Planning - Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah prophesies the coming of a righteous ruler out of the stump of Jesse.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 (UMH 795).
A psalm in praise and intercession for a righteous king, such as the one foretold in Isaiah. Consider singing the Psalm using these combinations: Response 1 with Tone 3 in F major or Response 2 with Tone 2 in D minor.
A call for Jewish believers in Rome to welcome Gentiles into full fellowship, even as Christ, the root of Jesse, has welcomed them all. By the power of the Spirit, Jews and Gentiles alike can abound in hope.
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming repentance and offering baptism as preparation for the kingdom of God drawing near.
Christian Year: The Second Sunday of Advent introduces us to John the Baptizer every year.
Interfaith: The Jewish Festival of Lights, Hanukkah, runs from December 2-9.
"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), anytime during Advent could be appropriate.
Cultural: The Christmas/holiday celebrations are in full swing with school programs and concerts. Theater productions and films with Christmas themes run through the month, and shopping pressures mount. How will you help your worshiping community keep Advent while everyone else is frenzied about Christmas?
Atmospherics for Advent 2, Year A: Righteousness and Justice
Righteousness and Justice are the most prevalent common themes running through this week's lectionary readings. In every case, these are portrayed as the fruit of lives well lived, whether in the past (the righteous branch that emerges from the stump of Jesse, Isaiah), or the present (a blessing for the king, hospitality, and fruits worthy of repentance in the here and now, Psalm, Romans and Matthew).
From the stump of Jesse springs a righteous and just judge, a new king who will judge with righteousness and not "as the eye sees." Paul reminds the church at Rome that they, as the body of Christ, are called to continue to fulfill the work of this just king, Jesus, through their hospitality toward all. This week's reading about the ministry of John the Baptist (Matthew) reminds us that we are not righteous solely by having a relationship with God, but as we "bring forth fruits worthy of repentance." Righteousness and justice must become real practices bearing real fruit in our lives, fruit that will endure the coming judgment.
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Isaiah offers a vision of the world under YHWH's reign that expands on the vision offered last week. There, the call was to remember the end and walk in the light of God. Here the hope is that under God's promised new ruler, springing from the lineage of Jesse (a new David), everyone and everything in creation could live in peace with one another, posing no threat to any.
The necessary precondition for this kind of peace to emerge was a promised ruler who would act with justice and righteousness, judging with particular care to ensure the poor received justice and their oppressors would not stand. So characterized by righteousness and justice, as well as devotion to God would this ruler be, that the prophet says he wears righteousness as a belt around his waist, faithfulness as a belt around his loins (verse 5).
Such a vision was to be hoped for, but, as always with the prophets, to be lived into in his own day as God's preferred vision for now. In that way, this prophecy stood as advice to the people of his own day, and it continues to stand to beckon all of God's people to live into God's future as it breaks in among us here and now.
That's the heart of what Advent is about as well -- living now from what we know God intends our future to be.
Righteousness is hardly spoken of at all in American culture these days, except, perhaps, to critique those deemed "self-righteous." Yet it was clearly a goal for leaders in the biblical world, and so remains a goal for those of us who follow the one we claim is the "Righeous Branch," Jesus the Messiah.
How do you talk about righteousness where you are? More importantly, who is teaching people to live in righteousness? How is this happening where you are? And how is this text calling your worshiping community to begin or do more to teach righteousness?
There does remain some talk of justice in American culture, including American religious culture, but much of it, including among both "conservative" and "progressive" wings of the U.S. church seems more a narrative of retribution than restoration. It is about naming victims and perpetrators. It is about making the perpetrators pay the victims for harms done and then punishing the perpetrators on top of that. It's a reactive process, one that acts after harms are done and that generally metes out other harms to deal with the damage.
While the vision of justice in Scripture sometimes includes retribution, what this week's text (and many others) speak of is a thorough reformation and grounding of life in God, individually and collectively, that our lives generate a corrective influence that restrains and prevents harms being done.
And throughout the biblical witness, that requires the folks at the top to lead by example.
But how shall they lead unless they have been taught to practice justice?
And who will teach them?
Who is teaching the practices of justice where you are? How are these being learned and put into practice in the lives of your worshiping community so that more people are able to live into God's vision of justice and righteousness here and now?
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Romans 15 includes Paul's last words in the body of his letter to the Christian communities who gathered in house churches in Rome. They are a summary of everything he has tried to do with the letter, the heart of which was to invite the Christians of Rome to continue to be a living experiment in Jewish-Gentile community drawn into one body in Jesus Christ.
"Live in harmony," "with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," "welcome one another," Paul says. It is Christ, the just king, the "root of Jesse" who makes such reconciled community possible. He manifested his justice and righteousness by becoming a "servant of the circumcised" both for their sake and so that the Gentiles (the vast majority of the world's population then and now!) would glorify God for God's mercy (verses 8-9). The call to the Christian community now is to manifest the reign of Christ by continuing to offer such hospitality and welcome to those like us and those very different from us.
