Anonymous 1615 engraving imagining Christ returning “with the clouds” (Luke 21:27). Public domain.
Revised Common Lectionary Readings
See full texts, artwork, and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this Sunday at Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes. Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Lecionário comum revisado (português)
Jeremiah 33:14-16. "The days are coming when I will fulfill the promise" the prophet tells the people of Judah in exile in Babylon. The promise is for a leader, a "righteous branch" from the house of David, to bring justice and righteousness to the land then lying in ruins. This promised leader would later be known in Judaism as "Messiah," and the reign he would establish, "the messianic age."
Psalm 25:1-10 (UMH 756). This Psalm was selected, as all the Psalms are, as a response to the first reading. Pray and hear it today in the voice of those in exile who have waited and still wait. In your waiting, confess with them the need for God to sustain you daily, to cleanse you from sin, and lead you in paths of righteousness here and now. Consider using the first line of the first stanza of "Hail to the Lord's Anointed" (UMH 203) as the response, and E-A-F#-E; F#-E-F#-A for the chant. If you are using response 1, chant with Tone 5 in E minor. For response 2, use with Tone 3 in E-flat major.
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13. In Jesus the love and righteousness longed for have been provided. In the community called church, such love and righteousness may not only abound but continue to make us perfect in holiness until the final coming of Christ.
Luke 21:25-36. The signs of the end Jesus announces look different from what the folks who first heard Jeremiah's prophecy may have expected. In the immediately preceding verses, Jerusalem is destroyed, not "established forever." It is worldwide suffering accompanied by unstoppable cataclysm, not the progressive development of a golden age of "peace on earth, goodwill to men," that marks the promised redemption. Don't be lulled, Jesus warns! Stay awake and alert to suffering; that’s where you’ll see God’s reign coming in power, beginning now.
Worship Planning Notes
The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year. For those of you following the “Extended Advent” calendar, today is Advent 4.
The word Advent comes from the Latin verb advenire, which means "to come toward, to draw near, to approach." During Advent, we remember and celebrate God's drawing near to us in Jesus Christ, but primarily in the promise of his second coming to bring the promise of the kingdom of God and the renewal of all things to culmination.
From now through Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday after Epiphany), all of the lectionary readings directly relate to each other with a particular focus on the gospel reading.
Start looking ahead to the Christmas Season readings for this year (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, The Sunday after Christmas, Holy Name or Watch Night, and Epiphany) and build your Advent series in a way that flows into the Christmas Season series to follow.
As you plan, keep in mind that Advent is historically a season for baptismal preparation, as well. As Christians first began to observe Advent in the fourth and fifth centuries, they did so as an extended season (six or seven weeks) of preparation of candidates for baptism, very much as a parallel to Lent. Just as Lent led into Easter Season, so Advent led into Christmas Season. How will you plan worship during these weeks to help prepare candidates for baptism, confirmation, reconciliation, or reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant where you are?
Advent in Year C also marks the beginning of a year with the Gospel of Luke. Today brings us to the final days of Jesus' ministry as he describes the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. Next week, we will read of the events surrounding the birth of John the Baptizer. Plan now to sing the Song of Zechariah as part of the service. Several versions are available in The United Methodist Hymnal (208, 209), Mil Voces para Celebrar (78), and the Upper Room Worshipbook (10-12). The third week of Advent this year brings a focus on the ministry of John the Baptizer, whose harsh teaching seems to stand in contrast with the reading (song) from Zephaniah for that day, except that he also speaks of a Messiah to come (Luke 3:15-18). Advent 4 brings us to the song Mary sang at the home of her older cousin Elizabeth. Plan to sing this as well. Settings may be found in The United Methodist Hymnal (198-200) and Upper Room Worshipbook (17-20, with a particularly stirring Advent version called "Canticle of the Turning" on 18).
Denominational Calendar This Week
Today: United Methodist Student Day includes a special denomination-wide offering to support student scholarships.
