We Do Things a Little Differently: Lessons and Carols at Plymouth Church

On the 3rd weekend of Advent, we get a little more literal about our Advent mixtape.

On Saturday Night, on Sunday morning, our services will be structured as Services of Lessons and Carols. Instead of a sermon, we will hear readings and music that convey the Big Story of God’s redemptive purpose. (If you really need some preaching to make your week complete, check out our Vespers service at 5:30 on Thursday night!)

The Lessons and Carols format is a relatively new development in Christian worship. It is also at least a little controversial.

Most historians would trace the format to the world-famous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the King’s College Chapel of Cambridge University. The service, which debuted in 1918, is now broadcast live every year. (You can hear it in Iowa on Iowa Public Radio, Christmas Eve morning at 9 am). The service was an attempt to tell the Christmas story in a new way.

But some progressive Christians have raised questions about the service. A number of years ago, John Shelby Spong published an article entitled Rethinking the Festival of Lessons and Carols. In that article, he argued that the service is based “on a fundamentally flawed theological concept” and that is “undergirds an attitude toward the Bible that I find uninformed and increasingly distasteful.”

What was the nature of Bishop Spong’s complaint? The service, he said, takes Hebrews Scripture texts as “actual prophecies about Jesus, which were fulfilled in a literal and miraculous way.”   And this, he insisted, “commit[s] us to accept a superstitious interpretation of the Bible.”

It is a fair question to raise –and one that we try to take seriously. A number of years ago, partly in response to the concerns that Spong raised, we changed some of the lessons to downplay any sense of a precise prophecy/fulfillment schema.

I think the service is better with these changes. However, and with all respect to Bishop Spong, I am also afraid that he has a bit of a tin ear when it comes to the Big Story of the Bible.

I certainly agree that the Bible is not a recounting of prophecies fulfilled in a literal and miraculous way.

But I don’t believe the Service of Lessons and Carols actually makes that claim. When we read through the texts, a surprising fact emerges: Jesus does not fulfill the prophecies at all.

He subverts them.

And that is precisely the point.

To the extent that we can identity a messianic expectation surrounding the birth of Jesus, it tends to focus on the hope of a deliverer of Judah, a shepherd-king in the line of David who (after the fashion of the Maccabees) would rally the people to drive out the hated Roman Empire, restoring the freedom and sovereignty of the nation.  And the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth seem to bear that interpretation out –his Davidic lineage is emphasized; he is seen as a threat to Herod, etc. Christmas prepares us to see Jesus as just such a figure.

And then the rug is yanked out from underneath us.

Jesus was not a military hero in the mold of the Maccabees.  He did not defeat the Romans with righteous violence; he met violence with nonviolence and went down to shameful defeat.  Yet, in a bold act of theological imagination, the New Testament identifies Jesus’ failure as THE great event of salvation.

That is the story conveyed by the Service of Lessons and Carols.

So here is my question: What if the Bible is one story –not of the literal fulfillment of prophecy, but of the great faithfulness of God, working itself out in history through a pattern of paradoxical promise keeping, many unexpected twists and an overabundance of grace?

What if—not to put too fine a point on it—God is still speaking?

 That is a story worth telling.



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