Sunday, July 12, 2015

Year C - First Sunday of Advent (November 29, 2015)

Happy New Year! 
Greet the congregation with “Happy New Year” – even if you are in the USA and it is the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  Explain that today we start through the stories that make up the church year again – Advent, Christmas, Epiphany….  If you did not bring out all the paraments to celebrate different parts of the story of Christ last week, bring out the paraments for the entire church year today.  Briefly match the seasons to the colors.  Select those for Advent and put them in place with help from worshipers.  If it is a holiday weekend and the crowd will likely be small, involve several from the congregation in making the changes as part of the Call to Worship.  (At the very least invite one or more children to put the Advent stoles around the necks of those who wear them.)  Consider it a “hanging of the purple/blue” as preparation for “hanging the greens.” 

On the first day of the church year we start with a combination peek ahead and reality check.  Jeremiah tells the Jews living in Exile who feel as dead as an old dead tree stump that God will raise up a leader who will bring new life with justice and restoration.  Luke gives a poetic description of “how bad it can get” to remind us that the world is in an awful state, BUT that God is going to intervene.  Hope is the key word.  Bad things are happening all around us.  Bad things happen to most of us during our lifetimes.  It looks like the bad leaders, bad people, and bad plans always win.  But, God promises that in the end they will not win.  God will.  As they turn from Thanksgiving toward Christmas the hopes of most fortunate children are focused on “what I will get” and “what will I get to do” for Christmas.  It is hard to get them to look beyond this to other hopes – but it needs to be tried.  At the very least we need to name to them some of the evils in the world and identify the church’s hopes about the demise of those evils.

From Wikimedia
Before lighting the Advent wreath, take time to introduce it.  Explain the number of candles, the colors, and the ritual you will use to light the candles this year.  Point out the possibility of making Advent wreaths to light at home.  Name stores in your area where supplies can be purchased.  Give out Advent devotional or wreath lighting guides.

Advent Wreath lighting:  Invite members of the worship committee to light the first candle of the Advent wreath.  Introduce them as the people who keep us looking toward God and seeing God at work in the world. 

Statement for lighting the first candle of Advent as the candle of Hope: 
God, the world is scary.  But, You are with us in the worst of situations.  So, in the darkness we light this first candle of Advent with hope –
hope that you are with us even when awful things happen,
hope that you will show us what we can do to fix the world,
and hope that you will fix what we cannot. 

At the end of the service, an acolyte lights a candle from the first candle of the wreath and carries it out the central aisle as a worship leader says:  Go out into the world this week aware that you will meet problems and troubles.  But, go knowing that God will be with you and will work through you to recreate the world as God means for it to be.

Especially if you are hanging blue Advent paraments, sing “Watchman Tell Us of the Night” with half of the congregation (or the choir) singing the Watchman lines and the other half (of the congregation) singing the Traveler lines.  Point out that Advent blue is the soft color of the sky just before dawn.  Every time we see it we think of the light of Christ coming into the world.  Invite people to think of watchmen and travelers looking toward the light that is just-beginning to show at the horizon as they sing this morning and to think about God’s promise to come as they leave for school or work in the just-before-dawn dark.

If you are displaying a crèche and maybe moving pieces around the sanctuary each week, this week place the empty manger in its central spot.  Set the other pieces in visible spots throughout the sanctuary.  Children may unpack the crèche during worship and put the pieces where they belong.  Or, the pieces may be set in place before worship with the children simply pointing them out and naming them.  (Go to Planning for Advent and Christmas in 2015 (Year C) for an overview of this worship project.)

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as 
   it is in heaven”
Suggest that all worshipers/households pray the Lord’s Prayer phrase “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” every day during Advent.  It could simply be prayed aloud by itself.  Or, it could become the response to specific prayers about things in the world around you that need God’s help.  Households might even say it together each time they light their Advent wreath.  Provide a mini-poster bearing the phrase to post on refrigerators or other places where it will be seen frequently.

The Texts

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The CEV is my favorite translation for children on this text:

The Lord said:  
      I made a wonderful promise to Israel and Judah,
and the days are coming when I will keep it.
I promise that the time will come
when I will appoint a king
from the family of David,
a king who will be honest
and rule with justice.
In those days,
Judah will be safe;
Jerusalem will have peace
and will be named, “The Lord Gives Justice.”

