Worship Resources for January 7, 2024—Baptism of the Lord Sunday, Epiphany (Observed)

In some Protestant churches, Epiphany will be observed on the Sunday closest to January 6.

Revised Common Lectionary

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

Baptism of the Lord: Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Narrative Lectionary: Jesus Heals and Teaches, Mark 2:1-22 (Psalm 103:6-14)

For Epiphany we begin with the glorious proclamation of Third Isaiah in 60:1-6: “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” The light of God’s glory has risen upon the people, returning from exile. But in verse three, God promised the people that nations would be drawn to their light, because of what God had done for them. The people become a light for the nations, a witness for God in the world. They 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, they found Herod, a puppet king for Rome. The scribes found 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 in this visit of the Magi!). 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. Wil 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.

For Baptism of the Lord, we turn to the first five verses of the Bible, the beginning of the creation of the heavens and earth. The NRSVUE reads in verse two, “the earth was complete chaos.” Out of this chaos, over the face of the deep, a wind from God sweeps over the waters, and God speaks. There is light, there is a separation of light from darkness, and creation of day and night, evening and morning, the first day. God made order out of chaos, balance out of light and dark, and goodness all around.

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.

In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters some disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus. These disciples did not know about the Holy Spirit, and it is unclear if they knew the one John prophesied about, Jesus, had come. Paul explains that they were baptized into the repentance of forgiveness of sins, but they were not baptized in the name of Jesus. The disciples of John, which numbered twelve, were then baptized, and Paul laid his hands upon them. They received the Holy Spirit and were able to instantly use the gifts of the Spirit.

Mark 1:4-11 contains the story of Jesus’s baptism. Mark’s Gospel account is generally short on details, but the details we have on John are interesting. He appeared in the wilderness and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. Mark doesn’t have the stories Luke contains, that John’s parents were both from priestly families and his father was a priest—perhaps it was thought he would also be a priest serving in the temple. Instead, we first find him here in Mark’s account in the wilderness. John was clothed with camel’s hair, wore a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. Many scholars believe John may have been with the Essenes at the edge of the Dead Sea, a group that believed the Day of the Lord would be upon them at any time. They ate a mostly vegetarian diet, and used the Jewish practice of the mikveh, the ritual bath, on a regular basis (as a symbol of being washed clean). The mikveh was a pool that had continuous flow of water (not stagnant like a tub). It seems John may have taken this use into the practice of baptism in the river Jordan, which was a muddy river, where people washed their clothes and dishes. John proclaimed there was one coming after him, whose sandals he was unworthy to untie. Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee came to him to be baptized, and the Spirit appeared like a dove above him as he was baptized, stating this was God’s son, the Beloved, with whom God was well pleased. Jesus chose to get into the dirty water of people’s lives to be baptized, to, as Matthew’s account states, “fulfill all righteousness” (3:15).

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Mark 2:1-22. Jesus returned home to Galilee, and while he was in Capernaum it was reported that “he was at home.” There was no room for anyone else to enter the house, so four friends of a man who was paralyzed climbed up on top of the roof, removed part of it and dug through the thatch. They lowered their friend down on the mat that he lay upon. Jesus saw their faith (that is, the friends’ faith) and said to the man paralyzed, “Your sins are forgiven.” Some of the scribes questioned him and said this was blasphemous, because only God could forgive sins. Jesus could tell they were talking about him and questioning his motives, so he questioned them, “which is easier to say, your sins are forgiven, or stand up, take your mat, and walk?” To show the scribes he did have the authority to forgive sins, he then told the paralyzed man to stand up, take his mat, and to walk. Everyone was amazed, having never seen anything like this. But it does us well to remember it was the faith of the friends that amazed Jesus. To the man paralyzed, he simply told him his sins were forgiven. It was only after, when Jesus perceived the hearts of the scribes and others grumbling, that he told the man to stand up and walk.

Following this, Jesus went out to teach by the sea, and as he walked along, he called to Levi the tax collector and told him to follow him. Jesus later sat and had dinner at Levi’s house, and some of the religious authorities grumbled that Jesus and his disciples were eating with tax collectors and sinners. The religious authorities questioned Jesus’s disciples, but Jesus replied to the authorities that he came not for the righteous but for sinners, the way those who are sick need a physician, not those who are well.

In a third scene in this passage, people questioned why Jesus’s disciples did not fast, like John’s disciples did, along with the Pharisees. Jesus explained that no one fasts at a wedding while the bridegroom is present. Using the image of himself as the bridegroom, Jesus explained there will come a time when he will be taken away and then they will fast. In verses 21-22, Jesus used the image of a new patch and new wineskins. You can’t put a new patch on old clothes because the new patch isn’t worn like the old and will pull away. New wine poured into old wineskins will burst the wineskins—new must be put into new. Jesus taught that he would do things in a new way, as he did not fit the people’s expectations.

The supplementary verses of Psalm 103:6-14 speak of how God works on behalf of the oppressed for justice. God made God’s ways known to Moses and the people, and God has love for the people as a father has love and compassion for his children. God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, for God’s way is compassion.

On this first Sunday in the new year, there are rich stories, of both the visit of the Magi or the baptism of Jesus that remind us to view this new year with freshness. Perhaps our hopes have been tempered from recent years—the pandemic, past politics, the upcoming election in the U.S., the ongoing war in Gaza, the continued military coup in Myanmar in which thousands of refugees are fleeing every day. How do we look to the new year as anything but more of the same, or worse?

We remember that in an atmosphere of fear, scholars from another land came looking for a newborn to pay him homage. We remember that in the muck and mud of this world, John calls us into the waters to be baptized. To start new right here, right now. To claim that in this year, I will not succumb to violence. I will not be overtaken by hate and fear. I will stay true to God’s ways of overwhelming compassion and empathy. I will be led into this new year by another way. I will repent of the ways of this world and listen for the voice of God calling my name, telling me I am God’s beloved child, and I will know that God is well pleased with me. May it be so.

Call to Worship (Psalm 29:1-4, 11, Common English Bible)
You, divine beings! Give to the Lord—
Give to the Lord glory and power!
Give to the Lord the glory due God’s name!
Bow down to the Lord in holy splendor!
The Lord’s voice is over the waters; the glorious God thunders;
The Lord is over the mighty waters.
The Lord’s voice is strong;
The Lord’s voice is majestic.
Let the Lord give strength to God’s people!
Let the Lord bless God’s people with peace!

Prayer of Invocation
God of New Beginnings, we gather in Your name on the first Sunday of the new year. Help us to not be jaded by the ways of the world, but to trust in Your love that You continue to make all things new, including our hearts and our hopes. Restore in us the joy of Your salvation and place a new and right spirit within us all. May we enter this time of worship focused on You, knowing that You will never leave us or forsake us, and that we are part of each other as the body of Christ, gathered in fellowship and in praise of You. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God of Justice and Mercy, we confess that our ways are not Your ways. Our human desire for justice is often confused with retribution. We want punishment, for others to hurt how we have hurt, to experience the losses we have felt. This is not Your way, taught by Jesus. Jesus laid down his life for us. Jesus taught us to actively resist evil and to pray for those who persecute us. In our practice of justice, in our call for righteousness, remind us to be wary of words that cause harm instead of building up. Guard us from actions that will undermine the work of justice. For those of us with privilege, call us into accountability of knowing when to be silent and lift up other voices rather than our own. Help us often to pause and reflect before we act, so that we might minimize harm and be true to Your ways of love, justice and mercy. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance
You are God’s child, the Beloved Ones. You are here, you have already made an effort to be part of something outside of yourselves. Now, take what you are learning about God’s extravagant love and shape your life around it. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Be kind to others, lift up the voices of the marginalized, make space for those who have been left out. Build up one another in the Spirit. Seek forgiveness where you have gone astray, repent, and turn back to God’s ways. For with you, God is well pleased. Amen.

Prayer
Creator of the Stars, when we look up at the heavens, we know how small we really are, how incredibly insignificant to the rest of the entire universe. We are one tiny speck of dust in a grand universe, precious and fragile. Yet You hold us carefully in Your hands. In our fragility, we sometimes lash out at You and others. Remind us how incredibly significant each and every one of us is to You, O God, and to each other. We are precious and awesome and fearfully and wonderfully made by You, our Wondrous Creator. Call us to love one another, to remember how much we are loved, and to build upon the foundation of love that You are creating Your kin-dom upon. Amen.

