Today’s readings include Zechariah’s song at John the Baptist’s birth and the beginning of John’s 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.
** Advent Wreath Lighting: Stretch the general understanding of the work of the Sunday School committee by asking them to light this candle remembering John who called people to become more faithful than they were.
Statement for lighting an Advent Wreath candle for repenting.
God, we know that we are not all you created us to be. You call us to repent, to make changes. So, we light the first candle knowing that you are with us in all the darkness of the world and we light this second candle promising to make the changes we need to make to be your people. Be with us, show us what to do, and give us the courage and energy we need to change.
At the end of the service an acolyte lights a candle from the second candle of the wreath and carries it out the central aisle as a worship leader reads Paul’s blessing in Philippians 1:9-11. (The CEV is the clearest translation for children to follow.)
9 I pray that your love will keep on growing and that you will fully know and understand 10 how to make the right choices. Then you will still be pure and innocent when Christ returns. And until that day, 11 Jesus Christ will keep you busy doing good deeds that bring glory and praise to God.
** If you highlight crèche figures and their stories each week in Advent, you have at least two options this week.
1. If you are using the crèche to rehearse the nativity story in the sanctuary, visit the shepherds at their corner of the sanctuary or bring them to the manger. Talk about how tired and dirty and looked down on the shepherds were. Briefly tell the story of the angels’ visit and what that meant to the shepherds. They left the manger aware that God knew who they were and invited them to see Jesus. They had hope that God was really making the world fairer.
2. If this is going to be John the Baptist Sunday and you display a crèche in the sanctuary, select one of the shepherd figures to stand for John. Explain that almost no creches include a John the Baptist figure because John was not at the manger. However, John is very much a part of the story of how Jesus got his start. Point out that John was most like the shepherds. He lived outside a lot, dressed poorly, was poor, and probably dirty. Stand him near the lectern for the reading of today’s gospels.
** 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 or injury. 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. If you can get some raw iron ore, display it and something made of steel. Describe the processes by which we get from ore to steel with emphasis on all the fire and pounding involved.
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.
During December the girls are often feeling like princesses wearing fancy Christmas dresses. It is almost impossible to lead them from thinking about those Christmas clothes to thinking about this 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 the 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 good-to read-in-worship shorter 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 hear 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 telling 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 letting another story teller tell what about the period when Zechariah could not speak. When it comes time for the song, Zechariah 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.
** Zechariah is an interesting Advent hero. At first, he failed to see that God really would enable him and Elizabeth to have a baby. He knew that old people don’t have babies. But, during the nine months before the baby was born, he had lots of time to think (he couldn’t talk) and did see the amazing thing that God was doing and sang about it for everyone to hear. It is good news that God helps potential Advent hero/ines grow into their roles.
Psalm 126 (Roman Catholic and Episcopalian lectionaries; not in the RCL)
** 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 version for children to understand. Use the verses at the end of the service to highlight the benediction and send worshipers into the week to repent. Go back to the top of this post for details. 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.
** Replace the biblical names in verses 1 and 2 with the names of the current president, governor and mayor in your area followed by the name/s of the pastor/s of your congregation. Keep reading replacing Jordan with name of your town. Keep John’s name. Note that when you name all those people and the place that you know exactly when and where you are. Then, read the biblical names taking time to pronounce the names of those people together. Luke’s point and yours is this is a real story about real people in a real place. Children who generally have trouble sorting out fiction from non-fiction stories 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 a nobody named John who lived in an unnamed wilderness. Only then invite listeners to hear the verses about what John did in verses 3-6.
** 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 paint the wrong mental pictures in their heads.
** John the Baptist was an Advent hero who saw that what was going on in the world around him was not God’s plan and spoke up loudly pointing that out and calling people to change their ways. He told everyone – even kings - exactly what they were doing wrong. Some people believed him and repented or changed their ways. But, some people were really angry – angry enough to kill him. List people more recently who have spoken out bravely about what is wrong.
** “Repent!” is John’s favorite word. He used it lots! To help children understand and claim the word, write it in big bold letters on one side of a poster and write “sorry” in small letters on the reverse side. 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.”