Today’s set readings include Zechariah’s song at John the Baptist’s birth and the beginning of his ministry. Next week’s reading is John’s “what shall we do?” conversation with his listeners. It would be possible to read all three today and to make John’s call to repentance the theme of the day. If you do that, check the suggestions for Luke 3:1-17 in the Third Week of Advent. Use the reading scripts from both weeks to present John’s long complicated story. For ideas how this combination would affect texts for the rest of the season go to Planning for Advent and Christmas in 2012 - Year C.
'' Statement for lighting an Advent Wreath candle for repenting. (Also check the suggestion related to today’s Philippians text for lighting this candle at the benediction.)
God, we know that we are not all you created us to be. You call us to repent, to make changes. So, we light this candle to promise you to make those changes. Be with us, show us what to do, and give us the courage and energy we need to change.
'' If you read both Malachi and Luke, help worshipers find Malachi in their pew Bibles. Point out that it is the last book in the Old Testament. Then have worshipers find Luke 1. With your finger in both places in a Bible point out that there was 400 years between Malachi and Luke. During those years there were no prophets or special events. It seemed like God had forgotten the people. To give 400 years reality compare it to something familiar in your history, e.g. in the USA it has been less than 300 years since the Declaration of Independence and that seems a really long time ago. Then, read the Malachi passage. When you read Luke later begin, “remember what Malachi said? Well, 400 years later….”
'' Malachi’s message is that God is not always sweet and gentle. Sometimes God gets in our faces, insists that we change our ways, and calls us to take brave action. Similarly, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, when the children are told they will meet Aslan they are wisely concerned. Malachi advises us to await God with the same caution.
“Is he a man?” asked Lucy.
“Aslan a man?” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood, and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he - - quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then, he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But, he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
(FYI – this conversation did not make the movie, so no need to go looking for the clip.)
'' Children have taken medicines that sting or taste bad to heal a disease. Some have done exercises that hurt to rehab after a broken bone or sports injury. And, all children are frequently reminded of the sometimes less than pleasant disciplines needed to succeed in sports or music. These experiences, more than the refiners fire or the fuller’s soap, enable them to hear Malachi’s message that sometimes we must make hard changes and work hard to be the people God made us to be.
To explain the refiner’s fire, show pictures of molten metal and briefly describe the process by which the rocky ore dug from the ground is turned into useful metal.
Remember that soap these days does not sting - even when you get it in your eyes. So, point out that fuller’s soap is soap that is so strong in takes the color out of cloth and has to be used wearing rubber gloves since it raises blisters on skin.
'' During December many children are totally focused on being nice rather than naughty in order to get good gifts from Santa Claus. They need to hear that Malachi and John the Baptist do not want them to be good in order to get gifts from God or so that God will like them. The prophets want them to be good because God created them to be good. They are to be their very best to show God appreciation for how God has made them. There is no cute way to say this. Straight talk is needed. The medicine and discipline images above help communicate why we repent.
'' This is a good day to do some worship education about the prayers of confession. Select a prayer that uses simple concrete words. Before praying it, read it and summarize what it means to say those words to God. Point to the assurance of forgiveness that follows. If you follow this by passing the peace, explain that saying “Peace” to those around us is just the beginning. We have to take that peace everywhere we go all week and share it with everyone we see. That is not easy. Admit that everyone in the congregation needs to pray this prayer every Sunday.
Baruch 5:1-9 or
During December the girls are often feeling like princesses wearing fancy Christmas dresses. It is almost impossible to get them from thinking about those Christmas clothes to thinking about the prophet’s message. Most boys are not interested enough in clothes to explore the prophet’s image. So, I’d read this one for the adults.
Luke 1:68-79 The Song of Zechariah
'' The RCL suggests reading only the song of Zechariah today. Actually, the RCL omits the story that led up to that song entirely. Children especially, but lots of other worshipers too, need to hear that story to make sense of the song. Unfortunately, in the Bible it is so long that it loses children and I have yet to find a Bible story book that includes a shorter good version. That leaves us with several reading options to bring the text to life in worship. Below is a script for an older couple, an angel and a narrator. Further down in this post there is a script for Luke 3:1-18 that calls the whole congregation to read together about John’s call to repentance. Reading both scripts today allows the congregation to enjoy the entire story of John.
Luke 1: 5-25 and 57-80
Narrator(speaking from the lectern while the couple is coming forward from the congregation): When Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest by the name of Zechariah from the priestly group of Abijah. His wife Elizabeth was from the family of Aaron. Both of them were good people and pleased the Lord God by obeying all that he had commanded. But they did not have children. Elizabeth could not have any, and both Zechariah and Elizabeth were already old.