I took this years ago in the Marshes of Glen
in Georgia.  Feel free to use it.
Jeremiah wrote this from prison to people who were ruled by cruel foreigners.  They all felt about as alive as an old dead tree stump.  But, Jeremiah insisted that God has made and will keep a wonderful promise – one day there will be a leader who will be honest and fair. 

If you have a Chrismons tree in your sanctuary, put it in place undecorated today.  While talking about this promise of a new branch that will grow out of the dead looking stump, add a tree stump cover to the base of the tree.  A simple one can be made by wrapping a bucket with brown paper cut at the bottom into roots that can spread out on the floor.  Or, make a reusable one from burlap or other fabrics that look like a tree bark.


Make a floral display with a small tree imbedded in a real tree stump or set in a bucket covered to look like a stump.  Point this out as an illustration of Jeremiah’s message.

“It is not fair” is a frequent complaint of children.  List for them all the things that were not fair for Jeremiah’s listeners and their children – forced to live in a foreign land as servants, not enough food, no chance to go to school, soldiers who told you where to go and what to do, etc.  Then read Jeremiah’s promise and imagine with them how a fair, just leader who was one of them rather than a foreigner sounded.  Invite children to draw pictures of unfair, unjust things today.  Near the end of or after the service, gather all the pictures and put them under the base of the Chrismon tree with a prayer.

Jeremiah can be presented as an Advent hero.  He lived in a time when everything around him looked bad.  Foreigners were in control and his country looked like a dead stump.  But, he remembered God promises and believed those promises were true.  Just as Harry Potter knew that love like that of his mother was stronger than evil like that of Lord Voldemort and so stood up to Lord Voldemort bravely, Jeremiah knew that the Assyrians might rule for a little while but would finally be defeated by God and so he waited patiently and called on people around him to remember the promises and wait with him.  (GO to Planning for Advent and Christmaas in 2015 (Year C) for a description of an Advent hero/ine.)

*  Storypath suggests reading the award winning Brothers in Hope: the Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan in connection with this passage.  It is too long to read in worship, but it is a good story to read and tell parts of as modern day, true experiences of scary apocalyptic violence being met with courage and hope by children.  When it is embedded in a sermon about living with hope in desperate situations, children tune in for the story about other children and learn from it that the message of the rest of the sermon which they can hardly understand is for them too.

You may copy this for non-comercial use or use it as a model for a song sheet based on the words 
in your hymnal and your color  for Advent. Bold key sad words in each verse.
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is filled with language children will not follow.  But, they enjoy and understand the difference in the sad, stumpy verses and the happy refrains.  To emphasize that difference have the choir or one side of the congregation sing the verses and the congregation or other side of the congregation sing the refrains. 
NOTE: There are many different versions of this hymn.  For the first Sunday of Advent, use whatever version is familiar and emphasize the difference in the verses and chorus.  This song sheet does that by using different colors for verses and refrain and by bolding key “we need help” words and phrases in the verses.  Invite children to add drawings and words about stumpy, “what is wrong with the world” things using blue or purple crayons.  Later in Advent you might want to sing a seven verse version that highlights 7 titles for Jesus.

Before singing “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” walk through verses 1 and 2 connecting them to the people who first read Jeremiah’s promise.  Then present verses 3 and 4 as prayers or wishes for the Advent season we are entering today.

Psalm 25: 1-10

This is another of the alphabet psalms.  It might be called “The ABC Prayers of People Waiting for God’s Leader” or “The ABC’s of Advent.”  Each lettered verse is a separate prayer within the larger prayer. 

The New Jerusalem Bible actually has translated the verses so that each one begins with an English word that follows alphabetical order, e.g. adoration, but, calling, direct…  Unfortunately, the rest of the verses are difficult for children to understand as worded.  Still, you might use it to illustrate how acrostics work.

Have the psalm read by a group, maybe a class or several families, with each person reading one verse.  (Verse 5 includes two lettered prayers one for He and the second for Waw.) 

Encourage worshipers (or worshiping households) to select one of the prayers from this psalm to be their prayer for this week.  Suggest that they post it somewhere as a reminder to pray it several times each day.

Work with the children to create alphabet prayers of your own for this AdventThe first might be “Advent is here, God.  Thank you.” Go on to prayers such as “Be with us as we get ready to celebrate Jesus birth.” or later “Help us be kind and loving” and “Keep us from getting selfish about gifts.” etc.  Don’t worry about getting through the whole alphabet, just do a few letters.  Older children might try to complete the alphabet back in the pews.

