Planning - First Sunday of Advent
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
"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.
Today's reading flows as a kind of a blessing in response to the Psalm. 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.
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.
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The first Sunday of Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year. The word Advent comes from the Latin verb advenire, which means "to come toward, to draw near, to approach." This is the time when we remember and celebrate God's drawing near to us in Jesus Christ, beginning with a focus on his final coming in glory to judge the living and the dead and bring forth a new creation. For those of you following the the "Restored Advent" calendar, today is Advent 4. For this and other Advent and Christmastide options, see "Restoring Advent and Christmas 2012/2013." For an overview of the "regular" Advent, see Planning for Advent (Year C).
From now through Baptism of the Lord (the Sunday after Epiphany), all the lectionary readings directly relate to one another with a particular focus on the gospel reading. There is also typically one image or one set of theological concepts that unites them all in some way. For this Sunday, the uniting image is the tree (Jeremiah and Luke), and the uniting theological concepts are justice and righteousness (all four readings in various ways).
Further, across all four Sundays in Year C, the Old Testament reading offers a promise, and the gospel reading points toward its fulfillment. In other words, there are three distinct worship/sermon series possibilities here. Read all the texts in worship! And as you plan worship and preaching with your team, ask yourselves which of these three elements -- promise, fulfillment, or the week-to-week uniting images or themes -- your particular congregation most needs to emphasize as an ongoing theme or series during these weeks. Then build the ways you will approach the other texts around the series focus you have chosen. This will help worship during this season have a greater sense of cohesion.
But don't stop there. Look ahead to the Christmastide 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 Christmastide 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, we 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 Eastertide, so Advent led into Christmastide. 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?
December 1 was the World Aids Day Observance on the United Methodist program calendar. If you did not observe the day on the day (yesterday), you may wish to collect a special offering this week or next or designate your Communion offering for this purpose. The United Methodist Committee on Relief administers the Global AIDS Fund (Advance #982345). Donations collected for this purpose may be sent to UMCOR, noting the Advance number, or people may be encouraged to set up their donations online.
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 actual ministry of John the Baptizer, whose harsh teaching seems to stand in contrast with the reading 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).
For more on Advent, see The United Methodist Book of Worship, 238. You may print this section in your bulletin or church newsletter provided that you include the copyright notice as indicated on page 12. See also our Advent Wreath Meditations by Richard Garland and Dean McIntyre.
Uniting Image: The Tree as Promise or Fulfillment
Tree as Promise: Jeremiah
At this time of year, the kind of tree that may be on most people's minds is an evergreen or artificial Christmas tree. Some congregations choose to include an "Advent Tree" in addition to an Advent Wreath during these weeks. An Advent Tree is an evergreen decorated with "Chrismons," symbols of Christ and the church, sort of a more "religious" Christmas tree. Others, drawing on the first reading for today, choose a "Jesse Tree." A Jesse Tree is usually made of wrapped wire or bare branches on which Chrismons or other symbols may be added week by week so that what was bare becomes more beautiful over time.
The trees in this week's texts draw their symbolic power from contexts that speak not of decoration or adding beauty, but of intense suffering and hope. Jeremiah 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. It would have seemed utterly discontinuous from everything they could see at the moment.
But the image of the tree was exactly the clue that could help them, and perhaps us, begin to see what could not otherwise be seen.
Yes, that tree as a tree had no future as the tree it had been. It was 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 this god whose name was too holy to speak. That meant (and means) there was still possibility to imagine and experience a new future rooted in the past, though different from it in many ways.
What is the stump where you are? Where has something of your past been destroyed, placing folks in exile? Where are the roots? How are the roots remembered? What still draws strength or might draw strength from them? How are you being challenged to let go of a past that is truly not retrievable to live into a future emerging from your roots that you cannot yet see?
Tree as Fulfillment: Luke
In Luke, the tree is a fig tree (Luke 21:29-31). In the Middle Eastern world, the fig tree was widely associated with fecundity and abundance of life. Its large leaves and size provided comforting shade during the day, and its fruit, which was easily dried, provided a rich source of nourishment well into the winter months. The "ideal future" or the "messianic age" was sometimes pictured as "every man under his own vine and under his own fig tree" (see Micah 4:4).
So when Jesus invokes the fig tree in today's reading, the effect is a bit of a shock. A fig tree in full leaf would normally have been associated with prosperity and the certainty of a bountiful days ahead. Yet here Jesus connects it with cataclysms on a global and even cosmic scale -- signs in the skies (verse 25), and panic on the earth at the seas surpassing their accustomed bounds and roaring everywhere (verse 26). [I write this as Hurricane Sandy is pounding the East Coast of the United States!] All of this sounds like bad news indeed. Yet Jesus compares all this to the fig tree in full leaf, signaling the coming of summer. Such cataclysm is precisely the means to hope. And Jesus said it was being fulfilled in that very generation (verse 32).
We have two possible ways of reading this. One is quite literally and temporally, which appears from everything we know about early Christianity to have been the typical understanding then. In other words, "all things," such cataclysm would happen during the disciples' lifetimes, or perhaps in the generation to which Luke wrote (ten or twenty years after many of them may have died or been killed). Keeping in mind that Luke was written after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome, the world as folks had known it in Jerusalem had indeed come to an end, politically and religiously. So the message for Christians receiving this text was something like "your generation 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 nothing compared with the cataclysm to come -- and it is 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 -- hat the time of the fig tree in full leaf, the era of "hopeful destruction" has only begun.