December 1: World AIDS Day (GBCS resources, Discipleship Ministries Resources) While you may call attention to this observance in worship today, most community observances will take place on World AIDS Day itself. Find out what is happening in your community, and find ways to engage your congregation with your community in the continuing effort to end the spread of AIDS worldwide.
Resources for Planning Ahead
Here are several articles and webinars to help you plan through the end of Christmas Season.
Advent (introductory article from the Book of Worship)
Advent Wreath Meditations Year C
Three Ways to Celebrate Advent and Christmas Season Fully in 2015/2016
When Should You Hang the Greens?
Extended Advent Webinar (to learn more about how to implement Extended Advent)
Planning for Advent and Christmas, Year C
Webinar Slides: Planning for Advent and Christmas 2015
Full Webinar: Planning for Advent and Christmas Season 2015-2016
Christmas Season (introductory article from the Book of Worship)
The Three “M’s” of Christmas Season: Mystery, Martyrs, and Magnificat
The Season after Epiphany (introductory article from the Book of Worship)
December 1 World Aids Day (GBCS resources, Discipleship Ministries Resources)
December 6 Feast of Saint Nicholas
December 21 Longest Night/Blue Christmas
December 24 Christmas Eve
December 25 Christmas Day
December 31 Watch Night/ New Year’s Eve/ Holy Name of Jesus
January 1 New Year’s Day / Holy Name of Jesus
January 3/6 Epiphany Sunday/Epiphany
January 10 Baptism of the Lord
January 11 Human Trafficking Awareness Day
January 17 Human Relations Day (Discipleship Ministries Resources)
January 18 Martin Luther King Jr. Day
January 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
January 24 Ecumenical Sunday
All Month Black History Month
February 7 Transfiguration of the Lord
February 10 Ash Wednesday, and Lent Begins
February 14 Scouting Ministries Sunday (or observe after Lent)
February 15 Presidents Day (USA)
The Season: Advent
The Day: Advent 1: The End of All Things
As we’ve already noted above, the four Sundays of Advent have a particular focus on the fulfillment of all things in Christ, a focus announced most explicitly on this day. The remaining three Sundays of Advent each year bring us to the ministry and message of John the Baptist (Advent 2 and 3) and then to the role of Mary in bearing the Son of God (Advent 4).
While one way to read this is almost a matter of going backward in time (almost, because we actually move forward from week 2 to 3 each year), the intention of this progression each year is to call attention to all that will be brought to intentional fulfillment in Christ. In the gospels, Jesus himself (this week), John the Baptist (weeks 2 and 3) and Mary are our chief witnesses.
The Readings through the Lenses of the Season, the Day, and the Gospel
In today’s reading from Luke, Jesus announces signs that appear to be nothing short of cataclysmic for the world as we know it. There are ominous signs in the heavens, and wild, uncontrollable seas (verse 25). Fear and panic grip all nations (verse 26).
But not so for those of us who are his disciples, Jesus says. For us, everything falling apart is an occasion not for fear, but for rejoicing. Like the fig tree whose full complement of leaves is a sure sign of summer, and then a harvest, such signs of apparent destruction are instead signs of the fulfillment of God’s kingdom remaking all things (verse 30).
This present age and its powers passing away are the sign the age to come is fully breaking through.
Some misread this text to call for Christians to be passive or even welcoming in the face of human-created forces that threaten to destroy the world as we know it, such as nuclear proliferation and climate change. Jesus rejects all such notions. He calls us not to resignation, but to alertness and increased diligence (verse 34).
Jesus has also made clear that the signs he’s describing are not human-caused. While we can certainly destroy ourselves and many species on this planet with nuclear weapons or by continuing to increase the level of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we choose to release into the atmosphere, the scale of the signs Jesus describes are far beyond human control. “The powers of the heavens will be shaken” (verse 26). Not just life on earth, but the structure of the universe itself would appear to be in jeopardy, Jesus says.
And, he says, “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (verse 33).
