Planning - Second Sunday of Advent
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
A century or more after the restoration of the city and the temple in Jerusalem, the word of the Lord through the prophet declares the coming of "my messenger" (Malachi, in Hebrew) who would radically purify the temple priesthood.
Canticle: Luke 1:68-79.
(UMH 208 with sung response, 209 as a hymn setting; Upper Room Worshipbook, 10; Mil Voces Para Celebrar, 78 with sung response, or the new "inclusive" translation offered in "Other Resources" below). Zechariah's song identifies John the Baptizer as the foretold "messenger of the Lord" (Malachyahu, in Hebrew). Now, however, we find the messenger has a broader mission than fixing ritual anomalies and broken spirituality. He would be the forerunner of a descendent of David who would re-establish the whole people and save them from their enemies so they could worship and serve God in holiness and righteousness all their days. As forerunner, he would prepare the "mighty savior's" way by announcing and offering forgiveness of sins to all, even those in "darkness and the shadow of death."
Paul gives joyous thanks for his partnership with the church in Philippi. The graciousness and power he has experienced with them gives him every confidence that God will finish God's work in them to present them blameless on the day of the return of Christ, "having produced the harvest of righteousness" (verse 11). Paul's "end-time" hope for them, and by extension for all Christians, is for all of them to "serve God in holiness and righteousness all their days."
Luke locates the ministry of John the Baptist historically in the trans-Jordan region under Roman rule and theologically in the prophecy of Isaiah. The prophet promised the winding and difficult pathways between Babylon and Jerusalem were about to be turned into a straight and level highway for returning exiles so that all could witness God's salvation. John announced this message, and more besides (which we'll see and hear next week) in a ministry that had taken him up and down the Jordan River valley. Ultimately he centered his work in a fairly remote wilderness area inhabited by forgotten people and "little" people, "those in darkness and the shadow of death."
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Today is the Second Sunday in Advent, Year C. For those of you following the the "Restored Advent" calendar, today is Advent 5. 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 "rocks," and the uniting theological concepts are "preparing the way," "deliverance underway," and "actual holiness." On the Promise/Fulfillment axis of Old Testament/Gospel readings, the ministry of John the Baptist both fulfills (and dramatically expands!) the promise in Malachi, and itself points toward the greatest fulfillment of the promise in the coming (and second coming) of Jesus Christ.
The third week of Advent, "Joy Sunday," moves us from the framework for the ministry of John the Baptizer (Advent 2) to his ministry itself. We read his proclamation of the coming Messiah in light of the more overtly joyous hope for Messiah expressed by the prophet Zephaniah.
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).
However you and your worship planning teams build your series through Advent, remember to help its themes move toward a full celebration around the readings for Christmastide (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, The Sunday after Christmas, Holy Name or Watch Night, and Epiphany).
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.
Throughout Advent and Christmastide, all of the readings are selected to coordinate with one another. There is typically one set of images and theological concepts that unites them all in some way. For this Sunday, the uniting set of images comes from the realm of working with rocks (refining and road construction -- especially Malachi and Luke) and the uniting theological concept is "preparing the way of holiness." On the Promise/Fulfillment axis of Old Testament/Gospel readings, the ministry of John the Baptist both fulfills (and dramatically expands!) the promise in Malachi, and itself points toward the greatest fulfillment of the promise in the coming (and second coming) of Jesus Christ.
You could focus on either the image or the theological concepts or find appropriate ways to connect them. Use the wisdom of your worship planning team to discern the best ways to focus in your congregation at this time.
Uniting Imagery: The Rock Business
While folks in the Northern hemisphere may be dreaming about snow, cozy fireplaces, and relaxing time apart with loved ones in this season, today's texts take us into places full of rocks, high heat, dirt and ash, and demanding physical labor.
The coming messenger of the Lord will be a refiner of the clergy (Malachi 3:3). The refiner's task was hard, painstaking, and exacting. It involved breaking up ore to small sizes capable of being melted, stoking up the heat in a crucible until the silver or gold not only melted but would begin to separate from whatever other substances may be present, maintaining these temperatures for several days, blowing off impurities (lead, for example), and in some cases mixing in other metals or chemicals to separate out additional impurities from the desired purified metal. Mike Rowe's "Dirty Jobs" have nothing on this!
In your worship planning team, talk about what it means for someone to be involved in purifying the clergy in this way. What is implied by the messenger being like a refiner of gold and silver? What do the heat and intensity of the labor imply about how this might have to proceed? Talk, too, about why Malachi sees this intense level of work as essential, because if the clergy were not pure, they could not legitimately make offerings that could be pleasing to the Lord, and thus were endangering the entire people before God. Note, too, that early Christians quoting this passage applied the necessary purification not simply to the clergy, but to all of the baptized. Didache 14:1-3, for example, quotes this text as the basis for requiring all Christians to confess their sins to one another and be reconciled to one another before beginning to celebrate Holy Communion.