Either way, the cataclysm is not a promise, but the prelude, like a fig tree in full leaf is prelude to summer and bountiful harvest to come.
What time is it for your congregation, or for the wider world? Has the painful but necessary destruction already come (Jeremiah and the realized eschatology reading of Luke)? Are we in the middle of its aftermath now (Jeremiah)? Or is it yet to come (the cataclysmic reading of Luke)? What signposts, like fig trees or new branches, point to the current time where you are? where you are as church? where the world is as global community, however fractured?
Uniting Theological Themes: Justice and Righteousness
Though the words may be put slightly differently across the three readings and Psalm for today, all of them address issues of justice and righteousness. In Jeremiah, the "righteous Branch" will "execute Justice" in the land (Jeremiah 33:15). In Psalm 25, the psalmist prays the people may be found walking in God's way, "steadfast love and faithfulness" (Psalm 25:10). In I Thessalonians, Paul prays that the people may find their hearts "made strong in holiness" so they will be blameless before God at the coming of Christ as judge (I Thessalonians 3:13). And in Luke, Jesus tells his disciples, facing the reality of the cataclysm to come, to stay awake and not be weighed down with wastefulness and drunkenness and worries of this life (Luke 21:34) and so be caught in a trap, unable to flee to higher ground (quite literally) when the flood waters start rising and raging.
Justice ("mishpat" in Hebrew) and righteousness ("tzedekah" in Hebrew) lie behind all of these varying terms (steadfast love, faithfulness, holiness, blamelessness, wakefulness, freedom from dissipation, and readiness for action). "Mishpat," 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 sustaining the social fabric, the relationships between people. "Tzedekah," righteousness, is the 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 about the energy that radiates through individuals reflecting the character of God and God's commitment to save.
Mishpat and tzedekah together create personal and social steadfast love and faithfulness. Holiness and blamelessness are the fruit of the righteous life. Wakefulness to injustice and unrighteousness keep us on our toes, never entirely settled, ready to survive the worst the world can throw our way knowing that it can and sometimes will.
All of these, and perhaps especially justice and righteousness, are words we seem to be losing from our unique vocabulary as disciples of Jesus in twenty-first century North America. Justice has been co-opted by political usages on the far left and the far right, both equally committed to Enlightenment-era notions that arrogate justice into absolutes rather than locate it in the practices and relationships of living communities. Righteousness has been ceded to those who dismiss it, calling those who care about such things "self-righteous." Perhaps this is different for Christians in places where the physical and spiritual threats to life and discipleship appear more immediate. But for most of you likely to be reading these words, consider strongly using this first Sunday of Advent to help reclaim them for our more regular use. We cannot understand today's texts without them. And in fundamental ways, our existence as followers of Jesus and our Advent hope for his coming, then, now and yet to come, cannot be described adequately apart from them.
Perhaps you cannot take on both terms today. Pick one to focus on, not neglecting the other. And then develop imagery and the design of worship space today to help support the focus you and your worship planning team have selected.
Consider, too, how you might combine motifs of promise and fulfillment with the larger Advent themes of the second coming of Christ and preparation of candidates for baptism or confirmation.
During Advent, though all texts matter and are inter-related, the gospel text is the centerpiece. In North America, and particularly in the US, the cultural call to feasting and sleep as winter approaches is almost overwhelming. We eat large meals on Thanksgiving Day, throw party after party, and nearly gorge ourselves into somnolence in these days. Read or listen to the songs we sing and the poems we repeat as well. So many of them speak of "long winter's naps" or tell the newborn Jesus to go to sleep! Yet the call of the very first gospel lesson this Advent season is "Wake up! Don't party! Be ready at all times to flee for the hills!" How in your world will you help people truly hear, digest, and obey these words that run so thoroughly counter to our cultural surroundings?
Put another way, how can you in worship today help people listen to Jesus' call to watch for the "signs of the times"? Those signs show that the current order, both physical and political, is beginning to crack and fall apart. No incremental improvement upon the status quo can lead to the fulfillment of all things that God desires. The passing of the old order does not happen without considerable cost and pain. How will you help folks in your congregation become vigilant about helping others weather the coming cataclysm with us while trusting that the outcome of the cataclysm is a far better new reality about to break forth?
- Call to Worship: UMBOW 206, "Entrance Song for Advent"
- Greeting: UMBOW 240 (Psalm)
- Greeting: UMBOW 244 (Luke)
- Blessing of the Advent Wreath: UMBOW 261
- Advent Wreath Responses: UMBOW 207 and 208, "Come, Lord Jesus"
- Canticle: UMH 208, "Canticle of Zechariah" (Jeremiah)
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW 254 (Luke)
- Prayer of Confession: UMBOW 483 (Psalm)
- Litany: UMBOW 433 (Student Day)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Liberia, Sierra Leone
- Great Thanksgiving for Advent: UMBOW 54-55
- See UMBOW 238 and 239 for additional Advent suggestions.
- See UMBOW 258 for an order of service for Hanging of the Greens.
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