Planning - First Sunday of Advent
Out of the house of the Lord shall come wisdom and instruction, and all nations will convert their weapons of war into implements for sustaining life.
Psalm 122 (UMH 845).
A psalm rejoicing in Jerusalem, a foretaste of the Jerusalem Isaiah prophesies. Consider TFWS 2270 as a sung response to go with the Psalm, or use response 1 singing the Psalm with this tone in A-major: A-GF#E; F#-EF#A.
Salvation draws ever nearer, so live in the fullness of Christ, freed from the power of sinful desires.
The coming of the Son of Man will be a surprise, so stay on the lookout!
Church Calendar: Today is New Year's Day in the Christian calendar. We begin Year A of the lectionary cycle, with a focus on Matthew's gospel.
Communal and Cultural Calendar: In the United States and much of the Western world, the culture's economic and media engines ignore "Advent." This is now "Christmastime," a season of shopping, parties, and all sorts of decorations and other festivities. How will you help your worshiping community observe the call of Advent where you are?
Atmospherics: Advent 1 -- Remembering the End
During Advent, the readings of the lectionary are intentionally chosen to coordinate with each other around common themes.
Keep in mind that the notion that the successive Sundays of Advent represent Hope, Peace, Joy and Love is a fiction created by publishers and church supply houses. Only the third of these ("Joy" or "Gaudete Sunday") has any basis in the lectionary traditions, and the text that underwrites that theme (from Philippians) is not part of the readings in Year A.
So instead of trying to make those themes fit, let your reading and study of these texts with your worship planning team suggest the common threads you find together and focus on those that best capture what your worshiping community most needs to hear over these weeks.
One theme that emerges from the texts for Advent 1 in Year A is "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 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, and the world as we know it will end at a time when life seems normal (Matthew). So we are called to be ready and make ourselves ready every day, day by day.
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What was the end, the purpose of Zion? What will it be doing "in those days," that is at the end, when it achieves its purpose?
It will be a beacon. It will be a center for pilgrimage, not just for the religious, but for the kings and rulers of the earth. It will be a place people will seek out for political and economic wisdom as nations shift their economic base and the center of their pride from military prowess to feeding their people well, beating swords into plowshares, learning war no more.
Christians understand themselves to be heirs of this promise and so partners in this purpose, too.
How is your worshiping community becoming a beacon, walking in the light of the Lord, where you are? Who comes to you for wisdom? What can you offer that helps people find their way in an economy whose base has already shifted from manufacturing to service industries in many places? How does your life witness to ways to disarm and focus more on caring for the land and the people who live where you are?
If you have few answers to offer, find ways to offer the questions and keep offering them until you do have some living answers in your midst -- not just today, not just as part of these four weeks of Advent. These are not programmatic or calendar questions, but very basic ones about whether and how we are fulfilling God's purpose for us as people of the New Covenant, heirs of the New Jerusalem.
If you're not a beacon, what will it take to become one? If no one comes to you for wisdom, how will you gain some to give? (Key point: wisdom comes from years of practice, not from the latest curriculum or sermon series or technology!) If you are making no difference in the local economy and offering little to help people during this time of significant shift in the economy, what do you need to start doing -- and then keep on doing -- to get to the place where you can be? Many of our congregations are filled with people who live nowhere near your worship space. What are you doing to help these people put away animosities and anonymities and to equip them to care for the land and the people not only where they worship but where they live and work?
What images capture ways this prophecy is already being fulfilled, with or without your congregation, where you are? Where are people divesting in weapons and investing in good land, air and water, in neighborhoods, and in making strong people?
It may be that your congregation as such is not doing many -- if any -- of these things. But perhaps there are people in your congregation, or folks you know in your social networks in the wider community, who are. This reading might then become not only a call to repentance and reflection, but the occasion to invite someone inside or outside your congregation to offer a testimony and a call to action that starts to move your congregation (or at least some folks in it) toward being part of the actual fulfillment of this prophecy in your midst, walking in the light of the Lord -- starting now!
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In Isaiah, we are called to walk in the light of the Lord, and so know and fulfill our end. In Romans, we are called to cast aside the "works of darkness" and instead to "put on the armor of light." Why? Because "that day" draws near.
In Paul's day, putting on the clothing of a particular profession was understood to establish who you were, not just what you did. Putting on armor meant you were a soldier, not only that this was your job. Putting on armor of light, then, means you are light and are protecting yourself against darkness. Putting on the Lord Jesus Christ means that you become him. All the verbs are plural here. We as body of Christ also become him.
Modern Western cultures may equate "putting on" the armor of light or Christ in this way as a kind of inauthenticity, a failure to acknowledge a "true self" that is composed either of Id or conflicting and irreconcilable desires. There would also have been some philosophical schools in Roman culture in Paul's day who would have taught something similar. Then or now, this notion of self keeps the self enslaved to powers and motions beyond either control or redeeming.