Worship Resources for December 31st, 2023—First Sunday after Christmas Day, Holy Name of Jesus, New Year’s Eve

Revised Common Lectionary:

First Sunday after Christmas Day: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

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

Narrative Lectionary: Beginning of Good News, Mark 1:1-20 (Psalm 91:9-12)

There are three possible choices for most Protestant churches this Sunday following the Revised Common Lectionary:

For the First Sunday after Christmas Day, the lessons begin with Isaiah 61:10-62:3. The good news of God’s salvation for the people has come in the return from exile. Like a bridegroom, God has dressed the people in the clothing of a bride, very festive and celebratory, a public declaration of God’s love for the people. As the chapter turns, the voice of the narrator turns back to the prophet, who will not keep quiet about what God has done for the people. Other nations shall see the glory of God through the city of Jerusalem, as her walls are restored like a crown, a symbol that the nation once taken into exile in defeat has returned in glory.

Psalm 148 is a song of praise from all of creation to God. The psalmist calls all the heavenly beings, the celestial objects, everything God created above the earth to praise God. Then the psalmist turns to the earth: sea monsters and creatures from the birth of creation, all the meteorological elements, the earth itself, all animals and plants and birds of the air. Next, the psalmist calls upon the people: all rulers, kings and princes, young and old, women and men and all people, to praise God. God is above all, creator of all, and is the advocate for the people. The psalmist concludes by praising the faithful, the people of Israel closest to God.

Paul wrote to the church in Galatia after a great controversy arose where Gentile believers were treated as not fully part of the fellowship with Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul reminds them in 4:4-7 that Jesus came as “under the law” and through Jesus they are children of God in Christ, not through their background. So they are heirs of God as children of God because of the adoption of Christ, as are all who believe in Jesus.

Luke 2:22-40 contains the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple. Mary and Joseph follow through on their commitment as Jewish parents in the purification rites after birth, presenting their firstborn to the Lord, and offering a sacrifice on his behalf. But while they are there, they encounter Simeon, a man who was faithful to God’s ways and had a revelation from the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before he died. He took Jesus in his arms and praised God, including a word of blessing for the Gentiles as well as the people of Israel. Simeon blessed both Joseph and Mary but warned that the child would face opposition and be a sign of the rising and falling of many, and specifically warned Mary that she would experience great pain in her soul. Along with Simeon, Anna also met Joseph and Mary at the temple. She was eighty-four, a prophet and a widow, and praised God and spoke about the child. After the visit to the temple, Mary and Joseph and Jesus returned to Galilee and raised Jesus there.

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 Eve/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.

The Narrative Lectionary turns to the beginning of the Good News in Mark 1:1-20. Part of this passage was included in the Advent readings this year in the Revised Common Lectionary. Mark begins the gospel account with a quote from Isaiah and that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. John declared that one more powerful than him was coming after him, who would baptize the people with the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus came to John to be baptized, and the Spirit descended upon him, declaring that Jesus was the Beloved Son. Jesus was immediately driven into the wilderness by the Spirit, where he was tempted by Satan, and the angels waited on him. Following his time in the wilderness, Jesus declared that the time was fulfilled, the reign of God had drawn near, and he called upon the people to repent and believe in the Good News. Four fisherman left their boats and followed Jesus when he called them, the first disciples.

The supplementary verses of Psalm 91:9-12 is the scripture the devil quotes in both Luke and Matthew while Jesus is in the wilderness (Mark’s account does not contain the three temptations). The devil tries to tempt Jesus to throw himself off the pinnacle of the tower to test God. But Jesus knows that God is already with him, and quotes back “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

There are so many choices for this Sunday, and many may choose not to preach a sermon today. Families are traveling, New Year’s plans are made, and some pastors will be on vacation. Some churches will do a storybook Sunday, or Lessons and Carols (The Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols Sample Service on my Christmas Resources page has each Advent candle lit on the wreath throughout the service that might be easy to adapt for this Sunday).

The Gospel lesson from the First Sunday after Christmas is a story we do not often read, of Jesus’s dedication in the temple. In a time where antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise, it is important to remember as Christians that we are all branches with the same roots. Even with that metaphor, we must be careful not to proclaim a supersessionist Gospel, but rather an acknowledgement that Jesus was fully Jewish. His parents had him circumcised (Luke 2:21) and later brought him to the temple for the sacrifice after Mary’s purification. Simeon’s proclamation that Jesus would be a light for the Gentiles as well as a light for glory for the people of Israel is a reminder that for the early followers of Jesus who were Jewish, many thought the Gentiles would come and join with them. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (and Luke’s later writing in Acts) shows otherwise—that through Jesus all become adopted heirs of God, not through the following of the law. However, Jesus himself followed the law of Moses, as did his parents at his birth. This passage can be a reminder to us to honor our roots as well as our differences in understanding who we are as God’s peoples.

Perhaps a reading of Maya Angelou’s Amazing Peace, the poem she wrote for the 2005 White House Christmas Tree Lighting, might be appropriate (it is also available as a book to purchase). I would caution reading this to a multi-faith community because it still is a Christian-centric poem, but it does invite others into a spirit of peace. So in a church, this would be an appropriate setting to read.

As we prepare for 2024, may this Sunday bring light-heartedness and hope for the year about to turn.

Call to Worship (Psalm 148:1-5)
Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
Praise God in the heights!
Praise God, all the angels;
Praise God, all the heavenly host!
Praise God, sun and moon;
Praise God, all you shining stars!
Praise God, you highest heavens,
And you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
For God commanded and they were created.

Prayer of Invocation
Almighty One, we enter this time of worship, prepared for the calendar to turn the page, the year to turn to twenty twenty-four, and we give thanks for all You have done for us, for the year You have brought us through. Before the next year begins, may we put aside the busy-ness of the world to focus on You, to join our hearts in worship, in prayer and praise and thanksgiving, for You are the God of all seasons, of all times, the Alpha and Omega, who was and who is and who is to come, the Almighty. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Ancient of Days, we confess that we have broken our resolutions, forgotten our promises, failed to fulfill our vows. We look back on our last year and perceive the disappointments, our regrets and failings. But we also confess that You are our Creator, and You make all things new. We confess our sins and know that You offer us forgiveness, when we truly repent and turn back to You and Your ways. On the eve of this new year, may we look to the good You have done for us, the goodness we have experienced in one another, the love shared, the hopes fulfilled and still to come, and the joy of life that You have given us. May we let go of the regrets and mistakes and guilt, and reclaim the promise in You of new life, abundant life, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance
It’s not just January 1, but each and every day that is a new day, a new blessing from God. Each and every day is the possibility to start again. Each and every day is a reminder of God’s extravagant love for you. Know this: God loves you so much God sent the Son for you. For all of us, but especially for you, because God loves you as God’s own. You are God’s beloved, and when you turn back to God’s ways, God is well pleased with you. Go and share the good news, that each and every day is a new day of hope, of love, of peace. Amen.

Prayer
God of Hope, we enter this space between the years with trepidation. We have had our hopes dashed before. We have had our world stop, the rug pulled out from under us in years past. We know the trap of thinking that the next year is full of all good things. And yet we still hope for it. We still hope for peace. We still hope for reconciliation and reparation and restoration. Remind us, Loving One, that we have to become the agents of hope in this world. We must be living hope to others, or we are speaking empty words. We must love our neighbors as ourselves. We must look to the most vulnerable in society to make sure their needs are met. We must participate in the work of justice to pursue peace. We pray, O God, that You will challenge us, inspire us, and guide us into this New Year to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with You. Amen.

Worship Resources for December 24 & 25—Christmas Eve and Christmas Day

Click here for Worship Resources for December 24–Fourth Sunday of Advent

See additional resources for a New Simple Christmas Eve Service for 2023, 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.

I have included commentary on all the passages from previous years along with some liturgical pieces at the end.

