By 1972 the same pastor had spoken about the same story to the same congregation for four Christmases. I suspect there were members of the congregation who felt like the layman who said, “If I hear the words ‘and there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field’ one more time, I think I am going to scream.”
There seemed to be more to show and tell about Christmas than I could get done on the Sunday before Christmas. Yet, if the congregation and I were weary of the sameness of the Christmas story, wouldn’t adding more Sundays to talk about it only mire all of us in weariness?
I began casting about for ways for sermons and worship services to have coherence, continuity, freshness, and movement. It dawned on me that the “sellabration” of Christmas in the marketplace far exceeded the celebration of Christmas in the holy place. Why was this?
When the Christmas decorations went up in the stores, everyone knew it was nearly Halloween! While a few people offered complaints about rushing the season, for the most part people did not seem overcome with weariness. Actually, they were excited about Christmas and began longing for its arrival.
What had the marketplace done to offset people’s weariness? First, it established a climate of anticipation by rolling out the decorations. Second, it suggested the importance of preparation: only thirty more shopping days until Christmas. Third, it appealed to the senses of people: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Fourth, it put trusty, old, stand-by gifts in new packaging. (How many different kinds of dolls are there?)
While these marketing principles were developed to increase consumerism and to encourage people to buy things they did not need with money they did not have, nevertheless, weariness with sameness had been avoided.
Advent Theology
Abraham Herschel made a valuable observation that has been helpful to me in my concern about the weariness with sameness regarding Christmas.
He suggested the genius of the Old Testament prophets lay in their ability to see old things in a new way and to enable others to do the same. They literally “dismantled the familiar” and gave people fresh ways of looking at things they had been seeing a certain way all their lives. By taking this approach the prophets opened up whole new vistas of possibilities that previously had never been perceived.
As I searched for openings of new vistas to celebrate the birth of Christ, I became aware of the season of Advent celebrated in liturgical churches. Advent is the opening season of the Christian year and begins on the Sunday nearest November 30.
Advent means the coming of God to the world. The season includes four weeks of anticipation and preparation for Christmas. The under-girding themes for worship during Advent are hope, love, peace, and joy.
The incarnation is the theological tenet that underlies Advent. The purpose of the Advent season is to prepare for the coming of God in new and fresh ways in our lives.
The anticipation and preparation for God coming to us is heightened by exploring the ways, times, and places that God has come to people in the past and to focus specifically on God being made flesh and dwelling among people in Jesus of Nazareth.
The season of Advent is a time for us to reflect on the first Christmas when “the Word became flesh,” a baby born to peasant parents. For centuries, people had longed for the coming of a Messiah but no one expected Him to come like that.
For years the birth of Jesus was simply another statistic on the census rolls of the Roman Empire. Only years after His death and resurrection did Jesus’ birth become an important event to celebrate. Advent is a season of reflection, prayer, and joyous jubilation culminating in celebration on Christmas.
Advent must be more than a time to remember the birth of Christ. It is the anticipation of the coming of God to us in our day in the flesh and blood of people we know and love — and in those we don’t know and may not like. Advent is a season of preparation for God to come to us and dwell in us that we may become God in the flesh to others, revealing the hope, peace, love, and joy of God to the world.
Advent also is a season of preparation for the coming of God in Christ in the culmination of the ages. This is a great season of looking forward. We prepare for Christ’s birth; we proclaim His future ministry as did John the Baptist; and we watch expectantly for His second coming. Advent is the beginning, the preparation for the Christian Year.
I have discovered several reasons why Advent is an excellent time to begin following the Christian calendar. First, Advent is the opening season of the Christian year pointing toward the birth of Christ. Second, a season of worship emphasis permits and encourages worshipers to delve more deeply into the varied dimensions of discipleship.
Third, many of the things we already were doing to prepare for and celebrate Christmas had come from multiple Christian traditions. Focused development of Advent worship helps to draw many of the loose ends together into a meaningful unit of worship.
My exploration of Advent has borne bountiful fruit in leading my congregation in celebrating Christmas and in giving them and me fresh ways of looking at “the story” we have been seeing a certain way all of our lives.
Advent Design
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” is the instruction for all of us as we worship and work during the season of Advent. Preparation is essential for preaching and worship during Advent.
Planning in advance of the Advent season has helped me both to avoid vain repetition and to use repetition in a creative manner. Designing worship services for the Advent season has provided me with the incentive to rearrange the order of the service in a way that creates a climate of freshness and anticipation of worship.
