Fourth Sunday of Advent
"Gott mit uns" (God with us). WW II era belt buckle for the "state police" of
Rhine-Herne and Westphalia. Public Domain.
"This God Is with Us"
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.
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)
Romans 1:1-7 .
Paul introduces himself and his ministry to the house churches in Rome.
Matthew's account of the circumstances leading to the birth of Jesus.
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"This God Is with Us"
Church Calendar: On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we remember the promise and the peculiar circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus.
The qualifier "This" is significant for us on this day. The German belt buckle above is a rare find, indeed. During WWII, all of the "regional police" (Landpolizei) were combined into a Germany-wide force (Ordnungspolizei) who were given a buckle like that of many German soldiers. That buckle retained the inscription, "Gott mit uns" (God with us), but had below it an image of an eagle grasping the Nazi swastika. These two symbols, taken together, were a potent sign of the god of the Nazis—a god who loved only Aryans and Christians submissive to the Führer, a god who hated, persecuted and sought the deaths of Jews, non-submissive Roman Catholics and Protestants, the Roma, homosexuals, and persons with any sort of handicap, deformity or mental illness, a god of endless war, a god of Deutschland über Alles, a God of hate.
How some of our sisters and brothers could have worn the Nazi version of this buckle without flinching remains a mystery. It also remains a warning that we cannot and perhaps must not speak glibly of God without specifying who we mean, and what the God we describe is like. If we are not attentive to the Scriptures, to the voice of our God through history and the Holy Spirit through the church to this day, any of us or any group of us could easily fall prey to perhaps the most ancient of temptations, to create God in our own image, or whatever image the most powerful believe to be most advantageous to their cause at the time.
So on this day, as we build a bridge from the waiting of Advent to the celebratory contemplation of the Incarnation during Christmas Season, our readings do not let us rest with any self-made image of God with us. Instead, they reveal a very different God, the one who made us. This is a God we wouldn’t have dreamed of making up ourselves, and who cannot be subsumed in any political agenda of our making. This is the One who has come to us in Jesus, abides with us in the Holy Spirit, and will come again to make all things new. This God, and no other, is with us.
Many more Advent resources are also available.
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.
Discipleship Ministries's Kwanzaa resources are available on the Discipleship Ministries Planning Calendar.
"Blue Christmas" services are becoming a mainstay in many places around the United States. These services recognize the sadness and loss that many people may feel acutely at this time of the year. While some offer such a service on Longest Night (December 21), any time during Advent could be appropriate.
New Year’s Eve/Watchnight/Holy Name of Jesus/New Year’s Day resources are also available, along with our planning helps for this time.
Coming up in January
Human Trafficking Awareness Day (UMW Resources)
Ecumenical Sunday in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Human Relations Day
Martin Luther King Birthday
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 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. Matthew handles the birth of Jesus itself almost in passing. We focus on the birth of Jesus itself, then, not today, but on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and on other occasions during Christmas Season.
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 to Israel at all.
The news of "God with us" in Isaiah, then, was not looking forward to some future Messiah, but to God’s present help. That help would not come with any blaze of glory, no decisive victory or string of victories in battle, and may not even have been all that discernible 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.
This God, unfolding deliverance like a child grows, is with us.
In Romans, we read Paul’s introduction of himself to the house churches in Rome. Structurally and grammatically, the language 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 résumé. Instead, Paul spends most of his introduction talking about the good news about God he has been entrusted to share. God has made and kept a promise through prophets (verses 1-2) to send God’s Son to us as a descendant of David (verse 3). The power of the Son was not made known through earthly warfare or kingship, but 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 others in Rome and perhaps challenges some Christians even today. Jesus’ power is made known through his servanthood, through experiencing death, and through being raised from the dead. The powers that be rarely serve, but Jesus did. The powers that be do everything in their power to preserve their own lineage. They wouldn’t think about giving themselves to those who would execute them, but Jesus did. The one who served and was executed was raised as a bold declaration by the Holy Spirit that this is God’s Son (verse 4).
This God is with us.
And this God, Paul says, has called him to lead people everywhere to the "obedience of faith" (verse 5), which is to say, faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ. This God is calling people everywhere, including Rome, to become saints (verse 7) in and through Jesus Christ (verse 6).
This God is with us, a God who pours Self out for all, a God raised from the dead, a God calling all, not just a select tribe or nation, to be made holy as this God is holy.
Matthew tells the story surrounding the pregnancy of Mary and the difficulties it posed for her relationship with her finance, Joseph. We hear echoes of Isaiah’s prophecy, both of "a maiden" conceiving a child and an overall atmosphere of uncertainty and threat. Uncertainties and threats abound in this story. Joseph’s reputation is on the line. So is Mary’s reputation, and even her life. And whatever Joseph decides will determine the future of the unborn child.
It is in a dream that revelation and resolution come.
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 often 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 God is with us—the One who speaks to us by whatever means available to show us the next step. This God is with us, the One invites a respectable man to receive a child not his as his and the child’s pregnant mother as his spouse. This God is with us, the One who chose to become vulnerable to the decision of a man thus placed in a difficult predicament. This God is one who trusted Joseph to choose love and life over honor.
In Your Planning Team
There are lots of ways you can focus on "This God with us" around these texts in worship today. The very best will be something only you and your team together are gifted to do. You know your people. You know their stories and testimonies of how they have experienced "God with us."
There are some big themes you might focus on today. From Isaiah, This God with us frees us from our "bunker minds." From Romans, This God with us comes as a servant and calls servants to become saints. From Matthew, This God with us finds a way to help us take the next right step, and then trusts us enough to take it, even if trusting us risks peril to God.
Or you could use today to focus on the big themes from the past three weeks. This God with us is the God who ends wars and is bringing about new creation (Week 1). This God with us is passionately committed to justice for all creation and righteousness for all creatures (Week 2). This God is therefore very much into all sorts of reversals that undercut the powers that be who oppose God’s justice and lift up those who have been the powers’ victims to rejoice in God’s deliverance (Week 3).
Which of these two paths you choose should depend on your discernment of both the gifts and the needs of your worshiping community. Which of these two calls out to you more at this time? Which challenges you more, but also encourages you more, to take your next steps in following Jesus as a congregation and as individual disciples? Which brings out the best, most hopeful testimonies of where God has been with you, testimonies that will keep driving you forward to where God is leading you next?
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Embodying the Word: The Entrance for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A
There is a practice in Yoga and a variety of stress therapies of tightening every muscle in the body for a time (perhaps 30 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 to 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 for Church and Home 2013
- 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)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Ghana, Nigeria
Dismissal with Blessing
- BOW 559 (General)
- BOW 561 (Isaiah, Matthew)
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