You may as well face it: every year you have to buck the system. The Savior of the world is about to arrive, and you want to prepare your congregation for His coming with a hard-hitting series of messages based on the weekly readings for Advent. This is the “mini-Lent” of the church year, and the Prayers for the Day for the season of Advent summarize the mood of the church’s new year message:
First Sunday in Advent: Stir up your power, O Lord, and come…. Save us from the threatening dangers of our sins.
Third Sunday in Advent: Lord, hear our prayers and come to us, bringing light into the darkness of our hearts.
Fourth Sunday in Advent: Take away the hindrance of our sins and make us ready for the celebration of [Christ’s] birth.
But how will others prepare for the coming of Christ? “Shop till you drop!” People will be moving around — as “visions of sugar-plums dance in their heads” — with visions of consumer joy and peace. All this activity consummates in a feeding-frenzy of gift-buying, party-going, and pageant-attending — purged of all Christian references, of course. In the meantime, you will be wrestling with texts that proclaim judgment, repentance, and the reexamination of priorities — hardly the sort of things that bring twinkles into the eyes of struggling merchants.
You may feel you have but one of two choices available to you in Advent: to breathe out a sigh of resignation and preach on familiar Christmas texts, or to shoulder your spiritual axe like a modern-day John the Baptist and hew your way through the thicket of prevailing American cultural expectations. The first choice is a total capitulation; the second choice will only ruffle the feathers of even the most devout member of your congregation.
But do not despair, there may be a way off the horns of this dilemma. The canticles in the first two chapters of Luke — the Magnificat (1:46-55), the Benedictus (1:68-79), the Gloria in excelsis (2:14), and the Nunc dimittus (2:29-32) — are the Father’s pre-packaged gifts for you, wrapped in the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit. The canticles offer to your congregation and to you, the preacher, the themes of Advent and Christmas in a palatable and spiritually nutritious form. And in so doing they make the transition from Advent’s severe tone to Christmas’ joyous celebration a little easier for everyone.
Basing your Advent messages on the psalms1 Luke recorded for us in the opening chapters of his two-volume work will accomplish several things at once. First of all, using these four New Testament psalms provides you with a painless way of introducing the major themes of the Advent and Christmas seasons. By basing your sermons on these lyrical portions of Scripture, you can overcome a lot of the resistance usually encountered during Advent.
Second, you will be using the very works Luke chose to prepare the literary way for the advent of Christ into the world. These four poems are not necessary to the flow of thoughts in Luke 1 and 2. They could be easily omitted and the narrative would continue without serious loss (except to the aesthetic sensibilities of the church). And the poems themselves stand well on their own, as the centuries-old tradition of Christian worship testifies. They function as sung summary statements of the events and fulfillments of the narratives that precede and follow them.
Thirdly, they are just plain enjoyable to sing. They are satisfying aesthetically, emotionally, and theologically. And it is not necessary to use a literal, word-for-word translation of the Lukan psalms. Your denomination’s hymnal probably contains one or more versions of the Magnificat (“My soul magnifies the Lord”), and perhaps also the Nunc dimittus (“Lord, let your servant depart in peace”). Or you may use one of my metered versions below.
Augustine wrote, “The one who sings hymns prays twice.” Singing the Lukan hymns will give you twice the opportunity for letting Advent’s message have an impact on your congregation.
A Plan of Action
Here is a suggested approach for introducing the message and power of these New Testament psalms for the four Sundays in Advent, the Nativity of Our Lord, and the First Sunday after Christmas.2
First and Second Sundays in Advent
First Lesson: 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (The Song of Hannah, the primary model for Luke’s Magnificat).
Old Testament Psalm: 103 (The LXX version and Luke share common vocabulary and thought patterns).
Second Lesson: Titus 2:11-143 (a hymn similar in content to the Magnificat).
Gospel Lesson: (Sing my metered version of the Magnificat below).
Tune: St. Catherine
aka “Faith of Our Fathers”
(or any tune with an
88.88.88 meter)
1. My soul now magnifies the Lord;
In God my Savior I rejoice:
For He who is mighty did for me
Great things, and holy is His name.
His mercy is from age to age
On those who trust in fear and awe.
2. He has laid bare his arm of strength;
He’s scattered proud ones in their thoughts.
He’s pulled the mighty from their thrones,
And those of low degree He’s raised.