Today’s texts lack a story.  That (and the fact that it is a holiday weekend) makes it a good day to read or tell parts of one of the Advent stories described in Advent (Not Christmas Stories) LINK or tell the story of another Advent Hero/ine.  After doing so, read Psalm 25:1-6 as a prayer the Advent hero/ine could have prayed and that we can pray in Adventy situations.

Prepare a children’s choir or class to accompany the congregation singing the Argentine “Song of Hope” with rattles and other rhythm instruments.  Sing this short hymn once in response to the whole psalm or after each even numbered verse.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

When asked what the minister’s raised arms meant
at the benediction, they paused.  One then said tentatively,
“Look at me.  I’m the minister.”
Paul said to his friends in Thessalonica that he loved them and knew they loved him and that he hoped that love would help all of them lead lives worthy of Jesus.  He said this as a blessing or benediction.  So, give special attention to the benediction today.  Read or say to worshipers what you will say as the benediction and explain what you mean when you say it.  If you raise your hands in benediction, comment on why you do that.  Then, stand and give the benediction.  This could be addressed to children gathered at the front or to the entire congregation.

To explore what it means to “live lives worthy of Jesus,” describe Harry Potter’s determination to live a life worthy of his Mother, who died protecting him when he was a baby.  Or, tell some of the story of Despereaux, the mouse who decided to be brave and honor his princess even though he was being sent to certain death in the dungeon.  See Advent (Not Christmas) Stories for Childen.

Luke 21:25-36

Children will not follow these apocalyptic images as they are read.  But do not assume that they cannot explore the message they carry.  Several points are important to them.

Do not under-estimate the horrible things children live with every day.  They are aware of war, see murder on TV or in their neighborhoods, experience the destruction of divorce in their lives and the lives of their friends, fear the power of storms, struggle with bullies and more.  The church does them a favor when it admits out loud that that is true.  Bad stuff does happen to everyone. 

When things get really bad, we have to be brave and strong.  We have to “suck it up.”  While we are doing it helps to know that we are not alone.  Other people are facing really hard times.  It also helps to know that God is with us even at the worst times.  We can count on that.

The most important thing to remember when bad things happen is that in the end evil will not win.  God and God’s love will win.  We have God’s promise for that.  We can trust God on it.  At times this is hard to remember, but it is always true.

Apocalyptic sets the stage for Jesus being born in a stable, teaching and living love, forgiving evil while dying on their cross, and rising from that death.  It says God’s answer to the evil that is using violent power to run the world is not a stronger power that crushes evil but love and sacrifice that overcome evil.  God’s methods are different from evil’s methods.  At the beginning of Advent the apocalyptic power of evil sets the stage for the Christmas story.  It also calls us to follow Jesus and use God’s methods – even when it is really hard. 

Advent is about our deep yearning for God to fix things.  One way to get children into the message of the apocalyptic that expresses this yearning is to talk and pray with them about what needs fixing in the world.  If you have easy conversations with them, brainstorm together a list of things you wish God would fix.  If you need something to start this conversation show pictures of poor children, wars, etc.  Either knit your list into a prayer asking God to come fix our world or invite the children to pray a set short prayer after each item as it is named, e.g. “God we need you to fix our world.”

Introduce the youngest children to apocalyptic by reading and pondering the childhood fears depicted on some of the pages of Some Things Are Scary, by Florence Parry Heide.  After pondering several of the scary things, admit that we all face scary things.  Point out that when Jesus was born everyone was scared – scared of the Roman soldiers, scared of the tax-collectors, scared they wouldn’t have enough to eat.  When Jesus was born and grew up he promised people that even in the scary times, God was with them and that God’s love would win in the end.  They could be brave about the Romans and we can be brave about all the things that scare us.  Below are some of my favorites from the book.  I almost didn’t list them because you really need the wonderful art to bring them to life.
Being on a swing when someone is pushing you too high is scary.
Finding out your best friend has a best friend who isn’t you is scary.
Having your best friend move away is scary.
Thinking about a big bird with big teeth who might swoop down and carry you away is scary.

NOTE: You may want to think about when to use this book.  It could be used to introduce some of the apocalyptic texts in November.

If you have a Chrismon tree, dig out all the ornaments that feature either alpha and omega or a circle.  Display them and ponder their message that God was before the beginning and will be after the end.  God is forever.  Or, display the crosses on top of orbs.  These remind us that Christ is the lord of the world – no matter how it may look otherwise at any point in our lives. 

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