In the Beginning was the Word

In the preceding article, Lester Ruth suggests a calendar for celebrating Advent early, perhaps in November, for the purpose of spending more time during December on the rich doctrines of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Roger Eernisse took a similar approach in this four-week Advent series based on the opening verses, or prologue, to the gospel of John. Each week unpacks different aspects of the meaning of the Incarnation. Norma deWaal Malefyt prepared the music resources for this series; she is Resource Development Specialist of Congregational Song for the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.


What is the purpose of Advent if not to prepare for Christmas? The usual idea is that Advent is preparation for the birth of Jesus. But that can be confusing, since “Advent is not a season of Christian make-believe during which Church people pretend that they are back in the Before Christ centuries, and hopefully awaiting and powerfully

pleading for the Messiah to come,” as Patrick Cowley writes in Advent: Its Liturgical Significance (Morehouse-Barlow, p. 9). Instead, during Advent, the church remembers (looking back) that Christ did come, and now prays (looking forward) for the complete accomplishment of the redemptive work of Christ. “The purpose of the Advent season,” Cowley writes, “is to rouse once again in the Church people the loving anticipation of the end, and to bid them to be prepared for it” (p. 43).

Roger Eernisse ( is pastor of Aberdeen Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The End of the Story

In other words, Advent is a season of the church that is about the end of the story, not a time of preparation for the beginning of it. Advent is celebrated rightly by focusing on the second coming of Christ, not the first. This is a season of eschatology, not nativity.

The goal for this series is for the people of God to learn again the true significance of Advent so that they might grow in their understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation and its implications for Advent and for the life of believers at all times.

How are we to accomplish that goal? Let me start with an analogy of the way many of us read a book. To begin, we might scan the jacket or flap to get an idea of what it is about. Next we might be tempted to peek at the end to see how it comes out. At which point we might decide we don’t have to bother reading it, since we know all there is to know. Wrong! While we may have some vague idea of the plot and some sense of the ending, we have missed the development of the characters, the significant subplots and ideas that thread their way through the overall story, and therefore the fullness of what the author intended.

So it is with our celebration of Advent. We find the central theme of our faith in Easter and the resurrection, the climax of the story. But to really appreciate the ending, to get the fullness of what the author, in this case God himself, wants us to discover about the Incarnation, we need to start at the beginning and follow the character development and subplots: the coming, birth, life, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ. Advent is the place to begin to understand the end of the story.

The Incarnation

Thus, “as ‘Alleluia’ is the triumphant theme song of Easter, so ‘Come’ is the watch-word or clarion call of Advent” (Cowley, p. 39). Whose coming are we awaiting? The Lord, the eternal Word, he who became flesh, the incarnate one. This makes the prologue of John’s gospel a perfect tool to celebrate this season—in it we can touch all the character development and subplots of Advent contained in the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Brian Hebbethwaite, in The Incarnation, suggests that the significance of the Incarnation can be spelled out in five headings: (a) revelation and personal knowledge of God; (b) trinitarian belief; (c) the cross as God’s own subjection to pain and suffering and death or atonement; (d) Christ as a living presence, with whom we have communion today; and (e) Christ as the means through which we shall finally be united with the Father. If in our worship for Advent we can proclaim that message, we will have properly celebrated the season. If in Advent, by a study of incarnational Christology, we can develop the character of Christ and understand the themes of his mission, then we are truly ready to look toward both Easter and his second coming with joy. And that is the true purpose of Advent.

This series is based on the prologue to the gospel of John as presented by Raymond Brown in the Anchor Bible Series: “An early Christian hymn, . . . which has been adapted to serve as an overture to the Gospel narrative of the career of the incarnate Word.”

Come, let us sing an Advent hymn.


The Word with God: John 1:1-2

Call to Worship

O God of creation, who was before there was . . .

We gather to praise your holy name and to celebrate the revelation of yourself to us.

O God of light and life, who was before there was . . .

It is through your true Light that we are able to see the truth of your saving love.