Revised Common Lectionary:
The RCL gives three different readings, Proper I, II, or III, for Christmas Eve, Christmas Morning, or Christmas Day. “Proper” refers to the specific reading for Christmas Day, as opposed to the “Ordinary” or constant reading (referring to each day 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
December 24: Birth of Jesus, Luke 2:1-14 (15-20) (Psalm 146:5-10 or Luke 1:46-55)
December 25: Shepherd’s Visit, Luke 2:8-20 or Magi’s Visit, Matthew 2:1-12 (Psalm 108:1-4)

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. Wil 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.”

An alternative for the Narrative Lectionary is the Magi’s Visit of Matthew 2:1-12, which is also the reading on Epiphany. 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.

Psalm 108:1-4 is the beginning of a psalm calling the people into worship with a wake-up call to the soul. As the singer awakens the dawn, the singer calls out their praise to God among all the nations. God’s faithfulness is more vast than the light reaching the edges of the earth, higher than the skies and clouds.

Here are a collection of prayers and suggestions for services besides the ones listed on the Special Worship Resources page for Christmas:

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!

Call to Worship
We wait to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child,
We wait for Christ to enter our lives in a new way.
We watch for the signs of God’s reign in our world
We are called to build up the reign of Christ on earth.
We wonder at God’s work in our world,
And wonder what God will do next,
We rejoice that God sent the only Son to us,
We rejoice in the birth of the Messiah!

Blessing/Assurance
What has come into being through Christ is life, and the life is the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. The light now lives in each of us. Go, share the Light of the World, for the Light of the World is Christ the Lord. Amen.

Prayer
For Unto Us has been born a Savior, Christ the Lord. For Unto Us we have the promise of new life in Christ. For Unto Us we have the hope of salvation and the promise of new life. For Unto Us we are challenged to live and grow in new ways, to seek justice and to become peacemakers in the path of the Prince of Peace. For Unto Us a child has been born, a Son given to us, and authority rests on his shoulders. For Unto Us we follow the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace, Jesus the Christ, and we look to the world and to our future with hope. Amen.

Worship Resources for December 24, 2023—Fourth Sunday of Advent

Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Narrative Lectionary: Zechariah’s Song, Luke 1:5-13 (15-25), 57-80 (Psalm 113)

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we begin in the Hebrew scriptures with David’s desire to build a temple for God in 2 Samuel 7:1-11. At first, the prophet Nathan thought this was a great idea and told David that God was with him, but then God spoke to Nathan that night, stating that God never asked to live in a permanent place. God had Moses and the people build a tabernacle so they would know God was present with them wherever they moved. God told Nathan to remind David that God chose him from the pasture, chose him to be shepherd over the sheep, prince over the people. Instead of David making a house for God, God would make a home for the people, a place of rest where they will be disturbed no more. Furthermore, God would make a home for David among the people, a reign established forever in which David would have rest from his enemies.

Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46b-55 was also an alternative reading for the Psalm last week. Echoing Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. God has looked with favor upon her, and she has accepted being the servant of God (read Dr. Wil Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W, Advent I, for more understanding on what it means for Mary to take on this role in Luke 1:26-38). Mary claims that God has done great things for her, but they are indeed for everyone. The mighty are brought down, the lowly lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. God has helped the servant Israel, for the people are God’s servants, and God remembered them in mercy because of the covenant made with their ancestors.

The alternative to the Magnificat is Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26. The psalm begins with the psalmist singing praise for God’s steadfast love and covenant made with David and to his descendants forever. This longer song sings of God’s reign, and God’s promises made to David. Vs. 19-26 recalls the vision God gave the prophet Nathan, and that God remains faithful to David and his kingdom forever. God will protect David and deliver him from his enemies, and David will call upon God, his Parent, his Rock and his Salvation.

The benediction of Paul’s letter in Romans 16:25-27 is questioned by some scholars in its authenticity, but it is a wonderful statement that summarizes the belief that the mystery of the ages has been revealed. The writings of the prophets are now made known to Gentiles, and this is the command of God—that all people, of all backgrounds may come to believe and obey God through Jesus Christ.

The Gospel lesson for this fourth Sunday of Advent is the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. Like Zechariah in the verses before this, Mary wonders what sort of greeting this might be, that the messenger of God has come to speak to her. Being called “favored one” usually means something great is being asked of the one favored. But unlike Zechariah, whose question is about proof that his wife Elizabeth will conceive, Mary’s question is more of “how can this be possible?” With Zechariah and Elizabeth, the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah would have been known (Note: please be mindful of those who struggle with fertility and for those who are unable or who have lost children when preaching these passages). However, for Mary to conceive without being with a man was impossible. But when Gabriel tells her how she has found favor, how her son will be called Son of the Most High, and that nothing is impossible with God, Mary declares, “I am God’s servant. Let it be with me, according to what you have said.” With Zechariah and Elizabeth, Gabriel was delivering news of a long-prayed-for child. With Mary, this was quite unexpected, but her response is to say yes, to serve God.

The Narrative Lectionary also turns to Luke’s Gospel but to the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest of the line of Abijah and served in the temple. He was married to Elizabeth who was a descendant of Aaron, establishing their lineage as descendants of great priests. Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child but had been unable to conceive. While serving in the temple, Zechariah encounters an angel, who tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a son, and they are to name him John. Their child will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and will turn the hearts of many to God, to help prepare the people. But Zechariah questions the angel because he and Elizabeth were old. The difference in Zechariah’s question verses Mary’s is that there were stories in the Hebrew scriptures, of Sarah and Abraham, the parents of Samson, Hannah and Elkanah, who all were old and thought to be unable to have children, who then conceived (Again, please be mindful of those who struggle with fertility and for those who are unable or who have lost children when preaching these passages). Mary’s predicament has no precedent. She’s allowed to question how it is possible.

The angel reveals that they are Gabriel, and they stand in the presence of God, and were sent to speak to Zechariah and bring good news. But since Zechariah didn’t believe the angel’s words, Zechariah is rendered mute until the day the child is named after birth. Once the child was born, and on the 8th day when he was being circumcised, Elizabeth declared the boy’s name was John. When they questioned Zechariah, because it was unusual to not name a child after the father or someone in the family, Zechariah wrote, “his name is John,” and was finally able to speak, because he fulfilled what Gabriel had told him. Then he sang his great song of praise to God, for his son who was the prophet of the Most High, and for the one who would come, the Mighty Savior, the one in the house of David, who would save the people from their enemies and all who would hate them (an echo back to 2 Samuel 7).

The supplementary passage of Psalm 113 is a psalm of blessing praising God, who is above all nations. There is none like our God, who looks down from on high, and lifts up the poor and needy, making them to “sit with princes.” God is the one who takes notice of those who are unable to have children (see notes of caution above), who brings good news for all, and raises up those who have been left out, bringing in those on the margins, and making them equal to rulers.

I share that note of caution more than once because the easy thing to preach is that nothing is impossible for God, which makes it sound like if you just pray God will answer you. We know faithful people who have prayed and who have been unable to have children, or who are struggling with fertility, or who have lost a child. None of these stories at this time of year can bring comfort, and instead may cause pain. What one might look at, in either story, is that human beings cannot control what God will do. Despite the lineage of priests, John the Baptist became a camel-hair wearing locust-eating prophet, calling the people to the river, not to the temple. Mary, an unknown Galilean young woman, was chosen by God to do something incredible and she said yes, and she sang about God’s vision of justice. David could not build a temple for God because God was the one building a home for him. God is the one who directs our paths. We cannot control what God will do—not even through prayer—and the minute we try we’d better shut up (sorry Zechariah). God’s response, through both Elizabeth and Mary, is on behalf of all people, not themselves as individuals.

Instead, we might need to listen, to be in silence, to look for God’s messengers, for God is about to do a new thing. Not a king in a castle, but a baby in a manger. Not the lineage of priests in the temple, but a voice crying out in the wilderness. Not the army of God coming to conquer, but the heavenly host singing peace on earth, goodwill to all. Listen to what God is doing, and follow God’s ways, not the world’s ways of power, domination, and control, because we cannot control what God will do on behalf of all of God’s people.

Call to Worship (Luke 1:68-70, 78-79)
Blessed be the Lord God of the people,
For God has looked favorably on the people and redeemed them.
God has raised up a mighty savior for us,
As God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.
By the tender mercy of our God,
The dawn from on high will break upon us,
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.
Come, let us worship and be ready,
For the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the World, is near.

