See the texts, artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers for this service at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.)
Leccionario en Español, Leccionario Común Revisado: Consulta Sobre Textos Comunes.
Para obtener más recursos leccionario, Estudios Exegético: Homiléticos.
Lectionnaire en français, Le Lectionnaire Œcuménique Révisé
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25.
At the end of the conquest of Israel, Joshua exhorted the people to renew their covenant with God. The people of Israel responded by reaffirming their intent to remain faithful to God and by recalling their history with God.
Psalm 78:1-7 (UMH 799).
If chanting, use Tone 2 in D Minor (UMH 737).
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
The lectionary selection is the second part of the "meat" of this letter, addressing the church's need for clearer teaching about eschatology. The first part deals with sexuality. Recommendation: Read the whole chapter!
Toward the conclusion of his public teaching in the temple, Jesus warns his hearers to be ready like bridesmaids who brought sufficient oil for their lamps.
Advent officially starts on November 30, but beginning today, the readings for each Sunday are already addressing the primary Advent theme of the return and final reign of Christ, making all things new. For resources to begin Advent celebrations a few weeks early using our current lectionary, check out The Advent Project website.
If you haven’t started planning for Advent, it’s time! Discipleship Ministries has an archived webinar you can view yourself or with your planning team, a complete handout of the slides for the webinar, and a planning article exploring the texts in depth. The webinar provides at least five different approaches for Advent and Christmas Season planning to help you and your congregation celebrate each as fully as you can, as well as links to hundreds of other Advent-related resources on our website. For more specific guidance for planning Advent, see “Planning Advent for Year B” on this website.
Christ the King Sunday (Last Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, or Third Sunday in Extended Advent, Year B) is November 23. It is a “bookend Sunday” for ordinary time after Pentecost (the other bookend is Trinity Sunday), on which all of the readings relate to each other around a common theme.
Christ the King is also a fairly recent addition to the Christian Calendar. It was first celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1925 in response to attempts by governments in Mexico and elsewhere to declare themselves the ultimate authority in the lives and even the religions of their subjects.
Plan to celebrate Holy Communion on this day. See “A Great Thanksgiving for Christ the King Sunday.” See also this Call to Worship and this Service of Scripture and Song that recapitulates the whole Christian Year.
How does your congregation keep Thanksgiving Day (USA)? How do folks keep it at home? New for 2014 is “Thanksgiving Celebrations for the Home.” You can find it, and our many other resources, in our Thanksgiving section.
All Month: Native American Heritage Month
November 9: “Restored” or Extended Advent 1, Organ and Tissue Donor Sunday (USA), International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church
November 11: Veterans Day (USA) (GBHEM resources)
November 23: Christ the King Sunday; Bible Sunday in National Bible Week (November 23-30) (USA)
November 27: Thanksgiving Day (USA)
November 30: Advent (Regular) Year B Begins, United Methodist Student Day
The First Sunday of (regular) Advent is November 30 this year, and we move into Year B of the lectionary (focus on Mark’s gospel, the stories of David’s family, and the epistles of Ephesians, Hebrews and James).
Atmospherics -- After Deliverance: Settling the Land of Promise
True to Our God, True to This Promised Land (See “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” UMH 519)
The concluding chapter of Joshua functions as both narrative and ritual closure for the period of conquest and initial settlement of the Promised Land. As narrative closure, this chapter marks the end of years of fighting and struggle. As a ritual closure, the people renew their commitment to serve YHWH alone, not their former gods (whether of Egypt or Iraq) and not the gods of the people among whom they now reside (Amorites are specifically named).
As narrative and as ritual, this story marks a different kind of rite of passage than the crossing of the Jordan we encountered last week. The crossing of the Jordan marked a transition from one place to another, and in the process from one form of life to another, from journeying to occupying. So while there were marked changes in some ways of life, the people were still on the move.
This week’s rite of passage marks a determination to “stay put,” both in the land recently conquered and divided, and in allegiance to YHWH and YHWH’s covenant with the people. If anything, this is an even more challenging transition, a change from movement to settlement, from acquisition to consolidation, from nearly constant transition to a kind of institutionalization.