O God of silence and sound, who was before there was . . .

We thank you for your eternal Word, who speaks to us in our acts of worship.

O God of time and eternity, who was before there was . . .

Come afresh, come anew, come again, come now. O come, O come, Immanuel!

Call to Confession

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:17

Prayer of Confession

Let us confess our sins to the Father and seek God’s pardon and peace.


Almighty and merciful God, we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed. We have not loved you with all our heart. We have not loved others as Christ loves us. We are truly sorry. In your mercy, forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory and praise of your name. Amen.

—Church of Wales, Alternative Order for Morning Prayer

Words of Assurance

May God our Father, who by our Lord Jesus Christ has reconciled the world to himself and forgives the sins of all who truly repent, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, and grant you the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.


—Church of Wales, Alternative Order for Morning Prayer

Prayer for Illumination

Word that was, Word that is, Living Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, open our ears to hear, and our eyes to see. Amen.

Scripture Lessons

Old Testament: Genesis 1:1-2
Epistle: Revelation 19:11-16
Gospel: John 1:1-2

Sermon Notes: “In the beginning . . .” (Jesus before creation—eternal Word)

A dramatic illustration for setting the tone of this message about Jesus before time can be found in Goethe’s Faust. When Faust begins to translate the New Testament into German, he starts with the prologue: “In the beginning was the Word . . .” Faust discovers that Word is an inadequate translation. His alternative suggestions come from a strange combination of German and Greek philosophy: “In the beginning was the Thought,” or “In the beginning was the Power.” At the end, enlightened by the Spirit, Faust triumphantly proclaims the real translation: “In the beginning was the Act” (Adapted from Raymond Brown’s Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel of John, p. 519).

In the beginning was the act of revelation—revelation by one who always was, who was about to be revealed again in a new way through the Incarnation of the Son, and who will be revealed totally at the end of time. So with the words “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” we are already weaving together the start and the climax of this great story. It sets the theme of Christ’s coming and his coming again.

Statement of Faith

Our only hope is Jesus Christ.
After we refused to live in the image of God,
he was born of the virgin Mary,
sharing our genes and our instincts,
entering our culture, speaking our language,
fulfilling the law of God.
Being united to Christ’s humanity, we know ourselves when we rest in him.
Come, Lord Jesus:
We are open to your Spirit.
We await your full presence.
Our world finds rest in you alone.

—Our Song of Hope, stanza 3

We give you thanks for every mercy granted to us in times past, and for your presence with us at this hour.

As we seek to rededicate our lives and work to you, grant us purity of heart and strength of purpose, that no selfish passion may hinder us from knowing your will, no weakness from doing it, but that in your light we may see clearly, and in your service find our perfect freedom, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

—Adapted from Saint Augustine

Call to Confession

Lord, do not bring your servant to judgment, for no one living is innocent before you. Psalm 143:2

Prayer of Confession

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

But we choose to build our own idols of wood, steel, concrete, and to bow down before them.

There is no speech or language where your voice is not heard.

But we choose to see others and to discriminate and to be prejudiced.

The law of the Lord is perfect. His statutes are trustworthy.

But we choose to set our rules and trust our own judgment.

The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart. His commands are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

But we choose to harden our hearts and close our eyes, stumbling in darkness.

By your ordinances, O Lord, is your servant warned.

Help us to discern our errors. Forgive our faults. Keep us from willful sins. Hear our prayer, O Lord. Amen.

—Based on Psalm 19

Words of Assurance

If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. Matthew 21:22

Prayer for Illumination

Creative Word, living Truth, speak to our minds, touch our hearts, and change our daily lives, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Scripture Lessons

Old Testament: Isaiah 40:18-26
Epistle: Colossians 1:15-17
Gospel: John 1:3-5

Sermon Notes: “The light shines in the darkness . . .” (Jesus in creation)

James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation” opens with these lines: “And God stepped out on space,/And he looked around and said:/I’m lonely—/I’ll make me a world.”