Prayer of Invocation
Loving God, we gather in Your name as we do every Sunday, but this Sunday we know is special. In all the excitement and anticipation of Christmas, may we slow down and savor this moment of waiting. This moment of wondering what will be. This moment of knowing that You have already entered our hearts and lives long ago, but You are here now, and You will be made known to us in new ways. Help us to breathe deep, to hold on to the wonder and awe, and know You are doing something new, here and now. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today. May we hear Your Christmas angels as they declare “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill to all.” May we turn from our sinful ways and instead, be ready for what You are about to do here on earth as it is in heaven. May we open our hearts and minds to be transformed by You, the Word made Flesh, Savior of us all. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel! Amen.

Blessing/Assurance
Peace on earth, goodwill to all. The words from the angels ring true for us today. God has not arrived to go to war with us, to punish us, to destroy us. God continually enters our world and our lives because God desires reconciliation, reparation, and restoration. Hear this good news: God so loved the world that God gave the only One, the precious Son, so that whoever believes will have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Christ into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through Christ. Know this in your heart: you are loved. You are redeemed. You are worthy. You are the good news the world needs, because Christ lives in you. Go and share the good news. Amen.

Prayer
Wondrous God, may our hearts be like child-like today. Not searching for presents or things of this world, but full of joy and wonder and anticipation. May our minds become child-like in our full trust of You. Help us to turn away from our own desire for power and control, and remember that You are the one who calls us into being. You are the one who leads us into life. You are the one who shows us the way. We know we cannot make You do anything, no matter how hard or how much we pray. But we know You can change our hearts, our minds, our lives. Help us to let go, to say yes as Mary did, to trust in You as Elizabeth did, to accept correction like Zechariah, to be okay with the unknown like Joseph. May we follow You, today and every day, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Worship Resources for December 17, 2023—Third Sunday of Advent

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126 or Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Narrative Lectionary: Rebuilding the Temple, Ezra 1:1-4; 3:1-4, 10-13 (Luke 2:25-32)

Third Isaiah speaks with the spirit of God upon them in Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. God has called the prophet to bring good news to the people who have returned from exile. For those that have mourned, they are now celebrating. Instead of feeling defeated, they will sing out praise. In the midst of the ruined buildings of the city, the people are to be called Oaks of Righteousness. The people will rebuild, repair, and restore what was destroyed in ancient times. God loves justice and will make a covenant with the people that will never end. God is doing something new, like a garden springing up, and how the earth provides in spring. All nations will see what God has done for the people of Israel and will turn to God in righteousness and praise.

Psalm 126 is a song of praise for God from the people who have returned from exile, for it has been like a dream. They left in mourning and are returning in praise. They left with only seeds, now they return with arms full of the harvest. God has not forgotten the people, and God continues to provide for them.

The alternative Psalm reading is Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46b-55. Echoing Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. God has looked with favor upon her, and she has accepted being the servant of God (read Dr. Wil Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W, Advent I, for more understanding on what it means for Mary to take on this role in Luke 1:26-38). Mary claims that God has done great things for her, but they are indeed for everyone. The mighty are brought down, the lowly lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. God has helped the servant Israel, for the people are God’s servants, and God remembered them in mercy because of the covenant made with their ancestors.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 contain words of encouragement near the end of Paul’s letter. Believed to be one of the earliest letters of Paul, he urges the church in Thessalonica to be patient in their waiting. He encourages the church to rejoice always and pray without ceasing. Instead of a passive waiting, Paul urges an active waiting for Christ’s return with prayer and steadfastness. They are to remember the teachings of the prophets, to hold fast to what is good and to resist evil, for God remains faithful.

The Gospel lesson turns to John 1:6-8, 19-28. John the Baptizer is seen as the witness to the light, referring to Jesus. We always need to be cautious of the light/dark dichotomy that John uses (along with antisemitic readings regarding how Jewish leaders are represented in the text). Again, I highlight Dr. Wil Gafney’s translations in A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church which uses bleakness instead of darkness. Only in John’s account does John the Baptizer associate himself with the voice crying out in the wilderness of Isaiah 40 (see last week’s Revised Common Lectionary readings). In John’s account, the baptizer is questioned by the religious authorities because he either must be Elijah, a prophet like Moses that would come before the Messiah, or the Messiah himself, but because he is none of those three, the religious leaders don’t know what to do with him, and question why he is baptizing. John the Baptizer came to prepare the way, but in John’s account, the leaders and most of the people were set in their understanding of how the Messiah was to come. We know that John’s account was much later than the others (although some scholars place Luke-Acts into the second century, because of it’s more temperate treatment of empire) and that the divisions between Jewish followers of Jesus and other Jews were at the point of completely separating, whereas with Mark, that had not occurred to the same extent. It is important to remember all this as we read these stories. We are called to be ready and to prepare through repentance and baptism, because Christ is at work in our world and in our lives in ways we are not ready or expecting. Perhaps any of us might be the ones to question or doubt what God is doing, if we are not prepared for something new.

The Narrative Lectionary turns to the Rebuilding of the Temple in Ezra 1:1-4, 3:1-4, 10-13. Cyrus, ruler of Persia, allowed the exiled Israelites to return home after the fall of Babylon. The temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt, but it took several years after construction stalling due to disputes among the returned exiles. When it was finally completed, some of the elders, who remembered the first temple, wept aloud, while others rejoiced at the completion of the new temple. There was a mixed response from the people—those who were so glad at the rebuilding, feeling it signified how God had returned everything to the people, and those who wept, because they remembered what it used to be, before the fall of Jerusalem and the exile.

The supplementary verses of Luke 2:25-32 tell of how an elder named Simeon came to the temple guided by the Holy Spirit, and took the baby Jesus in his arms and praised God. Jesus had been brought by his parents to the temple to be presented, as were all baby Jewish boys, for his circumcision. But the Holy Spirit had told Simeon that this baby was the Lord’s Messiah. He’d waited his whole life for this moment, knowing he would see the Messiah before he died.

This third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday, meaning “Rejoice.” In earlier times, when fasting was part of Advent, this was a Sunday to break the fast and celebrate in the midst of the difficult season of winter. The passages this week speak of finding joy out of the midst of our sorrows. How do we find ways to celebrate in a world of war and violence, especially with what we are seeing in Gaza and Israel? Maybe we don’t, as Palestinian Christians have decided to “forgo all Christmas celebrations” in solidarity with Gaza and with what is happening in the West Bank. Maybe we sit down and weep. Or maybe we find ways of still clinging to the hope that Mary sings of, that the powerful will be brought down from their thrones and the lowly lifted up. Maybe we find ways of rejoicing and remembering that there wasn’t much hope for those living under the oppression of Rome two thousand years ago. I know for myself, having a child who is autistic means that we celebrate Christmas because it’s part of the routine of this season, even if I’m not fully into the season. Personally, I’ve experienced a lot of death and grief this past year. It’s the first year I really was not into decorating for the season. But my son loves it. We had to decorate for him. And I am reminded that sometimes we rejoice not for ourselves but for others around us, and we work for peace not for us but for the ones who come after us. Perhaps this Sunday, instead of fully going into rejoicing mode, we acknowledge the complexity of the season this year and the struggles of grief. Because of its proximity to the Solstice, “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” services might be appropriate to consider as well.

Call to Worship (Isaiah 40:3-5)
A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
And all people shall see it together.
Come, join your hearts and minds in worship,
For God is leading us forward in a new way.

