The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah prophesies the coming of a righteous ruler out of the stump of Jesse.
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 (UMH 795).
A psalm in praise and intercession for a righteous king, such as the one foretold in Isaiah. Consider singing the Psalm using these combinations: Response 1 with Tone 3 in F major or Response 2 with Tone 2 in D minor.
A call for Jewish believers in Rome to welcome Gentiles into full fellowship, even as Christ, "the root of Jesse," has welcomed them all. By the power of the Spirit, Jewish and Gentiles alike can abound in hope.
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John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming repentance and offering baptism as preparation for the kingdom of God drawing near.
Christian Year: The Second Sunday of Advent introduces us to John the Baptizer each year.
Advent in Year A is about getting back to basics. We remember the end of all things the first week. The second week, we focus on the righteousness and justice God calls for, creates, and re-creates. The third week, we encounter just how full of “reversals” and “subversion” our God is. And in the fourth, we hear Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus, and we are reminded it is this God of that kind of end, of this passion for righteousness and justice, and of such reversals who was and is and ever will be “with us.”
For those who use an Advent wreath during this season, here is GBOD’s expanding collection of Candle Lighting Liturgies for 2013.
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.
“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), anytime during Advent could be appropriate.
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Atmospherics: Advent 2-- Righteousness and Justice
Righteousness and justice are the most prevalent common themes running through this week’s lectionary readings. In every case, these are portrayed as the fruit of lives well lived. A righteous branch emerges from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah). A just king is blessed (Psalm). Christians express righteousness through hospitality (Romans). John the Baptizer calls baptismal candidates to bring forth “fruits worthy of repentance” (signs they intend to lead a just and righteous life) as a precondition to receiving the baptism he offers (Matthew).
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Isaiah offers a vision of the world under YHWH’s reign that expands on the vision offered last week. There, the call was to remember the end and walk in the light of God. Here, the hope is God’s promised new ruler, a “new David” springing from the lineage of Jesse, who would lead everyone and everything in creation to live in peace with one another, posing no threat to any.
The necessary precondition for this kind of peace to emerge was a promised ruler who would act with justice and righteousness, judging with particular care to ensure the poor received justice and their oppressors would not stand. This ruler would be so characterized by righteousness, justice, and devotion to God the prophet says the leader would wear righteousness as a belt around the waist, faithfulness as a belt around the loins (verse 5).
The visions of prophets had a twofold purpose: to tell forth as well as to foretell. This prophecy it was thus understood in part to be advice for the kings of the prophet’s own day. Christians have understood this prophecy to be fulfilled in part in the first coming of Jesus, and in an ongoing way as the kingdom of God continues to be made known among us. Still, with our Jewish siblings, we await the day of its full fulfillment in the coming (again) of Christ as Lord of all.
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Romans 15 includes Paul’s last words to the Christian communities who gathered in house churches in Rome. The heart of the letter, and this summary, was to invite the Christians of Rome to continue to be a living experiment in Jewish-Gentile community drawn into one body in Jesus Christ.
“Live in harmony,” “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” “welcome one another,” Paul says. It is Christ, the just king, the “root of Jesse,” who makes such reconciled community possible. He manifested his justice and righteousness by becoming a “servant of the circumcised” both for their sake and so that the Gentiles (the vast majority of the world’s population then and now!) would glorify God for God’s mercy (verses 8-9). How do Christians then and now manifest his justice and righteousness? By continuing to offer such hospitality and welcome to those like us and those very different from us.
That continuing call of deep hospitality to the other is an ongoing challenge for the church. Christians are often divided along social, economic, geographical, cultural, political, ethnic, racial, theological, institutional (loyalists/entrepreneurs), and worldview lines. Many congregations even in very diverse areas represent a small selection of perhaps a few groups among all these “niches.” And in some, there’s a kind of “pride of place” that “we’re not like those people.”
George Hunter (Church for the Unchurched and The Celtic Way of Evangelism) makes the case that Western Christianity, for the most part, has made evangelization contingent upon whether or not people are civilized (i.e., like us; able to read; well-mannered and cultured; conformed to our social values) before we can relate the good news to them. This is, in part, because we have substituted invitation to worship for actually building community with people (including but not limited to worship) in the name of Jesus Christ. When we do the former, we are trying to get others to conform to our way. When we do the latter, the Holy Spirit opens us to receive and share many gifts, including a diversity of gifts that overflow from discipleship into worship. Read the flow of verses 5 and 6. Real community precedes real unity in worship. It’s not enough to invite diverse people to worship with us. If the righteousness and justice of Christ are being manifested fully among us, we are being mutually invited into community.
