Worship Resources for February 5th, 2023—Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112:1-9 (10); 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16); Matthew 5:13-20

Narrative Lectionary: The Golden Rule, Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29 (Psalm 37:16-18)

The people had returned from exile in Babylon, but God was not pleased that they had also returned to their old ways. In Isaiah 58:1-9a, God, through the prophet, calls out the people’s hypocrisy. They continue to seek God as if they have done nothing wrong, as if they have always remained close to God. They are going through the motions of fasting and praying, but their actions continue to show violence and oppression. Their fasting and practices of humility don’t mean anything when they are still oppressing one another. Instead, God calls for a different kind of fast, one in which food is shared with those in need, the bonds of oppression are broken and released. When the people practice that kind of fast and call out to God, God will respond. In 9b-12, God further instructs that if they cease their wicked ways of blaming and shaming and instead feed the hungry and meet the needs of those around them, God will provide for them and they will have an abundance, like a freshly watered garden. They will rebuild the ancient ruins, and they will be known for their work of reparation and restoration.

Psalm 112:1-9 is a song of blessing for those who are faithful to God’s ways. They will always have an abundance to share out of generosity and their future generations will know their blessings. They fear no evil and stay firm in God’s ways. The faithful are secure in God, and their righteousness endures forever, for they act with justice and give freely to those in need. Verse 10 shows that those who are angry and desire the things that others have are wicked, and will “gnash their teeth.” In other words, they will know the pang of loss because they can only perceive what they do not have.

The Epistle reading continues its series in 1 Corinthians, moving to chapter two. In verses 1-12, Paul shares how when he first came to the church in Corinth, he came out of humility. It was the Spirit that convinced them of Christ, not his own words—he only came to make known Jesus Christ, and that he was crucified. Faith must not rely on human wisdom, but on the power of God. It is the Spirit of God that makes God known, not their own words, for it is the Spirit that reveals. Verses 13-16 explain that those who do not have the Spirit do not understand the spiritual gifts of God. Those who are spiritual have the mind of Christ, and are the ones instructed to teach others. Paul’s main argument is that the Corinthians are still arguing over who is greatest using the wisdom and understanding of the world, instead of seeking the mind of Christ to discern the gifts of God.

The Gospel lesson continues the Sermon on the Mount, which was part of the Narrative Lectionary selection on January 22nd. Jesus continues to teach the disciples and the crowds. Be the salt of the earth—be foundational, needed to others. Be the light of the world so that all people can see what God is doing in your life. Jesus concludes this section by sharing that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. They are to keep and hold the commandments, all of the teachings of the Torah and prophets before them—in essence, the entire Bible that they knew. They needed to be even greater in righteousness than their current teachers. Striving for the reign of God, to live rightly before God, is a way of life.

The Narrative Lectionary concludes Jesus’s teachings from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29. Verses 1-5 teach that we ought not to judge one another, because we judge others much more harshly than we judge ourselves, and our own ways of judging others clouds our perception. Verse 6 reminds the listeners that what God has given them is holy, and to direct their lives to God rather than throwing it away on things of this world. Verses 7-12 teach that we are to seek God first and foremost, and God will provide for us. We must treat others the way we would want to be treated (the Golden Rule), for this is what all of Scripture teaches. And in verses 13-14, stick to the path of God, the way of Christ, because so many are led astray through the gates of wealth and power and notoriety—even if they never gain those things. But the way of Christ leads into eternity with God, something we all can gain. In verses 24-29, Jesus concludes his sermon with a reminder to build their lives on the solid foundation of God and God’s ways, and not the ways of this world. The crowds were amazed because Jesus taught them as one with authority. He didn’t question or argue, he said, “This is the way.”

The supplementary verses of Psalm 37:16-18 speaks of the wisdom of pursuing righteousness over wealth, for God is with the righteous, and their faithfulness will endure forever. The ones that pursue worldly measures of success may find wealth, but also brokenness.

What does it mean to live in righteousness? We often think of this word as right-living: doing the right thing. Following God’s commandments. Seeking God in all we say and do. But the word righteousness comes from the Hebrew concept of tzedakah, actions that come out of compassionate kindness. Following the commandments is about our love for God and one another, not a ticket into heaven. It is about a change of heart and lives, not a formula for success. Too often, like the church in Corinth, we are caught up in the world’s wisdom, which is foolishness. It seeks personal gain: power, wealth, and notoriety. The foolishness of the world makes us want to be better than others, to have more than others, to fear what we do not have. But the wisdom of God has us put on the mind of Christ. To seek God in all we say and do. To love one another. To care for the needs of those around us. To work for justice and end oppression. The paths of this world are many, but the gates are often unreachable except for a few, and even then, what have they gained but all the wealth and power of the world through oppression and violence against others. The path of Chris is narrow and difficult, but it is the one we are called to pursue: the path of love.

Call to Worship
The world we made cries out, “Invest! Spend! Save yourself!”
The way of God teaches us to love, care, and serve.
The world we made shouts, “Protect! Secure! Close off!”
The way of God teaches us to share, lend, and provide.
The world we made threatens, “Be afraid! Be jealous! Want more!”
The way of God teaches us to be in awe, to have compassion, to be selfless.
The world we made lies to us about what is most important,
But God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and live in humbleness.
May we turn away from the distractions of the world we made;
May we listen to God, who calls us to care for the earth, to love one another,
And serve Jesus Christ our Lord.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Voice over the Deep, You spoke, and there was light. You spoke, and there was water. You spoke, and there was earth. You spoke, and we, and all of creation, were made. We confess the voices of this world we made tempt us away, sometimes unconsciously, until we suddenly wake up and realize we have followed the voice of fear, the temptation of wealth, and the pursuit of power. Call us back tenderly, O Loving God. Lead us in Your paths, O Holy Spirit. Guide us, O Faithful One, through the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, of Your Loving Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

God’s steadfast love endures forever, and the same voice over the waters of creation calls to us throughout eternity. There is no place where we can be hidden, no depth where we cannot be drawn out of, no shadows or bleakness where light cannot shine. God loves you so much, and desires for you to have an abundant life, a life that helps others. May we live into Christ’s ways and work to end oppression and injustice, so all may be loved by one another, and know God’s love in this world. Go with this wisdom and insight that God loves you, and loves us all. Amen.

Spirit of Life, guide us into practices that draw us closer to You, rather than the ways of this world. Teach us how to pray. Teach us how to seek You. Lead us into the ways of justice and mercy. Call us into times of reflection and speak to us in the ways that help us follow You. May we not spend only one hour a week, but every moment, every breath, in gratitude for You, our Maker, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Guide us on this journey of faith and life. Amen.

Worship Resources for January 29th, 2022—Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Revised Common Lectionary: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

Narrative Lectionary: Treasure in Heaven, Matthew 6:7-21 (25-34) (Psalm 20:7)

The prophet Micah spoke to a people who had gone astray from God’s ways. The prophet lays out the lawsuit before the mountains, before creation in 6:1-5. God brought the people out of Egypt, out of oppression, led by God’s faithful leaders: the siblings Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. God brought the people through the wilderness and rescued them from the king of Moab, delivering the people into the land promised them. The people are called upon to remember what God has done for them. In verses 6-8, there is a response to the charges—though there are all manners of ways that the people could give offerings and sacrifices, when would it end? When would the people have done enough? God has shown the people what is good: what God requires is justice, compassionate love, and humility in relationship with God.

Psalm 15 asks the question of who may enter God’s holy presence. Used as part of the liturgy before entering the temple, the psalmist’s question causes those who would enter to pause and reflect on their own behavior. Are they faithful to God’s ways, to all God has taught and commanded? If so, these are the ones who do right, who are truthful and pure in heart. They will not stumble in their journey with God.

The Epistle reading continues in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, repeating verse 18 from last week on the theme of wisdom verses foolishness. Paul argues in 1:18-31 that proclaiming Christ crucified is a stumbling block for those who demanded signs, because God is not supposed to die. For those who relied on philosophical insight, the cross is foolish, because once you’re dead, there is no coming back. Christ dying on the cross is not the sign of a strong god or a wise god; it appears foolish and weak. But to those who know Christ, this is the sign: Christ laid down his life for us and lives again. This is not the wisdom or power of the world, but God’s wisdom and power of resurrection. Christ became one of us and died as one of us so that no one may boast, for no one else can do this. Most of the followers of Jesus, especially in Corinth, had no power, few were educated or had any status in society. Yet they were the faithful ones, because they believed. Instead of rationalizing and looking for signs, they simply believed. This is foolishness to the world, but it is the saving power of Christ.

The Gospel lesson contains Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (this was a portion of last week’s Narrative Lectionary reading). After the crowds began to follow him in his ministry in Galilee, they gathered and followed him from several other places, including Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan. They gathered with Jesus on top of a mountain, where he sat down (like rabbis did in those days) and taught them. Jesus shared blessings in verses 3-11 to those who usually did not receive good news: the poor in spirit (Luke just uses poor), those who are grieving, those who are powerless, those who strive for righteousness and justice, those who are kind and compassionate, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. Jesus concludes this section with a blessing for those who experience gossip and slander and persecution against them because they follow Jesus. Their reward, as for all those who has listed, will be great in God’s reign, and their experience is the same as the prophets who came before them.

