The Presbyterian Church at Woodbury
December 4, 2022
Second Sunday in Advent
God of Advent peace, we come to you in what for many of us is the busiest month of the year. Behind the serene hallmark card scenes of quite beauty lies a different truth: anxiety, stress, worry, despair, exhaustion, lament. Settle our hearts this day as we gather to focus on your goodness and grace. Amen.
PRELUDE “Savior of the Heathen Come” JS Bach
LIGHTING OF THE ADVENT CANDLES
Second Sunday in Advent: Peace
Watch and wait for Christ’s coming! Light candles of hope, peace, joy, and love, remembering the promises of God with prayer.
We light this candle in hope. Light the first candle.
We light this candle for peace. Light the second candle.
Hear God’s promise of peace from Isaiah 11:1-10:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
Let us pray:
Faithful God, you are at work to restore all of creation in its intended harmony. Give us your shalom that we may be reconciled to all enemies in the peace that passes all understanding through Christ Jesus our Lord. God of promise, God of hope, into our darkness come.
*HYMN No. 102 “Savior of the Nations, Come”
1 Savior of the nations, come;
virgin’s son, make here your home.
Marvel now, O heaven and earth,
that the Lord chose such a birth.
2 From God’s heart the Savior speeds;
back to God his pathway leads;
out to vanquish death’s command,
back to reign at God’s right hand.
3 Now your manger, shining bright,
hallows night with newborn light.
Night cannot this light subdue;
let our faith shine ever new.
4 Praise we sing to Christ the Lord,
virgin’s son, incarnate Word!
To the holy Trinity
praise we sing eternally.
*CALL TO CONFESSION
Even though we often do our best to hide our brokenness, God cannot be fooled. And yet we shouldn’t meet this truth with despair but with gratitude because the God who sees our brokenness looks upon us with love and mercy. Together, let us confess our sins.
*PRAYER FOR CONFESSION
God of Peace, the poetry of your prophets compel us to dream of a day when violence ends: when the wolf lives with the lamb, the cow, and the bear graze together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. But we scoff at that dream and treat such notions as a fantasy too ridiculous to be realistic. Forgive us, God, for our lack of moral imagination. Help us to bear fruit worthy of repentance -fruits that feed your creation with the peace you created it to embody. Give us the courage to silence the voices of fear within our hearts and to listen to your steadfast voice of peace and justice. This we pray in your merciful name. Amen.
Silence is observed
*ASSURANCE OF PARDON
Friends, hear the good news of the Gospel: There is nothing – not one thing – that can separate us from God’s love: not our fear, not our cowardice, not even our stubbornness. For nothing is a great as the mercy that is found in our loving God. In the name of the Resurrected Christ, I declare to you that our sins are forgiven. Alleluia! Amen.
*RESPONSE No. 84 “Creator of the Stars of Night
1 Creator of the stars of night,
your people’s everlasting light,
O Christ, redeemer of us all,
we pray you, hear us when we call.
2 When this old world drew on toward night,
you came; but not in splendor bright,
not as a monarch, but the child
of Mary, blameless mother mild.
3 At your great name, O Jesus, now
all knees must bend, all hearts must bow:
all things on earth with one accord,
like those in heaven, shall call you Lord.
4 To God the Father, God the Son,
and God the Spirit, Three in One,
praise, honor, might, and glory be
from age to age eternally. Amen.
*PASSING OF THE PEACE OF CHRIST
Since God has forgiven us in Christ, let us forgive one another. The peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. And also, with you.