Today’s reading portrays these kinds of changes, these movements toward permanent settlement and institutionalization, as signs of the fulfillment of God’s promises beginning with Abram and Sarai, and portrays this pivotal moment as a ritual moment of determining to continue to serve the God who had delivered them and brought them to this place, and this God alone.
In Your Planning Team
First question: Which way are you heading? Are you continuing to keep Ordinary Time with the stories of the Patriarchs, or are you taking up the beginnings of extended Advent today?
If you are beginning to celebrate Advent today, this text may be read through the Advent lens of readiness to profess and act upon ultimate loyalties at the brink of a new world. In this way, this text can be seen as complementary to the Epistle and Gospel readings today, both of which also have turned, starting today, to address what it takes to be ready for the age to come.
If you are simply continuing to focus on this stream of texts in Ordinary Time, remember you are close to the end of Ordinary Time texts. Next week marks the very end of them, with a reading from Judges that captures a refrain that will re-echo throughout the historical books: Once again, the people did what was evil in God’s sight, God let them bear the consequences of that, they cried out for help, and God delivered them.
So think about how this week’s text, and worship you build around it, prepares you for next week as the conclusion of this series. From one angle, one might say Joshua was right: ”You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God” (24:19 NRSV). Next week is just one of many texts that proves just how inveterately difficult it was (and is!) for God’s own people to stay focused on their God, and not fall away into serving other gods.
But this has been precisely the challenge for which we keep Ordinary Time, is it not? This is the season in which the church focuses its energy on living out all it has been given, taking the call of Jesus to discipleship and the call of the Spirit to holiness with as much seriousness as we can muster. This week’s text, then may lead you to focus on re-iterating that challenge, just as Joshua did for the people long ago.
At this point in the year, much “travel,” apart from visiting family at Thanksgiving and Christmas, is over in the Northern hemisphere. We’re heading into a time of “settling in” as winter approaches. And it’s just here, we know from this week, and next, we may be most vulnerable. The battle’s done and won. Will we show ourselves to be disciples of Jesus, or of some other Lord, in the face of the deep temptations to consumerism that face us at this time of the year?
Consider this text an invitation and a challenge to make a renewal of your covenant with God in worship today, especially if you did not do so in connection with last week’s “crossing of the Jordan” text. You may find this service of baptismal reaffirmation, used at General Conference in 2008, appropriate for the context. A Spanish version is also available. Or you may wish to focus specifically on the first of the vows—renouncing the spiritual forces of evil and repenting of sin—which derives from the basic covenant vows in this week’s text.
I Thessalonians: "Strength for Today, Bright Hope for Tomorrow"
Holiness now and for the Age to Come
I Thessalonians finally gets to the meat of Paul’s concern for the church in this week’s reading. As suggested above, plan to read and focus on the whole of the chapter, not just the lectionary selection. Both of these issues, sexuality and eschatology, are important, and the nature of both of these was such that Paul and company needed the long reintroduction we’ve read these past three weeks to bring them up.
At first glance, these two topics may appear to have little to do with each other, or at least to be in tension with each other. The gift of sexuality, after all, has much to do with continuing life as we know it. Eschatology, however, speaks boldly about the end of all things as we have known them, and thus the utter temporality and ephemerality of this life.
Paul presents both fully here, with no hint of tension between them. His call for abstaining from “fornication” (sexually impure actions) is grounded in his concern that Christian people learn how to control their bodily desires and channel them in ways that show a life of holiness and an intention to honor one’s partner, and in so doing to honor the life of the community (the body of Christ) that intends the same.
The call in verse 6 “not to defraud” probably refers to adultery. To engage in sexual relations with the marital partner of another is not simply to harm oneself but also to destroy the relationship with the partner’s spouse.
In a culture then (and in many places, now!) where relationships for one’s own “sexual fulfillment” (however that may be defined) are valued over other kinds of relational bonds, this commitment not to commit adultery was not and still is not quaint. Rather, it marks a radical commitment to God and to community, to being the body of Christ first and foremost. Truly being the body of Christ together is (or should be) the ultimate commitment of Christians to each other in the power of the Holy Spirit.