And God stepped out on space. God was all that existed; there was nothing else but God’s eternal being. The poem goes on: “And far as the eye of God could see/Darkness covered everything,/Blacker than a hundred midnights/Down in a cypress swamp.

“Then God smiled/And the light broke,/And the darkness rolled up on one side,/And the light stood shining on the other,/And God said: That’s good!”

At the moment of light and darkness in Johnson’s poem, the Word moves from outside of human time into human time through the sphere of creation. That same moment is expressed in the words “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen. 1:3). It is also found in “all things came into being through him” (John 1:3). God has chosen to work out a plan of salvation for us in the context of our created world and human history; by the act of creation God set in motion the events that will become clearer “in the fullness of time” and be completed at the end of time. This message places before us the God who was outside of time coming into human time to work out the plan for our salvation. This is Advent—in both his coming and his coming again.

Litany of the Faithful

From the pages of your holy Word we lift the names of Abel and Enoch,

these faithful ones who saw from a distance and welcomed the promises of God.

From the pages of your holy Word we lift the names of Noah and Abraham,

foreigners and nomads here on earth looking forward to a country they could call their own.

From the pages of your holy Word we lift the names of Abel and Enoch, Noah and Abraham,

trusting servants looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland.

From the pages of your holy Word we lift the names of Abel and Enoch, Noah and Abraham,

those you, O God, were not ashamed to be called their God, ones for whom you prepared a heavenly city.

From the pages of today we lift our own names, foreigners and nomads, looking for a country to call our own, a heavenly homeland.

God, be not ashamed to be our God and bring us also into your heavenly city.

—Based on Hebrews 11

The Word in the World: John 1:10-12


We come into your presence, O Lord, to worship and praise your name.

Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel.

We are a needy people, our lives are rags, and darkness surrounds us.

Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel. Awaken your mighty power.

We put our hope in you; touch us with that which is eternal.

Hear us, O Shepherd of Israel. Awaken your mighty power. Come and save us.

—Response based on Psalm 80:1-2

Call to Confession

The Lord . . . will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. 1 Corinthians 4:5

Prayer of Confession

The words of your prophet Isaiah, spoken so long ago, come back to accuse us yet today, O Lord.

Our iniquities separate us from you. Our sins have caused you to hide your face from us. Our hands are stained, our fingers covered with guilt. Our lips have spoken lies and our tongues muttered wicked things. Our thoughts are evil, our roads are crooked, and we do not walk in peace. We do not call for justice or plead for integrity.

O Lord, forgive us, do not hide your face from us any longer. Hear our pleas for mercy. Redeem us by your grace and mercy. Amen.

—Based on Isaiah 59:2-8, 20

Words of Assurance

With everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord your Redeemer. I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. Return to me, for I have redeemed you. Isaiah 54:8; 43:25; 44:22

Prayer for Illumination

Lord Christ, count us not among those to whom you would come but would not receive you, those to whom you would speak but would not hear you. Come now with the power of your Holy Spirit, and call to our remembrance all that you have taught us. This we ask in your precious name. Amen.

Scripture Lessons

Old Testament: Malachi 3:13-18

Epistle: Acts 7:51-53 (New Living Translation)

Gospel: John 1:10-12

Sermon Notes: “Did not know . . . did not accept . . .” (Jesus in the world—creation to incarnation—salvation history)

Some years ago American Express ran a series of television commercials that featured people like Bill Miller, Geraldine Farraro, and James Michener. The punch line for these commercials was, “Do you recognize me? A lot of people don’t. That’s why I carry an American Express card.” This message is about an American Express moment in human history: “Christ was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”

The focus of this message is God’s plan of salvation, a plan that cannot be fulfilled until the Word is known by those he came to save. And without knowledge, any proper celebration of Advent expressed in the Word’s coming or the risen Christ’s coming again is impossible.

Statement of Faith: Nicene Creed


Incarnate Savior of the World Who Is Coming Again: John 1:14

Prayer of Invocation

Our request is as old as time and as fresh as this new moment in your creation of time;

Come today, O Lord, come today, we pray! Let us see your face and then may our faces shine with your glory.

