Day of Atonement." People revel; but at the same time, they take stock of their lives.
Change is both entertained and resisted. What would you add to this assessment, especially in your own particular context?
Next Sunday will be the Feast of the Epiphany, and the first Sunday of the new calendar year.
How do these external realities of economics and calendars -- Christian and secular -- play into your decisions about planning worship for this day?
Lectionary Readings: The characters in the gospel reading for this Sunday in years A, B, and C are always the holy family, but the settings and the antagonists are quite different in each. This year, Year A, we are fleeing with the holy family into Egypt. We are reading the headlines of Herod's jealous brutality toward the children in Bethlehem. In Year B, we are in the Temple crowd watching old Simeon and Anna hold the baby Jesus and hearing of a wonderful and foreboding future for Jesus and Mary. In Year C, we are in Jerusalem at Passover. We start home and find that Mary and Joseph don't know where their son, just twelve years old, is; and we hurry back to find him listening to and interrogating the "professors" of Israel. It might be worth noting that this day on the church's calendar is the day we get out the "family photo album" and see some snapshots of Jesus' early childhood. Then you can go on from there to deal with Herod's machinations and the aftermath.
This is still Christmas! Just because the stores and culture have moved on to the "next thing" in consumer land, don't let that dampen the church's feasting that goes on until January 6 and the Epiphany. Use material from The United Methodist Book of Worship (269 to 295) to interpret and teach about the season. Edit and use some of this material in the bulletins or newsletters. The gospel reading for the day is no reason to hold back on the deeper joy that is ours, even in sorrow and grief.
Here are several hymns not in current hymnals and all in the public domain that would be appropriate for the day. See the list of Long Meter and Common Meter tunes on pages 926-927 of The United Methodist Hymnal for tunes more familiar to your congregation.
This first, from a fifth-century text, could follow the gospel reading.
All hail, you infant martyrs' flow'rs,'
Cut off in life's first dawning hours
As rosebuds, snapt in tempest strife
When Herod sought the Savior's life.
O tender flock of Christ, we sing
Of victims slain for Christ the King
Oppression's loud lament we raise,
Then join the martyrs' song of praise:
All honor, laud, and glory be,
O Jesus, Virgin-born, to thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To Parent and to Paraclete.
(Prudentius, 5th century, alt.)
The next two, both by Charles Wesley, could be opening hymns or responses to the reading from Isaiah or a sequence hymn between the epistle and the gospel.
Sing, all in heaven, at Jesus' birth
Glory to God, and peace on earth:
Incarnate love in Christ is seen,
Pure mercy and good will to all.
Praise him, extolled above all height,
Who doth in worthless worms delight:
God reconciled in Christ confess
Your present and eternal peace.
From Jesus, manifest below,
Rivers of pure salvation flow,
And pour on our distinguished race
Their everlasting streams of grace.
Sing, every soul of Adam's line,
The fav'rite attribute Divine,
Ascribing, with the hosts above,
All glory to the God of love.
Father, our hearts we lift
Up to thy gracious throne,
And thank thee for the precious gift
Of thine incarnate Son!
The gift unspeakable
We thankfully receive,
And to the world thy goodness tell,
And to thy glory live.
Jesus, the holy child,
Doth, by his birth, declare
That God and we are reconciled,
And one in him we are.
A peace on earth he brings,
Which never more shall end:
The Lord of hosts, the King of kings,
Declares himself our friend.
His kingdom from above
He doth to us impart,
And pure benevolence and love
O'erflow the faithful heart.
Changed in a moment, we
The sweet attraction find,
With open arms of charity,
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Sung Call to Worship
- BOW 213, "Christ Is Born" (Isaiah, Psalm)
- UMH 223, stanza 1, "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light" (Hebrews)
- BOW 248 (Can be rewritten in present tense for Christmas season) (Psalm)
- BOW 275 (Isaiah)
- Holy Innocents collect:
Sovereign Lord, who keeps our tears in a bottle and records our laments in your book: gather into your arms of mercy all innocent victims and beat back the machinations of tyrants, for the sake of Christ our Savior who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.
Refuge and Redeemer, when the rage and darkness of the world comes with senseless wasting of lives, you make victims your dearest prize and enable us to see their feet standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Amen.
Both of these collects are copyright 1995 by The Order of Saint Luke and are published in For All the Saints: A Calendar of Commemorations for United Methodists, ed. by C. F. Guthrie. Used by permission.
BOW 278 (Isaiah, Psalm, Hebrews)
- BOW 313 (Matthew)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Territories including Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, The Palestinian Authority, Syria
Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession
BOW 279 (Matthew)
UMH 140, Great is Thy Faithfulness (Isaiah)
Dismissal With Blessing
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