The Narrative Lectionary continues Jesus’s teachings beyond the Beatitudes in 6:17-21. Jesus teaches the disciples to not pray as they have seen others (sometimes Jesus compares the Pharisees or lawyers of other groups; this time he chose to compare the Gentiles). Instead of flashy, showy prayers, one ought to pray simply to God for God’s reign to come on earth, for their daily needs to be met, for forgiveness, and strength to avoid temptation. Jesus further instructs the disciples on fasting, that they not be hypocritical, because fasting is supposed to be an inward practice, not an outward call for pity. Jesus concludes this section with a teaching about storing up treasure in heaven—not worldly possessions on earth but aligning one’s life with what God desires for us.

An alternative, or additional reading for the Narrative Lectionary continues in verses 25-34. Jesus teaches the disciples not to worry about the day-to-day needs. God provides for the earth, God will surely provide for us if we strive for God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. When we work to fulfill the needs of others, our own needs are met. When we care for the earth, the earth provides for us. If we worry about taking care of ourselves first before others, we will never be satisfied.

The supplementary verse is Psalm 20:7, about taking pride in God and not in the powers and wealth of the world.

How do we live our lives in faithfulness to Christ? Are we living for worldly measures of success, of power, wealth, and notoriety? Someone posted recently on Facebook the concept that we have to give up being the hero. For white Americans, many of us were raised with the idea we could do and be anything, and if we don’t do it all or have it all, we aren’t as good as we could be. The privilege we are born into, even if we are unaware of it, or even if we experience hardships such as economic inequality—our privilege still often leads us to believe we have to have it all or that we have failed. We have to be the hero who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, or we have failed. Jesus teaches the exact opposite—blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are the powerless and the merciful and the ones who strive for justice even if they never receive it on earth, for theirs is the reign of God. Jesus taught us to become last of all and servant of all. Paul teaches that the world sees the cross as foolishness, and the ways of success in this world are foolish to God. Turn to Christ, who is our Savior, and give up your own need to be the hero of your story. Lay down your desires and perceived need to have it all. Instead, care for the needs of others, care for the earth, and God will care for all of us.

Call to Worship
Blessed are the ones who fall short,
For God is the one who lifts us up.
Blessed are the ones who are distressed,
For God is with us, waiting patiently.
Blessed are the ones who dragged themselves out of bed,
For God is with us in our lying down and our rising up.
Blessed are the tired, the broken-hearted, the distraught,
For God knows us to our bones, knows our very needs.
Blessed are you who have joined in worship,
For God is with you, right now.
Wherever you are, online or in-person,
Blessed are you, because You are God’s beloved child.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
We come to this time of confession, O God, knowing that our hearts are fractured. Each of us has experienced brokenness: broken hearts, broken relationships, broken dreams, broken cars, broke wallets, broken toys, broken bones. It may be a small piece, a brokenness we carry but move on with. It may be such a break that our lives have never been the same. You are the Great Physician. You do not erase our breaks and wounds, but bring healing, which can be painful in the process. We are healed by You when we mend one another. Remind us to reach out to one another, through texts and calls and old-fashioned technology such as greeting cards and notes, for this is mending. Guide us in prayer for one another, for this is healing work. Keep us in the practice of making casseroles and filling coffee pots and the deep art of listening to one another. This is all part of Your healing work in our lives, for You guide us in Your mending. May we mend one another, and know Your love is repairing and restoring us as You intended us to be. Amen.

Assurance/Blessing (adapted from the hymn “He Giveth More Grace” by Annie Johnson Flint)
God’s love has no limits, God’s grace has no measure,
God’s power has no boundary; there is no end.
For out of God’s infinite riches in Jesus
We are given, and given, and given again.
There is no limit to God’s love and forgiveness for you. Turn back to God and live into God’s ways, and believe that you are God’s beloved child through Jesus Christ. Go forth and live into God’s grace into this world, and share that grace, love, healing, and forgiveness with one another. Amen.

Creator of the Universe, it is unimaginable how much You love us. On this one planet out of thousands, perhaps millions of bodies You created in the universe, You love us. You created us in Your image, and then came to us as one of us, living as one of us, and dying as one of us. We cannot comprehend this, O God. Of all the mysteries of the universe, the galaxies and star clusters and elements we have not imagined yet, You love us, to the point of knowing the hairs on our heads. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Remind us in every breath, in every taste, with every sound and sight and smallest speck of dust, we are wonderful to You, and You are amazing and wonderful to us. You are God, and we know You. A God of many names, with one Son, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray and have new life. Amen.

Worship Resources for January 22nd, 2023—Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

Narrative Lectionary: Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-20 (Psalm 1:1-3)

The Revised Common Lectionary begins with a portion of a passage sometimes read in Advent, last part of the RCL as one of the selections for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In Isaiah 9:1-4, Zebulun and Naphtali refer to the historic lands of those two tribes, first annexed by the kingdom of Aram, and then into Assyria when the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into exile. However, there is hope for them—a new king has been born in Jerusalem, to Judah in the south. The king Hezekiah was a symbol of hope for all the people, that God would break the yoke of oppression and bring liberty, especially to those in exile.

Psalm 27:1, 4-9 is a prayer of help that begins with the assurance of God’s faithfulness. The psalmist has one request of God—to dwell in God’s temple, to be in the presence of God their whole life. The psalmist is confident that God will keep them safe. As they face their enemies in the present, they will continue to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and offer praise to God; however, they also continually plead for God’s presence to be made known to them, urging God to not forget them and to save them.

The Epistle reading continues its series in 1 Corinthians with 1:10-18. In last week’s portion of the introduction, Paul gave his usual salutations and hinted at what he would be addressing in his letter. In these verses, Paul addresses the major problem: there are arguments and divisions in the church. Different members are claiming to be followers of different teachers, including Paul, and equating Jesus with one of their teachers. Paul states that they were baptized in the name of Christ, not Paul, and baptized into a united church, not divided. Christ sent Paul not to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and it is the cross that is the symbol of Christ’s salvation. Baptism is the entry point, but the cross is the symbol of God’s salvation—foolish to those outside the faith or who have followed others, but it is the message of God’s power.

The Gospel lesson focuses on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Matthew. The Revised Common Lectionary skips from Jesus’s baptism to the call of the first disciples, saving the time Jesus spent in the wilderness and his temptations for the season of Lent. In Matthew 4:12-23, Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, and the writer of Matthew links the ministry of Jesus with the passage of Isaiah 9. Jesus began his ministry with the sermon, “Repent, for the reign of God has drawn near;” repentance and good news. Jesus then called his first disciples, two sets of brothers who were fisherman, leaving their nets to follow him, including James and John who left their father Zebedee behind in the boat. With these first disciples, Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching, announcing the good news of the reign of God, healing sickness and disease. People came to him with their various illnesses and those who were possessed by demons, and the crowds began to follow him.

The Narrative Lectionary turns to the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-20 (this will be the reading for the next two weeks in the Revised Common Lectionary as well). After the crowds began to follow him in his ministry in Galilee, they gathered and followed him from several other places, including Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan. They gathered with Jesus on top of a mountain, where he sat down (like rabbis did in those days) and taught them. Jesus shared blessings in verses 3-11 to those who usually did not receive good news: the poor in spirit (Luke just uses poor), those who are grieving, those who are powerless, those who strive for righteousness and justice, those who are kind and compassionate, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. Jesus concludes this section with a blessing for those who experience gossip and slander and persecution against them because they follow Jesus. Their reward, as for all those who has listed, will be great in God’s reign, and their experience is the same as the prophets who came before them. Jesus continues to teach in verses 13-20. Be the salt of the earth—be foundational, needed to others. Be the light of the world so that all people can see what God is doing in your life. Jesus concludes this section by sharing that he didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. They are to keep and hold the commandments, all of the teachings of the Torah and prophets before them—in essence, the entire Bible that they knew. They needed to be even greater in righteousness than their current teachers. Striving for the reign of God, to live rightly before God, is a way of life.

The supplemental verses are Psalm 1:1-3. The psalmist, in the very first psalm of our collection, begins with a blessing for the ones who love God’s instructions and meditate on God’s commandments. They don’t follow the ways of the wicked or the advice of those who are out there for their own gain. Instead, the wise are those who are rooted in God’s ways, like trees planted by streams of water, who bear fruit, and their leaves are full and vibrant.

The Beginning of the Good News. Where it all started—sharing the Gospel message of “Repent, for the reign of God, the beloved community of God, is at hand! It is here!” We must turn back to God, and we must share the goodness of God with one another. The first disciples heard this message and were compelled to leave their daily lives behind to follow Jesus. Others were compelled because of the Good News that was being lived and experienced: the healings, the inclusion of those who normally would have been cast out, the saving of lives. They began to gather together. Jesus shared good news for the downtrodden and broken-hearted, the oppressed and marginalized, and the people experienced it themselves. I think it’s much easier to preach good news than it is to live it. What would it mean to begin with caring for one another, for the well-being of each other, to bring in those who are normally left out, and to tell them that they belong to God’s beloved community? That they are loved and valued? The healing would be present. The message of repentance would be lived, for people would be turning back to God in their receiving of the invitation. Far too often, we have preached this message while people are suffering right outside our very doors. We have preached it as if someone has to change first. Someone has to do something to earn the right. Instead, Jesus preached the good news right to the people and they wanted to be part of it. The Good News is happening all around us, but is it happening inside the walls of our local churches? Sometimes. What would it take for us to drop our nets, to drop our defenses, to drop our excuses, and follow Jesus. I’m sure some, like Zebedee, would be shocked, but it may be what we need to do.