All forms of love are valid and expressed in the body of Christ—the love of God (agape), fellowship/friendship (philia), and the sexual love of marital life-partners (eros). For Christians, God’s love and mutual friendship provide the context for the expression of sexual love within marriage. This commitment to God and to community has the effect of strengthening bonds of cohesion among communities generally, and placing a check on merely selfish desires that may undermine life and trust at the community level.
Christians in many congregations and denominations in the United States talk a lot about sex and sexual purity. Christians have been leading sponsors in US society of sexual abstinence programs for teenagers, have been outspoken on reducing teen pregnancy and abortions, have opposed and worked for limitations to pornography and prostitution worldwide, and have generally been at least hesitant when not hostile to embracing forms of sexual expression not linked to a lifelong covenant of marriage. These are all fine things to do, and consistent with Christian teaching in general.
What we know, however, is that divorces among those who claim to be Christians are nearly as high as the rest of the US populations, and non-marital sexual relationships as well as pregnancy happen in similar proportions as well.
Perhaps this is a call to remember the audience Paul was addressing with his directives around sexuality. He was addressing the church itself, not society at large. He was not talking about what other people should do or oppose, nor about how the church should be an agent to help make people outside that community live according to Christian standards. He was addressing Christians as Christians, and more specifically, these specific Christians in Thessalonica in the context of their particular relationships with each other as members of the body of Christ. He seems to have very low expectations for “the Gentiles” (i.e., people not in the Jewish or Christian community) ever to live this way themselves. If they were ever to do so, it would be because Christians would show them how by their living example.
That’s what verses 9-12 address. Paul and companions commend the congregation for its demonstration of loving each other well (verse 9). And he calls them not to rest on these laurels. Rather, he says, “live quietly, mind your own affairs, and work with your hands.” In short, he calls them to take this way of life, this way of following Jesus and being his body in the world, seriously and soberly, not with a view primarily toward changing others, but rather with a view toward being the change themselves.
This is what saints do. They do not fix unfixable things or try to make the world come out right. They love God, neighbor and spouse, if they have one, living as shining lights of the world God is making right.
If in our lives we live quietly, soberly, expressing love in ways that reflect our calling to personal and corporate discipleship and mission in the world, what of those who have died?
Verses 13-18, the verses included in this week’s lectionary, provide some response. It would appear that serious questions had arisen within the Christian community at Thessalonica about what happens to the dead. It also appears that there was a variety of conflicting answers offered that had begun to cause confusion, if not division, among the believers.
Paul and his companions speak in these verses with direct authority, “by the word of the Lord” (verse 15), to eliminate any confusion. Christ acts decisively at his return, summoning the dead with his own shout, the archangel’s call and the blast of God’s trumpet. The dead are raised first, and then we who are still alive at Christ’s coming will be “snatched up” (“raptured,” it is sometimes translated) to meet Christ with them “in the air” (verses 16-17).
There are some matters that are uncertain, including the day and hour of Christ’s return (attested in the synoptic gospels and in Acts) and how we will appear in the age to come. But Paul and companions here claim we can know with great clarity that Christ will return, summon the dead, and gather with his living disciples, in that order. All three of these points bear upon our living now. While some have used this text to argue that Paul was over-confident in expecting Christ’s return immediately, the text itself does not make that point. Paul’s confidence is in the promise of Christ’s return, not the timing of that promise. Christ the Redeemer and Judge is surely coming. At all times in this life we must be ready for this, precisely because we do not know the day or hour.
The dead in Christ are raised first. The verb here refers not to merely physical raising up, but “resurrection,” the full enlivening of body and soul into a form that is indestructible, what Paul describes in I Corinthians 15 as “a spiritual body.” This verse does not address where or in what state the dead may be at this point. But it does affirm that the first to experience the fullness of resurrection will be the dead in Christ. This does not point to “pie in the sky by and by.” Given the certainty of our mortality and death in this present age, we must be ready, here and now, in this life, especially since death comes at an unexpected hour. We need to be found “in Christ” before that time, whenever it may come.