Prayer of Invocation
Sojourning God, we join with You in this time of worship, on our journeys of faith. Guide our hearts and minds to be open to the movement of Your Spirit, to listen for the ways You are calling us, and to explore how we might live more deeply into Your way, Your truth, and Your life, though Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God of the Prophets, we cry out with You at the injustice in this world. We cry out because children are killed by bombs and bullets. We cry out because people continue to choose violence and claim it in Your name. We cry out because illness and pain have touched our loved ones, and our own lives. We cry out because families can’t make ends meet and end up sleeping in their cars and on the streets. We cry out because people cannot get the treatment necessary for their illness. We want to sing Mary’s song, to be proud and to rejoice, but all that escapes our lips is a whimper, a sob, a sigh too deep for words, a roaring rage of tears. We cry out, O God, because of the brokenness of the world. We know You are listening, we know You know our pain. Help us, O God, to be the menders and healers this world desperately needs. Help us to join in the work of reparation and restoration. Call upon us, O God, to do our part, wherever we can, to hold one another in our grief, in our sorrows, and in our healing. All this we pray in Your name. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance (Psalm 126)
“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
If you are struggling, if you are suffering, know that you are not alone. We know that God will not fix everything the way we want it. But we also know we are not alone. May we remember the times God has done great things for us, and hold on to the hope that good things will come again, even in our most difficult hour. May we be living hope for one another. Know that you are not alone. You are loved. You are forgiven. You are precious to God, and to us. Go and share this love with the world that desperately needs it. Amen.

Prayer
God of All Seasons, as we approach the solstice, we give You thanks for light and dark, for the glory of the stars, the beauty of the aurora borealis, the moon in all its beauty. We give You thanks for our nocturnal neighbors. We give You thanks for the beauty of the darkness, and we recall that our own scriptures and stories tell us it was a night long ago that You took Your first breath and Your first cry into this world. It was a night long ago that the angels sang, “Peace on earth.” Help us, O God, to find beauty in the hard places, to find light in the bleakness, to find hope in the hopelessness. And help us, O God, to know that this season will shift and turn. This time of hopelessness will cease. Your steadfast love is new every morning and we praise You for Your faithfulness. As the world turns again, we watch and wait for what You are doing in our world, and how we might participate now in Your beloved kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Worship Resources December 10, 2023—Second Sunday of Advent

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Narrative Lectionary: Isaiah of the Exile, Isaiah 40:1-11 (Mark 1:1-4)

The Revised Common Lectionary begins with the same passage as the Narrative Lectionary: the calling of the voice out of the wilderness to the people who were in exile. In Isaiah 40:1-11, the people hear words of comfort from God through the prophet. The people have been in exile for over seventy years, and now, with the rise of the Persian empire, the people will be encouraged to return home from Babylon. The people have suffered more than enough—they’ve suffered too much. What God will do in bringing the people out of exile is restoring everything to how God intended—the high brough low, the low brought high, all the rough places smoothed out. God is leveling the playing field and starting over for the people of Israel. Though they will not remain faithful, God’s word is always faithful—forever. The prophet calls upon the people who remained in Jerusalem to shout to the world that God is bringing the people home. God is like a shepherd leading the people, carrying the most vulnerable—the next generation.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13 is a song of God’s faithfulness even though the people have gone astray. In verses 1-2, the psalmist speaks of how God has forgiven the people and restored them. In 8-13, the psalmist concludes that for those who are faithful, for those who remain in awe, God will bring all good things together. Poetically, the psalmist imagines steadfast love and faithfulness embracing, righteousness and peace greeting each other in a kiss. Faithfulness springs up from the ground while righteousness reaches down from the sky. God draws forth everything together in goodness and leads the people in the way of peace and righteousness.

2 Peter 3:8-15a may be the latest book in the New Testament, coming as late as the middle of the second century (and not written by Peter). Knowing this, we hear the assurance that Christ will return, though God’s time is not our time. Speaking of the day of the Lord as told by the prophets, the writer envisions the day using the image of the thief in the night (Jesus used that as well in Mark 13), the heavens set on fire and dissolved and the elements of earth melted (the erasing of the line between heaven and earth), and the vision of a new heaven and new earth (Revelation 21). The writer urges the believers to wait patiently and remember what Paul wrote to them (meaning the receivers of this letter would be familiar with the letters of Paul at this point). This passage reminds us that scripture brings us assurance, that our waiting is not in vain. For the prophets of old who waited for the Messiah, for shepherds who would not lead the people astray, for a return from exile, to the leaders of the early church struggling to survive decades after the ascension of Jesus and the destruction of the temple—waiting for God is an active practice of faith, and we can learn from them.

Mark 1:1-8 is the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. Considered the oldest Gospel account we have, Mark begins the gospel with the quote from Isaiah 40 of the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” and immediately associates the verse with John. The Good News begins with John the Baptizer in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (The Narrative Lectionary’s supplemental verses end here). The Gospel does not start in the city of Bethlehem, the city of David; nor does it start in Jerusalem, the city of kings and the temple, or even in a quaint village in Nazareth. The Gospel starts in the middle of nowhere. And the people from the countryside and from Jerusalem began to go to John and met him at the Jordan. And this wild man who wears camel’s hair and eats locusts with honey tells them that one is coming after him who is more powerful (so John maybe thought he was powerful, just not as powerful as the Messiah?) What a way to begin a story! The one who is coming after John will baptize with the Holy Spirit. This is the beginning of the Good News—it’s out of nowhere, it’s for everyone, and it includes the work of the Holy Spirit.

This is it—the Good News often appears right out of nowhere, right in a time no one expects. Though the prophets often hinted there would be a return from exile, for decades they lived under the rule of Babylon. When Cyrus came to power in Persia, unexpectedly the people were urged to return home by royal decree. Under the rule of Rome, though the people had some freedom of worship compared to others—out of nowhere a strange man appears proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Many scholars believe that John came from the Essenes, a small group of Jews who lived on the shore of the Dead Sea and believed the day of the Lord was coming at any moment, and some of their practices are similar to the descriptions of John the baptizer. But in any case, neither of these moments were necessarily predictable. The Good News appears suddenly, out of nowhere, and the people begin to gather when they recognize it. In Acts 1, when the angels speak to the disciples who are still watching Jesus ascend, they say, “Why are you still looking up?” The Good News continues to not follow predictions but shows up, out of nowhere (and a good reminder that prophecy is not prediction!) The Epistles remind us to be ready, to actively watch, to live faithfully, for the Gospel will break forth in a new way and surprise us.

Call to Worship (Psalm 85:8-11)
Let us hear what God the LORD will speak,
For God will speak peace to the people, to God’s faithful,
to those who turn to God in their hearts.
Surely God’s salvation is at hand for those who are in awe God,
That God’s glory may dwell with us.
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
And righteousness will look down from the sky.
God is bringing all things together and making all things new,
God is at work in our world for peace.

Prayer of Invocation
Creator God, we give thanks to You for making all things new. In this time of worship, may our hearts and minds be open to receiving You in a new way; to new insights in scripture, to new ways of understanding Your presence among us, to new experiences of You in our lives. May we be open to receiving one another in mutual love and care, lifting up one another, and sharing Your peace with one another. We join our hearts together in prayer and in praise of You, our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
God of peace and justice, we confess that we have failed to live into either. We have mistaken peace for comfortableness, and justice for retribution. We have tuned out the stories that cause us discomfort and have twisted justice to be a power play for those with privilege. Forgive us for not noticing those on the margins. Forgive us for deliberately ignoring the most vulnerable among us. Forgive us for not pursuing Your justice of reparation and restoration. Call us into accountability with one another and lead us through our uncomfortableness so we might truly live into Your ways that lead to peace. In the name of Christ, who was ridiculed and scorned, mocked and misunderstood—in his name we pray and ask forgiveness. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance
Mark 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Know that when you give over your burdens to God, you will find you are not alone. We carry each other’s burdens. We share each other’s joys. Not one of us are perfect, all of us are in need of grace and forgiveness. Extend grace and forgiveness to one another, and to yourself, and strive to do better, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Amen.

Prayer
We know that the daylight will shift, that the weather will change, but in this moment, O God, help us to settle deep into this season. To understand the harshness and bleakness of this time, but that it will pass. We remember that Good News appears out of nowhere. It is a voice of one—one person. It is a voice that cries out in the wilderness, in the middle of nowhere. It is a voice that sees the futility of life, that people are like grass that withers and fades away, and yet still has hope. Still calls for comfort. Still calls for peace. We hear Your voice, O God, in the bleak midwinter. We hear Your voice, O God, in the terrible cries of war and violence and bloodshed. We hear Your voice, O God, calling us to turn back to You. We hear Your voice, O God, calling us to the water. We are settled in deep, O God, into the bleakness, and yet we know Your voice is calling us, and will move us and shake us and stir us to do something, for You will make all things new. The world is about to turn. Amen.

