The Third Sunday of Advent
"Expecting Reversals of the Powers That Be"
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.
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" (Worship & Song, 3049) or "Until Jesus Comes" (Worship & Song, 3050) 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?"
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"Expecting Reversal" Sunday
The Third Sunday of Advent has often been called Joy Sunday or "Gaudete Sunday" (Gaudete is Latin for"Rejoice!"). That term made sense during the late Middle Ages when this designation was added. Advent at that time was primarily a penitential season. It was conceived as a kind of parallel for the middle Sunday in Lent ("Laetare Sunday") to lighten the tone a bit in a season of fasting. "Laetare Sunday" was so called because the Mass that day would begin with Isaiah 66:1: "Laetare Ierusalem" (Be joyful, Jerusalem).
So, in the middle of the season of Advent, Advent 3, the Mass would begin with "Gaudete in Domino semper" (“Rejoice in the Lord always") from Philippians 4:4.
That was all before Vatican II, the change by Roman Catholics and Protestants alike to three-year lectionaries rather than one-year lectionaries, and the concurrent re-orientation of Advent from a season of penitence to a season of expectant preparation for the Second Coming of Christ as prelude to the celebration of Christmas. We no longer read Philippians 4 every year on Advent 3. So the original rationale for calling this day "Joy Sunday" during all three years of the lectionary cycle no longer exists.
What to call this Sunday in this year, then? How about "Expecting Reversal Sunday." All of this week’s texts fit that theme. Yes, there is rejoicing mentioned in Isaiah 35, but it is rejoicing about dramatic reversals prophesied to take place. Likewise, Mary’s soul "magnifies the Lord" and her spirit "exults" in God our Savior, but again because of major reversals she confidently expects God to initiate with the coming birth of her child. Meanwhile, in today’s gospel reading, John and his followers are waiting expectantly for Messiah, though perhaps not yet rejoicing; and Jesus offers them, as witness, another series of reversals: blind people seeing, lame people walking, the poor getting good news (for a change!). It’s about "Expecting Reversal" everywhere!
If that term isn’t appealing, how about something like "Turn Around Sunday" or even "Turning Sunday," using John Bell’ s"Canticle of the Turning" (his setting of Mary’s song, the Magnificat) as a musical motif throughout the service. (See Upper Room Worshipbook 18).
Use pink candles, stoles, and paraments if you like this day, but remember, it’s just fine, especially since we’re not reading Philippians 4 this year, to save your money and stick with all blue or purple.
For those who use an Advent wreath during this season, here is Discipleship Ministries’ ever-expanding collection of Candle Lighting Liturgies for 2013.
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’ 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
“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 U.S., 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 "queues" (British for "lines"). 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 longer, and they’ll have it!
In all of these cases, the key to the expectant waiting, the bated breath, is the clarity of the vision about what it being awaited. People can see it. It’s right in front of them. No one with eyes to see or ears to hear can doubt what it is or that it is. It’s right there, just beyond our grasp, but surely coming.
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, 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 forever in the heavenly banquet.
The people in exile in Babylon to whom this prophetic song was delivered may have been caught in a tension. On the one hand, they were making their homes in a strange land, just as God had instructed them to do through the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29, October 13). On the other hand, they were still longing for the homes they had reason to suspect were destroyed. They wanted to be content where they were; and at the same time, they wanted this exile to end. But no end appeared in sight.
So when the prophecy we read today was delivered, it must have seemed at best like a crazy dream. The Syrian Desert turned into a glade? Spring flowers where the bulbs must have dried into a fine powder centuries ago? How can a people be strong and not afraid when they’ve been uprooted and now are doing the best they can to survive in a land where their language, their religion and their cultural customs make little sense? And a highway built from Babylon to Jerusalem? No one goes from Babylon straight back to Judea for good reason—it’s a desert!
Crazy, simply crazy. Such reversals are impossible!
Unless they’re not. Unless, that is, this is the word of God.
And whoever is crazy, or expectant enough, to believe that… they’ll start to see it, and they’ll be standing on tiptoes, excitedly peering into its reality drawing near.
If Isaiah invites us to see crazy, impossible political and ecological visions, James is waiting back on one’s heels, 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 too soon, and what you will get will pale in comparison to what it would have become.
The waiting James describes is no less expectant. The outcome is no less sure. And the reversals are no less profound. The oppressed get justice. The hungry are fed. Prisoners are freed. The blind see. Those pushed down are lifted up. Strangers in a strange land find themselves watched over. Orphans and widows are defended, not taken advantage of.
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 knees and stirring our imaginations to stretch our hopes and vision to the future, the waiting in James is about strengthening our hearts here and now—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. Both are expectant, both expect significant reversals of the way the powers that be usually arrange things, and both are confident the source of these reversals, and so the hope in the waiting, is God.
Are we there yet? That’s the question impatient children frequently ask when they’re tired and bored with being stuck in the car, the bus, or the plane. If they’ve been napping, they may also ask it if we can 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 ask, "Are we there yet?" 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 from what we’ve actually received.
That’s the situation in which John the Baptizer 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!"
We are there yet. We are the witnesses. We have seen and heard. We have waited. Jesus is the one, still, today, right where we are. And you are the body of Christ. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to live into what God has already opened up all around us.
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 and all the reversals it brings… in all the ways our God invites us to this day, and in the days ahead.
In Your Planning Team
Are we there yet? Is the world about to turn? Wait for it. Yes, we’re there, and there’s still more to wait for too.
That’s the trajectory of worship for this third Sunday in Advent. Questions, hopes, confident assurance, arrival, and the realization even more is to come.
As you design worship today, let its trajectory follow the trajectory of these readings. Enter with questions. Build expectation for dramatic reversals (musicians and dramatists, you know how to do this!). Pull back to the heels. Open eyes at the table. And see. We pray or sing Mary’s song today during the second movement of worship, "Word and Response." Consider praying Simeon’s song as the thanksgiving after Communion, or if you are unable to celebrate the sacrament, as a unison prayer of sending.
Lord you now have set your servant free
to go in peace as you have promised.
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior
whom you have prepared for all the world to see:
A light to enlighten the nations,
and the glory of your people, Israel. (Luke 2:29-39).
As you start sketching in music or art you might use, don’t forget the witness of the people you know in your congregation or your own social networks. Who are those who wait on tiptoes? On heels? What stories do they tell about their expectant waiting for God’s turning to come?
In these helps, I’m often asking you as a planning team to go out and talk to people. You may have thought your role was simply to "outline the show." It’s not. It’s to make sure what you do in worship represents what God is doing among and in the midst of your particular people, the people you know, where you are. The more you hear and learn their stories, and the more you help them tell them, or otherwise incorporate them in the worship you plan and lead together, the more worship becomes what it is intended to be: the work of the people giving all of their lives to God.
So who’s seeing a very different future coming among you, one that reverses the powers and brings joy to those the power oppressed?
Who’s waiting on their heels, 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 they do? How do these people describe those acts of waiting?
Who looks around and see signs of God’s kingdom come and coming everywhere? Go ask these folks, and then fill your worship bulletins, banners, screen, and walls with those signs this morning. And let the stories of those signs be written and told.
Follow the trajectory. And fill it with voices and stories of these witnesses who are waiting for it, some on tiptoes, some on heels, all surrounded by ample hopeful witness that the promised reversals are well underway.
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The Song of Mary. This is one of the few Sundays when a song outside the Psalter is appointed as a 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, and yours, don't skip it!
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Embodying the Word: The Entrance for Advent 3
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 each other, 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 clear 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 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)
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, Côte 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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