Planning - Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11.
The Spirit of the Lord anoints a prophet to bring good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, the prisoners, and the mourning -- good news that includes "the day of vengeance of our God" that will destroy the social order that keeps them in their oppressed state. When the current order is destroyed, rebuilding of God's "ancient ruins" can begin (verse 4). In the meantime, the prophet rejoices, clothed in the hope this good news brings (verses 8-11).
Psalm 126 (UMH 847).
A Psalm of Ascent, one of the Psalms sung by pilgrims as they made their way to the temple after it was rebuilt after the return from exile, as prophesied by Isaiah. Use Response 2 with Tone 2 (UMH 737).
I Thessalonians 5:16-24.
Final greetings include a prayer that the people may now be and remain "sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (verse 23).
John 1:6-8, 19-28.
The witness of John the Baptizer concerning his own identity. "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals" could be roughly paraphrased, "If you think I'm the Messiah or even claim to be, you ain't seen nothin' yet!"
For Leccionario Comn Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes (pdf), click here.
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The Roman Catholic Church observes today as Gaudete Sunday, and highlights this day with pink or rose colored candles and paraments, special antiphons, and some modification of the liturgy of the mass. (Gaudete means "Rejoice"). Mainline churches and the more "liturgical" churches have often followed Rome in setting this apart as a day for rejoicing in Advent.
One might also call today, "Joy's Entry," as at least two of the texts point explicitly to joy or rejoicing.
See our article "Restoring Advent and Christmas" on the UMC Worship Blog for three different approaches that may enable your congregation to experience a full Advent AND a full Christmastide. Also see The Advent Project website for full resources to support a restored 7-week celebration of this season, truncated to four weeks in the 11th century by act of Pope Gregory VI.
Remember, Advent isn't about Christmas -- mangers, shepherds and Magi-- but about its eternal context, the promised inbreaking of God's reign into the powers of this world and the fulfillment of that promise begun in God's incarnation in Jesus. For more specific guidance for Advent, see "Planning Advent for Year B." For more about the Revised Common Lectionary, see The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).
Discipleship Ministries has a vast array of resources for and articles about Advent worship on our website. We also have over 150 downloadable hymns and other musical scores for the season, made available for free thanks to your congregation's and conference's faithful giving to General Church apportionments.
United Methodist Communications also offers a selection of resources as part of their ReThink Church campaign. See Outside the Box: The Gift that Can't be Contained.
Looking ahead to January -- January 1 can be celebrated in a variety of ways -- as The Feast of the Holy Name, as a Watch Night (December 31), or as New Year's Day. This year, it will also be Epiphany Sunday (Epiphany itself is always January 6). Plan for your principal service to be Epiphany, and schedule a separate time for others as fits your context. January 8 will be Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Special offerings and events for January include Human Relations Day on January 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Observance on January 19, the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25), and Ecumenical Sunday (January 22).
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Atmospherics: Advent 3 -- Good News for Those Who Are Being Saved
Advent means "coming toward." The "coming toward" that the season of Advent primarily addresses is God's final "coming toward" us in the return of Jesus Christ as judge, the dissolution of the present world order, and the fulfillment of what Scriptures and theologians call "the new creation." All of these Advent stories and texts are part of a larger story arc that is sometimes referred to as "apocalyptic."
"Apocalyptic" is one of those Greek words that English simply carried over instead of translating. A good English translation would be something like "removing the veil" or "unveiling" or, as we know it from the last book of the New Testament, "revealing" or "revelation." The "apocalypse" as such is not "the end of the world" (the term for that, also not translated from its Greek original, is "eschaton"). Instead, the apocalypse is the revealed word of God that this world as we know it will end and a new world is on the way. Those with "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" can discern the signs of the new world's presence already. So while the rest of the world may see and hear words about the end of the world as we know it as bad news, for those of us who are being saved, it is good news and cause for rejoicing, even now.
On this Gaudete Sunday, plan worship that helps those who are being saved from this world truly rejoice and those who are seeking their salvation in this world begin to long for what they're missing.
Different scholars propose two different timeframes for this week's reading from Isaiah. Some believe the prophet was announcing good news of deliverance to the Judean people in exile in Babylon. Others argue the message was instead for those same people to cheer them up after they had returned home and found just how destroyed it had been. In either case, the prophet spoke of good news to people who had no good news they could see with their own eyes or even on the near horizon. Such good news could only happen if the powers that controlled their world were overthrown and new, far more friendly powers, were to replace them.
