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.

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.

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