Preaching Advent

November 27th, 2017

Preaching is so very different during Advent. For years, I felt like I had to battle the vapid Christmas culture out there, or I knocked heads with musicians infringing on my sermon time. But I have come to embrace the challenges, which can become peculiar delights for the preacher.

In most churches, Advent is a music-dominant season. Instead of competing with the music, join forces. I can think of no richer season to talk about the music; I wrote a whole book (Why This Jubilee?) on the theology and poignant phrases in our carols. Don’t we want to guide our listeners into praying “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me I pray; bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” “Why lies he in such mean estate?” Unpack that one and you’ve got a sermon. Even “All the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names” has social justice implications.

With cantatas, advent candle lighting, children’s montages and more, there is frankly less time for the sermon. Do I say Dang! in frustration? Or is there a kind of relief? I only have to fill seven minutes. The shorter sermon requires more discipline and focused preparation. Remember that America’s greatest speech ever, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, was a mere 272 words. At my place, December Sundays are more crowded, and there’s more racket — all the more reason to keep it brief and to the point.

I suspect that fewer words are more fitting given the two predominant moods of the season. There is, of course, all the frivolity and silliness, usually with some trite Christmasy sentiment pasted on: “Jesus is the reason for the season!” “Keep Christ in Christmas!” “It’s Jesus’ birthday party!” A focused, crisp alternative to the froth — not scolding, but offering some richer fare — is more likely to be heard in ten minutes than in a twenty-five minute monologue. Think of the impact of Mike Slaughter's simple and direct Christmas is Not Your Birthday. Five words cover a lot of ground.
There is also the weightier mood. The grief, the loneliness, the dysfunctional families, the infertility, the brokenness; the darkness people bear, hidden, is most acute when “Tis the season to be jolly.” Grieving people cannot bear many words. Comfort comes in fewer words, staying with the silence, listening, showing in the eyes and body language that you understand, you love, you share the sorrow.
Some churches do a “Blue Christmas” service; we call ours “Hope and Consolation” — a time for those feeling intense grief to gather, light candles, cry and hug. I think it’s important that not be a one-off. Every Sunday in some way I name the ache, the darkness. Christmas is just an inch after the longest night of the year, and there was much fear and then horrific grief that accompanied Jesus’ birth. I send a piece I wrote called “Grief and Great Loss in the Season of Joy” to everyone who suffered the death of a loved one in the past year; use it yourself if you’d like, or create your own. It’s important.
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In Advent preaching, it’s crucial to settle on what’s important and what isn’t. Early in my ministry, I was a zealot for Advent (as in no Christmas carols, etc.). Not only was I banging my head against a wall and needlessly exasperating my people, I realized that, after a while, my liturgical correctness didn’t make sense even to me. I try to pretend Jesus hasn’t come yet; but we’re doing this because he came. Even the most Christmasy carols have an Advent longing: “O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.” “Let every heart prepare him room.”  Sounds like Advent to me. I can’t be sure, but I’m betting Jesus doesn’t mind us singing about his birth before the 25th.
I’d also say dogma matters — enormously — but it’s not a season for theological explication in preaching. I need to have my theology of incarnation worked out; the sermons I read and hear (from students and colleagues) tend to underattend to the robust wonder that the incarnation is. It is not that Jesus got born as a necessary step toward teaching, healing, dying and rising. Sam Wells, in his fabulous A Nazareth Manifesto (which is maybe the most important theology book in a decade), explains well what I’ve touched on for years: God’s saving comes primarily in the Incarnation. What makes Christianity unique is that God entered into our fleshly life. God is with us — Immanuel at his birth, and then in his parting words at the ascension — and this is the ultimate truth for us. Otherwise, we get into thinking of Jesus as fixer of our problems, and churches constrict mission to fixing somebody else’s problems. The Gospel is simpler, better, weirder, and finally more merciful: God in Jesus is with us.
But Advent isn’t the time for long, complex sentences or dogmatically shrewd paragraphs. We go short, we go small. During December, I keep Rembrandt’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” as my computer wallpaper to remind me of this. Martin Luther’s revolutionary thought was that God became small for us in Christ; he showed us his heart so our hearts might be won. It's the God hidden in weakness; the God who quite genuinely is tender vulnerability.
Perhaps it was St. Francis who created history’s first manger scene at Greccio. Before that, if Jesus were ever depicted as an infant or child, he looked like a powerful potentate simply painted littler. Francis understood the tender vulnerability of Jesus. He preached at that moment, and listeners said his voice sounded like the bleating of a lamb. He ordered that all the animals, cattle, livestock, sheep, dogs, be given a double portion to celebrate Christ's birth.
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We get at this through stories. Not corny, sappy stories, but those fraught with joy, fear, darkness, delight.
Every year I re-read Walter Wangerin’s marvelous “The Manger is Empty” for myself; I have even read it to my people as a sermon. The pastor's daughter suffers the death of a beloved friend just before Christmas — and then she has to play Mary in the pageant.
I also keep going back to the novel I read in high school but couldn’t really comprehend until I had many more years on me: Silas Marner. George Eliot told us of this reclusive miser, left utterly wretched and desolate once his stash of money was stolen. But when he came home one evening, he found, “instead of hard coin,” some soft curls on his floor — a sleeping child. Eliot magnificently portrays his reaction, a response akin to what we might sense when we contemplate the coming of God into our world as a child:  
“He had a dreamy feeling that this child was somehow a message come to him from a far-off life; it stirred old quiverings of tenderness, old impressions of awe at the presentiment of some power presiding over his life. We older human beings feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in earth or sky.”
Marner took the little girl on his lap, “trembling with an emotion mysterious to himself, at something unknown dawning on his life. He could only have said that the child was come instead of the gold — that the gold had turned into this child.” Wow.
The stories that work, those you borrow or your own, always keep a tight grip on both the joy and the sorrow. To get the hang of it, dig up or google Simon & Garfunkel’s “Silent Night/7 O’clock News.”  It’s always both, and into such a lovely but chaotic, painful world Christ comes or not at all. 
You can look to Stanley Weintraub’s terrific Silent Night: the Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, a story about how on Christmas Day, soldiers started lobbing not grenades, but bottles of rum, cakes, tobacco and even a Christmas tree across No Man’s Land. They came out of their trenches, sang Silent Night / Stille Nacht — until generals on both sides issued directives unequivocally forbidding fraternization, “for it discourages initiative and destroys spirit in the ranks.”
Advent is actually a good time to appeal to treasured moments in books and films, as people already have the memory and resonance. 
One year I propped a nice full-length mirror front and center in the sanctuary, and in my sermon spoke of Harry Potter and the mirror of Erised (and this scene, not coincidentally, happened at Christmas at Hogwarts!). Younger folks will recall that the backwards writing on the mirror reads I show not your face but your heart’s desire. Then explains, It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. Preacher: don’t over-explain it; just let it be. We invited people to come forward for communion, and each one saw themself in the mirror at God’s altar.
Humor is fitting, but never as the main thing. During Advent every other year or so I’ll allude to the crackpot scene in the Life of Brian where the wise men show up at the wrong house.
The best, most hilarious and psychologically profound humor though is in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, where he brilliantly dovetails a Christmas pageant at the church (where so much goes comically wrong yet thereby fixes our attention on the underbelly of the Christmas story) with the school production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which underscores joy, grumpiness, death and hope. I reread this every year, even if I don’t "use" it.