ANTHEM “Hush, Hear the Word of the Lord” Lloyd Larson
PRAYER OF ILLUMINATION
Holy God, through your scriptures, you revealed your Word to your people. In the fullness of time, you continued your revelation to the world through Jesus Christ. Now by the power of your Holy Spirit, help us to interpret scripture, so that we might hear your living Word freshly in our time and place. Amen
SCRIPTURE Matthew 3:1-12
3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
SERMON “Prepare of God’s Arrival”
The season of Advent is upon us, a time when we remember the rich story of God’s people that led to a simple birth in the manger and the good news of a Savior. It is a time to get ready, to prepare for Christ’s coming yet again, and to remind ourselves of what this time of year is really all about. I wonder, what if Advent were kind of a pep rally for Christmas? It could be an explosion of celebration with banners and signs, shakers, and cheers. Four weeks of pumping ourselves up for one of our most holy days. We might sing our “fight song” or alma mater (you know, Christmas carols). Perhaps we would decorate in special ways and come in our most spirited festive wear. A pep band and cheerleaders could really ramp up our energy with tumbling trips and chants.
I remember in high school our principal had a “spirit stick” that was awarded at each pep rally to the grade who showed the most school pride. He would run around the gym, pointing at different areas of the gym to cue our screams. Perhaps I should have some sort of Christmas spirit stick, like a star, to really get us going in worship this morning? Or we could split the Sanctuary, and have each side goat each other a bit “We love Jesus, yes we do, we love Jesus, how about you!?” – Add in the balcony and the choir and we’d have quite the competition, I think. Yes, I like the idea of a pep rally for Advent, up to and including our Scripture readings each week. So, let’s start over for a moment and try this again, shall we?
John the Baptist is a pretty unlikely cheerleader. First, on a superficial level, his appearance needs a bit of work. Matthew’s gospel describes him as a true wild-man, with camel’s hair clothing. We might imagine he looks like a Survivor contestant, wind-blown and disheveled after time in the wilderness. Second, John the Baptist is a little quirky. He eats locusts and wild honey. It’s even more bizarre than say, putting ketchup on your macaroni and cheese. We might imagine that his general demeanor and mannerisms follow this same trend, and that, at best, this prophetic voice calling out gets more than a few sideways glances.
And yet, this is the one sent to proclaim the prophetic message and prepare a way for the Lord. John the Baptist is the leader of the pep rally for the amazing changes God is about to make in the world. Matthew’s gospel sets the stage with a beautiful telling of Jesus’ birth, which we will explore more next Sunday, and then it is as if there is a drumroll, all eyes on that paper banner held at the entrance to the room and through it bursts . . . John the Baptist, wild-eyed and a little crazy, with a disturbing message. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (v.1). “Happy Advent! You brood of vipers!”
This isn’t quite the feel-good message we might expect. But such a jarring image might be just what we need to truly understand Advent. It is a time of getting ready, and certainly a lot of that is aided by encouragement and renewed energy for the Christmas message. But it is also a time of examination of ourselves, our hearts, to make our insides just as ready as our neatly decorated homes. And so, in our Advent pep rally, John the Baptist calls us to “keep our head in the game” and reminds us of what is at stake during this season – our very salvation.
For John, the coming of the Lord is more than just a call to celebrate the savior. It is a call to shift our lives in a way that allows us to live in the new kingdom of God that is coming. John preaches a message of Repentance. It is a call of change, not just subtle recalculating, but a complete u-turn. The word literally means to turn around. It’s as if John is trying to call the people of God’s attention to the rising sun on the horizon, but everyone is facing west. Even though the prophets and others have continuously told them to look east, God’s people are stubborn and have become fixated in the other direction. Gentle taps on the shoulder and nudging have not changed their perspective. So here comes John, barreling in to literally help turn the people of God around so that they can see the light of the new coming day.
He may have been a bit of a wild man, but his message caught on. We read that he had numerous followers, who not only showed up to see some spectacle but took his message to heart, confessing their sins and receiving the waters of baptism in the Jordan River. With such an outlandish message, we might wonder why he became so popular. After all, “come to Jesus” type messages aren’t usually received so well. But perhaps it was just the right time for the people of God. Maybe he spoke around the start of a new year, when people were looking for a resolution to make that would change their lives. Perhaps they were simply weary of the way the world was going and welcomed the call for change. Maybe they were grateful for a voice that was bluntly honest in a way that truly resonated with them. I think the people of God, much like us today, were longing for a new direction. And in that longing, they were able to hear John’s message as one not of dismissive condemnation, but of love.