Call to Worship (can also be used as a regular leader/people litany)
(Right side of the congregation: turn to face the other side): Turn, for the reign of God is at hand!
(Left side: turn to face the others): Turn, and belong to the body of Christ.
(Right side: motion the other side to follow): Come, follow Jesus, and learn God’s ways together.
(Left side: hold hands outward, palms up, in a sign of welcome): We will follow Jesus with you.
(Right side: hold hands over your heart): The kin-dom of God is at hand!
(Left side: wave to the right): We see you and hear you and know you, the body of Christ!
(ALL: clasp your own hands together): We are part of the body of Christ, together.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Everlasting God, we confess our tiredness, our sense of overwhelm, the feeling of being burned out. We confess that this leads us to turn inward and care for ourselves first, while our neighbors in need still cry out. Help us, O God, to find ways of letting go of the worldly ways of our daily life that cause us to be sluggish and invigorate us to care for the most vulnerable. Remind us, O God, of the example of Christ who took time to pray and rest, but went on to feed and heal and proclaim Your Good News. Renew our spirits, O God, to let go of what drags us down in the world we have created, the world of empire, and instead live into Your reign on earth as it is in heaven, the beloved community of Christ Jesus our Lord, in which we are one body of many parts, but all in need of one another. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance (from Philippians 4:7, 9)
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. Know Christ’s peace is with you, beloved ones of God, and share Christ’s peace with one another and the world in your love and care. Amen.

This is the season, Ancient of Days, in which time can seem to drag on. The holidays are complete, spring is still far off. After an autumn and early winter of preparations and holidays and new beginnings, we are now in that lax time. Protect us, O God, for those of us in winter’s throes, in still dark evenings and mornings missing daylight. Keep our hearts and minds healthy, O God, and help us to seek help when despair overtakes us. May the spirit of Advent, of active watching and waiting, be with us in this season after Epiphany, and in all times when we are waiting for something to come. May we be actively seeking to reveal You to the world, and take notice when You are revealed to us. In You we have all our hope, and we pray in Your name. Amen.

Worship Resources for January 15, 2023—Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Narrative Lectionary: Tempted in the Wilderness, Matthew 4:1-17 (Psalm 91:9-12)

For the second week in a row, the Revised Common Lectionary begins with one of the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah. In 49:1-7, once again God declares that the people of Israel, personified as the Suffering Servant, are to be a light to all nations. Through God’s people, God’s faithfulness is made known, and though other nations have despised God, their leaders shall prostrate themselves and worship because of what God has done for Israel. God has known the people from before they were a nation, before they came to be. Though the servant did not want to follow God’s call, they now serve God fully, calling even their own people back to worship.

Psalm 40:1-11 is a song of praise to God for God’s faithfulness. The psalmist sings of their trust and hope in God, who has delivered them in the past and will faithfully deliver them from danger again. The psalmist sings to others, with the hope that those who hear and see will also proclaim their faithfulness and trust in God. In verses 5-11, the psalmist shares their own personal praise to God who has done so much for them, and they desire to do God’s will and to declare God’s love and faithfulness to all who will hear.

The Epistle readings begin a series in 1 Corinthians for this season after Epiphany, with the introduction in verses 1-9. Paul addresses the church in Corinth along with Sosthenes (who may have written the letter for Paul) and begins much like other Pauline letters, with grace and thanksgiving to Jesus Christ, bringing grace and peace to the ones he is addressing. Paul speaks of how the Corinthians have been enriched by the knowledge of Jesus Christ in their lives and the testimony of Christ, so that they are not lacking in any spiritual gift—a foreshadowing of what much of Paul’s letter will be about. Paul also blesses them by asking Christ’s strength to be with them so they may be “blameless” before Christ—another foreshadowing that Paul is going to levy some heavy accusations against the church for its behavior. It is by God’s faithfulness that they were called into fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ—a fellowship that is fracturing as Paul writes to them. Though Paul has a lot to be angry about with this congregation, he still begins with grace and peace, knowing that Christ is present with them.

The Gospel lesson turns to John 1:29-42, John’s account of John the Baptist. In the Gospel According to John, Jesus’s baptism is not told from a third person point of view, but rather John the Baptizer tells his own experience of baptizing Jesus, the one he calls “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” In John’s account, John the Baptizer didn’t know who Jesus was until the moment the Holy Spirit tells him, and the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. John’s own disciples turn to follow Jesus, and one of them was Andrew, who then told his brother, Simon, that they had found the Messiah. Jesus looked at Simon and told him he would be called Peter, a name meaning “rock.”

The Narrative Lectionary turns to Matthew’s account of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness in 4:1-17 and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee.. While told in all three synoptic gospels, Mark does not contain any details of the temptations. Luke and Matthew share very similar accounts, but the last two temptations are reversed. In Matthew’s account, the last temptation is that Jesus could have all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, if he would bow down and worship the devil. Jesus, having quoted Scripture each time, tells Satan to go away, quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, that one should worship the Lord their God, and serve only God. At this point, the devil leaves, and angels take care of Jesus in the wilderness. God cares for us and provides for us—the world’s ways of power and wealth and privilege are idols, tempting us away from God. When Jesus returns from the wilderness, he learns that John the Baptizer has been imprisoned. Jesus went to Galilee to proclaim his first sermon: Repent, for the reign of God has come near. The writer of Matthew links this to the good news the prophet Isaiah proclaimed in Isaiah 9:1-2, a passage often viewed as a messianic prophecy. However, in First Isaiah’s time, around 750 years prior to Jesus, this was good news of a new king born in Judah who would bring hope to the northern tribes captured by Assyria.

The supplementary verses are Psalm 91:9-12, which Satan quotes in the second temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:5-6. The context of Psalm 91 is about trusting in God who will protect and deliver the faithful. A good lesson about not taking scripture out of context. Jesus knows the psalm and that it is about trusting in God, not putting God to the test.

Both the Revised Common Lectionary and Narrative Lectionary focus on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry following his baptism. Jesus is prepared and ready to call the first disciples. Jesus is prepared to proclaim that the reign of God is near, for people to repent and believe in the Good News. As we settle into this new year, what is God preparing us for? Are you prepared to listen to God’s voice, God’s call on your life? Are you prepared to be surprised, and perhaps like Andrew and Simon, to do something new and different than what you expected? Like John the Baptizer, are you ready for what the Holy Spirit might do in your life? Like the people of Galilee, are you ready to hear the Gospel?

Call to Worship (from John 1:14, 18)
The Word became Flesh and lived among us,
And we have experienced the glory of God.
The glory of God’s only Son,
Full of grace and truth.
For it is through the Christ, close to the Creator’s heart,
Who has made God known to us.
We worship God, in whose image we are made,
And who has been made known to us through Jesus Christ.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession)
Almighty Creator, we confess that we like predictability, regularity, and routine. At times, we struggle with new insights, ideas, even hopes that things could be different. We are challenged to believe the reign of God is at hand, right now. We are timid when Your bold declaration of the Gospel challenges us to repent and believe. Grant us courage, and give us strength, to follow where You are leading us, by the Holy Spirit. Guide us into Your ways of love, justice, and mercy, to become living hope for those we encounter, to dare to believe that You love each one of us as we are and that we can become who You intended us to be, all of us, the children of God. We pray that things will be shaken up and that we can roll with the transformation You intend for us. Amen.
Blessing/Assurance (from Lamentations 3:21-23)
“But this I call to mind, and therefore, I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” While everything else is constantly in flux, changing at a rapid pace, God’s steadfast love endures forever. God loves you more than you can possibly imagine or comprehend. Fill yourself with that knowledge and go out and love one another. It’s as simple as that, to begin to change the world: love one another. Amen.

In the deepness of winter, O God, remind us that the bleakness will not hold. Spring is not a myth or false hope, but it is the endurance of faith, year after year, that deep in the frozen ground seeds will soon flourish, bulbs are ready to produce. In the high days of summer, O God, remind us to cherish each moment of warmth in the beauty of Your creation. We know that the constant of our tilted planet is for seasons to always change, to always bring us something new, whether challenges or blessings, hopes or trials. You are with us, Your love enduring with us, and You will see us through. In the name of Christ we pray. Amen.

Worship Resources for January 8th, 2023—Baptism of the Lord

Resources for Epiphany (January 6th) can be found in last week’s resources.

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Acts 10:34-43; Matthew 3:13-17

Narrative Lectionary: Jesus’s Baptism, Matthew 3:1-17 (Psalm 2:7-8)

Isaiah 42:1-9 is one of the Suffering Servant songs of Second Isaiah, in which the people of Israel are personified as God’s servant who have suffered on behalf of all people. Through the people, God will bring forth justice to all nations, and all nations will see what God has done for them. God is the creator of the whole earth, but the people of Israel are the ones God has chosen to show the world, to be a light to the nations. What God promised in the past has come to be, and what God is doing now, God will tell Israel before it even happens. God is faithful and just to the people.

Psalm 29 is a call to worship, calling the heavenly beings and all of creation to worship God and to be amazed by God’s holiness and splendor. The psalmist uses the forces of creation—water, wind, fire and earth—to show God’s power and might and how God reigns over creation. When we are in the awesome power of our God, we tremble in awe, calling out, “Glory!” Nonetheless, God reigns forever, and grants peace to God’s people.

Acts 10:34-43 takes place after Peter beheld a vision in which God commanded him to eat foods that Peter had previously known as unclean. In the vision, God told him not to call profane what God had made clean. Meanwhile, Cornelius, a Roman Centurion, had been told to go see Peter, for he believed in Jesus. In these verses, Peter has made the connection with his vision and the visit of Cornelius that God’s good news is for all people, that God shows no partiality. Christ has come for everyone, from every nation. While Christ was raised and this was witnessed by those who were faithful, they were also commanded to share the good news and to testify about him.

