The First Sunday of Advent
"Remembering the End"
Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service are available at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos basados en el leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
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 what 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!
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Church Calendar: Today is New Year’s Day in the Christian calendar. We begin Year A of the lectionary cycle. During Year A, we read primarily from Matthew’s gospel. During the Ordinary Time after Epiphany and after Pentecost, we read from Paul’s correspondence with Christians in Corinth, Rome, Phillipi, and Thessalonica. After Pentecost, we also hear the stories again of our “first families”: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. You may find Exploring the Revised Common Lectionary a helpful resource to use for presentations in Sundayschool or other venues to “lay out” the year ahead for your congregation.
Advent in Year A is about getting back to basics. We remember the end of all things the first week. The second week, we focus on the righteousness and justice God calls for, creates, and re-creates. The third week, we encounter just how full of “reverals” and “subversion” our God is. And in the fourth, we hear Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, and we are reminded it is this God of that kind of end, of this passion for righteousness and justice, and of such reversals who was and is and ever will be “with us.”
Today, December 1, also marks the observance of World AIDS Day. The General Board of Global Ministries provides a variety of resources for learning, prayer, worship, and advocacy. In most communities, World AIDS Day is recognized in public, ecumenical, or interfaith services rather than as individual congregations or Sunday morning worship.
Christmas is coming. Not just the day, but the season. Does a full celebration and opportunity to contemplate the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ get drowned out or overridden by all kinds of other activities and travel plans? Consider how you may ReThink Christmas Season this year to ensure you celebrate it, as well as Advent, as fully as possible where you are.
Advent 1—Remembering the End
During Advent, the readings of the lectionary are intentionally chosen to coordinate with each other around common themes based on the gospel reading.
The readings of Advent are not themed to relate to Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love (or some permutation of these). That may have been roughly the case when many Protestant denominations, including the former Methodist Church, had one-year lectionaries. For nearly all denominations now (including United Methodists when we adopted the Revised Common Lectionary in 1992), the texts for each week relate to the larger single theme of Advent, the culmination of all things in Christ as preparation for the celebration of God’s incarnation in Christ. As you plan, then, do not try to stretch the Scripture to “fit” whatever banners or bulletin covers you may have. Rather, attend to the Scriptures and use fabric, graphics, and other arts that coordinate with the Scriptures themselves.
You may find Worship Planning for Advent 2013, Advent Year A: How Do We Get to Zion, and “Celebrate Advent and Christmas Season Fully in 2013/2014” helpful conversation starters or guides as you begin your planning.
One theme that emerges from the texts for Advent 1 in Year A is “Remembering the End.”
In the end, the culmination of all things, is our end, our purpose for engaging and joining God's reign wherever and however we can. Ignorance, warfare, and strife end (cease) 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 God has achieved God’s purposes for Zion and the whole world?
Zion 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 read this text as a promise about the nature of the new creation inaugurated in the birth and culminated in the second coming of Jesus Christ. There are several important things to note about this text from that angle. First, it speaks not of an ethereal paradise full of individuals basking in ceaseless light, but of a new earth, complete with nations, but nations behaving in a radically different way. The leaders of these new nations come to God, resident in a new Jerusalem, and God gives them wisdom for how to live and prosper at home and in peace with all other nations. The military-industrial complex has been dismantled. The resources that may have been used to cause death in the “former days” are now directed toward providing abundant life for all.
Christians do not read this simply as a promise for “by and by,” however. We read it as the new reality toward which God is already drawing all of creation through Jesus Christ. And so we, as disciples of Jesus, particularly read it as guidance for how we are being called to live here and now. Already we, the church, are called to center ourselves, even our politics and economics as institutions, on the wisdom of God with us, and not simply on the wisdom of this age. Already we, the church, the body of Christ, are called to be agents of reconciliation, whether through formal processes of arbitration, or by other means. Already, we, the church, the body of Christ, are being called to redirect any resources we ourselves invest, own or direct in the military-industrial complex toward means to provide abundant life for all.
The entire season of Advent is a time to stand at the culmination of history, and looking back, imagine and celebrate how that culmination has already come to pass, is coming to pass, and will surely come to pass in the age to come. Today, in particular, with this text in particular, we are invited and called to imagine and celebrate how we are or may yet be agents of God’s wisdom, God’s reconciliation, and God’s conversion of the engines of death into the instruments of abundant life for all who share our planet.
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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” 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 you are becoming him. All of the verbs are plural. We as body of Christ are becoming Christ for the world.
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,” an “inner self” (whatever “inner” may mean). What the “true” or “inner self” may be or even may be like remains debated. For Freud, whatever “true” self (“ego”) we had or were was composed of the conflicting and irreconcilable desires of our Id (basic hungers for survival, pleasure, and pain) and our “superego” (“civilizing” desires that restrain these basic hungers to achieve some greater common good). Others picture the “true self” as some principle of purity or love that may be tarnished or distorted, but not ultimately destroyed, by other forces, even if it is powerless over them. Some more recent “neurophilosophers” have come to deny the existence of any “independent” self per se, that is to say, any self that actually exists except as a construct of the brain and body. All three of these understandings of self, or something close to them, could have been found in the philosophical schools of Paul’s day. Then or now, such notions of self keep the self (if it exists at all) more or less enslaved to powers and motions beyond nearly anyone’s active or conscious control or redeeming.