For some, this is a peculiar text for us to read on the second Sunday of Advent, a week when we express and give thanks for the love God has shown to us. But its placement is fitting and reminds us that God’s love is not a platitude, but is a deep, abiding love that extends to us even when we are at our worst, and facing in the wrong direction entirely. So often we hear cries of “repent” as a message of judgment that should bring about guilty feelings. But John’s message is not about a guilt-induced change of heart. That’s bad theology. As John Burgess notes: repentance is not primarily about our standards of moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilt feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.
John’s message reminds us that God cares for us deeply, and that God’s love isn’t contingent on our good behavior. In fact, that’s a central point of Christ coming into the world – to show us God’s love firsthand, in and amongst the messiness of our everyday lives.
I don’t know about you, but if I have unexpected company, or just run out of time before visitors come, I have a tendency to reach a point in my cleaning and tidying up that I start to, well, “hide” things. That pile of papers I don’t have time to sort through? It can just get tucked away in that drawer. And those other things that are sitting out? Maybe they can fit in that closet. That way my house looks nice, and unless our guests open all the closets, no one will be the wiser. As a result, my house often looks cleaner than it actually is.
The Pharisees and Sadducees also came to hear John the Baptist and were coming to be baptized. John responds by calling them a “brood of vipers,” indicating that there is something up with their approach that is not entirely in line with the well-known instructions for faithful living. One commentary notes that they may have been genuine in their intents, but something was still awry: Perhaps they wanted a bit of his message, but not too much – enough to clear the conscience and remove the guilt, enough so that they need no longer to [be] haunted by the past, enough to feel good again.
But not enough to really change them much. In many ways, this is where most of us want to spend our Advent season. We want to get a little taste of the good news of Christmas, say “awwwwwwwww” at the sweet little baby in a manger, and then go on our way with a little extra spring in our step. We don’t really want to tackle hard theological points, just the heart-warming ones. Keep it simple, preacher, and we’ll just stuff those big questions into the closet where they belong to deal with when we have more time.
In the tv show, Friends, the character of Monica was notoriously neat and organized, in an almost too-good-to-be-true kind of way. One episode features her husband Chandler, asking about storage space behind a mysterious door in their apartment that is locked. She panics, and we soon learn that’s because it is full, floor to ceiling, of “stuff.” But you know what? When that happens, Chandler wraps her in his arms and reminds her that he loves her, even if she isn’t as perfect as she tried to make herself look. In response to all the junk, is love.
John proclaims that the kingdom of God is near. It’s coming. Before we have time to get everything hidden again. The doorbell is ringing. The Savior has come . . . are we ready to open the door? This is the question of Advent. John the Baptist calls us to fling open those junk drawers and crammed closets in our lives and sort through our stuff so that we can truly be ready and have a clear path for the one who is to come. And then, he goes and opens all that we have tried to keep hidden. Are we willing to let Jesus into the crazy, mixed-up lives we have made for ourselves?
The good news is this – Christ can handle our messiness. In fact, that’s a lot of his reason for coming into the world. Jesus is one of those friends who doesn’t care if you’ve vacuumed or dusted when he comes over. In fact, he’s the one who walks in and picks up the broom to start sweeping. He isn’t interested in going through your dirty laundry; he’s in the business of fluff and fold and will help you get even the most stubborn stains out. That, friends, is the result of God’s love for us; a God who doesn’t overlook but overcomes all our messes.
So perhaps our question should be less of are we ready to repent this Advent, and more are we ready to accept the incredible love God has for us? We live in a world where precious few things come without strings attached, and the mantra of “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” We’d rather be skeptical or hedge our bets on a variety of options rather than fully buy into such absurd promises or hopes, lest we end up hurt and disappointed.
But remember, Advent is our pep rally. No matter what we’re up against, it’s a time for us to cheer loudly and get excited, believing that anything is possible as we look toward the night when we celebrate that God can and will make a way, even leading right to our hearts. Are you ready for this? Are you ready for God’s arrival??