After their raising comes the “snatching” of those who may be physically alive on that day. Exactly what happens to our existing bodies at that time is not clear. The verb “snatch” conveys again sudden, unexpected and decisive action by another, in this case by Christ’s call, upon us. But the larger metaphor here is not, as N.T. Wright has pointed out in Surprised by Hope, the “snatching,” but the “meeting in the air.” Snatching is simply a means to accomplish the meeting in the air. The meeting represents that of a welcoming committee that joins a coming king well before the king actually reaches the city gates.
In all three actions—the descent of Christ, the resurrection of the dead in Christ and the snatching of and meeting with the living—suddenness and decisiveness are the critical factors. All three will surely happen whether before or after we die. Our call now is both to encourage one another that these things will happen and to live in readiness.
Encourage one another that this life as we know it comes to a sudden and dramatic end? Encourage one another about this? Yes, says Paul. Yes. That is good news. It is full salvation, being “with the Lord forever.” However much life in this age may become infused by the life of the age to come, it will only be in part. Full salvation comes with new creation, resurrection, new heavens and a new earth. That those things are surely coming is not a call to escapism from this life, but rather to diligence to manifest them as fully as possible, here and now, and to do so without the need for anxiety about the limitations of our capacities to do so. God’s future drives our present at every point, in every relationship.
Paul’s teaching “by the word of the Lord” about the end of this age is thus of one piece with his teaching earlier about the nature of love within the Christian community and the proper contexts and motivations for sexual expression within that community. The coming redemption and judgment in Christ drive us to holiness of heart and life, including holiness in our sexuality, here and now.
In Your Planning Team
Again, where are you heading just now? Are you simply wrapping up the series in I Thessalonians this week and next, before moving on to Christ the King and “regular” Advent? Or are you beginning extended Advent today?
If you are beginning Advent today, of course you could not have asked for a better or perhaps more controversial epistle reading. Left Behind has returned to the theaters, and may still be playing at least in second run when this Sunday comes around. While United Methodist doctrinal standards do not include any theology of “rapture” (invented, wholecloth, in the nineteenth century), we do have a robust affirmation of the return of Christ in glory, raising the dead, judging all, and gathering the living to rejoice in new creation. (See John Wesley’s sermon, “The Great Assize”).
Advent is primarily about the culmination of all things in Christ, not as a merely abstract and speculative doctrine, but as a firm foundation for living in holiness here and now. And is that not exactly what this reading from I Thessalonians offers us, especially if we take the whole chapter into view?
So if you are starting Advent today, consider this text as “Perspective 2,” with the call to exclusive dedication to our God as Perspective 1 (Joshua) and the call to preparedness (Matthew) as Perspective 3. With three texts to consider, do not give much time to unpacking the “great snatch” or debunking Darby’s hyper-popularized (and not terribly Christian) rapturist eschatology. Focus on simply the positive, certain, hope-filled and life-tranformation-inspiring message that Christ’s unexpected and unpredictable return calls us all to holiness here and now.
But if you are continuing in I Thessalonians and concluding next week, you may have the opportunity to unpack more of the direct connection between the two elements of the “meat” of this letter—sexuality and eschatology—and to celebrate both with joy. Sing love songs and hymns exalting marriage. Sing of the second coming. Pray for the coming of the Lord with passion, and bless all who seek to live in holiness in every aspect of their lives, including their sexuality.
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Matthew: On Mission with the Master
Better Be Ready… to Celebrate!
The parable of the bridesmaids from Matthew’s gospel was and remains a serious call to a readied life in the here and now. What is often missed in conversations about “readiness for the end,” however, is readiness for celebration. The readiness Jesus speaks of here is readiness to meet and rejoice in the presence of covenant fulfilled.
Often, when we think of readiness to “meet our maker,” we think of what has to be given up or pared away. There is value in that, too. But this story points toward a readiness of being filled, not emptied. This is a readiness of confident rejoicing, not fearful or hesitant wondering. And so it is about building a life that is characterized by such readiness to rejoice, being filled with the Spirit at all times.