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Years after leaving war behind, Ami Lehem can’t shake the shadow of death.

When a meteor strike kills her husband and renders the planet Dibon uninhabitable, she vows to bring her mother-in-law Mara home to Melas. After a harrowing journey across the galaxy, Ami and Mara find hope in a new life. But even in a new place, they can’t seem to bury their past. For when she finds work on Melas, Ami recognizes a familiar face, a mysterious man named Bo who shared their journey. As they become closer, Ami discovers nothing on Melas is what it seems … including Bo. When her former commanding officer makes terrible accusations against her new love, Ami is torn between duty and hope. Ami must find truth within a web of lies, and one wrong move can send her back into the never-ending cycle of war she tried so hard to escape.

Worship Resources for December 3, 2023—First Sunday of Advent

Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Narrative Lectionary: Promise of the Messiah, Jeremiah 33: (10-11), 14-18 (Mark 8:27-29)

Note: in the liturgical resources I am now including a brief Prayer of Invocation after the Call to Worship.

We begin the season of Advent with the cry from Third Isaiah, if only God would tear open the heavens and come down! In Isaiah 64:1-9, the people have returned from exile, but are going back to their old ways. The prophet recalls God’s deeds of power and how other nations trembled in awe and fear. Now, the people are turning away from God because they do not perceive God’s presence among them. The prophet prays for God to remember that these are all God’s people, and God is the one who can mold and shape them.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 is a plea to God to hear the people’s prayers, though the people have gone astray. The psalmist petitions God to deliver the people and to remind God that these are God’s people. The psalmist uses imagery of the divine throne room, showing the people participating in worship that God is the one with the power to save. The psalmist directs their complaint to God and prays for God to save the people from their neighbors and enemies. In response, the people will turn their hearts and minds back to God, so they might be restored.

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 contains the opening to Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, a message of thanksgiving for the people and how their lives have been transformed by Christ. While this was a church that experienced great conflict, in this opening section Paul offers a blessing because of God’s faithfulness. Paul knows that though they struggle with understanding the diversity of spiritual gifts, they have also been blessed by them and are stronger together because of their gifts. The church was called together in the fellowship of Christ, and it is together that they wait for Christ to be revealed.

The Gospel lesson turns to Mark for year B, and to Jesus’s own speech to his disciples about the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus knew he was about to be betrayed and handed over to death. He drew upon the images found in the prophets, especially Joel, of the day of the Lord. However, there is good news for those who are faithful, they will be gathered up by the angels. Much of this passage, however, contains Jesus’s instructions on the here and now for the disciples: to stay alert and to keep watch, for the Son of Man will return at an unexpected time. All the faithful are to live as if Christ will be revealed in our world and in our lives in a new way at any moment. The focus is blurry for what is to come when the Son of Man returns; the focus is clear on how we are to live our lives right now. What is out of focus will come into view. This is the meaning of Advent: “coming into view.”

The Narrative Lectionary looks to the Promise of the Messiah in Jeremiah 33: (10-11), 14-18. In verses 10-11, Jeremiah speaks of the people’s return to the land from exile, of God’s restoration of the people, as a bridegroom and bride rejoicing. What has been made desolate in the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the city will be restored, and the people will give thanks and rejoice. In verses 14-18, Jeremiah speaks of a righteous branch that will come up from David—a king who will rule as David did, keeping God first and foremost, and the worship in the temple will resume as it once did, without interference from a king gone astray.

The supplementary verses of Mark 8:27-29 contain Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus asked the disciples who everyone said he was—a prophet, John the Baptist, or Elijah. When Jesus asked his own disciples who they thought he was, Petere boldly declared he was the Messiah.

Advent means “coming into view.” On this first Sunday, we might ask ourselves what is it that we are waiting for? What are our expectations? What have we learned in two thousand years of waiting? Perhaps our expectations need to adjust. Perhaps the Second Coming isn’t what we thought it was. Or perhaps the powerful visions that the prophets beheld of the day of the Lord and Jesus’s own words might help remind us that the Word made Flesh was as earth shattering as the sun going dark. The world turned upside down. And perhaps our expectations should be none the less: that we know God desires for the world to change, but in order for the world to change we must be transformed. Perhaps that’s the problem—we want God to tear open the heavens like God did in ancient days. We want the big flashy signs that things are going to turn. Instead, we’re supposed to be the signs for the world. We’re actually supposed to do something about it. The watching and waiting was never meant to be passive, but active. We’re supposed to turn over the tables and make room for those on the margins and center their voices. We’re the ones who are called to speak against violence and tyrants and call for the tearing down of thrones and lifting up the lowly. We’re called to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty. We’ve put a lot of expectations on God to perform for our satisfaction; what expectations have we put on ourselves? How do we live with the focus in the here and now, while we wait for what is to come into view?

Call to Worship
Now is the time to wake from sleep,
Now is the time to keep watch and stay alert.
Now is the time for the bridegroom to appear,
Now is the time to prepare for Christ.
For the tables are about to turn over,
Those on the margins will be welcomed in.
The powerful will be brought down from their thrones,
The lowly raised up and the hungry filled.
Now is the time to be ready,
Now is the time God will make all things new.

Prayer of Invocation
God of signs and wonders: we hear the call from the watchtowers, we listen for the song of the young woman, we light the candles of hope. Open our hearts and minds in this time of worship to hear Your word anew; to listen for new notes in the songs of old; to prepare for Your arrival in our world and in our lives in a new way. In the name of Christ, who makes all things new, we pray. Amen.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Everlasting God, we confess that we are bone-tired. We are drop-down-weary. There is too much to do. The season is upon us and we want to be filled with hope, peace, joy, and love, but there is so much war and violence, so much distrust. Lines have been drawn in the sand of us verses them, instead of a wide circle that includes all Your children. We are broken and bitter. Even more locally, signs everywhere tell us to buy and consume. Remind us that You are from everlasting to everlasting. The busy-ness can wait. We don’t need all the stuff. We can love those on different sides of conflict when we see them in Your image. We can remember that in this season, we come to worship a child born under empire, under the threat of annihilation, amidst fear and sorrow and grief—a child for whom the heavenly host, the army of God, declared peace on earth, and we can believe everything is possible. Help us to hold on, and to not lose hope. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance
“Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” -Romans 5:5. Through the Holy Spirit, we have this hope that endures through everything: through life and death, heights and depths, sorrows and joys. Through the cross of Christ, we know that the worst thing we have experienced will never be the last thing. Our sorrow will turn to joy, our mourning to dancing. So, cling to hope, despite the world’s hopelessness, and be assured of God’s presence with you, now and always. Amen.

Prayer
God Who Watches, in this season we often speak of watching and waiting for You, but we know deep down, You are waiting for us. You are watching and waiting for us to sing our songs of justice like Mary. You are watching and waiting for us to declare that there is a new day like Zechariah. You are watching and waiting for us to bring good news like Gabriel to those who may think they are insignificant and unworthy. You are watching and waiting for us to do our part in this incredible drama of Your kin-dom on earth as it is in heaven. We’ve delayed too long, O God. We’ve put caring for the earth off onto the next generation. We’ve put living into peace onto the shoulders of politicians. We’ve wiped our hands and believed we don’t need to do anything, but You are the one who is watching us, O God. May we repent and turn back to Your ways. May we enter this season of Advent reminded that we are the ones who must act. We are the ones who must change. We are the ones who can build up Your kin-dom. Call us out of our slumber. Call us out of our seats in the audience. Call us into action, for Your kin-dom to come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Worship Resources for November 26th, 2023—Reign of Christ Sunday

Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Narrative Lectionary: Josiah’s Reform, 2 Kings 22:1-10 (11-20); 23:1-3 (Luke 24:30-32)

We have come to the end of the season after Pentecost, the pinnacle of the year as we observe Reign of Christ Sunday. Advent will lead us into a time of active watching and waiting for Christ to enter our world and lives in a new way. This Sunday is a reminder that we are always at the moment of living into Christ’s reign now, as we wait for it to manifest.

