Planning -Fourth Sunday of Advent
Prophecy in a time of national crisis: "Your problems will be resolved by God, Ahaz, by the time the child born to the pregnant woman over there can make moral choices."
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 (UMH 801).
Paul introduces himself and his ministry to the house churches in Rome.
Matthew's account of the circumstances leading to the birth of Jesus.
Church Calendar: This is the fourth Sunday of Advent, and Advent's waiting nearly (but not quite) gives way to Christmas joy and celebration.
Atmospherics: This God Is with Us
Here at the last Sunday of Advent we look backward and look forward at once. We look backward, being reminded about the nature of the God we serve, the End this God intends, what justice and righteousness look like in this God's view and what it means to wait expectantly for a divine reversal of the arrogant powers that be. We also look ahead (in the Christian calendar timeline) to the birth of Jesus, the one who incarnated this God in our midst.
Though we read about the birth today, the heart of today's celebration remains the character of this God who came among us, abides with us in the Holy Spirit and will come again rather than the birth itself. That celebration the Church Calendar calls us to keep for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Christmastide.
In Isaiah, Ahaz, king of Israel, was living in a "bunker mentality." He was hunkered down in wary fear of what the Kings of Syria might do next, and even in fear of what God would do if he dared to ask for help. The good news offered through the prophet was that God was already at work to eliminate Ahaz's reasons for hunkering down over the course of a few short years. When the child to be born to one of the young women in the court was old enough to start school (we might say), Syria would no longer be a threat at all.
The news of "God with us" in this text, then, is not looking forward to some future Messiah, but to God's present help. That help would not come with any blaze of glory and may not even be discerned as it was unfolding. But it would unfold, just as surely as the child would grow and mature to the point of being able to make ethical decisions.
What happens in people around you, in your congregation or community, when "bunker mentality" sets in? Are some of your folks there now? What sign of a hopeful future is God placing in your midst -- a reminder that God IS with you, even in the face of whatever you fear? What do such signs help you and others to do to move beyond the bunker and trust God's provision, protection, and promises to manifest God's kingdom everywhere?
Key Images: bunker, confinement, hiding under the bed, paralysis
In Romans this week, we read Paul's introduction of himself to the house churches in Rome. Structurally and grammatically, the language here is what would be expected of letters in that day. The purpose is to establish Paul's credentials for addressing these house churches.
But the content is a bit odd. Normally, there would be more about the author, something akin to a brief rsum. Instead, Paul spends most of this introduction talking about the gospel, the good news of God that he was entrusted with. That good news describes God as one who has made and kept a promise through prophets (verses 1-2), a promise to send God's Son to us as a descendant of David (verse 3), but a Son whose power was not made known through earthly warfare or kingship (as was David's), but rather through resurrection from the dead (verse 4).
This claim about the power shown in Jesus would not (presumably) have been shocking or off-putting to the disciples at Rome, but it would have shocked pagans in Rome and perhaps challenges even some Christians today. The power of Jesus is known through his servanthood and through experiencing and then rising from death, first and foremost. Power doesn't serve, but Jesus did. Power doesn't die, much less give itself to executors, but Jesus did. The one poured out was raised and thus known as Son.
And we are called to be saints (verse 7) in and through him, inhabiting his promise, obeying his teaching (verse 6), embodying his power, a power that pours itself out for others and so is raised.
How are you learning to live under and with the power of this God where you are? How are people learning to express pour by pouring themselves out for others and then finding true power as what they pour out comes to new life?
Matthew tells the story surrounding the pregnancy of Mary and the difficulties it posed for her relationship with the man to whom she was not yet officially married. Here we find the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah that refers not just to the maiden conceiving a child, but to the whole environment of uncertainty and fear in the days of Ahaz and Joseph and Mary. Uncertainties, even threats abound in this story -- to Joseph's reputation, to Mary's reputation and even life and to the future of the child.
And the revelation of how to deal with these uncertainties comes not in a vision or through a prophet, but in a dream.