And that is what the prophet foretold. There would be rejoicing for God's people to be saved ("the year of the Lord's favor"), and there would be curse ("the day of vengeance for our God") for those who would be the "victims" of God's deliverance (Isaiah 61:2). And there is rejoicing for the prophet (61:10) because of what God will surely do to save God's people.
Why do you rejoice? More to the point, what about God's acts to save you and to save the cosmos cause your "whole being to exult in God" (61:10)? Identify such causes for rejoicing rooted in God's salvation and be sure to sing them, pray them, and lift them up in other ways in worship today.
This week's reading from I Thessalonians is part of the conclusion of the letter. Letters in this period typically concluded with the kinds of quick directions, final flourishes and blessings for its readers one finds here.
What is less typical is the content and the perspective that Paul brings to the closing of this letter. This is far from which might be typical banal well-wishing. Instead, Paul offers specific practices commended for living now as those who rejoice in God's salvation in full view of the end to come. Those practices include regular rejoicing, constant prayer, persistent thanksgiving, openness to the Spirit's voice through prophets and the life of the community, and discernment about what is good, keeping the good, discarding the rest.
The final benediction (verse 23) is the most telling of all for this letter and for the church in Advent. "May the God of peace personally make you holy through and through, and may you be kept fully healthy in spirit and soul and body, blameless at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ (verse 24)." Yes, they will suffer. Yes, they may continue to have questions, conflicts, and doubts. But God's will for them is to be made whole and holy, here and now, in this present world, in the face of the world to come with the return of Jesus. Being made holy is the result of God's work and blessing in their lives. The here and now practices are not direct means to that end in themselves. That is, praying all the time, in itself, makes no one holy. Instead, practices of rejoicing, prayer, and listening for the Spirit open us to see and cooperate with God's sanctifying grace. It is in that sense that these may be called "means of grace" (to use the Anglican and Wesleyan term).
None of these practices, however, comes naturally to most of us. They are learned, and they have to be practiced to be learned.
And most of you reading this live in a culture that does not teach or help you to practice these things. Consumer marketing depends not on causing you to rejoice, but rather making you long for the next thing that will fill your emptiness. Social media and entertainment seek to fill your every waking hour so that you will take no time for prayer, much less pray without ceasing. A culture of complaint and grievance, rather than gratitude, defines home life and work life for far too many of us. And even when we are with "church folks," how much of that time is spent seeking the Spirit's guidance together or helping one another hold fast to what is good and abstain from what is evil?
Yet it is precisely those who use these means of grace -- practices our surroundings fail to teach or teach as opposites -- who are opening themselves up to God's sanctifying grace, who are being given eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to rejoice in God's salvation.
So who is practicing and helping others to practice rejoicing? Who is practicing "prayer without ceasing?" Who continues to call and lead others in persistent thanksgiving? How do you as individuals and as a community of faith keep yourselves open to the voice of the Spirit in your midst and around you? What is your investment in the practices of discernment as individuals, groups, and community? How does each of these practices, where they are happening, already ground you or those around you in a life of rejoicing in God's sanctifying grace now and in face of the age to come?
How will you help people hear and respond to this reading well -- not as a quick goodbye, but a serious call to a devout and holy life? And whose singing, praying, or testimony may inspire more of your worshiping community to long for and begin to seek the same in their lives?
John the Baptizer was such a witness, especially as John's gospel portrays him. He was clear he was "not the light," but equally clear that his life was all about testifying to the light to come and announcing his arrival.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we are reminded that this is the shape of our own discipleship. We are the body of Christ, here and now. We see his glory, and we rejoice. But we ourselves live primarily as harbingers of the One Who Returns in Glory. We do not deny that we are sent by God to carry out God's mission. But neither do we claim ultimately to do much more than point to the present activity and the ultimate purposes of the One Who Returns. Though we have been baptized with water and Spirit through Christ, we are all too aware that we are hardly Elijah, nor the prophet, nor the Messiah, nor the One to come. Though we are surely adopted as heirs and proclaim this with joy, we also do so with humility.