I enjoy brainstorming about the importance and reality of incarnation. I share my ideas with staff and members of the congregation and invite them to do the same with me. We begin to formulate these thought patterns into a theme that we want to communicate throughout the Advent season.
We then develop an outline in four parts, one for each Sunday, to flesh out the theme, this approeach has contributed significantly to the coherence, continuity, and movement of sermons and the worship services.
Some of the themes we have developed in recent years are: When God Arrives, The Light Has Come, To The World With Love, and He Shall Be Called.
Let me illustrate the development of an Advent theme by sharing with you how we carried out the theme, “When God Arrives.”
What happens when God arrives? Life continues as usual, fear arises, good news is announced, and thanksgiving is offered. These four responses can serve as titles for the four Advent morning worship services. Not only were these the responses of people to the arrival of God the first Christmas, these are our responses when God arrives in our lives.
Based on John 1:1-18, “Life Continues as Usual” expresses God coming to His own and His own not receiving Him. People in the first century went on with their normal routines when God arrived.
This is our common response to the presence of God in the twentieth century. In hindsight instead of in foresight do we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives.
As we acknowledge God’s presence fear arises. Luke 1:26-33 and 2:8-9 tell us that Mary and the shepherds were afraid when they were told of the arrival of God in their lives.
According to Luke 2:8-20, once they had resolved their fears, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds announced good news. The process of responding to God’s arrival by life continuing as usual, becoming afraid, and announcing good news leads to offering thanksgiving. Matthew 2:1-11 tells of the magi expressing their gratitude with tangible gifts.
We arrive at the greatest gift-giving day of the year to offer gratitude to God for the greatest gift ever given. The development of a theme like “When God Arrives” provides unity, movement, and continuity through the Advent season of worship.
Our music minister chooses hymns, anthems, and solos to accentuate, highlight, and convey the Advent theme that has been chosen. We decide together on Scripture passages (to be read during the worship services) that undergird the theme for the season and the sub-theme for each specific service. Prayers, responsive readings, and litanies also help convey the mood of preparation and expectation.
Symbols used especially during the Advent season heighten anticipation. We have an Advent wreath each year which is made of greenery and five candles. Four of the candles are in the circumference of the wreath and a white candle, representing Christ, is in the center.
Each week the call to worship is designed with the Advent theme in mind. One of the ministers, a layperson, or a family will do the call to worship and light the Advent candles. The number of candles are lit corresponding to the week of the season, with the Christ candle being lit during the Christmas Eve service. This provides a visual sign of progression and movement of worship, expecting God’s presence and celebrating the birth of Christ.
The use of Chrismons, Christ monograms, are increasing in popularity. Information about making Chrismons may be obtained from the Lutheran Church of the Ascension (314 W. Main Street, Danville, VA 24541).
One of our Sunday school classes accepted the responsibility of making Chrismons for our congregation. They also have accepted responsibility for decorating the Chrismon trees at the beginning of the Advent season and for storing the Chrismons after Advent.
One Sunday evening service during Advent is designed for hanging of the greens. During this service the sanctuary is decorated.
The service begins with the sanctuary empty of any decorations. Throughout the service readings, solos, choral selections, and hymns are interspersed while poinsettias, wreaths, and other greenery are placed in appropriate places. Individuals and families carry various decorations into the sanctuary at the appropriate time and put them in place.
We also have used banners to contribute a celebrative and preparatory flavor to worship during Advent. The hanging of the greens adds to the expectant mood of the season.
We design a booklet for each Advent season. The booklet contains an explanation about the season of Advent, the orders of worship for the season, descriptions of the Chrismons that are used, and devotionals written either for each week or for each day of Advent. A good approach is to have members of the congregation write the devotionals.
The booklet serves as a visual symbol of the Advent season as a unit of worship and conveys that what has been planned has unity and continuity. The preparation of the Advent booklet requires a great deal of planning and hard work long before most people are thinking at all about Christmas. However, the result is a more enjoyable and relaxed atmosphere for work and worship for everyone, especially those with leadership responsibilities.
Observing Advent as a season of worship establishes a climate of anticipation and highlights the importance of preparation for the coming of God to dwell with His people. Advent worship can be designed to invite worshipers to use all of their senses, and the more senses worshipers use the more sense worship will make. Worship during Advent season can present the old story in new and fresh ways.

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