Each Lord's day, once you are gathered together, break bread and do the Eucharist, having first confessed your faults, so that your sacrifice may be pure.
And if any have a quarrel with another, do not let them gather with you until the quarrel is reconciled so that your sacrifice may not be defiled.
For this is the word spoken by the Lord: "In every place and time, offer to me a pure sacrifice. For I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name shall be astounding among the nations" (Translation mine).
John Wesley used a similar rationale when he required that any who wished to present themselves at the Lord's Table to receive Communion in the Methodist congregations in North America after 1784 -- or even to enter a service where Communion would be celebrated -- must present a ticket, issued by the class leader, certifying that they were at peace with God, reconciled with their neighbors, and making progress in holiness of heart and life. This provision continued as part of all Methodist Episcopal Books of Discipline until 1808.
What expectations are there for purification of the clergy and laity to offer the Great Thanksgiving where you are? What might this text in its context, as well as these early Christian and Methodist practices, suggest for your practice in response to Malachi today?
While Malachi intended to describe a coming prophet as a refiner of the clergy of Judah (perhaps pointing to himself, since his own name means "my messenger"), Christians have also applied Malachi's prophecy to the ministry of John the Baptizer. That is why this text is paired with the Song of Zechariah and the overall description of the ministry of John the Baptizer today. John was the forerunner/refiner, not simply of the clergy, but of all the people who came out to see him in the desert on the East bank of the Jordan in Judea. This week's readings connect him more with the prophecy from Isaiah (in both Zechariah's Song and the gospel reading from Luke); we see him as refiner more clearly next week.
But this week, the prophecy he cites from Isaiah connects him with another form of ancient heavy industry involving rocks: road construction. The prophecy in both the Song of Zechariah and the gospel describing John as "a voice crying 'Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness'" (Luke 1:76, 3:4) comes from Isaiah 40:3-5. Here, the prophet announces God's intention to build a wide, flat, straight highway across the mountains and desert so that the exiles in Babylon could return to their homes in Judea. Though that promise was understood even in its own day as figurative, it was an apt figure. The scale of such an ambitious project in labor and hours, breaking rocks, leveling mountains, filling in valleys, and getting all the supplies to and from the building sites across the entire expanse would have seemed as enormous and impossible as the notion of the exiles ever getting passage of any kind, safe or otherwise, to their homeland. And yet, of course, with the accession of Cyrus to the throne in 539 BC, that is exactly what began to happen -- construction, no, but safe passage, yes.
In your worship planning team, talk about how John's ministry was hoped to be -- and actually functioned as -- a kind of ambitious road construction project, as both his father sang and he proclaimed it would and did. What rocks was he moving? Where did he need to break rocks? How did he lay out the supply lines so the project could keep moving forward? What was getting cleared out of the way? What valleys or potholes had to be filled in and how was that happening?
Now refocus the group on the kind of road construction we all need and hope for now, not simply in Advent looking forward to the second coming of Christ and the celebration of his Incarnation, but in the mission fields where we actually find ourselves? What vast highway projects are we being invited to undertake? How are we being called to extend the ministry of the forerunner even as we embody the ministry of Jesus? Who has been dramatically disconnected from home (like the exiles in Babylon) or seen their homes colonized (like the people of Judea in the days of John the Baptizer)? How are some of you being invited to join God's labor force to build safe passage for people where you are?
So which way -- refining or road construction -- is your congregation and community most poised to connect with the work with rocks in this week's text? And how might you draw imagery -- or expertise (perhaps you have metallurgists, cultural anthropologists, or road builders in your congregation or community you can consult!) -- that will support they way you choose to go?
Whatever you do decide to focus on with the rocks today -- whether melting or moving, or perhaps both -- be sure to invite people into real work, and then be sure that work is substantial. Neither refiners nor road builders can do what they do without developing both skills and perseverance. The good news of God's kingdom is no invitation to sit this world out, but rather to jump in, roll up our sleeves, and join God's mission in progress. This is no Sisyphean labor! There is reward when the refining is complete, or the road finished. There is some rest along the way. There is Sabbath. There is sleep. And there is the joy of knowing that this labor brings true rest.
Got rocks? Then get working!
Uniting Theological Concept: Preparing the Way of Holiness
This week's uniting theological focus is in on preparing the way of holiness. In Malachi, the purifying work of "my messenger" is to make the clergy, and through them, the people, holy again before the Holy One.