We, like John, can expect to be questioned about the coming Lord we declare and the actions we carry out in his name. We need not be deterred by the questions, nor refrain from the actions. But we answer as we live, always in expectation of the final consummation that will be brought about by Jesus in his final coming.
Who is questioning the validity or authority of your actions undertaken for the sake of God's mission in Jesus Christ where you are?
Remember the millions of sisters and brothers in Christ today who are being questioned, and some threatened, tortured or killed for the sake of the name of Jesus.
Who is ready to proclaim your identity as body of Christ when such questions come? How do they do this? What do they say or do?
How have people where you are made clear in their answers to questions, friendly or hostile, that they understand both that they are called to do what they do now by Christ in their midst -- with rejoicing-- and that they do what they do as a witness to what Christ will do when he returns?
Consider these questions, among others that may emerge in your worship planning team, as you consider the ways you will embody the scriptural themes and respond to the texts of this third Sunday of Advent.
Advent continues in the lectionary and in the Christian Year. Christmas may be in nearly full swing in the patterns of your community or congregation. How can your worship planning make good room for what your congregation truly needs most this season? How might the call for Advent rejoicing be heard in its integrity, while not shutting down the desire for Christmas rejoicing that may be present where you are as well?
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Embodying the Word for Advent: The Entrance for the Third Sunday in Advent
Entrance is the first of the four great movements of worship in what United Methodists call our Basic Pattern of Worship, and what is known more widely as "The Ecumenical Ordo": Entrance, Proclamation and Response, Thanksgiving and Communion, and Sending Forth.
During Advent, the Entrance is often marked by the use of an Advent Wreath and in some contexts the singing of one or more verses of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" (UMH 211). If you sing that ancient hymn as part of your entrance, let today's focus be on the opening words of the refrain, "Rejoice! Rejoice!" With the baptismal font as the primal symbol for entrance into the life of the church, consider the possibility of sprinkling the people with water from the font as these words, or perhaps the same words from another text or tune, are sung at the entrance this morning.
How do your people enter today? Do they come estranged, or disappointed in what surrounds them, perhaps even in God, as the people addressed in Isaiah? Do they come with real questions about the end and their purpose in life now, seeking real answers and concrete practices to order their lives here and now, like the people of Thessalonica? Or do they primarily come as those already engaged in God's mission, voices crying out in the wilderness, announcing both the presence and the coming again of Christ, as in John? Might the entrance today be an opportunity to embody the overall spirit of your congregation and community as it comes to worship with you today? Or perhaps it might give the opportunity for folks to "try on" what it is like for several or all of these ways the Scriptures address those who come?
However your team works through these ideas, consider how what you will do connects with the texts for the day in a lively and compelling way, and truly helps the people of YOUR congregation see and hear and have hearts to rejoice in God's saving power already at work and yet to come in the Return of the One who is all in all.
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BOW 241, BOW 242, BOW 243, BOW 453 (If you use a call to worship, consider UMH 202, stanza 3, "People, Look East.")
- BOW 253, BOW 254, UMH 201
Lighting the Advent Candles: BOW 208. See also "Advent Wreath Meditations."
Acts of Response to the Word:
Worship & Song, 3046, "Come, O Redeemer, Come" has a simple, prayerful text and a haunting tune that would work beautifully as a call to worship, a song of prayer (interspersed with intercessions between verses), or a hymn at Communion (perhaps as intercessions at the table) or at the sending forth.
Confession of Sin: BOW 481 (Isaiah)
Concerns and Prayers:
- BOW 255 (John, Advent)
- BOW 489 (John)
- BOW 513 (Isaiah)
- Also consider as a sung form of intercession TFWS 2232, "Come Now, O Prince of Peace" (O-So-So).
- Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Benin, Cte d'Ivoire, Togo
The Great Thanksgiving: BOW 54-55
Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion: BOW 555
Dismissal with Blessing: BOW 559 and one of the blessings on BOW 560-566
(a deacon or other assisting minister charging the people with this dismissal)
The Lord hates injustice.
We go to do justice.
God hates robbery and wrongdoing.
We go to do all the good we can.
Go to love and serve:
Rebuild where there has been destruction.
Bring joy and gladness where there has been mourning.
Rejoice always in the power of the Spirit.
Then the presiding minister blesses the people with these or other words:
May the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you now and evermore. Amen.