Planning - Third Sunday of Advent
A song of hope to exiles in Babylon... "Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, streams in the Syrian Desert . . . a highway shall be there."
Luke 1:47-55 (UMH 199, The Upper Room Worshipbook, 17-20).
Canticle of Mary (the Magnificat)
"Be patient . . . until the coming of the Lord." Consider singing "Wait for the Lord" (The Upper Room Worshipbook, 396) as a repeated response leading into the gospel lesson.
John the Baptist in prison sends a question to Jesus: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
Church Calendar: The Third Sunday of Advent continues the waiting theme through John the Baptist's waiting in the prison at Machaerus. This Third Sunday of Advent is often called "Joy Sunday" by publishing and church supply companies, and not a few bulletin services. That term made sense when Advent was understood primarily as a penitential season. That has not been the case in the Western Church, at least since Vatican II (early 1960s); and the Revised Common Lectionary adopted by our church in 1992, and all mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. concur. Advent isn't about penitence, but about preparation. And the texts for today aren't really about joy, but about waiting and expectation for divine reversal of the powers that be. Rejoice, by all means. But if you don't already have them, feel free to save your money on pink candles and paraments!
Atmospherics for Advent 3, Year A
"Wait for it. Wait for it." It's a phrase that shows up regularly in British television "programmes" or spoken by British people in American television shows. It is spoken to people who are just on the verge of starting something -- like a race or a timed contest of some sort (wait for the starter's signal) -- or people who are just about to get their pictures taken (hold position until after the flash). Or perhaps, in the United States, it might be said to children (or adults!) who come downstairs on Christmas morning and are just about to tear into the packages around the tree.
It's not the sort of waiting that is about standing around in long lines (or "queues" in British English). It's the kind of waiting that happens when people are just on the verge of getting going, of experiencing what they've longed for. Just a bit more, a bit more, and they can have what they've longed and waited for.
In our texts this Third Sunday of Advent in Year A, what we're waiting for is nothing less than what Mary sang long ago -- the reversal of the powers that be, the undoing of every oppression, the feeding of all who hunger, and the elevation of all left out or shut out of power. We wait with Isaiah for springs to emerge in deserts, and highways where the path seemed impossible to navigate, leading exiles home. We wait with John the Baptizer -- for an apocalypse, a dramatic realization of God's reign here and now. And we wait, prompted by James, with the patience of a farmer for the harvest to come.
In all of these things, however, we're not actually waiting for Christmas, as important as the feast of the incarnation is for us as disciples of Jesus. We're waiting, instead, for the fullness of God's reign to be realized in our midst. So as you're thinking about graphics and design of the worship space for today, keep the focus of what we're waiting for where the Scriptures themselves place that focus. And ask yourselves as a worship planning team, and especially the artists among you, what the "great reversal" we all await looks like, concretely and symbolically, in the place and among the people who gather for worship with you. Build your design more around those compelling images and less, if at all, around the culturally supplied and supported images of "Christmastime."
Christmas itself will be with us in due season. Be patient. Inhabit the fullness of the Incarnation when its celebration comes. Today we have other things to do.
Among them, as on every Sunday, we are invited to gather around the Lord's Table, and there experience such waiting anew as we feast on Christ today in anticipation of feasting with him in the heavenly banquet.
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The people in exile in Babylon to whom this prophetic song was delivered may have been caught in the tensions of making a home in a strange land, longing for the homes they knew were destroyed, and wanting this exile and the pain around it to end. Probably few of them had any grand idea of anything terribly new or good to come in the near term.
So when this prophecy from Isaiah was delivered, it must have seemed like a crazy dream. The Syrian Desert turned into a glade? Spring flowers where the bulbs must have died decades ago? How are we to be strong and not afraid when we've been uprooted and are doing the best we can to survive in a land where our language and our culture don't seem to make any sense? And a highway right across the desert from Babylon to Jerusalem? No one goes from Babylon straight along back to Judea for good reason -- it's a desert!