Zechariah: One day my group of priests were on duty, and I was serving God as a priest. According to the custom of the priests, I had been chosen to go into the Lord’s temple that day and to burn incense, while the people stood outside praying. All at once an angel from the Lord appeared to me at the right side of the altar. I was confused and afraid!
Angel (stepping to the front beside Zechariah): Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayers. Your wife Elizabeth will have a son, and you must name him John. His birth will make you very happy, and many people will be glad. Your son will be a great servant of the Lord. He must never drink wine or beer, and the power of the Holy Spirit will be with him from the time he is born.
John will lead many people in Israel to turn back to the Lord their God. He will go ahead of the Lord with the same power and spirit that Elijah had. And because of John, parents will be more thoughtful of their children. And people who now disobey God will begin to think as they ought to. That is how John will get people ready for the Lord.
Zechariah: How will I know this is going to happen? My wife and I are both very old.
Angel: I am Gabriel, God’s servant, and I was sent to tell you this good news. You have not believed what I have said. So you will not be able to say a thing until all this happens. But everything will take place when it is supposed to.
Elizabeth: The crowd was waiting for Zechariah and kept wondering why he was staying so long in the temple. When he did come out, he could not speak, and they knew he had seen a vision. He motioned to them with his hands, but did not say a thing.
When Zechariah’s time of service in the temple was over, he came home. Soon after that, I was expecting a baby, and for five months I did not leave the house. I said to myself, “What the Lord has done for me will keep people from looking down on me.” When my son was born, my neighbors and relatives heard how kind the Lord had been to me, and they too were glad.
Eight days later we did for the child what the Law of Moses commands. People were going to name him Zechariah, after his father. But I said, “No! His name is John.” Everyone argued with me, “No one in your family has ever been named John.” So they motioned to Zechariah to find out what he wanted to name his son. Zechariah asked for a writing tablet. Then he wrote, “His name is John.” Everyone was amazed. Right away, Zechariah started speaking and praising God.
Praise the Lord, the God of Israel!
He has come to save his people.
Our God has given us a mighty Savior
from the family of David his servant.
Long ago the Lord promised by the words
of his holy prophets
to save us from our enemies
and from everyone who hates us.
God said he would be kind to our people
and keep his sacred promise.
He told our ancestor Abraham
that he would rescue us from our enemies.
Then we could serve him without fear,
by being holy and good as long as we live.
You, my son, will be called
a prophet of God in heaven above.
You will go ahead of the Lord
to get everything ready for him.
You will tell his people
that they can be saved
when their sins are forgiven.
God’s love and kindness will shine upon us
like the sun that rises in the sky.
On us who live in the dark shadow of death
this light will shine
to guide us into a life of peace.
Narrator: All the neighbors were frightened because of what had happened, and everywhere in the hill country people kept talking about these things. Everyone who heard about this wondered what this child would grow up to be. They knew that the Lord was with him. As John grew up, God’s Spirit gave him great power. John lived in the desert until the time he was sent to the people of Israel.
Based on the CEV
'' To shorten the story, a male storyteller could assume the role of Zechariah to tell the story in his own words moving around the front of the sanctuary as he speaks. If you use incense in worship, he could cense the altar while talking about his time in the Temple. He would then set the censer aside and move to another part of the chancel or perhaps the front of the nave to tell what happened when he went home. When it comes time for the song, he recites it front and center.
'' Or to keep the focus on the song, briefly tell the story, then turn to an older man to read or recite the song. If he can recite it, he might stand at the center holding a baby doll wrapped in a blanket.
Psalm 126 (Roman Catholic and Episcopalian lectionaries)
'' This psalm compares prayers when things are good with prayers when things are not so good. To emphasize that difference have it read by two readers. The first reader dressed in bright colors stands to read verses 1-3 with exuberance and the second dressed in somber colors sits on the floor beside the first reader to read verses 4-6 thoughtfully. Or, point out the differences then have the halves of the congregation read the psalm together.
'' Children can only begin to understand the psalm’s message that we can have joy even when we are not happy. During December their idea of happy is to get what you want for Christmas and do fun things to celebrate the season. The psalmist says that kind of happy is wonderful. But, even when things around us make us feel less than happy, we can have joy. For the children define joy as knowing in your head that God created the world and that it is basically good and beautiful. It is knowing that no matter what is going on at the moment, God loves each of us and is with us. If these things are true we can be OK when we are happy and when we are unhappy.
'' “I’ve Got a Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart” is a good parallel song.