Liturgy and Commentary provided by Ron Allen, David Lose, Michelle C. Torigian, Elizabeth Lovell Milford, David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, James D. Newson and John P. Burgess.
*AFFIRMATION OF FAITH Heidelberg Catechism, 4.001
Our only comfort, in life and death, is that we belong—body and soul, in life and in death—not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all our sins and has completely freed us from the dominion of the devil; that he protects us so well that without the will of our Father in heaven not a hair can fall from our heads; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for our salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures us of eternal life, and makes us wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
*HYMN No. 87 “Comfort, Comfort Now My People”
1 “Comfort, comfort now my people;
tell of peace!” So says our God.
“Comfort those who sit in darkness
mourning under sorrow’s load.
To my people now proclaim
that my pardon waits for them!
Tell them that their sins I cover,
and their warfare now is over.”
2 For the herald’s voice is crying
in the desert far and near,
calling us to true repentance,
since the reign of God is here.
O, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way.
Let the valleys rise in meeting
and the hills bow down in greeting.
3 Straight shall be what long was crooked,
and the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits God’s holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord
now on earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that God’s word is never broken.
THE SACRAMENT OF COMMUNION & THE LORD’S PRAYER
May you know that the God of comfort is with you.
And may you see the God of hope with you.
Open wide our anxious hearts!
We open them to God’s peace.
Let us give thanks and share our joy.
In this space and time, we offer God our love and praise.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
The dawn of hope rests on the horizon
And beams of love reach our doubting hearts.
We celebrate the newness of this season-
Waiting to see how the Christ will appear in our world.
Even in our despair, a glimmer of hope reaches into our twilight
Beckoning us to breathe and wait…
Our story tells us that the Christ child whose birth we anticipate
Will one day sit at tables with strangers and friends,
Building relationships filled with love and grace.
We see this as he fed the multitude,
Turned water into wine,
And ate with dear ones the night before his death.
He took the bread, blessed it, and broke it.
Eat in remembrance of me, he said.
He took the cup, and in his blessing
Reminded them that when they sipped from the fruit of the vine
To drink in remembrance of him.
Jesus. The Christ. Emmanuel – God with us.
Light of the World. The Word of Life.
No matter how we know him
Or what name we call him,
He is our hope, our peace, our joy, and our love.
May the Spirit bless us and these elements as we commune to remember him. This we ask in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray saying…
Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
For the nourishment of spirit, mind, and body, For hope that we begin to see, And for comfort from the Prince of Peace, We share our gratitude, Gracious God. Encourage us in these shortened days. Through the long nights of this season, May your hope carry us until dawn arrives again. Amen.
OFFERING OF TITHES & OFFERINGS
This Sunday we celebrate the Advent of Peace, born for us in Jesus Christ. Think of your gifts as seeds of that peace which we can plant in the world God loves for Christ’s sake.
Praise God, from whom all blessing flow, Praise God, all creatures here below. Alleluia, Alleluia Praise God in Jesus fully known; Creator, Word and Spirit one. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
* PRAYER OF DEDICATION
Holy One, this Advent season we wait in peace, And we give in peace. A peace deeper than our anxiety and fear. A peace growing from our trust in your loving power. Receive these generous offerings, And use them to bring your peace to our world. Amen.
*HYMN No. 109 “Blest Be the God of Israel
1 Blest be the God of Israel,
who comes to set us free;
who visits and redeems us,
who grants us liberty.
The prophets spoke of mercy,
of freedom and release;
God shall fulfill that promise
and bring the people peace.
2 God from the house of David
a child of grace has given;
a Savior comes among us
to raise us up to heaven.
Before him goes the herald,
forerunner in the way,
the prophet of salvation,
the harbinger of day.
3 On those who sit in darkness
the sun begins to rise,
the dawning of forgiveness
upon the sinner’s eyes.
God guides the feet of pilgrims
along the paths of peace.
O bless our God and Savior
with songs that never cease!
Go in peace this day, ready to bear fruit worthy of your commitment to Jesus Christ and his kingdom of justice and peace.
And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.