To reject such a vision seemed quite reasonable. To preserve it, and to place hope in it -- that must have seemed odd, to say the least.
Yet this vision, this prophecy, evokes exactly such hope.
Are there streams in the desert where you are? Can you hear the water sloshing over the sand, rushing over the rocks? Can you see the plant life flourishing on either shore? Can you feel the cooling breezes that come off the waters? Can you smell the unmistakable scents of fresh water and aquatic life?
Maybe there are some in your midst as a congregation or a community who can see and hear and feel and smell and perhaps even taste in the air all these things -- people for whom the word of the Living One, and not just the circumstances we see around us, establishes what is really real. These are the tiptoe people whose voices need to be heard today, and whose signs need to be seen.
What visions of hope for a very different future lie just on the horizon, just barely out of grasp, where you are? Let's be clear. This isn't about a vision for your congregation to have a big new building or to be filled with people again. The vision in this text is about a change in the whole community or wider world that brings blessing to many, not just to you!
What are the dreams so crazy, so out of step with what appears to be the out of kilter world you may find yourselves in as a congregation that it may just be a channel of God's word to you?
What does it take to live in what Bill Easum calls "the jungle" and Alan Roxburgh refers to as "the unthinkable world"? How does your life as individuals and as a congregation change when you start taking seriously that "the way things were" or even "the way things seem to be now" is not the same as God's dream for what the people called church are called to be and do? How do you live now not leaning back on the everlasting arms, but leaning into the future those arms are creating?
Who is bold and brave enough to paint or sing or sculpt or dance or declare or mosaicize this vision so all can see it plainly -- and then start leaning into it, or placing their toes in the water to say, "Yes, this IS the real thing. Let's live expecting this, and jump in!"
If Isaiah is about seeing crazy big political and ecological visions, James is about trusting simple, fairly concrete and yet mysterious organic processes. The central metaphor is one of farming. Those of us who live in more urban or suburban settings might think of it as gardening. The moment you plant the seed in the earth, and even before, you are already tasting the juicy, ripe tomatoes, the buttery sweet corn, the complex musky tones of fresh broccoli, the comforting zucchini bread, and the crisp lettuces and spinach that you will enjoy in days to come if you wait for it. Harvest any of those things too soon, and what you will get will pale in comparison to what it would have become.
The waiting is no less expectant. The outcome is no less sure. But the quality of the waiting is different. The energy of the waiting here is about the holding back, the discipline of letting God's kingdom unfold in its own time in full confidence of the harvest to come.
Think of it as "waiting on the heels" rather than the tiptoes. While the waiting in Isaiah is about strengthening our hands and stirring our imaginations, the waiting here is about strengthening our hearts -- about becoming firm in our values, strong in our center, giving generously while dissipating nothing. Staying centered, waiting on our heels, we pull back as well from grumbling, and we accept the suffering that comes. It's about patience.
The Greek word for the patience encouraged here is "makrothumia" -- being "big spirited," literally. Generosity and magnanimity are near synonyms. Let the vision of what is surely coming so strengthen you, in or through or despite suffering, that through it, like the prophets, you also grow, mature and bear gracious fruit.
We need "Isaiah waiting" and "James waiting" -- both. Who around you practices James-style waiting? Who is in it for the long-haul, not just for the next big thing? Who exhibits not stubbornness but generosity that keeps hope of others alive as you wait the early and the late rains to bring God's vision among you to its readiness for harvest? Who waits, not because they are afraid to take a risk, but because they know (and when you hear them, you know, too!) that something even better is to come when you do? How do these people describe those acts of waiting?
And what about your work and witness to God's kingdom in your midst is calling you as individuals or as a community to wait back on your heels a bit longer -- not for fear, but from the strength of heart God has placed in you? What of the work of God's kingdom is growing in your midst that requires more time, or perhaps may require yet more suffering? And who will help your congregation and community by generously and graciously reminding them of what can be enjoyed then if you wait now?