The first twelve verses of Matthew 3 were the reading for the second Sunday of Advent, and we circle back on this Sunday as we observe the Baptism of the Lord. Matthew’s account is the only one in which John questions if he should baptize Jesus, because doesn’t he himself need to be baptized by Jesus? Jesus tells John he needs to do so, to fulfill all righteousness, and then John consented. Jesus, born as a human, also needs to enter the water and muck of human life. The Jordan River was where the people washed their clothes and bathed and cleaned their dishes. It was where the people gathered to care for the mundane, dirty part of their life, and here Christ comes to meet the people. Not to have power over, but to become one with us. John agrees that this should be so, and as Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God descends like a dove, a voice sharing God is pleased by this. This act of righteousness is an act of trust in God, by both John and Jesus, and trusting one another. Jesus is placing his very body into John’s hands in an act of mutual trust and consent, showing that God is relating to us in a new, different way than we have understood before. (You can find more thoughts on this act of consent in Judson Bible Lessons Journeys for Winter 2022-2023 from Judson Press).

The Narrative Lectionary also focuses on the Baptism of Jesus in Matthew but includes the prior verses. The writers of all four Gospel accounts link John the Baptist to Second Isaiah, where in 40:3 the prophet declares that a voice cries out from the wilderness. Second Isaiah was writing of the time when the people returned from exile in Babylon, around 520 B.C.E. However, the Gospel writers identify this as John centuries later, who came from the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Some scholars believe John may have been part of the Essenes, a group of Jews who gathered near the Dead Sea and prepared for the Day of the Lord to come. They had similar practices of not eating meat, and the Jewish practice of the mikveh, a ritual cleansing in water immersion, was practiced more rigorously by the Essenes. John came from the wilderness and proclaimed this baptism, and people from all along the Jordan came to him. However, when some of the Sadducees and Pharisees, two other different Jewish groups, came to be baptized, John warned them not to rely on their identity or ancestry, but that they must go through the inner transformation, to bear fruit worthy of repentance. John declared that one was coming after him who was more powerful, one whose axe lay at the foot of the tree and whose winnowing fork was on the threshing floor. The one coming after John would work on them and they might not like it, for anything bad would be cut off, anything chaff would be torn from the wheat and would be burned. In other words, the one coming after John was coming to purify and cleanse. The masks any of us wear for the world, the things we hide behind—our religious identity, our lineage, wealth, power—whatever it is, it will not hold up to the truth of God—it will be torn away. We can’t hide who we are from God. Too often we want to hide our faults and shortcomings. But if we allow God to work in us, God can help us bear good fruit.

Psalm 2:7-8 is part of a psalm praising God and warning against other nations who plot against Israel that they are plotting against God. In verses 7-8, the psalmist declares a vision in which God, in appointing the king, uses the phrase “begotten son” to show God’s favor and divine appointment.

As we have entered this season after Epiphany, we read the Gospel accounts that reveal who Christ is to the world. At Christ’s baptism, Christ is made known to us in the act of his baptism, of his consenting to be as human as any of us, not exploiting the power of God but emptying himself in humility (Philippians 2:5-11). Throughout this season we will read of Jesus’s teachings, the call of the first disciples and Jesus’s first sermons, but it is in this act that Jesus grounds himself in our humanity, going down into the river with all of us.

Call to Worship (from Isaiah 42:9)
See, the former things have come to pass,
And new things God now declares;
Before they spring forth,
God speaks to us, now.
This is the Good News:
Jesus joins us in the tumultuous waters of our lives.
You are God’s beloved children.
May we worship and love our Lord Jesus Christ.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Living Water, we know that You have entered our humanity by joining us in the waters of baptism, yet we deny humanity to others. We have our fill while others lack food and clean water and shelter. We draw boundaries on maps and determine who receives aid while others go without. We make arbitrary divisions based on race and gender and dehumanize those who do not fit our image, instead of looking to Your image. Call us into Your ways, O God, to remember that we are made by You, and that You call us into the waters of birth and rebirth, to remember our common humanity and that we are Your beloved children. May we remember, may we repair and restore what we have broken, and work to live into Your ways, O Christ, our Living Water. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance (from Acts 10:34-35)
The Apostle Peter once said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” God loves us all and calls us to erase the divisions we have created to proclaim the good news to everyone, but more importantly, to live into it. Go forth sharing in the work of reparation and restoration, knowing that God loves you and calls you Beloved. Amen.

Spirit of Life, as we enter this new year, we give You thanks for all the ways You have remained faithful to us. Guide us into this new year to live into Your intention for our lives. Keep us from the ways of this world that tempt us to put our desires above the needs of others, and lead us into the way of Your love and care for our earth and each other. May we remember that before the whole year springs forth, You whisper us the promise of new life now. You give us hope in every moment, whether we hold our resolutions or not, because You call us Your beloved children. We know we belong to You; we are Yours, now and forever. Amen.

Worship Resources for January 1, 2023—First Sunday of Christmas, Holy Name of Jesus, and New Year’s Day

Some churches may choose to observe Epiphany (January 6th) either this Sunday or next Sunday.

Revised Common Lectionary
Second Sunday of Christmas: Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

Holy Name of Jesus: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

New Year’s Day: Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Psalm 8; Revelation 21:1-6a; Matthew 25:31-46

Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

Narrative Lectionary: The Genealogy of Jesus, Matthew 1:1-17 (Psalm 132:11-12)

For the Second Sunday of Christmas, we begin with a short reading from Third Isaiah, in which the prophet praises God and recalls all that God has done for the people. It was God alone who was their savior, who claimed the people as God’s own. God didn’t send a prophet, or a messenger, or an angel to do this—it was God who redeemed them.

Psalm 148 is a call to worship and praise for God. The psalmist calls all of creation into this act of praise and worship—all the heavens, the stars and moon, but also all heavenly creatures such as angels, and the “dome above the waters” (from the ancient creation stories). The psalmist then turns to the depths of the waters, calling forth the sea monsters to praise God, and all elements of fire, wind, water and earth. The singer turns to all plants and animals on the earth, before turning to the rulers of the nations. Lastly, crowning the list, are the regular people, young and old, all genders, coming together to praise God, for God alone is to be glorified, and the faithful know this.

The letter of Hebrews explains that Christ came not to help the heavenly creatures, the angels, but Christ came in the flesh to help all flesh. In Hebrews 2:10-18, Christ shares in our death so that we might be free of the fear of death. Christ is the merciful and high priest, and also the sacrifice. Because Christ suffered, he is able to help the believers who suffer, for the knows all we have been through. Christ had to be fully human in order to be the savior of humanity.

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 2:13-23 takes place after the visit of the magi. Not long after the wise ones have left, Joseph has another dream, in which the angel tells him he needs to get up and take Mary and Jesus and escape to Egypt, for Herod was looking for the child to destroy him. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to Egypt until Herod’s death. The writer of Matthew used passages from the Hebrew scriptures to prove Jesus was the prophesied Messiah. One such passage was Hosea 11:1, in which the prophet was referring to Israel’s past relationship with God, in that God led the people (personified as God’s child) out of their oppression in Egypt. Another was Jeremiah 31:15, in which Jeremiah uses Rachel, one of the matriarchs of Israel, to show that even their ancestors weep for what the people have been through as they were taken into exile. However, the following verse is God’s response to the people, that there is hope to be found. While it appears that the writer of Matthew took the verse out of context to show the devastation of Herod’s actions to the children of Judea, Matthew uses Jeremiah in a similar way to Jeremiah’s use of Rachel. Matthew is continuing a literary tradition, linking the past with the present in a new context. Nonetheless, we must not conclude that the new context is widely accepted by the community as a whole, nor negates the previous contexts. Once Herod was dead, Joseph again dreamed of an angel telling him to return, but this time, Joseph was afraid to return to Judea with another member of Herod’s family on the throne. Instead, he moves the family north to Nazareth, connecting Matthew’s Gospel accounts with other accounts that Jesus was from Nazareth. Once again, the writer of Matthew uses Hebrew scriptures, but either misunderstands the term Nazorean—a child set aside for God, like Samson and Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures—or it was a deliberate play on words. In Matthew’s account, this ends the stories of Jesus’s childhood.

For Holy Name of Jesus, the readings begin with Numbers 6:22-27, the blessing of God through Moses to Aaron and the priests, and then to the people of Israel. This blessing was given before Moses entered the tent of dwelling, calling upon God to give the people peace.

Psalm 8 is a prayer praising God in awe and wonder of all God made. What are human beings in the vast universe, the expanse that God has created? Yet God made human beings a little lower than divine, and put the earth in our sacred trust, to care for every creature on earth. How amazing and wonderful is our God, the psalmist proclaims!

Galatians 4:4-7 is part of Paul’s argument to the leaders of the church in Galatia, who made the Greek Christians second-class citizens. Paul reminds them that Christ was born “under the law” as the other Jewish followers of Jesus were. Paul’s view is that all are made children of God, regardless of if they were born a Jew or a Greek because of Christ, not because they follow the law, and therefore the Greek believers should not be subjected to anything other than faith in Christ.