The prophet Ezekiel speaks on behalf of God to a people who have been led astray by their kings and officials and have gone into exile. God Themself will become the shepherd of the people, coming to rescue them from the places they have been taken to. God will provide for them, especially the marginalized, including those in poverty and those with disabilities, but the “fat and the strong”—the people who have taken the power and wealth—will be destroyed, because all will be fed with justice. God is the one who will judge, like a shepherd determining between sheep, and will set up a shepherd over them like David, the shepherd king.

Psalm 100 is a call to worship and song of praise, reminding the people that God is their shepherd, and they are the sheep of God’s pasture. The psalmist calls upon the whole earth to worship God. For the faithful, they are to enter the courts of the temple with thanksgiving and praise, and God’s steadfast love endures for all generations.

The second psalm selection is Psalm 95:1-7a. This first half of this psalm is a call to worship for the people to enter the temple with thanksgiving and singing. God is above all other gods and kings. God has made all of creation, including the sea and the dry land. The people are the sheep of God, whom God loves, and the psalmist calls for the people to worship and bow down.

The Epistle lesson is Ephesians 1:15-23. The writer, probably not Paul but a disciple of Paul, writes of the faithfulness of the people of Ephesus and prays that they will have a spirit of wisdom and revelation as they come to know Jesus Christ. God’s immeasurable power and greatness has been put to work in Jesus Christ, who has been raised from the dead, who has authority over all things, and is the head of the body—the church—and the church is the fullness of Christ on earth.

The Gospel lesson culminates the season after Pentecost and the series of Jesus’s last parables and discourse with Matthew 25:31-46, in a vision of when the Son of Man comes in his glory. The Son of Man will judge between all the peoples of all the nations, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The faithful are the ones who have lived out all Christ has taught of loving one’s neighbor as themselves: feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, giving clothing to those in need, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison. Those who refused to do these things are the ones who will be sent into eternal punishment. The judgment is harsh, but as a final parable, it summarizes everything Jesus had taught the disciples and all his followers: if you want to love God, you must love one another, especially the most vulnerable of our community, as you love yourself.

The Narrative Lectionary turns to King Josiah and his reforms in 2 Kings 22:1-20 and 23:1-3. Josiah, unlike his predecessors, followed the ways of his ancestor David, who turned to God instead of others. During his reign, a copy of the book of the Law was rediscovered, and it was read aloud to the king. In verses 11-20, the king reacts by grieving, for the people and leadership had gone so far astray from what God intended for them. Josiah sought to find what the meaning was behind the law and what God would do to them, and the prophetess Huldah was consulted. It was too late to turn the tide of events caused by the kings of the past, but for Josiah’s time, there was still hope. Because he turned back to God and repented, God would not bring about disaster during his reign; there would be peace for a time. King Josiah then directed all the people, including the prophets and priests, but all citizens of Jerusalem and Judah, to hear the words of the book of the covenant, and to make a covenant again with God.

The supplementary verses are Luke 24:30-32, which contains Jesus’s resurrection appearance on the way to Ephesus. Jesus explained the scriptures to two travelers on the way, but the travelers did not recognize him until he broke bread before them. Then they recognized their hearts had burned within them as he explained the scriptures to them.

On this Sunday, we recall that Christ is the one who reigns over us for eternity, not any worldly king or president or leadership. As we prepare to enter an election year in 2024 (in the US), perhaps this is a reminder to take a breather and remember who has eternity. Who is always rooting for us, pushing us to be better citizens of the reign of God? Jesus is calling us to love our neighbor as ourselves, especially the most vulnerable. We begin to live into God’s reign on earth when we live out those promises to the marginalized and oppressed, those living in poverty, those with disabilities, those who are immigrants and strangers, those who do not have the same privileges we do. When we see them as the presence of God among us and care for them as we care for ourselves, then we are living into Christ’s reign on earth. We pray for the day when that dividing line of death is no more, when we all recognize that eternal life has already begun here on earth. Until that day is complete, we live into Christ’s way, truth, and life as best we can.

Note: this Call to Worship was also included in last week’s resources.
Call to Worship (Psalm 100)
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God. It is God that made us, and we belong to the Lord;
We are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.
Enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise.
Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.
For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever,
And God’s faithfulness to all generations.

Call to Worship (Psalm 95:1-3, 6-7a)
O come, let us sing to the LORD;
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving;
Let us make a joyful noise to God with songs of praise!
For the LORD is a great God,
And a great Ruler above all gods.
O come, let us worship and bow down,
Let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For the LORD is our God,
And we are the people of God’s pasture, and the sheep of God’s hand.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Almighty and Wondrous God, we confess that at times we feel powerless to do anything. There is so much war and hate right now. Though voices in media tell us there’s one side or another, we know that the true evil is those who believe that violence is the only way. We know that so well, O God, for it is the story You lived through. On the night You were betrayed, You were given over from one group to another, people clamoring for power who hated the other, and in the end, it was violence that won for a brief moment. But Your Love was victorious over violence and death, and we must hold on to that, O God. Remind us to hold on to You as our Living Hope, the One who slips through the grasp of violence and death and shows us that we all can choose another way—the way of love, compassion, justice, and peace. Help us to live into Your ways, and not the violent pull of this world. Call us to resist, O God, and in our own powerlessness and helplessness, may we rely on You as the source of our strength and courage to live into Your ways. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance
Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We know this ancient confession in our hearts. As the seasons change, we know that life will come again out of death, that every grain that falls becomes a seed of something new. We trust this, that when daylight is fading, dawn will still come. We trust this, that when hope is failing, the living hope in Christ will bring us through. We trust in God’s undying love for us through Jesus Christ. Know that you are God’s beloved child. You are forgiven, loved, and restored, and in Christ, you are made whole and new. Amen.

Prayer
Eternal Savior, there is nothing that will ever separate us from You. Even in these despairing, hopeless times, we trust in You that somehow, this will turn, this will change, this pain and suffering we are experiencing will come to an end and that You will lead us through. We hold on to the hope of new life now, that we can be Your disciples on earth and live by example for others. We pray that we can find peace in our own lives, so we can live by that peace to one another. Help us to remember that You are an eternal God, not a temporary one. What we experience and know now is temporary, but what You have shown us—Your way, Your truth, and Your life—is eternal. We cling to that hope, O Sovereign of all. Amen.

Worship Resources for November 19, 2023—Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Thanksgiving (U.S.)

Revised Common Lectionary
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Judges 4:1-7 and Psalm 123; Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18 and Psalm 90: 1-8 (9-11), 12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Thanksgiving: Deuteronomy 8:7-18; Psalm 65; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19

Narrative Lectionary: Isaiah’s Vineyard Song, Isaiah 5:1-7; 11:1-5 (Mark 12:1-3)

In the first selection of the Hebrew scriptures for the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, we are at the end of our journey following the ancestors of faith, from a family into a nation, from a people who wandered in the wilderness, to tribes living amongst others. In Judges 4:1-7, the people have made the same mistakes they made in the wilderness and rejected God’s ways. The tribes of Israel were facing oppression again from an enemy, this time in their new home. Once they arrived in the land promised to them, after Moses and Joshua, the people were ruled by judges who discerned what was right, and Deborah was the judge as well as a prophet of God. She instructed Barak to command the army of the Israelites as God had instructed her and proclaimed that God will deliver their enemies into their hand. Though the physical journey was complete for the people of Israel, the journey of wrestling with God would continue.

Psalm 123 is a prayer for help from God. The psalmist calls for God to have mercy on the people, because they have had enough of ridicule and scorn. The people turn and call upon God, so that God will take notice and help them.

The second selection of the Hebrew scriptures is from the prophet Zephaniah. Like last week’s reading, the focus is on the day of the Lord, the day of judgment. Zephaniah was writing during the time of King Josiah, but before he implemented his reforms. For those who are complacent, Zephaniah warns, they will lose everything. They think that God will not allow bad things to happen to them, but they also have not turned back to God’s ways. Nothing worldly will be able to save people on the day of the Lord—no money, no power or authority or security measures. The whole earth will be consumed by God’s fiery passion. We are reminded that often the use of fire in the Hebrew scriptures refers to purifying, but it doesn’t mean a lack of destruction. Everything that is against God’s reign will be burned up, and Zephaniah warns that every inhabitant of earth will come to an end. This vision, like the one Amos shared in last week’s reading, countered the common view of the prophet’s day (and perhaps our own day, in common tropes about the world’s end) that only the wicked and evil, the enemies of the people, would be destroyed.