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Are we there yet? That's the question impatient children (including my own!) frequently ask because they're tired and bored with being stuck in the car. If they've been napping, they may also ask it if we stop for a bit and get out of the car. Are we there yet? Is this where we were going?
Often, of course, the answer is no. We're not there yet. We're just taking a break, or getting a snack, or stretching. But eventually the answer is "Yes." And once the answer is "Yes," if they keep asking "Are we there yet?" then we know we haven't described our destination accurately, or maybe it isn't quite what they thought they were waiting for.
There comes a time when the waiting stops, when the longed for thing has, in fact, come. And at that point, if we've gotten used to waiting, or tired of hoping, we may need someone to introduce us to where we've actually arrived. Maybe those who have brought us along haven't been clear enough. Or maybe what we expected was something rather different than what we've actually received.
That's the situation in which John finds himself. Imprisoned by Herod, facing the likelihood of torture or even death, the prophet and his disciples wonder if what he's been announcing -- "one coming after me who will baptize with fire and Spirit" -- has actually come to pass in the ministry and person of Jesus. After spending his life proclaiming, "It's coming. He's coming" and asking in his heart "Are we there yet?" perhaps he was now wondering "Is this all there is?"
Jesus has a dramatic answer that almost seems a non-answer. He does not say, "Yes, I'm the one." Instead, he asks the disciples of John to look around them and see what's happening -- blind people seeing, lame people walking, deaf people hearing, lepers being cleansed, dead people being raised, poor people getting good news for a change. Tell John what's happening, he says. Let what's happening be the answer. And maybe that will help him say, "Wow! Look at this! It is here! He is here! We've made it!"
When you and people in your community look around you, what do you see happening as signs of God's kingdom having drawn near, already? Where do you see the Spirit at work -- not just in your congregation, but on the streets where you live, in your workplaces, where you hang out for leisure, in school settings, in your families, and then, yes, also, in your congregations? Who helps you see and hear what's happening all around you, things you may not have noticed or understood to be signs of God's kingdom? Go ask these folks, and then fill your worship bulletins, banners, screens and walls with those signs this morning. And let the stories of those signs be written and told.
You are there yet. You are the witnesses. You have seen and heard. You have waited. Jesus is the one, still, today, right where you and the people of your congregation and community are. And you are the body of Christ. You are the ones you've been waiting for to live into what God has already opened up all around you.
Who around you simply trusts that? Who around you acts on the awareness that God has already been at work, already provided? Who around you acts out the reality that God has placed both the passion and the possibility for that passion to be realized in our midst. Our waiting for this is not tiptoe, or heels back. Our waiting for this is as we witness and walk in it, day by day, toes following heels, walking in the light of God.
Wait for it. Wait for it. On tiptoes, on heels, or on walking, leaping and dancing feet. It's coming in crazy big ways. It's coming as surely as the crops grow. It's coming and among us even now as we move in the living word of God, following Jesus in the power of the Spirit.
Paint that. Dance that. Sculpt that. Set that to music -- vocal or instrumental. Wait for it in all the ways our God invites us to this day, and in the days ahead.
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Advent Wreath. The Book of Worship (261) calls for four purple candles. Some congregations use blue candles for the wreath and blue paraments. Either is fine to use. Just be sure to let those who worship with you know why you've chosen the colors you have.
If you have been using a song or hymn for this act of worship, continue to use it.
Some churches simply light the next candle as part of the candle lighting at the beginning of the service. The wreath is a secondary symbol and doesn't need a lot of fanfare.
Some churches go all out with a special song or chorus (see music suggestions below), a Scripture reading read by a family member as the "whole" family gathers at the wreath. If you do the latter, be sure that you represent the diversity of family configurations that are in your congregation. ("Leave It to Beaver" left twenty years ago!)
Canticle of Mary. This is one of the few Sundays when a canticle is appointed rather than a Psalm for response to the first reading. Make the most of it, especially because it is Luke's powerful song on the lips of Mary. The United Methodist Hymnal (199) provides a sung response for the Canticle of Mary that makes a nice connection with the first reading. The canticle itself brings Mary more into view as Christmas approaches. Of course, there are many other settings of this canticle that you will know of and consider for choral or congregational use.