And that continuing call is an ongoing challenge. Christians ourselves are often divided deeply along social, economic, geographical, cultural, political, ethnic, racial, theological, institutional (loyalists/entrepreneurs) and worldview lines. Many congregations even in very diverse areas represent a small selection of perhaps a few groups among all these "niches." And in some, there's a kind of "pride of place" that "we're not like THOSE people."
Who in your congregation or community is good at bringing people together across divides or polarities for conversation and common work? Don't limit your thinking to people who do this for a living (politicians, community organizers, leaders of local organizations), but think also of people who are naturally good at doing this and seem to do it all the time. Artists and musicians may be in this mix. Send out members of your worship planning team to talk with them about why they do this and how they see a spiritual connection, and if applicable, a specifically Christian connection in what they do.
And if you have a local organization that draws together Christians and Jews, and perhaps other religions as well for common work and community-building, be sure to interview a few of the folks actively involved about what they're doing, what they're learning, and what they're hoping to see as a result. Draw on images from these stories to illustrate the text as it is read or preached.
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In Matthew we come full circle from the end of the ministry of Jesus last week to the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptizer this week. The wildness of John and the harshness of his message contrast starkly with the calls to harmony from Isaiah and Paul, but all are orbiting around the same points: God is about to or has already begun a new way of relating to the world, and God's justice and righteousness call for all of our relationships to change.
For John, that new way is so radically different from what came before that the only way forward is to repent publically through baptism, seeking mercy and forgiveness. Nothing we've held onto can last. All will be judged by its fruitfulness toward God and all that produces nothing will be consumed by fire. The kingdom of heaven has drawn near. Get ready now to deal with that.
John reminds us of the urgency of responding decisively to the call. We can't live from both worlds -- the present age and the age to come. If we choose to live from the present age, the age to come will consign us to the ever-smoldering garbage dump of history. If we choose to live from the age to come, we can be part of God's transformation of the present age.
There is a choice to be made and fruit to bear that displays that choice.
John's urgency is an important reminder to a can-do culture. We cannot do what God is about to do. Our cultures, especially in the Global North and West, are not set up to enable us to do it, either. This is God's work. We are invited to join it, which means abandoning efforts to claim or reclaim our lives on our own terms. God's holiness, righteousness and justice are God's. And God extends them to us freely to take up and live them, too.
As you think about how to help your congregation receive this word, think about persons you know who are overcoming addictions or escaping destructive ways of life, as well as persons who have experienced dramatic healing. These people know deeply what a "baptism of repentance" is all about. Their former way of life was unsustainable. Only some dramatic new action by God and surrender to God's activity by them could lead forward. The good news is that God provided them with just what was needed, and they responded faithfully. They handed their lives over to God, God delivered them, and a community has sustained them in new life since that time.
The witness of the need for the Spirit to work in personal transformation applies to the social and interpersonal transformation described by Isaiah and Paul as well. We don't get to interpersonal reconciliation with people different from us by our works alone (nor without them!), but by the Spirit of God. And we certainly should have no illusions that peace among nations, or even in societies, is anything but a miraculous gift of the Spirit that we are invited to live into and sustain. We all need the one who baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire to baptize us, whatever the sphere of our primary spiritual work (self, networks, communities, nations).
Let the font be in a prominent place today if it isn't already. Consider offering an opportunity for baptismal reaffirmation as a response to the Word (UMH 50, or, for a more interactive version, this new service based on our current ritual and used at General Conference in 2008). And then remember your baptism as you pledge to live as Christ's body, redeemed by his blood, around the Table of the Lord.
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In a world still torn by terrorism and war, the Isaiah reading comes as if to say: "A time of no more jihad is coming!" A time of no more "war" and no more hurt, killing, or destruction. Read this text over and over aloud with your worship planning team. What resounds within you? What has your attention? As you listen and brood together, what does this "shoot from the stump of Jesse" seem to care about? What does this passage from Isaiah pay attention to? What is it calling you and your team to pay attention to?
The liturgical Psalter in The United Methodist Hymnal does not correspond to these verses exactly. Decide how the assembly will pray the Psalm.
The Romans reading. The context for which this text was written was tension and division. People are not getting along with one another. "Welcome one another..." Paul is angling for a hearing that brings Jews and Gentiles to "live in harmony with one another." Note here that Paul's admonition is not for them merely to worship together. His challenge is harder than that -- it is to live in community together.
What are the rifts and divisions in your congregation and between congregations where you are? Who isn't actively included in your congregation's ministry of building community because of past tensions? Could it be that your church is smaller than it could be because its welcome is small and tight-fisted? Or because your sense of welcome is only to a worship service, and not, as Paul holds out, to the hope of deep community with people where you live and serve? Who are the "Gentiles" (outsiders) in your midst?