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Our God is the God of hope for all, not just “our group.” The diversity of face- to-face Christian communities where diverse peoples are settled or gathered is a living witness to Christ’s righteousness and justice active in our midst. Significant human differences of culture, language, politics, age and ethnicity among others naturally drive people apart into “huddle groups” of like with like. The power of Christ draws all together, amid and despite all of these differences. We rightly rejoice in Christ’s power and God’s glory overcoming our “huddle group” proclivities wherever sisters and brothers of varying backgrounds and cultural practices are welcomed with open arms into our fellowships, just as Christ has welcomed us.
In Matthew we come full circle from the end of the ministry of Jesus last week to the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptizer this week. The wildness of John and the harshness of his message contrast starkly with the calls to harmony from Isaiah and Paul, but all are orbiting the same center: God is about to or has already begun a new way of relating to the world, and God’s justice and righteousness call for all of our relationships to change.
For John, that new way is so radically different from what came before that the only way forward is to repent publicly through baptism, seeking mercy and forgiveness. Nothing we’ve held onto can last. All will be judged by its fruitfulness toward God. All that produces nothing will be consumed by fire. The kingdom of heaven has drawn near. Get ready now to deal with that.
John reminds us of the urgency of responding decisively to the call. We can’t live from both worlds—the present age and the age to come. We must be in the world but not of it. If we choose to live from the present age, the age to come will consign us to the ever-smoldering garbage dump of history. If we choose to live from the age to come, even if the present age seeks to destroy us, we are part of God’s ongoing transformation and re-creation of all things.
There is a choice to be made and fruit to bear to display that choice.
John’s urgency is an important reminder to a can-do culture. We are not called to do and ultimately cannot do what God is about to do. Our cultures, especially in the Global North and West, are not set up to enable us to do it, either, despite our reflexive assumptions about what we can achieve if we put our minds and bodies to it. What God will do is God’s work. We are invited to join what God is doing, not achieve what God is doing. We must abandon efforts to claim or reclaim our lives on our own terms. God’s holiness, righteousness, and justice are God’s.
Similarly, we don’t get to interpersonal reconciliation with people different from us by our works alone (nor without them!), but by the Spirit of God. And we certainly should have no illusions that peace among nations, or even in societies, is anything but a miraculous gift of the Spirit that we are invited to live into and sustain. We all need the one who baptizes with Holy Spirit and fire to baptize us, whatever the sphere of our primary spiritual work (self, networks, communities, nations).
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In Your Planning Team
Why do we have Advent? That’s much the same as asking why we expect the second coming of Christ and the coming of Resurrection and new creation, to which Advent primarily points. The Christian understanding is our world, as we have it, remains deeply out of sync with God’s righteousness and justice. Christians celebrate Advent, in part, to remind us of the glowing vision of God’s righteousness and justice, and to inspire us to join it here and now in anticipation of God’s final consummation of all things.
A challenge for many of us, including members of your planning team, may be we no longer have biblical frames for these terms: righteousness and justice. Or the frames we do have may not help us understand, claim, and live into what the Bible means by them.
Today is a day to help your congregation get those biblical frames and find concrete ways of living into them better, or, perhaps, for the first time.
Perhaps the best way to help your team get to a place where their planning (and sermon planning!) will be most helpful is to begin by asking them to describe what their frames are, and then, in each case, move toward how these terms are actually used in the Scriptures we read today.
Either during your meeting or via email or social media before it, ask your team members: “When you hear the word “righteous” or “righteousness,” what ideas, feelings and stories come immediately to mind?
Be sure to record their answers; and if you do this online, make sure everyone sees everyone else’s responses. This is a valuable resource for your planning. It is likely to give you a baseline on what your whole congregation may “automatically” think, feel, or remember when they first hear this term as well. Maybe what you’ll discover is your baseline isn’t far off from the biblical understandings and uses of this term. But maybe you’ll also discover not just how far off your local baseline is, but exactly where it’s off and begin to be able to come up with ways worship today, not just in sermon but in singing and visuals, might begin to recalibrate the “reflex” response.
Now read together from Isaiah and Romans what actually characterizes the “Righteous Branch.” After you’ve read this together, ask, “What ideas, feelings, or stories about righteousness do these Scriptures evoke in you?”
This exercise as a team will help you identify more of the “arrival point” you want to lead folks to as they participate in the worship you plan together.