He’s filled the hungry with good things;
Empty He’s sent the rich away.
3. His servant Israel He has helped;
He has recalled His steadfast love,
As to the fathers He oft’ spoke,
To Abr’ham and his seed for aye.
My soul now magnifies the Lord;
In God my Savior I rejoice.
Preaching Themes:
1. “A Faith that Sings.” Mary’s faith and praise, as opposed to Zechariah’s unbelief and muteness. Praise and thanksgiving as the first evidence of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.
2. Joy in the salvation God has provided. “My Soul Magnifies the Lord.”
3. Luke’s deliberately paralleling Mary and Hannah. Both women are examples of those who “Hear the Word of God and Keep It.”
4. Luke’s bias against the rich. “Violent Language with a Peaceful Purpose.” Luke spiritualizes the war-like language of the Song of Hannah. But this is not a dismissal of God’s deep concern for the poor and the oppressed.
5. Christ’s birth as the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope, especially the fulfillment of the covenant promise made to Abraham and his seed. “Just as He Promised.” What God did in the past He can do in the present in similar ways.
Third and Fourth Sundays in Advent
First Lesson: 2 Samuel 22:1-7, 17-20, 50f (A prayer of David, probably the model Luke followed for the Benedictus).
Old Testament Psalm: 106:1-12; 40-48 (A psalm which praises God’s faithfulness to His covenant, as does the Benedictus).
Second Lesson: Acts 13:16-19 (Luke’s view of salvation history given in poetical form in the Benedictus).
Gospel Lesson: (Sing my metered version of the Benedictus below).
Tune: Christe Sanctorum,
aka, “Father Most Holy”
1. Bless’d be the Lord, the God Israel: / For he has come and worked redemption for us; / Raising up for us a great king and Savior / From David’s lineage.
2. This spoke he of old by his holy prophets: /”Salvation from our foes and those who hate us!” / Love steadfast he’s shown to our fathers, based on / His holy Cov’nant.
3. This is the oath he swore to father Abr’ham: / Granting that, freed from all our foes, we’d serve him / Fearlessly, holy, all our days before him, / Righteousness keeping.
4. This is the tender mercy of our God …: / On those who sat in darkness and Death’s shadow / Blazes a Sunrise, from on high, bright shining, / Showing the way to peace.
Preaching Themes:
1. Every verse of this hymn has to do with the covenant and its fulfillment in Christ. “This Is the Tender Mercy of Our God.” Much of the language is borrowed from the Exodus event (God of Israel, working redemption, mercy [=steadfast love], oath to Abraham, deliverance from foes, doing righteousness [=keeping the conditions of the covenant]).
2. Fulfillment of the promises given to the prophets: “Light in the Darkness.” John as the forerunner of the Christ, salvation known “in the forgiveness of sins.” (See Luke 3:3; 24:46-48; Acts 13:24; 19:4.)
The Nativity of our Lord
First Lesson: Isaiah 6:1-6 (Isaiah’s vision of God’s glory).
Old Testament Psalm: 146 (Perhaps the closest thing to a summary of the theology of Luke-Acts we have in the entire Old Testament, but see also Psalm 145).
Second Lesson: Hebrews 1:1-35 (A Christ-hymn on our Lord’s humanity and divinity).
Gospel Lesson: (Sing my metered version of Luke 2:14 and 10:37f below).
Tune: Gelobt sei Gott
aka “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice and Sing”
(888 with Alleluias)
Glory to God in highest heav’n, / And peace on earth to people graced. / Bless’d is the King, in God’s name come: / Peace now with heaven; / And in the highest, glory to God!
First Sunday after Christmas
First Lesson: Isaiah 40:1-5 (Probable Old Testament basis for the Nunc dimittus).
Old Testament Lesson: Isaiah 60:1-3 (Song to the Light).
Second Lesson: Revelation 21:2-4; 22:3-5.6
Gospel Lesson: (Sing my version of the Nunc dimittus below).
Tune: Veni, Emmanuel
aka “O Come, Emmanuel”
O Lord, now let your servant go,
According to your word, in peace.
Your great salvation now I’ve seen,
Prepared before the face of all.
A light to shine upon Gentiles,And glory for your people, Israel.