Dreams are often discounted or ignored or forgotten in our culture. Rationalists and many scientists reject them as no more than flotsam of the brain trying to process the previous day and prepare for the next one.
But here, and elsewhere in Matthew's narrative, as we will see in the coming weeks, dreams are a basic source of revelation from God about matters of great import. Somehow, when our active minds are stilled, the fragments of anxious thoughts and feelings and what we have learned of God that our "bunker-minds" can make nothing of are able to come together in a compelling and undeniable harmony that offers a living word from the living God.
This is our God, the one with us -- the one who speaks to us by whatever means available to show us the next step. This is our God, the one who becomes human and invites a respectable man to receive even this alien one and the child's mother as his spouse.
How about you? How does God speak to guide you and the members of your worship planning team? Is guidance usually inward and personal, or is it more often relational and communal? How do you understand the processes of listening for God's voice? To use a very nice phrase in the Wesleyan vision of grace, Joseph becomes here a steward of sanctifying grace. As such, Joseph plays a profound role in the story of God being with us. (For more on understanding our Wesleyan approach to grace, see Steve Manskar's Accountable Discipleship: Living in God's Household [Discipleship Resources, 2000], especially chapter 3.)
Who in your midst has experienced a convergence of guidance and Scripture in dreams and acted on it? Go and ask people what it means to them that Joseph did what he did because he listened to a dream. Ask what it means that this is how God spoke to allow Jesus, God's own Son (as we affirm!) to be born. And ask, too, what it means that God reaches out to guide Joseph into such an act of radical hospitality, receiving a child not his and a woman pregnant not by him as his own. Consider recording the responses you get on a video camera, and showing them (with written releases, of course) at the time of the reading or preaching of this text.
Congregational Song for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Christmas is just a few days away. People will be back later this week for Christmas Eve, and since we have one text that includes the birth of Jesus, there is good reason to sing at least one Christmas song. Do, however, keep in mind the readings and choose hymns and songs that engage people with the readings and the thrust of the Word for this day. One approach might be to sing a medley of Christmas carols and hymns at the beginning of the service -- perhaps only one verse of each from memory without announcement or break. (For those who have little or no Christian memory, be sure to put the words in the order of service or up on a screen.)
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Embodying the Word: The Entrance for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
There is a practice in yoga, and also used in a variety of stress therapies, of tightening every muscle in the body for a time (perhaps thirty seconds to a minute) and then fairly quickly releasing. Consider offering such a practice as a way to enter into both the "bunker mentality" of Ahaz and Joseph, as well as to encounter the energy that comes (and that came to Paul and to Joseph) when we let go, trusting ourselves fully into God's control.
Consider offering this as the first act of prayer you do together -- a prayer act without words. Invite people to stand, take a deep breath and tighten, and as they tighten become aware of all that is tightening in around them and all they want to do about it. Then as they release the tightening, to commit all of those things and their bodies to God.
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- UMH 207 or 211 "Prepare the Way" (Luke)
- BOW 246 (Matthew)
- BOW 304 (Psalm)
- BOW 249 (Isaiah)
- BOW 460 (Matthew)
Adapt the prayer by starting it with these words: "God, Joseph's Guide and Guardian ..."
Hanging of the Greens (if not already done)
- BOW 258
- "Hanging of the Greens Service"
Lighting the Advent Candles
- Advent Wreath Candle Lighting Meditations, 2010
- BOW 262
- BOW 208 "Come, Lord Jesus"
- 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 500, "For Courage" (Matthew)
- BOW 546 (Isaiah, Matthew)
- BOW 555 (Seasonal, Matthew)
- BOW 512, "For Guidance" (Isaiah, Matthew)
Invitation, Confession, and Pardon
- UMH 7-8
- BOW 494 (Isaiah, Matthew)
- BOW 480 (Isaiah, Matthew)
Dismissal with Blessing
- BOW 559 (General)
- BOW 561 (Isaiah, Matthew)
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