Repeat the same kind of exercise about the term justice. First ask for first impressions of ideas, feelings and stories. “When you hear the word 'justice,' what do you think and feel; and what stories come immediately to mind?” Again, this provides a baseline.
Justice is still in wider use in our vocabulary, and not in an entirely negative way. Still the way it typically is heard and understood (as your baseline test may reveal) is often in terms of “retribution” rather than fair distribution, balancing power imbalances (making sure the poor are treated fairly), or ensuring restoration for all.
That’s why I suggest taking a bit of a more “hands on” and directive approach as you look together at the Scriptures to try to hear what they are saying about justice—God’s justice, and how we are being called to be agents and examplars of that justice in the world.
Start with the text from Isaiah, looking at words for justice (how judging is done, verse 3, equity, verse 4, and the fruits of justice done, the rest of the reading). Read Psalm 72, especially verses 1-4, and the hope that springs when justice is done in the verses that follow. Note the reference to the Righteous Branch in Romans 15:12, and see how this text helps to nuance your understanding of the work of justice (God is God of all, see esp. 15:11). Finally, read Matthew 3, and discuss how John the Baptist as prototype of the Righteous Branch was calling people to lives of lived justice.
The result of this study and conversation will give you the arrival point to move your congregation from its baseline to a deeper appreciation for, practice of, and longing for the justice of God to be revealed in their lives and in the age of new creation to come.
Whatever the baselines you start from, there are likely people in your congregation or community who are already deeply practiced in living and teaching both righteousness and justice well. These are people who are good at bringing people together across divides or polarities for conversation, common work, and enriched community. Ask your team to identify people they know, personally, inside or outside your congregation or any congregation who exemplify these skills and traits. Tell them not to limit their thinking to people who do this for a living (politicians, community organizers, leaders of local organizations, especially interfaith organizations drawing together Christians, Muslims, Jewish persons and other faith traditions), but think also of people who are naturally good at doing this and seem to do it all the time. Artists, musicians, and small business operators may be in this mix as well.
Then send your team members to talk with these people and find out why they do what they do. Consider how to include the stories of these people as part of your celebration of the justice and righteousness already being made known in your congregation and community, and to inspire more such stories to “spring up” like that Righteous Branch, even where folks had written off the “stump” as a totally dead tree.
Finally, since today’s gospel reading addresses the baptismal ministry of John the Baptist, consider how the font may take prominent place in worship today. Consider offering an opportunity for baptismal reaffirmation as a response to the Word (or for a more interactive version, this new service based on our current ritual and used at General Conference in 2008). And then remember your baptism as you pledge to live as Christ’s body, redeemed by his blood, around the Table of the Lord.
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Embodying the Word: The Entrance for Advent 2
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 Candle Lighting Meditations for Church and Home 2013). This familiar ritual embodies a kind of continuity from week to week and is deeply identified in many congregations with the season of Advent.
But those who wish to find more ways to express the themes of Advent and the biblical themes of the day may wish to consider the following themes and questions as you prepare the Entrance for each Sunday.
Righteousness, Peace and Community (Isaiah, Romans)
In last week’s text from Isaiah, peace was about the absence of war and the transformation of weapons into farming tools. This week, both Isaiah and Romans call us to explore other dimensions of God’s Shalom. Isaiah describes not merely an absence of war, but an absence of any hostility or danger from historical and even biological enemies. What enemies could you portray in a charitable way—either national, local, biological or ecological—in art, drama, or dance as you enter as a sign that in God’s Shalom, even enmity itself is abolished?
Romans invites us to welcome all people in the name of Jesus Christ. This is more than an advertising campaign slogan to get people to come to worship with us. As noted above, it is the Spirit’s call to each of us, sending us out to encounter those who are different from us and offer community in the name of Jesus. Consider asking people to bring signs of the people they see as they are “out there” among people who are different from themselves, and gather these around the main entrance to your worship space, so that as people come “in here,” they do so with “out there” very clearly in mind.
Justice, Baptism and a Clean Slate (Isaiah, Matthew)
As suggested above, the reading about the ministry of John presents a strong biblical warrant for baptismal reaffirmation as a response. Where is the font in your worship space? Consider moving it near the main entrance, where all can see it from as many angles as possible. (If you have a balcony that is regularly used, for example, do not place the font under the balcony!) Consider the possibility of baptismal reaffirmation AS the primary act at the Entrance, particularly if you will focus on Matthew’s gospel today. Or if you wish to retain the reaffirmation as a response to the Word, consider how you may make clear with art or music that entering the worship space and passing by the font means you are taking the immediate urgency of John and the call to long-haul investment in transformation with a seriousness that understands that neither is possible without the Holy Spirit. Singing “Veni Sancte Spiritus” (TFWS 2118 for the congregation, stanzas sung from the choir edition) continuously during the entrance may also help convey that sense.