We have two possible ways of reading this.
While different in approach, the two are compatible.
One way is quite literally. Everything we know about some forms of early Christianity indicates such a literal meaning to have been a typical understanding for Christians in the first century. Some believed “all things” referred to the cosmic-level cataclysm Jesus was describing, and that this would happen during the disciples’ lifetimes, or perhaps in the generation to which Luke wrote (ten or twenty years after many of the twelve may have died or been killed).
Luke was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome. This meant the world as folks had known it in Jerusalem had indeed come to an end, both politically and religiously. So the message heard by some of the early Christians receiving this text was something like “your generation, right now, is the generation of fulfillment.”
Those who argue for such a “realized eschatology” reading suggest that Jesus was indeed the righteous branch of Jeremiah, and that forms of his body, Christian communities, springing up all over the known world were the sign of the age of righteousness dawning.
On the other hand, many then and now argue for a wider meaning of the word “generation,” referring to something more like an “age” or an “eon” that could span hundreds or thousands of years. The fall of Jerusalem was only a minor harbinger of the cataclysm to come then, and still to come. Every odd phenomenon in the heavens and every instance of seas surpassing their bounds are signs that things will get far, far worse—that the time of the fig tree in full leaf, the era of “hopeful destruction” has only begun.
Under either reading, the fullness of the cataclysm was not the promise hoped for, but a sign, like a fig tree in full leaf is a sign of summer and bountiful harvest to come.
The bountiful harvest, the renewal of all things as God’s kingdom arrives in fullness, is the promise.
And the good news we proclaim on this first Sunday of Advent is that Jesus Christ himself is the bearer of that promise, whenever “the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great glory” appears.
The renewal through Christ is the promise. Christ’s own charge to his disciples remains our charge. We are to live as those who are of the kingdom of God, “not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”
That charge is all about the first baptismal question and living the three verbs it contains: renounce, reject, and repent. We renounce allegiance to spiritual forces that dominate this present age. We reject evil powers of this world, casting them aside. And we repent, we keep turning from, whatever sinful ways still hold us in thrall. All three of these verbs mark ongoing actions of decisive turning. What we see today, on Advent 1, is the destiny of those powers and ways from which we turn, even as we begin to glimpse the hope that comes with the second coming of Christ.
Jeremiah speaks of that hope in another way, in the image of the righteous branch.
He was a prophet to exiles who had lost everything that gave them a sense of peoplehood—homeland, temple, possessions, family members, friends, freedom and nation. The last of the kings of Judah was dead. The “line of David” appeared to be utterly cut off, a dead stump.
Yet that “dead stump” is exactly where Jeremiah tells the people God will cause new life, hope, justice and righteousness to spring forth. From the cut off stump of David, will come a “righteous branch.” What appears dead will give birth to new life, new nationhood, and a new beginning in their own land. To those who had lost so much, this may have seemed impossible to believe or hope for. The line of Judah’s kings was now only a stump, a placeholder of a destroyed past.
But not everything about that past was actually destroyed. There were still roots. There were still memories. There was still Torah and a whole history with their God whose name was too holy to speak. That meant there was still possibility to imagine and experience a new future rooted in the past, though necessarily quite different from it in many ways.
But a righteous branch was coming, the prophet promised, one who would “execute justice and righteousness in the land” (verse 15).
What did Jeremiah mean by that, and what does it have to do with the fulfillment of all things in Christ?
“Mishpat,” the Hebrew word for justice, has to do with such practical matters as ensuring fair trading practices, providing care and advocacy for widows, orphans, and the poor, and establishing authoritative processes for reconciliation and restoration when relationships are broken and damage is done. It’s about mending and restoring the social fabric, the relationships between people.