Zechariah's Song in Luke 1 extends this theme in a remarkable way. Here "my messenger" will be the newborn John, whose ministry will prepare people for holiness in ways the ritual the priest Zechariah tended could never hope to do. He would declare deliverance by the forgiveness of the sins of the people. His work would be about beginning to cleanse them so that when the "dawn from on high shall visit them" in the person of Jesus, they would be ready to be transformed.
Philippians makes this more explicit. The saving work God had begun in this ragtag community of military veterans, exorcised slaves, jailers, and wealthy women (see the account of the formation of this congregation in Acts 16), plus who knows who else by this point, will be brought to completion in the day of Christ Jesus. And this completion precisely about becoming, as he says, "pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness" (1:11). Christ in us, Love in and through us, the Spirit working among us, this is all about preparing us for lives of entire holiness, overflowing with love, knowledge and wisdom (1:10).
The gospel reading from Luke begins by locating what it is about to tell in a very specific place and time in relationship to who was ruling what and where (verse 2). Then, against that precise geo-religio-political backdrop, it begins the story of the ministry of John the Baptizer "in the desert" (Luke 3:2). It's as if we've moved from some place to no place, from power and pomp to a crazy outsider in the middle of nowhere. But this "real nowhere man" has something all the "powers" do not: he speaks the Word of God.
A bit about the word used for "word" here. The Greek is "rhema." It means "performative speech-act." In other words, John is speaking with the voice of God, and the word he speaks changes things. Rome and the Temple and its powers are busy keeping things in place in the cities. John, with the "word of God," is moving through the desert, up and down the Jordan River valley, the spine of Judea, if you will, and enacting a spiritual revolution Rome and the Temple officials can't begin to fathom just yet. People are not staying put. Instead, from all over the country, people are flocking to hear John's message of preparing the Lord's way and his call to be baptized as a sign of repentance. While the powers managed their armies and buildings, John was building an army of the repentant and a highway for the One to come.
At least one implication of the message here had to be that these powers -- religious and political -- rather then "securing the homeland" had in fact created thousands of exiles whom God would make sure arrived safe at their true homes. Can someone sing, "Come out the wilderness"? (Or like this? Or this, the arrangement from UMH 416?)
We hear more of the content of John's message next week. But the focus this week is on the biblical framework that makes sense of it, the Word of God speaking through John and clearing a path for the Holy One to come.
For your worship planning team: Where is your congregation in this story? Where are you like the powers, thinking you are "managing the present" while the future is breaking out in an inconspicuous place? How might you be like John and the Word of the Lord, breaking up the rocks to build a highway for others to find a way home? How is the way of Jesus being prepared where you are? Who among you is like the people, longing to hear such a word of repentance, forgiveness, and a call to holiness, and eager enough to respond to it to go "out the wilderness?"
While all three texts address preparing the way for holiness, which of these ways -- purifying worship leaders and worship practices, growing in sanctifying grace, or building a highway of repentance and forgiveness for exiles of society, community and religion -- is most critical for your congregation to address this second Sunday of Advent? Remember, Advent is also a time of preparing people for baptism. If you are preparing people for baptism, either at Christmas, Epiphany, or Baptism of the Lord, which of these themes today would be most important for the particular people being prepared for baptism at a later time?
- Call to Worship: UMBOW 211, "Prepare the Way" (Luke 3)
- Greeting: UMBOW 245 (Luke 1)
- Greeting: UMBOW 241 (Luke 3)
- Advent Wreath Litany: UMBOW 208, "Come, Lord Jesus."
- Canticle: UMH 205, "Canticle of Light and Darkness" (Luke 1)
- Canticle: UMH 208, "Canticle of Zechariah" (Luke 1)
- Opening Prayer: UMBOW 252 (Malachi, Luke)
- Prayer of Confession: UMBOW 479 (Luke)
- Prayer: UMH 201, Advent (Luke)
- Prayer: UMBOW 510, For Discernment (Luke 1) &
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal.
- Great Thanksgiving for Advent: UMBOW 54-55
Other sources and suggestions
- A new, Second-Person (inclusive) translation of The Song of Zechariah
- Advent Wreath Meditations by Richard Garland and Dean McIntyre
- Touch Holiness, by Ruth Duck, pp. 14-17, published by Pilgrim Press.
- Opening Prayer
Gracious God, whose judgment is always mercy,
we give you thanks for the mystery of your purifying grace,
for all the ways you destroy in us what is not yet Christ.
We give you thanks for every sign of the coming of the glory of the Lord
for the casting down of the mighty and lifting up the oppressed. Amen.
Reprinted from THE DAILY OFFICE: A BOOK OF HOURS OF DAILY PRAYER AFTER
THE ORDER OF SAINT LUKE, copyright 1998 by The Order of Saint Luke.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
(Local churches may reprint this prayer as long as the copyright notice is given.)
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