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Introduction to the Season of Advent
See BOW 238.
Consider putting this in your newsletter or at the top of your order of service for this Sunday.
UMH 207 or 211, "Prepare the Way" (Luke)
BOW 241 (Matthew)
BOW 242 (Romans)
Isaiah 35:3-4 "Be strong; do not fear ..." (Isaiah)
BOW 250 (Matthew)
BOW 252 (Matthew)
UMH 201 (Isaiah, Matthew)
Hanging of the Greens (if not already done)
Lighting the Advent Candles
Concerns and Prayers
BOW 428, "Peace with Justice" (Isaiah)
BOW 520, "For Peace" (Isaiah)
Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Cape Verde, the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal
Invitation, Confession and Pardon
BOW 477 (Luke)
BOW 479 (Romans, Luke)
Dismissal with Blessing
BOW 561 (Romans)
Benediction: BOW 561 (Romans)
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This week in the liturgy for the Advent Candle, we light the second candle as a symbol of Christ the way. In the first chapter of one of the earliest documents of the church, the Didache, the apostles wrote that there are two ways: one of life and one of death. The way of life was to follow the Ten Commandments, the Great Commandment, and the teaching of Jesus. The way of death was to follow the ways of evil.
Paul writes to encourage followers in the way of life. Gentile Christians were to honor and learn from the teachings they inherited from the Hebrew Scriptures. Although the Old Testament was written for the Jewish people, it was instructional for all. The way of Christ teaches that both Jews and Gentiles are included in God’s saving work, and that Jesus is the one who brings everyone together and makes us able to live in harmony.
Therefore, as followers of the way of life, the followers of Jesus were to welcome and accept one another because Christ welcomed and accepted all.
Paul casts a vision for the season that resonates with the passage from Isaiah. It is a vision of a time and place where the wolf lives with the lamb, and the leopard lies down with the kid, and the cow grazes with the bear, and lion eats straw like the ox, and the nursing child plays over the hole of the asp. It is a vision of welcome and harmony among all of God’s creatures.
How do we, as a church community deeply engaged in the work of preparing to welcome into the world the one who taught us the way of life, live out this call to be more welcoming in the places we live and serve?
Do we show hospitality to all of God’s people? Whom do we tend to exclude and for what reasons? How can we live the way of life rather than the way of death in terms of being welcoming to all?
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This sermon help is based on both the Old Testament and the Gospel lections.
I’ve written here before about how when I was in high school I was really worried about nuclear war. As a matter of fact, I took a class called "Contemporary Affairs," which was designed to follow current world politics, twice (the second time for no credit) because I was so concerned about the fragile state of worldwide relationships that I wanted to be with other students who were talking about the issues and have a place to give voice to my fears. I worked through the church and my school to organize young people for protest marches, and I spoke at a number of peace rallies. And when I went off to college, my plan was to get a degree in Russian so that I could go to Russia on a peacekeeping mission when I graduated.
I graduated from high school in 1984, which was a period when the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union was at its peak. Nowadays, of course, the likelihood of a full-scale nuclear war between two nations who each possess a large stockpile of nuclear weapons seems less likely than the very real possibility that a nuclear device would be detonated on a limited scale by a terrorist group.
That is to say, the threat today is not so much of a worldwide nuclear holocaust, but terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, which would include biological and chemical weapons in addition to nuclear weapons. And of course, there is the threat of natural disaster striking all the time.
Remembering how I felt when I was in high school, so frightened that a nuclear war was going to happen, and maybe even more so in our world situation today, it seems very hard to believe in the prophet Isaiah's words that a time will come when "The wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them."
Unlike me, though, there have been many through the years who have had no trouble believing Isaiah, and who have trusted completely in his words. Isaiah was a prophet whose words were known well by a number of significant people, not the least of whom were John the Baptist and Jesus. Both of them were fond of quoting him, as were the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
In fact, Matthew quotes the prophet in the lection for this day, saying that John the Baptist was the one Isaiah was talking about when he said that someday there would be a voice crying out in the wilderness, saying "Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight."