Verses 9-11 are a blessing for repenters. The CEV is easiest for children to understand. The verses can be used at the end of the service either to light the Advent wreath sending worshipers out to repent (see statement at the top of this post) or to emphasize the benediction. For either reason, remind worshipers that Paul wrote this blessing while he was in prison in Rome to his church friends back in Philippi. Imagine together how those friends felt when they read it and what they were encouraged by Paul to do. Then, light the candle for repentance or use the verses as the benediction addressed to today’s congregation.
I pray that your love will keep on growing and that you will fully know and understand how to make the right choices. Then you will still be pure and innocent when Christ returns. And until that day, Jesus Christ will keep you busy doing good deeds that bring glory and praise to God.
'' There is much to be said for combining this reading with Luke 3:7-18 which is scheduled for next week. So, I am posting all the ideas for the combined text both today and on the Third week of Advent.
'' Combine the 2 readings about John’s ministry. As you begin, point out that when John grew up huge crowds followed him. Invite the congregation to join you in reading about John and those crowds. Assign different sections of the congregation to be the crowds, tax-collectors, and soldiers. The Narrator, who is probably the key liturgist, and John read from the front. Everyone will need a script. Prepare John to read dramatically as if addressing a large crowd out doors.
Luke 3:2b -17
Narrator: God spoke to Zechariah’s son John when he grew up. John was living in the desert. So John went along the Jordan Valley, telling the crowds of people who came there to hear him,
John: Turn back to God and be baptized! Then your sins will be forgiven.
Narrator: Isaiah the prophet wrote about John when he said,
“In the desert someone is shouting,
‘Get the road ready for the Lord!
Make a straight path for him.
Fill up every valley
and level every mountain and hill.
Straighten the crooked paths
and smooth out the rough roads.
Then everyone will see the saving power of God.’ ”
Narrator: Crowds of people came out to be baptized, but John said to them,
John: You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run from the coming judgment? Do something to show that you really have given up your sins. Don’t start saying that you belong to Abraham’s family. God can turn these stones into children for Abraham. An ax is ready to cut the trees down at their roots. Any tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire.
Narrator: The crowds asked John,
The crowds: What should we do?
John: If you have two coats, give one to someone who doesn’t have any. If you have food, share it with someone else.
Narrator: When tax collectors came to be baptized, they asked John,
Tax-collectors: Teacher, what should we do?
John: Don’t make people pay more than they owe.
Narrator: Some soldiers asked him,
Soldiers: And what about us? What do we have to do?”
John: Don’t force people to pay money to make you leave them alone. Be satisfied with your pay.
Narrator: Everyone became excited and wondered, “Could John be the Messiah?” But John said,
John: I am just baptizing with water. But someone more powerful is going to come, and I am not good enough even to untie his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His threshing fork is in his hand, and he is ready to separate the wheat from the husks. He will store the wheat in his barn and burn the husks with a fire that never goes out.
Narrator: This is the Word of the Lord!
Congregation: Thanks be to God!
Based on the CEV
'' Revel in all the specific places and people in the opening verses. Get out a map – or better yet a globe. Locate your congregation on it. Point out the places. They are all right around present day Palestine. Together pronounce the names of the people and insist that these were real people that we read about in history books. Luke’s point and yours to the children is this is a real story about real people in a real place. Children who have trouble sorting out fiction from non-fiction appreciate knowing that. They also enjoy Luke’s point that with the choice of all those important people living in important places, God gave his message to nobody John who lived in an unnamed wilderness.
'' Remember that children will hear the poetry about roads and mountains literally unless you direct them otherwise. In a day when mountain top removal is an environmental issue it is easy for children to jump to wrong conclusions.
'' “Repent!” is John’s favorite word. He used it lots! To help children understand and claim the word, point out the difference in being sorry and repenting. Being sorry is feeling bad that you did something wrong or hurt someone. Repenting is doing something to make sure you never do that again. Repenting is making changes in what we do. It is much easier to feel sorry about something than to repent it. John is not even a little interested in people feeling sorry about bad things they were doing. He wanted them to change. He would want the same for us this Advent.
After talking about repenting, challenge children to draw or write about repenting they plan to do in the coming weeks. Invite them to put their art in the offering basket as a way of offering it to God and asking for God’s help.
'' To explore John’s call to repent and be baptized, explore the question “Do you renounce evil and turn toward Jesus Christ?” in many baptism and confirmation rituals. To describe how we actually do this, sort a collection of cards or small posters into “evil” and “turn to Jesus” piles. Write on each card something like Mine!, I want it!, Give me! Me first! You stink! May I help? Can we share this? What would you like? You first! I think you are special! Can we do this together?... Briefly describe what working to say or not say each of these things is a way of keeping a promise to God.
'' Sing your way toward repentance with “Lord, I Want to Be a Christian.”