The Lukan psalms then are your opportunity to keep your congregation’s eyes “fixed on Jesus, our faith’s Pioneer and Perfecter” (Hebrews 12:2) during the distracting month of December. People in the United States — inside and outside of the church — need once more to have God’s prophets prepare the way for the coming of the Savior to their hearts. By using the beautiful and theologically-packed poems in Luke 1 and 2, the work of razing the mountains and hills, and raising the low places and valleys, can be made a little more tolerable in the contemporary American landscape.
1. Liturgical use has accustomed us to call these lyric poems “canticles.” But in their form and content they resemble Old Testament poetry, especially the psalms- They are constructed by employing the technique of parallelisms membroram, that is, the arrangement of the lines of the poem into couplets or triplets.
Second, their “plot” follows that of the Old Testament “hymn of praise.” The hymn of praise contains three main sections: (a) A long or short introduction praising or blessing God; (b) The main section of the psalm, in which the reasons for the praising and blessing are enumerated — this section is usually introduced by the prepositions “for” or “because,” followed with a list of God’s actions and/or character traits; (c) A final section which varies greatly in content: either more reasons for praise, or a blessing, a petition, a vow, etc.
Third, only the context of these canticles gives them any specifically Christian content. Taken out of their surrounding narrative in Luke, they could just as easily be Psalms 151-154 of the Old Testament.
I found two works especially helpful in the preparation of this article and that would be of singular interest to the preacher of Luke-Acts: (a) Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday, New York, 1977), pp. 346-392; 425-427; 456-460; (b) John Navonne, Themes of St. Luke (Gregorian University Press, Rome, n.d.).
2. Here is a suggestion for the Second Sunday after Christmas. This Sunday’s lectionary readings are based on John 1.
Second Sunday after Christmas
First Lesson: Isaiah 61:10-62:3.
Psalm: 147:12-20.
Second Lesson: Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-18.
Gospel Lesson: Sing my metered version of the Christ-hymn in John 1 below.
Tune: Christe Sanctorum
aka “Father Most Holy”
1. In the beginning was the Word of God. / The Word was with God; and the Word was God. / From the beginning, he was always with God. / Ever the Word is.
2. All things were made through him; without him nothing / In all creation has been made which is made / In him was Life, both physical and eternal: / He is both Light and Life.
3. Light in the darkness shines; and ne’er the Darkness / Has understood it, nor has e’er o’ercome it. / The true Light shines on; into the world has come; / And lightens ev’ryone.
4. For the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, / Full of God’s grace and truth, his own love steadfast. / We’ve seen his glory, glory as the only / Son of the Father.
5. And from his Fulness we have all received; / Grace upon grace in overflowing measure. / Through Moses, Law was giv’n; but grace and truth have / Being in Jesus Christ.
3. Here is a metered version of this text:
“The Grace of God Has Now Appeared”
(Tune: St. Columbia, 87.87)
1. The grace of God has now appeared,
Salvation bringing to us,
And training us to lead our lives
As God in Christ would have us.
2. Our blessed hope we now await —
The appearing of Christ Jesus,
Our great God and our Savior,
Who gave himself up for us.
3. Christ has redeemed us from all sin,
And for himself a people
Has purified to be his own,
Who for good works are zealous.
4. This and all of the metered versions of the scriptures are taken from by book, New Testament Scriptures for Singing (Fairway Press, Lima, 1990).
5. Here is a metered version of this text:
“Prophet, Priest, and King”
(Tune: Den Signede Dag, 98.98.98)
1. In many and various ways of old
God spoke to us through the prophets;
But in these Last Days, this crucial time,
To us through a Son he’s spoken;
Who he has installed of all things heir,
And through women he made the Ages.
2. The Son is the brightness of God’s light,
And bears the stamp of God’s being;
Whose powerful word sustains all things,
For sin made the greater cleansing;
Who sat down to rule at God’s right hand,
His Majesty in the highest!
6. Here is a metered version of this text:
(Tune: Walton, LM)
1. God’s home is now with humankind;
With them he’ll dwell; his people they’ll be.
He’ll wipe away their ev’ry tear;
And death itself shall be no more.
2. There shall be no more grief, nor pain:
The former things have pass’d away.
There shall be nothing more accurs’d;
God and the Lamb are in their midst.
3. His servants there shall worship him.
They’ll serve him; and his face they’ll see.
Upon their brows they’ll bear his name:
They shall be his forevermore!
4. And ne’er again shall night there be;
They need no light of lamp nor sun.
The Lord God shall their light there be,
And they shall reign forevermore.

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