Thanks be to God, Christians have two millennia of living witnesses to the power of Christ delivering us from the "desires of the flesh" when we do "put on Christ." We know what it is to have "baser passions" but no longer be controlled by them. We know what it is for the Holy Spirit truly to "cleanse the thoughts of our hearts" so that we can offer genuine love to others. We know what it is to put on Jesus Christ as a garment -- perhaps first in our baptisms, but daily as we walk with Jesus in the Spirit. We know, or can know again if we have forgotten, what it is to walk in the light of God, the armor of light, Jesus Christ our Lord.
We know what it is to be set free from all sorts of "works of darkness"-- whether drunkenness, sexual immorality, contentiousness or jealousy. We know what it is to walk in light, in sobriety, purity, generosity, and grace. And we know and can give witness to how the Spirit in whom we walk and Christ Jesus whose return we expect is the Presence we walk in that gets us from "there" to "here," continually readying us for "that day."
If Isaiah may call some of your worshiping community to reflection and repentance, Romans today may call some of you to testify -- to share how walking in Christ in the awareness of his coming at the end of time turned your life around.
Perhaps there are members of your worship planning team or people they know well in the worshiping community who would be willing to offer such testimony today in response to this Scripture read or preached. Encourage members of your worship planning team to recruit several of these to share specifically how they may have moved from contentiousness to generosity, from jealousy to grace, from addiction to clarity, or from sexual impurity to faithfulness and purity.
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With the beginning of Advent, year A, we begin as well our journey in the gospel of Matthew. And we begin near the end. All the texts this week and for the coming weeks are about the end of things as they are because of a dramatic inbreaking into this world by God. This week's reading from Matthew speaks of that inbreaking as the "coming of the Son of Man."
This is one of the texts that has been used to build a theology of the "rapture." Rapture theology has taken on a variety of forms and has risen and waned in popularity over the centuries. During the past four decades, it has risen in prominence in American Evangelicalism primarily through popularizers of premillenial dispensationalism such as Hal Lindsay and the "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye. In most versions of this school of interpretation, at the day that Christ returns to the earth, his followers who are alive will be immediately and literally "taken up" (raptured) into the sky to meet him and swept away from the earth before its final judgment.
This text in Matthew begs to differ. Being "taken" here does not appear to be a good thing. Being taken is compared to having one's house broken into and one's valuables stolen (verse 43). Taker/thief in these passages appears to be not God, but an enemy who attacks without warning. Those who are "left" are those who survive the onslaught of the taker. They are not "left behind" to experience further judgment. The call Jesus issues to disciples is to be on the watch at all times, and so not be taken unaware when the day of judgment comes upon all flesh.
The call to vigilance here is echoed by the call to "wake up" in Romans 13 and in a way completes that call. To wake up is to become aware that the time has come for action. To be on watch is to sustain the response to the wake-up call over time and not lose heart. It is to wait with expectation.
The call to such expectant waiting -- waiting that remembers the end -- is the hallmark of Advent every year, and indeed is to characterize our lives as disciples of Jesus at all times. Yet we live in a culture in the United States that has forgotten how to wait, much less wait expectantly. We want what we want now. We expect it to arrive on time. We're anxious if we don't get what we want promptly and get bored or annoyed if the coming is delayed.
What does expectant waiting look like? Jesus gives us good guidance. It's not about looking up but looking around. The Son of Man comes in the midst of ordinary life -- in the midst of us eating and drinking, working in the fields or in the mill.
What do we see when we look around us among the people with whom we find ourselves? Do we see these ordinary events and lives, as if they were mere facts or objects or artifacts that surround our own lives? Or do we see even in these things signs of God's kingdom -- and even "the end"-- at work?
What are we looking for? Are we looking for the end of the world or for God's ends to be revealed in the world? You will have no idea where you might see signs of the "coming of the Son of Man," so look everywhere and always.
And how do we look? Are we filled with anxiety, fearful lest we miss something and find ourselves "left behind"? Have we lost faith in the coming of the Son of Man? Have we gotten bored with the looking and moved on to other things? Or have we tuned our hearts and honed our vision to discover every sign with wonder and joy and offer our witness to the coming One?
Ask your worship planning team to be on the lookout for people who embody this kind of expectant waiting.
Encourage team members to talk with women who are pregnant or have recently given birth.
If you know persons who participate in a Covenant Discipleship group or similar structure that hones such expectant waiting in all of its participants, they would be great folks to check in with as well.
Listen, glean wisdom, and let that wisdom plus the Scriptures for today guide the hymns you sing, the language you use in prayer (hopeful but not Pollyanna-ish, expectant but not anxious), and the tone your bring to proclaiming and responding to the Word this day.
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Liturgically, don't plan just this day, but think through your Advent strategy for worship. The Christmas decorations are already up in stores and many homes. Will you begin to celebrate Christmas today? Or will the torque of the Advent readings and the calendar constrain "immediate gratification" and dangle you and the congregation in the tension of waiting -- waiting for the fulfillment of God's purpose for creation, for the end of war, for God's day, for the coming of the Lord, not as a tiny baby but as the redeeming and transforming Lord of history?