Indeed, John the Baptist understood himself to be the very one who prepared the way for the Lord. That is why he called on people to confess their sins, and that is why he baptized them as a sign of their repentance. But John the Baptist was very clear about his role. He always strictly maintained that he was only confirming people's repentance when he baptized them. Furthermore, he said he baptized with water, but that somebody was coming after him who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Recall that after John was arrested, from the confines of his prison cell, he sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus if he were the person for whom he had prepared the way or if he needed to continue looking.
And Jesus answered by referring to another prophecy of Isaiah's. He said for John's disciples to go and tell him that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them, and those who take no offense at him are blessed. This was a direct quote from Isaiah, and as soon as John's disciples had left, Jesus began to speak to the crowds.
He said, "What did you expect to see when you went out in the desert to see John? Did you expect to see a blade of grass bending in the wind? Did you expect to see someone dressed up in fancy clothes? "No," he said, "you'll find the people who wear fine clothes only in the king's palace. You went to see a prophet, and a prophet is exactly who you found” (Matthew 11:2-9).
Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus: none of them operated separately, individually, or just on their own. They were aware of each other's' words, each other's actions, each other's vision, and they were dependent on each other, even though John the Baptist and Jesus lived in the same generation and Isaiah lived several centuries prior to them. Not one of them tried to bear all the responsibility alone. They worked together. They helped each other out.
It may be surprising to suggest to your congregation that they might think of Jesus as needing others as we do. This is because we tend to talk about Jesus as perfect and without sin, and this might lead us to assume that because he possessed those qualities, he was totally self-sufficient.
But if we think about it, we can see that he wasn't self-sufficient. Not only did he need the words of Isaiah and other prophets from the past, and the testimony of John the Baptist and other witnesses from his present, he also needed the company of his disciples.
Remember how he asked them, one by one, to follow him? He also needed the faith of those he healed, and the attention and thoughtful understanding of some among the crowds he taught and preached to. At the last, he needed the prayers of those closest disciples to agonize with him in the Garden of Gethsemene. And he needed some stranger to carry the cross for him near the end of his final walk. As a matter of fact, probably the one thing that Jesus stressed most in all of his teaching was the fact that we need one another.
As the advent of Christmas 2013 proceeds, it is not only imperative that we claim our need for one another, but it is, in fact, the example that Jesus Christ calls us to follow.
We live in an age filled with ironies and contradictions. Some call it the age of communication, which means that the whole world can know in an instant when any kind of disaster strikes. We not only hear about it, we get to watch it unfold dramatically on our television sets, computer screens, and smartphones.
Yet, at a time when we are able to be in contact with all places at all times, our own individual opinions and wishes seem to be heard by others less and less. We grow more and more lost in the crowd as the world population explodes. People feel more isolated and lonely than ever before. Many of us don't even know our next-door neighbors.
Medical technology has led to better health than any generation has enjoyed before, but we worry more and more about how healthy we are. We have access to myriad teaching techniques and aids for better and easier learning, yet our education system's effectiveness is declining each year. We have the ability to grow food year round and to store it and preserve it, yet there are many on our planet who are starving to death.
It would seem that at a time when we need one another more than ever, we know one another less and less.
It doesn't have to be this way. We could be working together better to make certain that all people on this good earth are well. We could be paying more attention to others instead of less. We could be reaching out to the lonely, the sick, the grieving, and the oppressed in our community a little more. Christmas is coming, and the message of peace and good will echoes all around us. Through the prophet Isaiah, God promises that one day the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the nursing child will be able to play without fear over the hole of the asp.
If that is the promise that we as Christian people live by, then we need to try extra hard not only to believe it, but to try and live it as individuals, especially since we seem to be having such a hard time living it out as a world community.
How much is it asking for us to try to forgive those persons we know personally who have hurt us? How much of an inconvenience is it for us to take some time out of our busy lives to listen to those we don't want to listen to or whom we disagree with, if that's what it takes to make another human being happy?
Don't we all need to pay attention to one another more?
Don't we all need to catch the spirit that caused Isaiah to make his wonderful promises and John the Baptist to feel the time had come for them to be fulfilled, and for Jesus to actually fulfill them?
Don't we need to catch that same spirit more ourselves, and pull together more?
Can it not be this Christmas that it shall come to pass that "they shall not hurt or destroy in all God's holy mountain, because the earth has come to be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea?"
If it cannot be that way, let us ask our congregations to at least try. And let us ask them to try together.
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