An alternative Epistle reading is Philippians 2:5-11, the ancient confession of the church that Paul shares to the Philippians: though Christ was in the form of God, he was born a human being. He did not abuse his power, but instead emptied himself, serving God through his humbleness in the fullness of humanity, dying on the cross. God raised him and exalted him, and gave him the name above every name, so that all may know and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The Gospel lesson of Luke 2:15-21 contains the witness of the shepherds, proclaiming what they had heard and seen of the angels, and glorifying God in witness of the birth of the Savior. Mary treasured all their words, pondering them in her heart. After eight days, she and Joseph had Jesus circumcised, and he was given the name Jesus, as the angel Gabriel had told Mary to name him.

For New Year’s Day, the first reading is the ancient poem of seasons in Ecclesiastes 3:1-13, in which the Teacher (the narrator of Ecclesiastes) reminds us that there is a season for everything and a purpose under heaven. Verses 2-8 display an antithetical structure, in which each verse has two lines, and each line has a statement with its antithesis. Seven pairs show a perfectly balanced poem (seven being the number of days of the week, a holy number in scripture). We cannot control what happens in life, but verses 9-13 help us live into the balance of 2-8. There is nothing better than to find enjoyment in what we do and how we live now, because we cannot control anything else. Love God and love your neighbor and do your best. Better to make an intention for a good life than resolutions that will not last. (An expanded version of these thoughts are in Judson Bible Lessons Journeys for Winter 2022-2023 from Judson Press).

The Psalm reading for New Year’s Day is the same as for Holy Name of Jesus, Psalm 8, a prayer praising God in awe and wonder of all God made. What are human beings in the vast universe, the expanse that God has created? Yet God made human beings a little lower than divine, and put the earth in our sacred trust, to care for every creature on earth. How amazing and wonderful is our God, the psalmist proclaims!

The Epistle reading of Revelation 21:1-6a contains the vision John of Patmos beheld of a new heaven and a new earth, reminiscent of Isaiah 65. The new city of Jerusalem came down from heaven, arriving like a bride ready for her wedding, because God would now live with the people, and there would be no more separation between earth and heaven, between death and life—there would be only life, and all things made new. God is the Beginning and the End, encompassing everything.

The vision of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46 is of a king separating the sheep from the goats. Jesus tells the disciples that when the Son of Humanity arrives in glory with the angels, those who fed the hungry and thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned will inherit the reign of God. They will be unaware that when they did these things, they did them to the Son, but the Reigning One will know; for when they cared for the most vulnerable, they cared for the Son. However, those who didn’t do those things, who didn’t see Christ in the faces of the people among them, they will face eternal punishment. If we are waiting for a God to come and save us, or even if we believe we are already saved and we’re just waiting for the end time, we are missing God right in front of us, and God needs us, now—in loving our neighbor as ourselves.

For Epiphany we begin with the glorious proclamation of Third Isaiah in 60:1-6: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” For the people returning from exile, God promised them that nations would be drawn to their light, because of what God had done for them. They were a witness for God in the world, and would be blessed by other nations, who would share with them their wealth—including gold and frankincense, brought in on the backs of camels!

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 is a song of blessing for a new king. The psalmist asks for God to grant the new king wisdom and justice, and to judge with righteousness. The psalmist blesses the new king with long life as he listens to the poor and those in need, lifting them up. While the psalmist also calls upon other nations to bring tribute and to serve him, the psalmist also calls for the new king to deliver the most vulnerable of his kingdom from oppression and violence, to be on the side of the poor and needy.

While most scholars are uncertain if Paul wrote Ephesians, in 3:1-12, the writer, purporting to be Paul in prison, writes of how the mystery of God has been revealed now: Gentiles are also fellow heirs of God through Jesus Christ. Gentiles and Jews are members of the same body, and the church is what can bring them together on earth. Paul is the servant of God, called to deliver this message, even though he is “the least of all saints,” now in prison. God is using him to share the message: that through the church the wisdom of God may be made known to all people, even rulers, even powers in the heavens. Believers have access to God and confidence in faith because of Jesus Christ, who came for all people.

Matthew 2:1-12 contains the story of the visit of the magi. While sometimes this passage is included at Christmas with Luke’s story of the Nativity, and the magi are often included with shepherds and angels in our nativity creche’s, they are quite different stories. The magi, also known as astrologers, probably from Persia though it is uncertain where they came from, arrived in Jerusalem expecting to find a king there since that was where the royal palace was located. Instead have found Herod, a puppet king for Rome. The scribes look and find a passage in Micah 5:2 about a new king coming from Bethlehem, the city of David, to shepherd Israel. Micah was writing about Hezekiah, the new king of Judah in his time, who would prevent the Assyrian Empire from taking control of Judah. But here, the scribes have interpreted Micah to be about a Davidic king for their time. Herod sends the magi to go to Bethlehem, with the orders to return to Jerusalem and tell him where the new king is, so he can go visit him. The magi do go and find the child in Bethlehem with Mary his mother (Joseph is not mentioned at this point!). They pay him homage, offering him their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. However, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod (as an angel warns Joseph in a dream right after this story about Herod’s intentions), and return home another way. Note that in verse 2, in most translations the magi ask, “Where has been born the king of the Jews?” Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: A Multi Gospel Single-Year Lectionary, Year W in her translation on page 35 uses the term Judeans instead of Jews. This is a better translation because Herod was in charge of the Roman province of Judea, and it would make sense to be frightened of a new king of your province, rather than a new king of a people who are scattered throughout the Roman empire.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the Genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-17. The genealogy is actually of Joseph, not of Jesus born of Mary. Nonetheless, the genealogy shows that it was brave women like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, whose reputations were trashed by others, who boldly claimed God’s promises for themselves, and so it is with Mary, whom Joseph marries, who boldly accepts what God offers her in becoming the mother of the Savior. Joseph, in the line of David, called by God to serve the people, serves the people by taking Mary as his wife.

Psalm 132:11-12 contains the promise of God to David, that one of his descendants shall sit on the throne, if they keep God’s covenants and decrees. This is the hope that the psalmists and prophets carried forth into the hope of a new king that would lead as David led, and later, after the return from exile, in the hope of a Messiah, one who would save the people.

This is the first day of the new year, a year in which we enter with honest skepticism after the last three. Our expectations are greatly tempered, yet we wonder if God might surprise us. Are we, like those in the first-century Roman province of Judea, desperate enough to hope that the system might change? Are we open to being shown a new way from someone outside of our normal social circles? Are we simply trying to find the goodness here and now, like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes? In this new year, can we live more deeply into Christ’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves, knowing that when we care for the most vulnerable among us, we care for Christ? Where will we find the good news? What path may lead us forward?

Call to Worship
This is the first day of the new year,
Let us rejoice and be glad!
This is the time God calls us to rise up,
Let us rejoice and be glad!
This is the world God needs us to love,
Let us rejoice and be glad!
This is the day that our God has made,
Let us rejoice and be glad!

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Ancient of Days, from the first moment of creation until now, You have made all things new. We confess that we dwell on our past far too much, reliving memories, and wishing we could do things differently. As we move forward in this new year, may we be inspired to let go of what holds us back, whether its nostalgia, or fear, or our skepticism. May we embrace the wisdom of our ancestors and live with our past, not as a burden to carry, but as a treasure that continues to reveal new lessons and understandings. May we deepen our relationships with one another and with You, working to live into Your reign on earth as it is in heaven. To You, our Wise God and our Savior, we give over our lives and ask for Your Spirit’s leading into this new year. Amen.

We have been made a little lower than divine, with the wisdom and knowledge to care for the earth and one another. May we live into God’s intention for our lives. In wisdom, may we forgive one another as we are forgiven. May we extend grace and mercy as God has shown us grace and mercy. May we work to heal and restore as God continues to bring healing and restoration in our lives. May we love one another as Christ has loved us. In this new year, may we set this intention: to live into Christ’s way, truth, and life. Amen.

Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty! We praise You on this first day of the new year, where possibilities are endless. Help us not to get bogged down in expectations that disappoint and resolutions that fail, but instead, set our hearts on You, living into Your intention for our lives. May we seek Your wisdom in new ways this year. May we grow closer to You through spiritual practice, whether reading more of the Holy Scriptures, spending time in prayer or in Your glorious creation, caring for the earth as well as our bodies, spending time in silence—whatever we do, may we do so with the intention of knowing You more deeply in our lives, as Your intention for us is to have life abundantly in You. We thank You, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Epiphany Prayer
Arise, Shine! Star of Wonder, Star of Night, lead us with hope and peace, guiding us in Your ways of love and justice. May we welcome the strangers, learn from outsiders, receive Your unexpected gifts in the hospitality and blessings of others. May Your love continue to be revealed to us in this season, especially in unexpected ways, for You are the God of Mystery, continuing to reveal to us what has been hidden until now: Your wondrous, incredible love for us, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Epiphany ideas:
Star Words is an option to give each person a star with a word written on it, as a way of guiding people with an intention into the new year. Another way to do this is to give people a star to write their own word and ask what word is speaking to their heart, giving some examples. A third way might be to ask them what is one word they have for the church in the coming year, and invite people to write on their star, and create a star banner with everyone’s stars. One year I found wooden star ornaments online and had everyone use a permanent colored pen to write their word on the star and hang it on an Epiphany tree (a small fake tree) that we kept in our foyer as a reminder of carrying our light out into the world.

Worship Resources for December 25, 2022—Christmas Day

See additional resources for Lessons and Carols for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, along with A Spontaneous Nativity, the two-part dramatic dialogue What Can I Give? and a 12 Days of Christmas Calendar resource all on the Christmas Special Resources page.

Revised Common Lectionary:
The RCL gives three different readings, Proper I, II, or III, for Christmas Day. “Proper” refers to the specific reading for Christmas Day, as opposed to the “Ordinary” or constant reading (referring to each Sunday of the year), and comes from the Roman Catholic tradition. For most of Protestantism, this means we choose one set and follow it.