With the line of your faithful servants, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, David, Elijah, John the Baptizer, Paul, and now we ourselves ask,

Come today, O Lord, come today, we pray! Let us see your face and then may our faces shine with your glory.

As we bring our sacrifices of praise and worship into your holy place, hear our voices.

Come today, O Lord, come today, we pray! Let us see your face and then may our faces shine with your glory. Amen and Amen.

Call to Confession

Christ himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds we have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24

Prayer of Confession

O Lord, there are wars and rumors of war; we are frightened and fearful.

In this time of our deep need, help us again, as you did in years gone by. Show us your power to save us. And in your anger, remember your mercy.

We anxiously seek your coming again, but in that we are also hesitant, for we are uncertain.

In this time of our deep need, begin again to help us, as you did in years gone by. Show us your power to save us. And in your anger, remember your mercy.

We cling to who and what and where we are because it is known to us.

In this time of our deep need, begin again to help us, as you did in years gone by. Show us your power to save us. And in your anger, remember your mercy.

Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us. Amen.

—based on Habakkuk 3:2, New Living Translation

Words of Assurance

In that day I will say: I praise you, O Lord. Although you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you have comforted me. Surely, O God, you are my salvation; I will trust you and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. Isaiah 12:1-2

Prayer for Illumination

Almighty God, who poured upon us the light of your incarnate Word; grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

—From the Mass of Christmas at dawn, Sarum Rite

Scripture Lessons
Old Testament: Exodus 34:6-7
Epistle: Revelation 21:1-7
Gospel: John 1:14-16

Sermon Notes: “The Word became flesh . . .”

(Jesus the incarnate Word who is coming again)

In an article published in the December 8, 1997, edition of Christianity Today, Mary Ellen Ashcroft writes:

To get ready for Advent, God undressed.

God stripped off his finery and appeared—how embarrassing—naked on the day he was born. God rips off medals of rank, puts aside titles, honors, and talents, and appears in his birthday suit. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity. In the Incarnation, things heavenly and earthly are gathered into one: one in the naked flesh and folds of God.

God chose flesh! God became one of us! God himself made a planned and necessary entrance into our world. To prepare for the first Advent God undressed and put on flesh. Now he is preparing for yet another Advent by putting on robes of Glory.

To celebrate Advent properly we must make this a season of remembering those times when Jesus has come and be prepared for the final time when he will come again. To celebrate it properly we focus our attention on this promise: “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” Proper celebration is found in the joy that is ours because we have received grace and salvation from his first coming, and will have even greater joy because he is coming again “to receive us unto himself, that where he is we may be also.”

Statement of Faith: Apostles’ Creed.


Music Resources: Week 1

Possible Theme Hymn for All Four Weeks

“In the Beginning Was the Word Eternal” PsH 218
(possibly with alternate tune viola)

Congregational Songs

Opening Hymns: “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” PsH 328, PH 9, RL 184, SFL 123, TH 194, TWC 133

“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” PsH 460, PH 263, RL 7, TH 38, TWC 62

Service of Confession: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” PsH 329, PH 1, RL 183, SFL 122, TH 196, TWC 135

Introduction to Scripture: “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” PsH 342, PH 309, RL 190, TH 162, TWC 145

Sung Prayer for Illumination: “Open Our Eyes, Lord” SNC 80

Sung Response to Scripture: “O Come, All Ye Faithful” PsH 340, PH 41, RL 195, TH 208, TWC 173 (st. 2)

Closing Hymn: “View the Present Through the Promise” SNC 90


“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (Michael Burkhardt, Praise and Thanksgiving set 3, Morningstar MSM-10-753, 1990; Six General Hymn Improvisations set 2, Morningstar MSM-10-534, 1999)

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (Raymond H. Haan, Five Organ Preludes, Flammer HF5094, 1977;
John Ferguson, An Advent Triptych, Morningstar MSM-10-008, 1995)