George Hunter (Church for the Unchurched and The Celtic Way of Evangelism) makes the case that Western Christianity for the most part has made evangelization contingent upon whether or not people are civilized (i.e., like us; able to read; well-mannered and cultured; conformed to our social values) before we can relate the good news to them. This is in part because we have substituted invitation to worship for building community with people (including but not limited to worship) in the name of Jesus Christ. When we do the former, we are trying to get others to conform to our way. When we do the latter, the Holy Spirit opens us to receive and share many gifts, including a diversity of gifts that overflow from discipleship into worship. Read the flow of verses 5 and 6. Real community precedes real unity in worship.
The Matthew reading. There is nothing like Matthew's or Luke's accounts of the coming of John the Baptist to say, "Advent is here." John's apocalyptic proclamation both stirs and disturbs us, and definitely runs counter to the cultural notions of "Christmastime" sentimentality. Spend some time imagining and being there in unclaimed and untamed wilderness. What is in the air? What smells, whisperings, fingers pointing, questions, and turmoil? Who is there? What makes this moment on God's clock so electric? John the Baptist lived a long time ago, but he seems to come back from time to time. Whom do you know who tells it like it is, makes you mad, and gets to you?
The Matthew text lends itself to a dramatic reading as a monologue. He will be back with us next week, but not in the wilderness. He will be fuming in prison and wondering if Jesus is the one he/we have been waiting for or not.
Music. What is your congregation's plan concerning what to sing during the early Sundays of Advent? Have there been conversations about it? Have you as worship planners, musicians, and leaders discussed the music? Can you theologically and liturgically justify singing "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" or "O Come, All Ye Faithful" on this Sunday? Find ways to explore the tension of the core experience of Advent -- waiting and anticipating. See the article "Why the Holding Back?" on this site for ways to embrace waiting as a countercultural discipline. For a slightly different point of view see "Advent: Finding the Balance Between Sacred and Secular" and "A Modest Proposal for Advent/Christmas Peace." For an even more adventurous proposal, see "Rethink Christmastide."
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Embodying the Word: The Entrance for Advent 2
How you will enter worship this day should reflect how you are handling the arc of the biblical themes throughout Advent and on this day in particular. Many congregations will include the lighting of an Advent wreath as part of the Entrance movement. ( See Advent Wreath Candle Lighting Meditations for Home and Church, 2010.) This familiar ritual embodies a kind of continuity from week to week and is deeply identified in many congregations with the season of Advent.
But those who wish to find more ways to express the themes of Advent and the biblical themes of the day may wish to consider the following themes and questions as you prepare the Entrance for each Sunday.
Righteousness, Peace and Community (Isaiah, Romans)
In last week's text from Isaiah, peace was about the absence of war and the transformation of weapons into farming tools. This week, both Isaiah and Romans call us to explore other dimensions of God's Shalom. Isaiah describes not merely an absence of war, but an absence of any hostility or danger from historical and even biological enemies. What enemies could your portray in a charitable way -- either national, local, biological or ecological -- in art, drama, or dance as you enter as a sign that in God's Shalom, even enmity itself is abolished?
Romans invites us to welcome all people in the name of Jesus Christ. This is more than an advertising campaign slogan to get people to come to worship with us. As noted above, in Atmospherics, it is the Spirit's call to each of us, sending us out to encounter those who are different from us and offer community in the name of Jesus. Consider asking people to bring signs of the people they see as they are "out there" among people who are different from themselves, and gather these around the main entrance to your worship space, so that as people come "in here" they do so with "out there" very clearly in mind.
Justice, Baptism and a Clean Slate (Isaiah, Matthew)
As suggested above, in Atmospherics, the reading about the ministry of John presents a strong biblical warrant for baptismal reaffirmation as a response. Where is the font in your worship space? Consider moving it to a place near the main entrance, a place where all can see it from as many angles as possible. (If you have a balcony that is regularly used, for example, do not place the font under the balcony!) Consider the possibility of baptismal reaffirmation AS the primary act at the Entrance, particularly if you will focus on Matthew's gospel today. Or if you wish to retain the reaffirmation as a response to the Word, consider how you may make clear with art or music that entering the worship space and passing by the font means you are taking the immediate urgency of John and the call to long-haul investment in transformation with a seriousness that understands that neither is possible without the Holy Spirit. Singing "Veni Sancte Spiritus" (TFWS 2118 for the congregation, stanzas sung from the choir edition) continuously during the entrance may also help convey that sense.
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Introduction to the Season of Advent
See BOW 238.
Consider putting this in your newsletter or at the top of your order of service for this Sunday.
- UMH 207 or 211, "Prepare the Way" (Luke)
- BOW 241 (Matthew)
- BOW 242 (Romans)
- Isaiah 35:3-4 "Be strong; do not fear ..." (Isaiah)
- BOW 250 (Matthew)
- BOW 252 (Matthew)
- UMH 201 (Isaiah, Matthew)
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 428, "Peace with Justice" (Isaiah)
- BOW 520, "For Peace" (Isaiah)
- BOW 495
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Cape Verde, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal
Invitation, Confession and Pardon
- UMH 7-8
- BOW 477 (Luke)
- BOW 479 (Romans, Luke)
Dismissal with Blessing
- BOW 561 (Romans)
- Benediction: BOW 561 (Romans)
- Romans 15:13
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