Proper 1: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Proper 2: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2: (1-7), 14-20
Proper 3: Isaiah 52:7-10; Psalm 98; Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12); John 1:1-14

Narrative Lectionary: Shepherd’s Visit, Luke 2:8-20 (Psalm 95:6-7)

For Proper I, we begin with Isaiah 9:2-7. In this portion known as First Isaiah, the prophet finds hope in the newborn king Hezekiah in Judah, for a war-torn northern kingdom of Israel. God was making a way for the people out of tyranny and bloodshed. The vivid images of battle—the boots from soldiers, the blood-soaked clothes—will be burned. The northern tribes had been taken into exile by Assyria, but this new king in Judah was born, a child of the line of David, whose reign would bring peace.

Psalm 96 calls the congregation to sing their praises to God and to declare God’s glory among all the nations, for God created the earth and heavens. Other gods are mere idols—there is only one God. The psalmist calls the congregation into worship, to give God all the glory and honor and praise that God is worthy of, calling the people to enter the temple and bring their offering. The psalmist concludes by reminding the congregation that all of creation worships God, and that God is coming to judge with righteousness and equity.

Titus 2:11-14 speaks of God’s grace that has come upon us, teaching us to renounce the world’s passions and instead live Godly lives. God’s salvation has come upon all people, and we wait with hope for the appearance of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. This is one of the few passages that directly speaks of Jesus as God, who gave himself up for us, so that we might be redeemed and be a special people for Christ, eager to do good in the world.

The readings for Proper I conclude with Luke 2:1-14, the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as the time came for Mary to give birth and she laid him a manger. The angel of the Lord appears to shepherds nearby, who are terrified at this sight of the messenger of God, and the heavenly host—the army of God—filling the night sky. Yet the angels share a message of Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth, peace. Heaven and earth both are filled with peace and glory on this night, and the ones who know it are not the kings or emperors, but the shepherds. In 15-20, the shepherds find the babe as they were told, and go on to tell what they heard and saw, and Mary treasured what they said, pondering the message in her heart.

For Proper II, we begin in what is known as Third Isaiah with 62:6-12. The prophet is looking out for the people who have returned from exile. God is calling them to come through the gates, and vows to never again have their resources taken by their enemies—their food, their drink, their vineyards and grain will all be protected, because they are a holy people, and God has not abandoned them.

God’s power and might are shown through creation in Psalm 97. The whole earth trembles before God who reigns upon the throne of righteousness and justice. Those who worship idols are put to shame, because God is above all other gods, and the people of Israel rejoice because they worship God. The psalmist concludes by calling the righteous to rejoice, for God is with them.

In Titus 3:4-7, the writer speaks of God saving believers not through their actions, but because of God’s kindness, love, and mercy, in our renewal by the Holy Spirit through our baptism. Through Christ, we are heirs to the promise and have the hope of eternal life.

The readings for Proper II conclude with Luke 2: (1-7), 8-20. The first seven verses contain the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, as the time came for Mary to give birth and she laid him a manger. Verses 8-20 is more the primary focus, the visit of the angels to the shepherds, who in turn are the first witnesses beyond Mary and Joseph who know that for them a savior has been born, in the city of David, the city of the shepherd king. To the shepherds this is first made known; the shepherds are then the first to share this good news, “for all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them,” and later they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, as it had been told them.”

For Proper III, we start with Second Isaiah in 52:7-10, where God has sent a messenger to the exiles returning, proclaiming peace, good news, and salvation to the people, for their God reigns. The lookouts at the city receive the people returning, singing together as God brings the people home. The prophet calls even the ruins of the city to sing their praise for God, who has brought the exiles home in front of all the nations: a witness of God’s reign.

Psalm 98 calls for the people and all of creation to sing praise to God, through musical instruments and through the sound of nature. The people have experienced a victory against their enemies, and the occasion calls for the people to praise God, who is the judge of the world. The psalmist claims the victory as assurance of God’s approval and greatness.

Hebrews 1:1-4 writes of Jesus as God’s ultimate messenger. In the past, God spoke through the prophets and our ancestors of the faith, but in these final days, God spoke to us through the Son, the light of God’s glory, the one who is greater than all other messengers. Christ is the one who can purify us from sin and is superior to all angels. In 5-12, the writer continues to show that Christ is the only one to reign over the kingdom, or reign of heaven, that God has established. The angels are made to worship Christ, for Christ is not their equal. Christ was present as the foundations of the earth were laid and will reign forever.

The Gospel lesson concluding the readings for Proper III is John 1:1-14. This beautiful beginning to John’s gospel tells of the Word at the beginning, the Word made flesh that dwelled among us. Everything created came through the Word and without the Word not one thing was created. John was sent by God as a witness to the Word, testifying to the light, the Word whose glory we have seen as of a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth. I highly recommend reading Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s own translation of John 1:1-14 in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, A Multi Gospel Single-Year Lectionary, Year W (pages 22-23), as Dr. Gafney uses the image of bleakness instead of darkness, so that darkness may not always be perceived as negative the way it often has in American context.

The Narrative Lectionary also uses Luke 2:8-20 as its Gospel text, focusing on the visit of the angels to the shepherds. They are the first witnesses beyond Mary and Joseph who know that for them a savior has been born, in the city of David, the city of the shepherd king. To the shepherds this is first made known, and the shepherds are the first to share this good news, “for all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them,” and later they “returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had seen and heard, as it had been told them.”

The supplementary text for the Narrative Lectionary is Psalm 95:6-7, a call to the people to worship God by the psalmist, for we are God’s people, and God is our maker. We are the sheep of God’s hand—a shepherding image to accompany the shepherds who witnessed the birth of the Messiah in the hometown of their shepherd king.

It’s always hard to find something new to say at Christmas. Perhaps you have already decided to do a Lessons and Carols service, or a storytelling of the Nativity, some other way to share wonder and joy on a day when many people will stay home with family. But it is rare to actually preach this story: God did something unexpected and decided to show up in our lives as vulnerable and helpless as one of us. God decided not to tell the kings and emperors or even the great prophetic types, but shepherds out on night watch. The heavenly host—the army of God—decided to share a message of peace on earth while declaring glory in the highest heaven. Instead of going to war, God’s army shows up and says “We have good news! Peace on earth, goodwill to all!” Everything that happens in this story was completely unexpected. Even Mary didn’t know when her water would break and she’d go into labor. The only one who knew was God, and God actually kept this a secret until that moment. What a wonderful surprise!

Call to Worship (can be read or sung)
O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him!
O come let us adore him,
Christ the Lord!
O come and worship Jesus,
Who reigns in us forever,
O come and worship Jesus,
Christ the Lord!

Prayer of Confession:
Almighty and Holy God, we confess that we cannot fathom how incredibly wonderful the gift of Your Son is to us. We try to keep this day holy. We try to be filled with wonder and awe and joy. We know we fail at times. Some of us experience grief and hardship, suffering and loss. Some of us are mindful of the state of the world, the despair and hopelessness that lies right outside these walls. Loving God, instill in us the spark of hope if it has died down. Keep the ember of peace alive in our hearts. Fan the flames of joy so that it may burn bright when the world tries to snuff us out, and may we continue to blaze with the fire of Your love, a fire that can never be quenched. You are the Alpha and Omega, the Eternal One, Who Was and Who Is and Who Is To Come, The Almighty. You are the greatest gift, Love Incarnate, Word Made Flesh, who lived and died and lives again, now and forever. Amen and Amen.

“Peace on the earth, goodwill to all, from heaven’s all-gracious King. The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.” The heavenly host, the army of God, declares a truce. Embrace God’s peace. Know that you are loved and forgiven. Go and share the good news, on this day and every day. Amen.

Ancient of Days, Storyweaver in our lives, may we live out the words of Dickens’ classic tale to honor Christmas in our heart, and try to keep it all the year. May we truly love and care for one another, sharing our gifts and resources, and living into Your ways of love, justice and peace, on this day and every day. Amen.

Worship Resources for December 18th, 2022—Fourth Sunday of Advent

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

Narrative Lectionary, Jesus as Immanuel, Matthew 1:18-25 (Psalm 23:1-4 or 23:4)

The prophet Isaiah spoke to Ahaz, the king of Judah, in Isaiah 7:10-16. Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was attacked by the northern kingdom of Israel, but the attack failed. Soon after, the northern kingdom with its capital of Samaria would be sacked and taken into exile. Isaiah speaks words of hope to Ahaz about a new child to be born in his household, a sign of hope. Ahaz refused to ask God for a sign, so God told Isaiah to share the good news of an impending birth (most likely of Hezekiah who would become king), a child that would be named Immanuel, God is with us. While early Christians began interpreting these verses about Jesus (using the Septuagint rendering of virgin instead of young woman), reading through verse sixteen shares the context that this was hope for Ahaz and the people of his time. The two countries that threaten Judah will no longer be a threat before the boy is even grown. The sign that the current troubles will pass, and soon, is a heartening message to a king facing war.

Psalm 80 is a prayer of help. The psalmist leads the people in prayer to God who is their shepherd to come and save them as they face exile and destruction. Perhaps originating in the northern kingdom during the exile of 721 B.C.E., most likely this psalm was recited during the exile to Babylon in 587 B.C.E. Verses 17-19 call upon God to allow God’s power and authority to be “upon the one at your right hand.” This may have been referring to the people themselves to be restored to God, but it was also sometimes interpreted to be David, or of his lineage. The refrain, “Restore us, O God” was the congregation’s response, their call to God to come and save them.