Whatever you do, sing this today! There is no more potent song in all of the Bible expressing the expectation of God turning the world upside down than Mary's song. For heaven's sake, don't skip it!
Don't let December 24 and 25 drive the music of this Sunday's worship. Let the readings for the day and clarity about the tensive quality of Advent guide you in the selection of songs and hymns. This is not to say that no "Christmas" music or carols should be sung. Be a discerning leader for the sake of the fullness of the gospel. Immediate gratification may be a core value of the culture at large, but "patience" until the coming of the Lord is a core value of biblical living. The second reading today speaks to this. As you think about choices in music and the other aspects of the "work of the people" for this coming Sunday, consider carefully the words of James.
Embodying the Word: The Entrance for Advent 3
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 Candlelighting Meditations for Home and Church, 2010). This familiar ritual dating from the late nineteenth century can create a sense of continuity from week to week and is deeply identified in many congregations with the season of Advent.
Those who wish to find more ways to express the themes of Advent and the biblical themes of the day may wish to consider how to embody the core imagery of waiting for God to turn the world upside down for this week even as you enter the worship space.
Waiting to Enter
Depending on how your worship space is arranged, consider keeping people out of the worship space for a time before worship. Maybe you have added a Christmas tree for this morning. Or maybe the greens were hung by a small group last night. Or maybe you have a new font or another new item of "holy hardware" to dedicate this morning. Whatever it is, it needs to be worth waiting for. This is not to be a gimmick of any kind. Rather it is to be a way for the congregation to experience, from even before the beginning of worship, what it is to wait on tiptoe, as it were.
An Enacted Call to Worship
After you have all physically entered the worship space, and before the lighting of the Advent Wreath (if you have that custom), consider asking people to offer themselves to God in all three body postures of waiting we have described above, perhaps as follows:
Leader (leaning forward on tiptoes at the font): O God, your promises fill our hearts, and we can hardly wait to see them come to pass among us.
People (leaning forward on tiptoes): We can't wait for you!
Leader (leaning back on heels): Jesus, you planted good seed in the lives of your disciples for three years, day in, day out, and were patient for the harvest.
People (leaning back on heels): We will wait with one another, side by side, trusting that what you have planted will bear fruit.
Leader (walking toward and around the Lord's Table, and gesturing to windows or images of the world outside): Spirit, we see some signs of your work all around us.
People (walking in place and gesturing toward the Lord's Table and the windows or images of the world outside): Keep us walking, and keep opening our eyes to see and celebrate and join your work more and more.
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- UMH 207 or 211 "Prepare the Way" (Luke)
- BOW 241, 242, 244, 246, 248, 379, 420 (Isaiah)
- Isaiah 35: 3-4 "Be strong; do not fear . . ." (Isaiah)
- BOW 417 (Isaiah, James)
- BOW 240 (James)
- BOW 263, "Bidding Prayer" (Matthew) Adapt this to be a greeting or use it as an opening prayer.
- BOW 245 or 247 (Matthew, James, or Luke/Magnificat)
- BOW 254 (James)
- BOW 250, 252 or 253 (Matthew)
- UMH 201 (Isaiah, Matthew, Seasonal)
- BOW 268 (James) "God, all-powerful . . ."
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)
Response to the First Reading
- UMH 199 or 200
Concerns and Prayers
- BOW 517, "Prayer in a Time of National Crisis" (James)
- BOW 509, "In Time of Natural Disaster" (Matthew)
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Benin, Cte d'Ivoire, Togo
Invitation, Confession, and Pardon
- UMH 7-8
- BOW 478, 483 (James)
- BOW 54-55
Thanksgiving (if no Communion)
- BOW 255 (Isaiah, Luke/Magnificat)
- BOW 551 (James)
Dismissal with Blessing
- BOW 559 (James)
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