A Christmas litany

Ever felt a need for more congregational participation in the worship service? The author shares a Christmas litany he used successfully last year, and why and how it came to be.

Roger W. Coon, Ph.D., is an associate secretary of the E. G. White Estate, Washington, D.C.

Seventh-day Adventist congregations have few opportunities to be directly involved in the various components of the Sabbath morning worship service. Traditionally the two (occasionally three) congregational hymns have provided for some public response. However, in certain circles there is a growing tendency to limit this form of expression by abandoning the closing hymn and having the preacher move directly from his message into a benediction prayer.

In some churches the responsive reading of the Scriptures has played a prominent part in providing for congregational interaction. Unfortunately, the proliferation of modern-English translations and paraphrases of the Bible tends to make it difficult to invite members to participate directly by reading alternate verses in unison out of one's own Bible. (One solution to the wide-variety-of-versions problem was found by the Takoma Park, Maryland, Seventh-day Adventist church. It installed special separate bookracks under the seat of each pew, with a copy of the Revised Standard Version placed in each.)

Then, too, our present Church Hymnal in North America has such a limited selection of responsive readings in the back of the book that many pastors have simply discarded recourse to that worship aid almost entirely. Perhaps the General Conference-appointed committee now at work to provide the church with a new hymnal will rectify this singular omission; our Methodist and Baptist brethren in particular are far ahead of us in publishing in their hymnals a diverse collection of responsive readings covering a wide spectrum of topical and thematic material. Some enterprising pastors have stepped into the breach by creating their own custom-made litanies, weaving together passages of Scripture particularly appropriate to the occasion and/or to the sermon. Such are printed either in the order of worship in the church bulletin itself or as an insert in the bulletin. (The example of a succession of pastors at the Kettering, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist church during the past seven or eight years is especially praiseworthy, and many of their "tapestries of the Word" would truly grace our new hymnal!)

Last Christmas, when the holiday itself fell on Sabbath, I was invited to preach at the Triadelphia Seventh-day Adventist church in Clarksville, Mary land, north of Washington, D.C. Wanting to make this service different because of the season, and at the same time wanting to create more interaction within the congregation and between members and the leader of worship, I attempted to do so in two ways.

First, the music for both Sabbath school and the worship service was to be provided by a soprano soloist. We therefore chose three simple Christmas carols, all from the Church Hymnal, and the soloist agreed to sing the odd-numbered stanzas alone and to lead the congregation in singing the even-numbered stanzas.

For the Sabbath school I selected "O Little Town of Bethlehem," primarily because I would later make mention of several experiences in the life of the composer, Phillips Brooks, in my sermon. In the worship service we sang "Angels From the Realms of Glory," chosen because it seemed to provide an especially praiseworthy introit to the litany it preceded (see "A Christmas Litany for the People," this page). This litany, in turn, provided the introduction to the sermon. Then, in the place of the usual closing hymn, the soloist and congregation alternated singing stanzas of "Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne," selected partly to acquaint the congregation with the beauty of a comparatively unknown carol and partly because it seemed most appropriate to the sermon conclusion.

Second, since my sermon dealt with the meaning of Christmas as developed by our Lord's parable of the householder who rented his vineyard to tenant farmers (Matt. 21:33-46; Mark 12:1- 12), I used Matthew's account as the compositional base for the litany, weaving in other passages of Scripture to highlight and amplify the development of the narrative theme.

I also (admittedly with some hesitation) incorporated one especially apt passage from Ellen White's Desire of Ages toward the close of the litany, not only because of its rhetorical beauty but also because it seemed to epitomize what the various writers of Scripture were saying from different perspectives. I was conscious of the potential risk in mixing the words of Scripture with the words of a modern writer—the risk of theological misunderstanding in the area of inspiration/revelation, and the potential risk of divisive controversy. In this instance I decided to go ahead; in other possible settings I might well decide to stick solely with Scripture.

The trialogue that was created, with its interaction among leader, men, and women, proved to be a blessing to some in the congregation that Christmas Day. It is offered here in the hope that perhaps you may be able to glean ideas from it that will bless your congregation. The litany alone illuminates enough of my homiletical use of the Matthew 21 parable to enable you to construct your own Christmas sermon on the passage.

A Christmas litany for the people

Leader: Hear another parable:

Men: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:

Women: And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it.

Men: And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.

Women: Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise (Matt. 21:33-36).

Leader: And the Lord God of their fathers sent to them by his messengers, rising up betimes, and sending; because he had compassion on his people, and on his dwelling place: but they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against his people, till there was no remedy (2 Chron. 36:15, 16).

Men: But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son (Matt. 21:37).

Women: God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also
he made the worlds (Heb. 1:1, 2).

Leader: For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

Men: Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,

Women: Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,
which being interpreted is, God with us (Matt. 1:22, 23).

Men: For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his
name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

Women: Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon
his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this (Isa. 9:6, 7).

Men: And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

Leader: But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill
him, and let us seize on his inheritance (Matt. 21:38).

Women: He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Men: But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name (John 1:11, 12).

Women: God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John3:16).

Leader: And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him (Matt. 21:39).

Men: He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Women: He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

Men: All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa. 53:3, 5, 6).

Leader: Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

Women: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

Men: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

Women: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even
the death of the cross.

Men: Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

Women: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

Men: And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:5-11).

Unison: Christ was treated as we deserve, that we might be treated as He deserves. He was condemned for our sins, in which He had no share, that we might be justified by His righteousness, in which we had no share. He suffered the death which was ours, that we might receive the life which was His. "With his stripes we are healed." The Desire of Ages, p. 25.

Leader: When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? (Matt. 21:40).

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Roger W. Coon, Ph.D., is an associate secretary of the E. G. White Estate, Washington, D.C.

December 1983

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