“O Come, O Come Emmanuel” (Myra Schubert, Give Him Praise, Lillenas MB-511, 1983)
“Open Our Eyes, Lord” (Mark Hayes, Lord, Be Glorified, vol. 2, Word 301 0063 318, 1992)


“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (Douglas E. Wagner, Agape 1238/3 octaves, 1986)
“O Come, O Come Immanuel” (Cynthia Dobrinski, Agape 1399/3-5 octaves, 1989)


“The Word Was God” (Rosephanye Powell, Gentry JG2196/SATB divisi, a cappella, 1996)
“Creator of the Stars of Night” (John Ferguson, Choristers Guild CGA-474/unison with keyboard or handbells.


Music Resources: Week 2

Congregational Songs

Opening Hymns: “Awake! Awake and Greet the New Morn” SNC 91

“Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” PsH 343, PH 26, TWC 158

“Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies” PsH 481, RL 463, TH 398, TWC 562

Songs of Confession: “Shine on Me” SNC 51

“God Has Smiled on Me” SNC 191

Songs of Response: “Arise, Shine for Your Light Has Come” PsH 198

“Comfort, Comfort Now My People” PsH 194, PH 3, RL 169, SFL 121, TH 197, TWC 132

“The Lord Is My Light” (Psalm 27) Renew! 102

Closing Hymn: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” PsH 345, PH 31, RL 196, TH 203, TWC 171


“Comfort, Comfort Now My People” (John Ferguson, An Advent Triptych, Morningstar MSM-10-008, 1995; Raymond H. Haan, Five Organ Preludes, Flammer HF5094, 1977; Johann Pachelbel, Selected Organ Works, vol. 4, Barenreiter 1016 [also can be adapted for piano])


“Comfort Ye” (Handel/Kevin McChesney, Beckenhorst HB142/3-5 octaves with C instrument opt., 1994)

“Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” (Cynthia Dobrinski, Agape 1861/3-5 octaves with opt. flute and hand drum, 1996)


“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” (Matthew Armstrong, Logia 98-3368/SATB divisi a capella, 1997 [introit])

“O Come, Emmanuel” (Bob Burroughs, Morningstar MSM-50-0026/SATB and piano, 1999)


In the begining was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the begining with God.

All this things came into being thogh him.
and without him not one thing came into being,
What has came into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness did not overcome it.
He was in the world,
and the world came into being though him
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him.
who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God.


Music Resources: Week 3

Congregational Songs

Opening Hymns: “Hear Us, O Shepherd of Your Chosen Race” PsH 80

“How Bright Appears the Morning Star” PsH 357

“I Am the Lord Your God” PsH 199

Sung Prayer for Illumination: “Cry of My Heart” SNC 81

Hymn of Response: “Christ, You Are the Fullness” PsH 229, PH 346

Call to Grateful Living: “Our Cities Cry to You, O God” SNC 266

Closing Hymn: “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” SNC 77

“Hark, the Glad Sound, the Savior Comes” PsH 335, RL 251

(These two hymns may be sung in alternate stanzas, beginning with “I Want to Walk.” The stanzas of this hymn could be sung by a soloist or choir, the congregation responding with the stanzas of “Hark, the Glad Sound.” These two hymns are in related keys; use a brief transition between the stanzas to establish the new key feeling—particularly for the congregation’s security.)


“Hark, the Glad Sound, the Savior Comes” (Michael Burkhardt, Hymns of Joy, Morningstar MSM-10-013, 2000; David Cherwien, Interpretations, bk. 5, AMSI SP-102, 1985; Paul Manz, Six Advent Improvisations, Morningstar MSM-10-002, 1990)

“I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light” (Karl Osterland, Lift One Voice, Augsburg 11-11039, 2000)

“Of the Father’s Love Begotten” (David Cherwien, Seasonal Interpretations, Advent/Christmas Summa Productions SP-110, 1997; Wilbur Held, The Organists’ Manua

Reformed Worship 69 © September 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.