Psalm 90 is a prayer reflecting on God’s sovereignty and humanity’s fleeting place in the universe. From before anything was created, God existed, and has always been God. Humanity’s lifespan is so short, it passes quickly, yet humanity continues to sin and turn away from God. Human life isn’t easy—it’s mostly hardship—and then we are gone. The psalmist concludes this section with a beautiful statement of treasuring our days, asking God to help us understand how fragile we are, and to count our days in order “that we may gain a wise heart.”

The Epistle reading concludes its series with 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. Paul encourages the church in Thessalonica to be both patient and vigilant as they wait for Christ’s return, which Paul believed would happen in his lifetime. The political climate of the Roman Empire was fairly volatile, with violence from within the emperor’s family and the political machinations of those in Rome and in the Greek cities. Paul calls for the faithful to remain alert, especially in times when there seems to be peace, because everything can change quickly. They are to be awake and live not in the shadows but in the daylight, where people will see and know them by their actions and values. Paul believes that on the day of judgment, the faithful will be saved through Jesus Christ, so they need to encourage one another and build up each other in the faith.

Jesus teaches a parable commonly known as the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30. In this parable, a man went on a journey and summoned his servants, entrusting them each with money worth several year’s wages. The one who was entrusted with five invested it and made five, the one who was entrusted with two invested it and made two, but the one who was given one dug a hole and hid it. The story tells us that each were entrusted according to their ability. But when the owner returned, the servant who had hidden the one talent told him that he knew he was a “harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed.” That servant had his talent taken from him to be given to the one who made ten talents, and the servant was thrown into the outer darkness. On the surface level of the parable, it may appear to be about faithfulness during a temporary absence. How do we use what God has given us in our lifetime? Are we worried about saving our own lives, or are we participating in the reign of God here and now? One could also say the parable teaches us that if we are not willing to risk, we are bound to lose. But the parable never equates the owner with God. The parable doesn’t even begin with “the kingdom of heaven is like …” So perhaps we should not assume this is about the kingdom of heaven, but rather, it could be about what happens when you resist worldly power and authorities. It costs to resist. Can you live with integrity when you resist evil? Can you face the judgment of others when you refuse to play by the rules of the world? Others will try to play the game and make more money and move up the ladder of worldly success, but at what cost, when we fail to live into God’s ways?

The Thanksgiving readings for the Revised Common Lectionary begin with Deuteronomy 8:7-18, part of Moses’s final discourse to the people preparing to enter the promised land, as he knew he would not be going with them. Moses reminds the people that when they are in the land God has led them to, they are to remember to keep God’s commandments and teachings. They are to recognize that everything they have comes from God and that they do not have a right to wealth. Instead, all have a right to food and water as given by God, and they are to remember how God led them out of their oppression in Egypt and through the wilderness safely, giving them water in the desert and manna from heaven. God is the one who has provided and will continue to do so, if they remain faithful.

Psalm 65 is a song of praise to God, who is the “hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest sea.” God is the great creator who answers the prayers of the faithful, and provides for all the earth, crowning “the year with your bounty.” Pastures and wilderness, meadows and hills and valleys—the are full of God’s presence that overflows on earth.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15 is part of Paul’s plea to the church in Corinth to help with the collection for the church in Jerusalem, containing mostly poor followers of Jesus. Paul reminds the church in Corinth that all blessings come from God, and that each person must discern before God what they ought to give, not out of compulsion, but out of faithfulness. God is the one who truly provides, and we proclaim the Gospel in our generosity. The church in Jerusalem has prayed for the Corinthians, because of all that God is providing, and so the church in Corinth ought to respond in faithfulness.

Luke 17:11-19 contains the story of ten lepers whom Jesus encountered between Galilee and Samaria. They kept their distance, but they asked for Jesus to have mercy upon them. Jesus told them to go show themselves to the priests, and while they were on their way, they were made clean. But only one, when he saw that he was healed, went back and thanked Jesus, and he was a Samaritan, an outsider. Jesus told him that his faith made him well. The story reminds us that often those of us on the inside forget to be in gratitude to God for all we have, and it’s often the outsiders, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the strangers, the most vulnerable—who demonstrate faithfulness in ways that we fail to do, especially in showing gratitude.

The Narrative Lectionary focuses on Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard in 5:1-7 and 11:1-5. 5:1-7 was the second selection of the Hebrew scriptures for the Revised Common Lectionary on October 8th). This song, or parable, speaks of God’s relationship with the people during the time of First Isaiah, and Judah was not keeping to God’s ways. God has done everything to keep the people save and to help them thrive, but they have chosen to go wild and follow other gods and live their own ways. Therefore, God will let Judah go wild. Like a vineyard that has had its hedges and walls destroyed and where weeds and brambles overgrow, so too will Judah struggle with the nations surrounding them. Because they do not stay true to God’s teachings, they will make poor political choices and violence will overtake the land, instead of justice and righteousness as God intended.

However, 11:1-5 declares that a shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse. This section is not a continuation of the vineyard, but rather a reminder that even though the legacy of David has become like a stump instead of a mighty tree, but there is hope for a new king, one who rules as David did.

The supplementary verses of Mark 12:1-3 are from Jesus’s teaching in parables, and the beginning of the parable of the wicked tenants and the vineyard, and how those entrusted to care for the vineyard seized the servant of the vineyard owner and beat him and sent him away empty handed.

When we look back on our ancestors of the faith, the stories in the Hebrew scriptures and the stories of the early followers of Jesus, we see a common teaching of God’s faithfulness and that it is made known to us through the bountiful resources of our earth. Thanksgiving is not only a time of gratitude for harvest, it is a time of gratefulness for God who made the whole earth, and is a time when we ought to remember that the earth belongs to God, not to us. As this is Native American Heritage Month in the United States, we also remember that indigenous stewardship continues to this day. European colonization brought a version of Christianity that exploits the earth, its resources and its peoples, for temporary individual gain. It is the exact opposite of what scripture teaches us. It is the opposite of what indigenous people continue to teach us. Thanksgiving, perhaps, is a time to not only remove the colonial narrative of the first Thanksgiving, but the colonial mindset of how we care for the Creator’s earth. May we listen and learn, from our ancestors, and from the people who have been here long before us and continue to share in the sacred responsibility of stewardship.

Call to Worship (Psalm 100)
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness; come into God’s presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God. It is God that made us, and we belong to the Lord;
We are God’s people, and the sheep of God’s pasture.
Enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise.
Give thanks to God, bless God’s name.
For the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever,
And God’s faithfulness to all generations.

Prayer of Brokenness/Confession
Almighty Creator, we confess that we have not lived into Your first instruction for us in Genesis, to care for the earth as You have cared for us. We have failed to live into our created intention, to be stewards of all our glorious creation. As we gather in this season of thanksgiving, we confess our sins. We have turned to the ways of the world and not to Your ways as passed down from our ancestors of the faith. We have turned to worldly measures of success through wealth, possessions, and notoriety, instead of living as You first desired: to care for the earth and its bounty so there will be an abundance for all. Forgive us of our sins. Call us into accountability of our own use of resources, but collectively may we hold our elected officials accountable, that they not be swayed by wealth and power of corporations that do not care for Your earth. Hold us to Your intention for us, to care for this earth as a precious gift from You, in whom we give our thanks. Amen.

Blessing/Assurance
Our God is a God of new beginnings. There is always a new day, a new week, a new month, a new season. There is always time to start doing the right thing. Repent, turn back to God’s ways, and live into the promises of God, for God loves you so much. Go and do the right thing by practicing justice, kindness, and humility. Amen.

Prayer
Creator of the Earth, we give You thanks for all that we have. We are thankful for the beautiful earth You have given us that provides for us. We thank You for blue sky and white clouds, deep rich earth and clear water. We thank You for the bold colors of leaves in autumn, the night sky in winter dotted with stars. We thank You for the snow and ice and frost, and that it lasts only for its season, for in all seasons there is great beauty from You. We give You thanks and praise for the turning of seasons, that we can hold on, and let go, and see how You are making all things new. Amen.