December 2019 Lectionary Preview: Anticipation, reflection and joy

October 21, 2019 by Cynthia Campbell

The season of Advent and the month of December always present a significant tension to pastors, musicians, and worship leaders. Is it Advent – a season of anticipation and reflection? Or is it Christmas – with parties and presents, decorations and carols? The answer, of course, is yes – for it is always both. This month is a liturgical season full of nuance and deep beauty, and it is a cultural celebration that can be both joy-filled and stressful in many ways.

From the vantage point of congregational stewardship, the “season” of the annual budget campaign may be over or at least winding down. For those congregations that depend on substantial year-end giving, however, this might be an important time for communication with congregation members. The message is not a difficult one, as the season itself is one of grace and gratitude. At Christmas, we celebrate the great gift of the incarnation – God’s deep desire to live among us as one of us in the person of Jesus born of Mary. As we give thanks for this gift, we remind one another that our giving to the church’s mission is one way to express our gratitude.

This year’s lectionary provides some interesting ways to extend this theme of gifts and gratitude, however. The Advent lectionary is built around the theme of promise and fulfillment. The coming of Christ fulfills ancient promises for the restoration of God’s people, Israel, as well as the extension of that promise to all peoples and nations. The season looks forward as well as back, as it also anticipates the “second coming of Christ,” or the promised culmination of all time when the will of God will be fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven.

In Year A of the lectionary, the theme of promise and fulfillment give us windows into the shape of both promise and fulfillment. If the preacher and worship planners ask what gifts that God promises to give the world in Christ, the answer this year might be: peace, justice, joy and salvation.

The first Sunday of Advent (December 1) begins with Isaiah’s vision of the restoration of God’s holy mountain (Zion or Jerusalem). All nations and peoples will come there to learn God’s ways, and the “way” that they learn is how to make peace. Specifically, they learn how to convert weapons into farm tools. Instruments of death are converted into implements of cultivation – plows to till the soil and pruning hooks to cultivate olive trees and vineyards. God promises that this day will come. The gospel asks: but what happens if we are not ready to receive this gift when it comes? In Matthew, Jesus urges us to pay attention! To keep awake, so that we may welcome the gift of God’s peacemaking transformation.

The second Sunday of Advent (December 8) the promised gift is justice, in particular it is a ruler who will restore justice to a broken society. Isaiah 11 imagines a shoot of new growth coming out of a tree stump. The stump is Jesse, the father of David, and the new growth is a ruler who will restore Israel according to God’s intentions. The most important aspect of his rule is justice: “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Those with financial and social resources can usually be assured of getting justice. God promises justice for the vulnerable and those without money or influence. This gift ensures a stable and healthy society.

The third Sunday of Advent (December 15) is traditionally known as “Gaudete Sunday” (from the Latin “to rejoice”), which is why the pink candle in the Advent wreath is lighted that day. Isaiah 35 proclaims that the wilderness rejoices and the desert blossoms as exiles return to Jerusalem. The Song of Mary is a joyous celebration of God’s care for the poor and vulnerable. When Jesus tells John the Baptist’s follower to tell John about Jesus’ ministry, he says, “Look and see – the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and the poor receive good news.” This might be a Sunday on which to explore whether we today look for joy in the right or wrong places? Are we tempted to think that material security will bring us joy? Are we able to rejoice when we see other flourishing or our own brokenness repaired?

On the final Sunday of Advent (December 22), we receive the greatest gift of all: salvation. In Matthew, Joseph is told by the angel that he is to name Mary’s child “Jesus” because he will “save his people” (“Jesus” being a form of the Hebrew “Joshua,” which means Yahweh or the Lord saves). Salvation, of course, takes many forms and has a variety of meanings. In Isaiah, the birth and weaning of a child is the sign that God will remove the threat from Israel’s enemies that have been threatening war. The word “salvation” is related to the words “health” or “wholeness.” Salvation is rightly seen as something spiritual: we are saved by God’s grace from the bondage of our sin. But it is not just our souls that God longs to restore, but the whole of our lives – our relationships, our communities, the whole creation. Psalm 80:3 captures the prayer for this day: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” And so we end Advent as we began (Isaiah 2:5): “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Cynthia Campbell serves as pastor and head of staff at Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Ky., a position she has held since 2013. Cynthia began her ministry in Texas and served in three congregations before completing her Ph.D. She joined the faculty of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 1981 where she taught theology and ministry and directed the Doctor of Ministry Program. In 1988, she was called to the First Presbyterian Church of Salina, Kansas, as Pastor/Head of Staff, one of the first women to serve a congregation of over 1,000 members as pastor. In 1995, she was named President of McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago (one of the 10 seminaries of the Presbyterian Church). She is the author of A Multitude of Blessings: A Christian Approach to Religious Diversity (2007) and God’s Abundant Table (2011). Cynthia is married to Fred Holper, who recently retired from teaching preaching and worship at McCormick Seminary. They have two adult children who live in Milwaukee and are also the proud human companions of Shadow the cat.