Let the readings guide your choice of hymns and prayers and decorations. Conceive of a progression of anticipation giving way to realization and celebration at Christmas.
As planners, you don't have to fight the dominant culture's preoccupation with Christmas music and buying; only be aware that the church's ancient insight into celebration preceded by a time of deep anticipation and waiting is counter to the culture. Keep your attention on the season and the Scriptures, and the Spirit will guide you in navigating the tension of liturgy and culture.
The Book of Worship (224 and 226) suggests purple or blue for the season. For more on this see "The Color Blue in Advent."
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Embodying the Word: Acts of Gathering for Advent 1, Year A
As you are planning for Advent, ask people on your planning team to consider what they and the congregation may be ready to offer and receive from the Lord this year around these texts that are before us. What are the themes from these texts and this season you are all ready to explore in some depth? How can you design a variety of experiences that enable people in your congregation to offer themselves fully to the One who was and is and is to come?
And as Advent is the entrance to the Christian Year, how might your acts of gathering and entrance embody the ways in which you are preparing the way of the Lord -- in your hearts, in your small groups, in your congregation, in your friends and co-workers, in your community, and in the world?
Here are three themes you might consider exploring for the entrance into worship today, and some suggestions on ways to develop them in your context.
A Coming Kingdom (Isaiah, Matthew):
God's kingdom is already in our midst, but its fullness is still to come. It is both already and not yet here. It is begun, and we know the ending; but the details are unfinished. In addition to simply saying words to that effect in a call to worship or act of greeting, how might you print the bulletin, or create the slides, or arrange the space as people enter to convey that sense of both what has arrived and what we still wait?
This is not a call for incomplete worship planning today! Rather, it is a call to be very intentional about what is done and left for those who arrive to complete. It could be a call to some improvisation -- but be sure to draw on the talents of the congregation, what they already know, rather than creating situations that may put them or worship leaders on the spot.
The Light of God (Isaiah, Romans):
In Isaiah, walking in the Light of God refers to living in a way that listens to God's wisdom for the ordering of the world. God's light here is understood socially, politically, and economically. In Romans, the light of God is contrasted with the world of darkness and sin, the way of drunkenness, lust, and self-centered indulgence. Darkness is the natural condition of the flesh, but in Christ we are enabled to put on the armor of light, which transforms us inside and out, individually and as his body.
Both speak of Light of God, but in different ways, and even in different kinds of intensity. The light of God in Isaiah, seems to speak to a kind of serenity and clarity. It is a soft light, a light that conveys reason, quiet confidence, and reliable truth. In Romans, the "armor of light" is a striking and shining contrast to the darkness it covers and transforms. How are you able to play with light in your worship space at the entrance -- perhaps not just the Advent wreath (which might be the more serene of the two), but something more dazzling as well, conveying the light of Christ that shines in the darkness and the darkness can by no means overcome it?
Ready and Waiting (Romans, Matthew):
In Romans we are called to prepare our inner lives and our life as a Christian community for the coming Day of Salvation. In Matthew, Jesus reminds disciples to stay on the watch for signs of the coming of the Son of Man. Both are calls to readiness and to expectant waiting.
On this first Sunday of Advent, what many people will be getting ready for isn't salvation or even Jesus, but rather Christmas day and the festivities around it. Are there points of contact in your congregation between the readiness and waiting for these things and the readiness and waiting Paul and Jesus call for? If so, how can you make those points of contact explicit in the opening of worship today? If not, how can you plan to open worship today that calls attention to the waiting and readiness the Scriptures describe and contrast those to what the culture, even church culture, has seemed to offer as a substitute? Do your local cultural anthropological work to figure it out!
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Introduction to the Season of Advent (BOW 238)
Consider putting this in your newsletter or at the top of your order of service for this Sunday.
BOW 243 (Romans)
- BOW 254 (Romans)
- BOW 252 (Matthew)
- BOW 253 (Romans, Matthew)
Hanging of the Greens
- BOW 258
- "Hanging of the Greens Service"
Lighting the Advent Candles
- Advent Wreath Candle Lighting Meditations, 2010
- BOW 262
- Sung responses to the lighting of the candle could include UMH 206 ("I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light" refrain), TFWS 2090 ("Light the Advent Candle"), or UMH 211 ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel" stanza 1 or just the refrain).
Concerns and Prayers
- BOW 255
- BOW 428, "Peace with Justice" (Isaiah)
- BOW 520, "For Peace" (Isaiah)
- BOW 504, "For the Church" (Matthew)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Liberia, Sierra Leone
Invitation, Confession and Pardon
- UMH 7-8
- BOW 479
Dismissal with Blessing
UMH 665, "Go Now In Peace" (Isaiah)
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