Paul’s letter to the Romans begins with an introduction to himself and the Gospel (good news) that he proclaims of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Christ’s resurrection is proof that he is the Messiah, the Lord—the Son of God. And now through Christ, the faithful are called to share the good news to the Gentiles and to bring them into obedience with God’s ways, and the faithful followers of Jesus who are Jewish are also included with the Gentiles. Paul concludes his introduction by blessing those in Rome who are faithfully loved and called by God to serve in the name of Jesus Christ in grace and peace.

Both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Narrative Lectionary use Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus for this Sunday’s reading. Matthew 1:18-25 is vastly different from Luke’s account in Luke 1-2. There is no manger, no inn, no census by the governor. Before that, no Elizabeth and visit from the angel Gabriel to Mary. Instead, we have more of Joseph’s point of view. He was engaged to Mary, but before they were married he learned she was pregnant, and planned to dismiss her. However, he was warned in a dream to not be afraid to take her as his wife. The child was conceived from the Holy Spirit, and would be named Jesus, for he would save his people from their sins. Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint (hence the use of Emmanuel instead of Immanuel transliterating from Greek instead of Hebrew and the use of virgin instead of young woman), as Matthew uses the Hebrew scriptures to prove who Jesus is as the Messiah prophesied, though often those scriptures are out of context. Again, no angels in the sky or shepherds visiting, just the birth of a son which Joseph named Jesus.

The Narrative Lectionary adds Psalm 23:1-4 (or just verse 4) as supplementary texts. The Shepherd’s Psalm has been associated with David for a long time, God as the one who tends and leads us to green pastures, still waters, and restores our soul. Even though I walk in the darkest valley, the psalmist declares, they will fear no evil, for God is with them. God is the one who brings comfort and protects them.

Though there was much to be afraid of, the angel told Joseph to not be afraid to be with Mary and to raise her son, for he was from the Holy Spirit. Isaiah told Ahaz to ask for a sign from God in the midst of war, but Ahaz was too afraid, so Isaiah told him what the sign would be—a new child born in his household, and the fears of the day gone in the near future. There is much to be afraid of, but when we call upon God, as the psalmists remind us, God will respond. God will come into our world and lives. God is already here. There is nothing to be afraid of, for even in the midst of our present struggle, as Ahaz and Joseph learned, God was with them. And God is with us.

Call to Worship
Look, here is the sign!
A young woman shall give birth.
Do not be afraid,
For the child is conceived of the Holy Spirit.
He is to be called Jesus,
For he will save us from our sins.
All this took place to fulfill what was spoken,
And God is still speaking.
God Is With Us.

(alternative idea: have different groups respond with Emmanuel, such as seniors, children, etc)

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God With Us, we confess that at times we feel very far away from You. War, poverty, racism, climate change—with all the struggles of the world, sometimes we wonder where You are, instead of asking the question of who we are in this world. We forget we are all Your children. We forget that You are with us, always, to the end of time. In the times of deepest struggle, may we remember that You promised us a sign of Your presence: Emmanuel, God With Us. Your covenant with us, to be our God forever, endures even when we forget. In this last week of Advent, as we draw near to Christmas, may we remember You are with us. As the promises of the world let us down, as the music stops and the celebrations cease, may we know You are with us, now and always. Emmanuel, God With Us. Amen.

Take a deep breath. With every breath, breathe in God’s love, breathe out your fear. With every breath, know that you come from God, and you return to God. With every breath, know that you are loved, and you love one another. Breathe deep, for the Spirit is in you. Breathe deep, knowing God’s love is within. You are made in the image of God. Breathe in hope, breathe out peace. Breathe in joy, breathe out love. With every breath, we wait for God, and know God is with us, always. Amen.

Prayer (in the northern hemisphere)
Creator God, this is the darkest week of the year. We enter this week with decreasing daylight, and we will end this week with the days beginning to grow long again. Help us in this week to know Your comfort and peace, that the darkness is a place of rest and renewal. The darkness is a place of hope, a space of growth, before the light returns. As we await the birth of the Christ-child, may we find where You are present, now, in this darkest time, a space where we are not afraid, but held in mystery: the cry of a newborn babe, the call of peace by the angels, the wonder of the shepherds, the musings of magi. Holy One, help us to sit in the dark and know You. Amen.

Prayer (in the southern hemisphere)
Creator God, as we approach our longest day, may we remember all the ways You touch our lives. May we give thanks for the year past and look forward, knowing that the days will grow short and there will be times of struggle ahead. May we hold on to the goodness in our lives and world and strive to live into Your reign on earth as it is in heaven. As we prepare for the birth of the Christ-child, may we live with the joy and wonder of the incarnation each and every day. Holy One, help us to live into Your wondrous story with the fullness of hope. Amen.

Worship Resources for December 11, 2022—Third Sunday of Advent

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46b-55; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Narrative Lectionary: Light to the Nations, Isaiah 42:1-9 (Matthew 12:15-21)

Today is Gaudete Sunday, which means “Rejoice.” Often, the third candle of the Advent wreath is a pink candle, or rose candle, as it is also called Rose Sunday. In the early tradition of Advent, the season was forty days, mirroring Lent, and a period of fasting. Gaudete Sunday was a day to break the fasting and celebrate, for Christmas is drawing near.

The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures continue to follow Isaiah in this Advent season. The prophet turns to hope of return from exile in 35:1-10. Before the “voice cries out in the wilderness” in 40:3, the prophet notes the wilderness and desert rejoice and blossom because of the glory of God. The prophet encourages the people to have courage because God is coming to deliver them, to lead them out of exile to home. Isaiah uses images of people with physical disabilities, including those who are blind, deaf, mute, or paralyzed, to symbolize spiritual limitations. In the time of Isaiah, people with disabilities were often excluded from the greater community, unable or unallowed to participate. The prophet uses these images to show that the limitations have been removed from the people. As twenty-first century readers, we need to focus on the liberation from the limitations of societal participation, for that was the image Isaiah was invoking, not a miraculous curing. All will be called to God’s Holy Way. The unclean—those who will not keep God’s ways—will fall away, but all others will follow God’s holy way into liberation.

Psalm 146:5-10 sings of God who made heaven and earth and is mindful of the most vulnerable among us. God is a God of justice: feeding the hungry, supporting those who are disabled, and removing oppression. God watches over the strangers and the widows and orphans, all those who are pushed to the margins of society. Those who do not follow God’s ways will meet their end, but those who are faithful will know God’s faithfulness.

An alternative to the psalm is Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46b-55. Mary, echoing the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2, responds to God working in her life and sings of God doing wonderful, mighty things for all the people. God’s justice flips over the tables and fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. God’s justice brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly. For those who are in places of privilege and have all the resources they need, this will not be good news, but for the oppressed and marginalized, God has come to help them. This is in accordance with the promises God made to their ancestors and to the people forever.

James 5:7-10 encourages the believers to be courageous and be patient, for the day of the Lord is near. James warns the believers not to grumble against one another, because God takes notice of everything. Earlier in the letter, James warned against judgment because God is the ultimate judge, and God is drawing near, so James repeats this warning. This passage concludes with James reminding the faithful of the endurance and suffering of the prophets before them.

John wonders if Jesus is the one to come, or if they were supposed to wait for another in Matthew 11:2-11. John, who was in prison at the time, sent word through his own disciples to Jesus questioning if he was the Messiah. Jesus’s response to the messenger was simply to tell John what he witnessed: the disabled are included and have good news, the dead are raised, and the sick are healed. In Jesus’s day, disabled people could not work, they could only beg. Good news was brought to those who had been left out, as they would not be left out of God’s reign. Perhaps John and others were still expecting a Messiah who would bring about a worldly kingdom, wearing the robes of kings or perhaps the powerful voice of a prophet commanding leaders, but Jesus was at work among the poorest, most vulnerable people. John the Baptist may have been the greatest prophet to be born, but the least in the kingdom of heaven would be greater than he—John could not envision a kingdom not of this world.

The Narrative Lectionary also focuses on Isaiah in 42:1-9, the first of the “Servant Songs” of Isaiah. While later Christians looked at these passages and saw Jesus represented, the people of Isaiah’s day, returning from exile, saw themselves—the people of Israel—as the one who had served God and had suffered. God’s spirit was among them as they returned from the exile, a witness to the nations around them. The people had survived and became a light to the nations, a witness of how God is the Liberator, the one who hears the cries and relieves the suffering. There is no other God, and God is bringing forth something new.

The supplemental passage is Matthew 12:15-21, in which the writer of Matthew’s gospel quotes Isaiah 42, linking the suffering servant to Jesus as he ministered among the people, healing those who were sick and suffering from disease. Quoting from the Septuagint, this translation suggests that “the Gentiles will have hope.” Looking at Isaiah’s time, the understanding would be that the hope was in understanding God as the God of liberation, the one who rescues and redeems the faithful, and that Israel was a light to all nations. For Matthew, the writer is trying to foreshadow Jesus’s own work in grafting the Gentiles into the family tree of Israel.

On this Sunday, we rejoice in God our Savior, a God who has remained faithful to all of us through the promises made to our ancestors in the faith long ago. God continues to work for our liberation from oppression in this world, the world we have made. God continues to pay attention and be most mindful of those our society often marginalizes and leaves out: those experiencing poverty, widows, orphans, disabled folks—and God prepares a way for them. When we see good news for all people, including the “least” among us, then we see the Gospel. If there isn’t good news for the poor, the disabled, all those who are pushed out, those who fear for their lives such as LGBTQ persons—if it’s not good news for them, it isn’t the Gospel. The Gospel is one who remembers and lifts up those who have been pushed out. We are still waiting for the day of the Lord, and in the meantime, as James warns us, we need one another. We need to find a way forward together, but especially for those we have often left out.