In contemporary US culture, joy is often associated only with spontaneity. In reality, happiness may be spontaneous. But joy and its accompanying readiness to rejoice at all times are the products of a disciplined life of holiness. Perhaps some few may seem to have a “natural talent” for this. But the vision of this parable is that such joy is intended for all. The parable invites all to be disciplined enough to receive it.
So it was with some of the bridesmaids in this parable the story Jesus tells. They had anticipated that the bridegroom may be delayed, and so had taken the time, money and effort to stock up and bring extra lamp oil with them. Because they were ready, they could rejoice with the Bridegroom’s party at his arrival.
But some were foolish, and did not bring enough oil to supply their lamps. Perhaps they had failed to think through what they really needed to bring. Perhaps they were rushing at the last minute. But for whatever reasons, they had not prepared adequately to be able to join the party. So when they finally arrived, late, they were not admitted, nor even recognized.
Saints are not merely those who deny themselves. They are those who ready themselves by all the means of grace to celebrate the joy of God’s salvation. Self-denial is part of that readiness. But so is thoughtful planning and preparation of more than enough.
In Your Planning Team
Again, where are you today? Are you wrapping up a series in Matthew at the end of Ordinary Time? Or are you beginning extended Advent with a bang?
As we’ve already noted, it’s hard to imagine any better collection of texts to kick off a serious and celebratory Advent. And this one is no exception. For too long. this text, though, has a history of being used on this Sunday more as admonition than invitation. It has focused more on those who were not ready to rejoice, than those who were. Both, in fact, are in view, but the larger context is a wedding feast, an occasion of celebration. Those who weren’t ready to celebrate missed out. Those who were did not—and do not.
So as you design worship around this text today, whether for Advent or Ordinary Time, don’t do so peevishly. Do so lavishly. No doubt you have people in your congregation who have become masters of the disciplines that keep them ready for joy, ready to celebrate whenever the Bridegroom comes. Find these people. Someone on your worship planning team may know at least one or two. Talk with them about their personal practices that sustain a readiness to rejoice and how they have both found and offered support to others for this way of life.
Then look at the ways your congregation already has processes in place to help others build and sustain a similar way, or begin to address the steps it takes to build new processes that do.
And lift them up, celebrate them, and invite folks into this way of life that makes them ready to celebrate not just these folks and processes around them, but the one who is the font of all joy, whose coming is here described as nothing less than a lavish wedding feast.
For imagery for worship built around this text, think about images of abundance, of fullness to overflowing—grain bins spilling over, fountains gushing, people singing and dancing, full of life and joy. Then take a look behind the scenes for each of these to the discipline, the hard work it took to achieve this overflowing, whether the planting and care for the fields, or the construction of the fountain and its plumbing (and the years of apprenticeship to become a plumber!), or the hard work that dancers and singers invest in their art.
Advent is here—or will soon be! Be ready… to celebrate.
- BOW 450 (Matthew, 1 Thessalonians)
- BOW 455 (Joshua)
- BOW 468 (Joshua)
- BOW 472, Act of Congregational Centering (Joshua)
Acts of response to the Word:
- BOW 510, Prayer for Discernment (Joshua)
- BOW 511, Prayer for God's Reign (Matthew, I Thessalonians)
- BOW 513, Prayer for Justice (1 Thessalonians)
- BOW 528, Prayer of Susanna Wesley (Matthew)
- BOW 529, Prayer of Saint Patrick (All Saints)
- UMH 656 "If Death My Friend and Me Divide" (1 Thessalonians)
- BOW 483 (Joshua, Matthew)
- BOW 490 (Joshua, Matthew)
Concerns and Prayers:
- BOW 548, On the Anniversary of a Death (1 Thessalonians)
- Ecumenical Prayer Cycle: Republic of Congo, Gabon, Sao Tomé and Principe
The Great Thanksgiving:
- BOW 54-55, "The Great Thanksgiving for Advent” or “For the Season after Pentecost” (70-71)
Prayer of Thanksgiving if there is no Communion:
- BOW 551 (Joshua)
- BOW 556 (Psalm)
- Blessing: BOW 562 (Joshua)