Thanks be to God, Christians have two millennia of living witnesses who can testify putting on Christ is not like putting on a mask that hides who we are, but more like putting on a uniform that reminds us and shows everyone what and who we are becoming. Self, for us, is not limited to “fightings and fears, within, without.” Nor is it merely some subjective “internal principle.” Self for us is nothing less than the image of God shining in and through our bodies being raised and renewed by the very Christ we put on. Our true self is what the Risen One whose salvation is now nearer than when we first believed is making of us.
So 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 we can offer genuine love to God and others. We know what it is to put on Jesus Christ as a garment— first in our baptisms, and daily as we walk with Jesus in the Spirit and with his body. 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.”
And “that day,” as Paul reminds here, is not for us some distant dream, some far off by and by. “That day,” the day of culmination of all things in Christ, is the day drawing forward from the “future” toward us, here and now, and drawing us forward toward it as it approaches. It approaches, and keeps awakening us from whatever sleep may hold us in thrall. We do not remake ourselves in order to arrive safely at that day. The power of the Coming One and the approach of “that day” already animate us, here and now, as we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
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With the beginning of Advent, year A, we begin as well our journey in the gospel of Matthew. This week’s reading from Matthew speaks of the culmination of all things 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 pre-millennial 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). The taker or 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 unawares 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 completes that call. To wake up is to become aware 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 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 as a massive disaster, or for God’s ends to be revealed in the world and thereby already start transforming it? Signs of the “coming of the Son of Man” can happen anywhere, anytime, 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 of his coming with wonder and joy, so we can offer our own witness to the coming One?
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In Your Planning Team
Today kicks off both a season and a series. As with any season or series, the first service may best function in part as prelude or overture to the whole.
Advent always describes a story arc that might be titled “From Culmination of All Things to the Birth of the Culminator.”
In Year A, in particular, Advent reveals a new timeline begun by the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. In so doing, it also reveals the nature of the timelines the new timeline fractures. Previous timelines repeated cycles of new life, growth, and destruction, endlessly. When God entered our timeline fully in Jesus, the new timeline begun was and is one of new creation and resurrection (the destruction of death and destruction itself). This is life without wars or end (Week 1), life full of righteousness and justice (Week 2), life whose ways are, from the perspective of the “usual” timelines, almost utterly reversed (Week 3). And it is all manifest already the birth of "God with us" (Week 4).
That’s the story arc for Advent this year.
Consider how you might embody this story arc in ritual and song, particularly at the first movement (the Entrance) and the fourth movement (Sending) on this and succeeding Sundays. Consider creating space all can see, a purple or blue wrapped larger table, and five smaller tables or pedestals spaced out in front and to the sides of it. For today’s service, bring in one key sign or symbol for all four Sundays today, and place them all on the central table during a processional hymn. Then, on the last verse, or just after it, remove the sign for today’s service (sword converted into plowshare?) and place it on the central pedestal in front. As part of the sending, remove the central symbol, and process out of the building with it, leading the congregation to embody it in the world.
Next week, before worship, place the symbol from this week on one of the four other pedestals, perhaps with a candle lit beside it. At the entrance, process in with the other three, again placing the central symbol for next week’s service on the central pedestal, processing out with it at the end, and then, before next week’s service, placing it on a second pedestal, and so on. Also consider using the same opening hymn each of the weeks of Advent, such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (UMH 211), singing verses each week which most relate to the theme and the symbol you will address that week, or composing new ones. (The text is public domain, so you are free to do so!) For this week, for example, consider singing verses 1, 2, and 7, which would capture themes present in Isaiah, Romans, and Matthew alike.
Through these simple acts of ritual, art, and song, you can create threads that will both unify the series as a whole and highlight the themes for each one.
But don’t stop with adding such highlights. An important part of your work as a planning team is to dig deep, not simply into the technologies of worship, but into the lives of those who worship with you, so they are the worshipers and you are the enablers, not the performers, of their worship.
So, what is the living testimony of people in your congregation and community to the reality of “the end” drawing near? Not “cataclysm” but new creation!
Specifically, starting with members of your planning team, ask:
1. Where are you and others around you seeing sword converted to plowshares, or reconciliation and active peacemaking replacing hostility and violence?
2. How are you or others you know already experiencing the power of “that day” to free you from sinful actions and habits as you put on Christ, however it is you do that?
3. How are people living out and sustaining an expectation for the “coming of the Son of Man” where you are, and what are they beginning to see because they do?
Listen to one another, ask others you know, glean wisdom, and let that wisdom and the Scriptures for today guide the rest of the hymns you sing, the language you use in prayer (expectant but not anxious!), and the tone you bring to proclaiming and responding to the Word this day.
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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
- 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
- BOW 54-55
- An Advent Great Thanksgiving
Dismissal with Blessing
UMH 665, "Go Now In Peace" (Isaiah)
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