Call to Worship (from Luke 1:46b-47, 49, 52-52, 55a)
Our soul magnifies the Lord,
And our spirit rejoices in God our Savior.
For the Mighty One has done great things for us,
And holy is God’s name.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
According to the promise God made to our ancestors,
We worship our God of liberating love!

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God of the People, we rejoice with Mary’s song every year, yet we do not allow her words to break open our hearts. We still prop up the rich and powerful while the hungry beg on our streets. We still push people to the margins, especially the most vulnerable, and we imprison those who are in most need of help. May we hear Mary’s call, O God, and may our hearts break open. May we be challenged by these words and in our desire for peace and harmony recognize that if there are people oppressed among us, there can be no peace and there is no good news. May we live into Mary’s song and work to let the oppressed go free, to bring in those from the margins, to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty—even if it means for those of us with privilege to let go. Help us to do this holy work, O God, and work in us this Advent season to live into Your reign here on earth and bring the good news. Amen.

In accordance to the promises God made to our ancestors of faith, may we know that God’s steadfast love never ceases and God’s mercies are renewed every day. May we seek in this season to repent and turn back to God’s ways, and repent to each other of where we have gone wrong. May we work to bring reparation and healing in our relationships and in this world. May we live into God’s love, made known to us in the Word made Flesh that dwelled among us, and know God’s forgiveness and restoration in our own lives. Amen.

Joyful God, we rejoice in You this season! We are glad for the wonder and awe that Advent brings us as we prepare for Christmas. As we are still in a pre-post-Covid world, we’ve experienced much loss and grief in recent years. While we’ve eased up on some restrictions, we still take precautions, and we may be a bit timid in truly embracing joy. God, help us to know that while we may still be cautious, while we may still be careful for the well being of others and ourselves, we can fully rejoice in You, knowing that You are making all things new. We look to the future with hope, and we prepare our hearts to make room for You, for You are our Joy to the World! Amen.

Worship Resources for December 4, 2022—Second Sunday of Advent

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Narrative Lectionary: Esther 4:1-17 (Matthew 5:13-16)

For the second Sunday in Advent, the Hebrew scriptures continues a series in Isaiah with 11:1-10. The prophet Isaiah, having witnessed the corruption of kings that led to the northern kingdom of Israel’s demise and Judah’s own troubles, prophesies a new king who will come and lead as David led. While Isaiah was hoping for the new king Hezekiah in his time, the prophet’s hope is for all future leaders, that they would judge with righteousness and equity the poor and those in need. That a future king would not look to what benefited them but to the wisdom of God, and to seek God’s guidance in how they led. When the leader of the people seeks God, peace comes over the land, for there is no more competition with each other—it is only how they can best live according to God’s ways. The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard live with the goat—these symbols of peace in creation are representative of God’s abundant love. There is enough for all when we look to God’s ways. Other nations will look to Judah, to their king, and be drawn to them because of what God has done for them.

Psalm 72 is a blessing upon the coronation of a new king. The psalmist prays for God’s blessings for the new king, that God would grant them wisdom to rule with justice. The psalmist prays that the new king would remember the poor and those in need, and prays that the king would defend the most vulnerable, and that the king be blessed with long life and his reign with abundance and peace. The psalmist concludes by blessing God, for it is God alone who can accomplish peace and justice.

The Epistle reading continues in Romans with 15:4-13. Paul writes that the scriptures written before were to give us hope in the here and now, by God’s steadfastness and encouragement through the ancestors of our faith. Paul gives instructions to the church in Rome to welcome one another—indeed, throughout the letter Paul has encouraged the Jewish followers to welcome in the new Gentile converts. According to Paul’s explanation, Jesus was Jewish to confirm the promises made through the ancestors of the faith, but Paul also quotes the scriptures where it lifts up the Gentiles as people who also praise God. Finally, Paul quotes Isaiah, linking Jesus as the one who will come from the root of Jesse. It is important for us to remember that while Paul and other early Christians made this connection to Isaiah and Jeremiah, there are other interpretations among Jews about the Messiah, from before and after Jesus’s time.

The Gospel turns to John the Baptizer in Matthew 3:1-12. The writers of all four Gospel accounts link John the Baptist to Second Isaiah, where in 40:3 the prophet declares that a voice cries out from the wilderness. Second Isaiah was writing of the time when the people returned from exile in Babylon, around 520 B.C.E. However, the Gospel writers identify this as John centuries later, who came from the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Some scholars believe John may have been part of the Essenes, a group of Jews who gathered near the Dead Sea and prepared for the Day of the Lord to come. They had similar practices of not eating meat, and the Jewish practice of the mikveh, a ritual cleansing in water immersion, was practiced more rigorously by the Essenes. John came from the wilderness and proclaimed this baptism, and people from all along the Jordan came to him. However, when some of the Sadducees and Pharisees, two other different Jewish groups, came to be baptized, John warned them not to rely on their identity or ancestry, but that they must go through the inner transformation, to bear fruit worthy of repentance. John declared that one was coming after him who was more powerful, one whose axe lay at the foot of the tree and whose winnowing fork was on the threshing floor. The one coming after John would work on them and they might not like it, for anything bad would be cut off, anything chaff would be torn from the wheat and would be burned. In other words, the one coming after John was coming to purify and cleanse. The masks any of us wear for the world, the things we hide behind—our religious identity, our lineage, wealth, power—whatever it is, it will not hold up to the truth of God—it will be torn away. We can’t hide who we are from God. Too often we want to hide our faults and shortcomings. But if we allow God to work in us, God can help us bear good fruit.

The Narrative Lectionary turns to Esther, specifically chapter four. Esther’s cousin Mordecai went into public mourning at the gates of the city. Esther tried through her servants to get him to wear proper clothing, but he refused, and she didn’t know why he mourned. Mordecai was making it public that he was both Jewish and mourning for what would happen to the people, while Esther was comfortable in the palace, no one else knowing she was Jewish. When Esther finally was able to get a messenger to Mordecai, he told her about the decree Haman issued to destroy the Jews and told her she must go to the king and tell him what had happened. Esther replied that no one could go to the king without being summoned or risk being put to death. However, Mordecai warned her that she would not be safe, not even in the palace. If she refused to speak, someone else would come to their aid, but perhaps she ought to look at all that had happened to get her to the palace—perhaps she ought to recognize her privilege in this position might be for “such a time as this.” Esther recognized that it was indeed such a moment, and ordered that Mordecai let all the Jews in Susa know what was going on and to fast on her behalf, for she would risk her own life and go to the king to save her people.

The supplementary verses are Matthew 5:13-16, in which Jesus tells the disciples after giving the Beatitudes that they are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. They are meant to give flavor, to shine and not be hid. They are meant to be known so that God might be made known through them.

Advent means “coming into view.” This is the time when masks are falling off and our true selves are revealed. Either we are watching for the signs of Christ’s return in our world and in our lives, or we are still living in the ways of this world. The ways of this world call us to desire more and to consume more, to look for ways to increase our privilege and power. The way of Christ calls us to seek the welfare of others, to live into righteousness and justice. John prepares the way because John reminds us that we have to bear fruit worthy of repentance. That we can’t pretend we are faithful to Christ when we haven’t been faithful each and every day. It’s better for us to be honest with ourselves, that we have fallen short, that we have failed to seek God at times, and that we try to do better, than to put on the world’s mask and pretend that we are good and faithful people. John calls us to tear off the mask. Esther reminds us that even if we have privilege, we must use that privilege to help the most vulnerable among us and if we aren’t willing to risk it, then we’re still living with the mask on. We’re being fake, and we’re seeking the ways of the world and not God. We are called to get real with ourselves, for Christ is coming.

Call to Worship
Watch for it! It’s coming into view—
The ways of this world have led to dead ends,
but Christ leads us to life.
Wait for it! The signs are around us—
When we seek the welfare of the most vulnerable,
we seek the well-being of all.
The time is at hand! Repent!
It is time to recognize where we have gone astray,
Time to turn back to God’s love and justice.
We are almost there!
Let’s be real with one another: we need each other.
May we find a way to journey together in hope.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Creator God, we confess that we put on masks in this world: masks of happiness to cover our depression. Masks of wealth to cover our emptiness. Masks of social status to cover up our feelings of inadequacy. We think some masks are better than others, when underneath it all we are simply bone and flesh, brought together by You. Help us to take off the mask and be our real self. Help us to acknowledge our shortcomings and mistakes. Help us to embrace our depression and illness so we can find ways of healing. Call us to look in the mirror and see our true self: the image of the Beloved One, the image of You. Help us to remove our masks, so we can truly view the world as it is, and work to repair what is broken. Amen.

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. We are tenderly cared for by our Beloved God. May we be tender with each other as we remove the masks of the world. May we help each other repair and heal, restore and make whole. May we love one another with the tender love of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we have life. Amen.

O Come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh. To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in her ways to go. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, God With Us, and lead us away from the ways of the world we have made, and into Your wisdom. May we listen to the prophets and sages of old, and hear the cries for justice in the hear and now. O Come, Desire of Nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind. Bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease. Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace. May we rejoice in Your arrival in our hearts and world in a new way. Amen.