“Tzedekah,” righteousness, is personal integrity that reflects the character of the God of Israel, named most commonly in the Old Testament as "full of compassion and mercy." It’s the energy that radiates through individuals reflecting the character of God and God’s commitment to save. As we noted in the story of the widow’s offering in the temple a few weeks ago, “tzedekah” also refers to those basic acts of charity, giving that provides for the livelihood of others, particularly the marginalized and distressed. With these two meanings taken together, “righteousness” points to the alignment of character and action for the good of all.
Mishpat mends and restores. Tzedekah sustains.
For a people whose culture, homes and temple were destroyed, the promise of one to come who would bring restoration and ongoing sustenance to the people, and keep them as a people despite their losses, was hopeful news, indeed.
In the culmination of all things in Jesus Christ, who we claim to be the fullest fulfillment of the prophet’s promise, we find the promise expanded from one people to all persons, and from people on earth to the whole of creation. The work of Christ and the church has already been to mend what is here, and to call us all to acts of compassion that sustain even the most vulnerable among us. This is our calling and pursuit now, if we are not weighed down by dissipation and self-indulgence. Christ is making of us a people to act with justice and demonstrate righteousness in all we do, here and now, as sign and foretaste of the complete renewal in the age to come.
Which brings us to I Thessalonians.
And this critical point about all of this talk of the age to come.
We’ve already seen this in both Luke and Jeremiah. Paul underscores it.
The promise of the age to come is not about escape from this life. It is not “pie in the sky by and by” intended to anesthetize us against the pain and suffering of this present age. Quite the reverse. The promise of the One who is to come and the fulfillment before us is to steel us to live our lives with greater love for one another and for all and greater holiness here and now, precisely in the face of the sufferings and temptations of this age (verses 12-13).
So today we proclaim the culmination of all things in Christ precisely when it appears the foundations of the universe are shaken. Today we reconnect with the call and ministry of Christ among us, and into which he calls us all, here and now, of justice and righteousness. And today we underscore the call to growth in holiness of heart and life.
And we do all of this, if we also follow that path of the early church, as part of a journey with people beginning their final preparations for baptism by learning to live this life of love, holiness, justice and righteousness in the name and power of the Coming One.
In Your Planning Team
Advent begins with a bang—or at least the loud roaring of the seas.
This year, it ends with a song of hope and reversal and words of blessing for those who believe.
As you plan worship for today, plan with this story arc and soundscape arc in mind.
Let every service, starting today, carry through the underlying theme of the culmination of all things in Christ, and support what (I hope!) is your ongoing work of accompanying people on their journey toward baptism and lived discipleship to Jesus.
You and your team will need to decide what kind of theme will unite these services into a series. You might choose to focus simply on eschatology, the end that drives our every beginning. Or you might focus on living holy lives, or growing in holiness or faithfulness, “not being weighed down” by this world and its powers that are passing away. Or you might focus primarily on how the readings each week focus us more intently on practicing each of the baptismal vows.
A word of advice. Pick just one to keep front and center, even if you also cover all three in some way. Picking one as a key focus will help you not only organize the music and art and ritual for worship, but also enhance the clarity of your teaching, preaching and formational ministries through this season.
Resources in The United Methodist Book of Worship (BOW) with links and other suggestions
Call to Worship: BOW 206, "Entrance Song for Advent"
Greeting: BOW 240 (Psalm)
Greeting: BOW 244 (Luke, “See, the ruler of the earth shall come”)
Blessing of the Advent Wreath: BOW 261
Advent Wreath Responses: BOW 207 and 208, "Come, Lord Jesus"
Opening Prayer: BOW 254 (Luke)
WORD AND RESPONSE
Canticle: UMH 208, "Canticle of Zechariah" (Jeremiah)
Litany: BOW 433 (Student Day)
Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Liberia, Sierra Leone
THANKSGIVING AND COMMUNION
Prayer of Confession: BOW 483 (Psalm)
Great Thanksgiving for Advent: BOW 54-55
OTHER ADVENT RESOURCES
See BOW 238 and 239 for additional Advent suggestions.
See BOW 258 or our website for an order of service for Hanging of the Greens