During Advent, the more personal the better. I have regularly told how our family gathers every Sunday evening of Advent (even by Skype now that the kids are grown), light a candle, read Scripture, and listen as my wife reads a children’s Christmas book (our favorite is Raymond Alden’s Why the Chimes Rang, a story well worth making into a sermon.)
But even more personally, tell your story. I recall being four or six maybe, sitting under my grandparents’ tree after all the presents had been opened, and my father laying a hand on my shoulder as he said “Son, it’s time to go; Christmas is over.” I still shudder over the ache in that. 
My best ever story (which I tell only to prompt you to remember yours) came when my own son was five. I was working at home, under great pressure to prepare some Advent sermon or whatever. Noah kept tugging at me to come and play. I politely, and then more firmly, kept saying “Dad’s got to work now.” After Noah emitted a bunch of gurgling sounds and more whining, I’m embarrassed to say I wheeled on him and shouted, “Son, get out of here! Dad’s trying to work!” I saw him hang his head, turn, and walk out of the room.

As I watched him in some horror of realization, I saw myself as a little boy, turning and walking out of a very similar room. I hung my head in shame, then recalled an idea I’d been putting off forever. I pulled down those accordion steps into the attic and pulled down an old, mildewed Atlas packing box. I ripped off the browned, brittle tape and started pulling out the packing paper — crumpled up newspapers from 1962, with stories about JFK and Mickey Mantle and astronauts.

My son came into the room. “What are you doing?” he asked.  “I’m unwrapping something.” He peered in and saw an engine, a caboose — my Lionel train set I’d found under the Christmas tree when I was his age. Noah’s eyes flew wide open. I said, “This is my train. No, wait, this is our train. Let’s set it up!” He said, “Wow, dad, this train must have cost a lot!” I was tempted for a nanosecond to calculate the resale value of a vintage train set — but then I said, simply, “No, son, it was free.”
The first time I told this in a sermon, I probably over-explained it, with something like Just like Jesus, God’s gift to us busy, harried, easily angered and frustrated people, it’s free… but as I get older I trust my people to make their own connections.
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Of course, the abiding, consistent mood of it all through the Sundays of December is longing. I can think of no wiser probing of what this longing is like for the Christian than Henri Nouwen’s moving “A Spirituality of Waiting.”  It’s been excerpted or printed partially various places, but I’d advocate listening: you can download an mp3 here. Nouwen’s voice and inflection are stunning as he draws you into the experience, exploring how we hate to wait, what underlies that anxiety, how Mary and Elizabeth waited — and did so together. It's the distinction between waiting for and waiting on — how we might wait on God while we wait for God.
Yes, the texts proceed Sunday by Sunday in the lectionary. I find myself least comfortable with the selections during this season when I would expect myself to be most at home with them. It seems like the main things get squeezed into the final week; some years we have not one but two John the Baptist weeks. He matters; if the Gospels are any clue, you can’t get to Jesus without going through John. 
I heard in a sermon years ago these words: “You never see John the Baptist on a Christmas card.” After repeating this, and playing on the idea that John is pleading, perhaps even hollering for us to repent — which doesn’t feel Christmasy, and yet is at the heart of “Let every heart prepare him room" — a woman in my church created history’s first John the Baptist Christmas card. Lovely. Here's my sermon on John the Baptist.
I’ll start with the apocalyptic Gospel thing, which suits our emphasis this year, which is something around how we find God not merely in the light but also in the dark. Mark 13:24-26 somewhat surprisingly, if you read slowly, speaks of the sun being darkened, and the stars and moon failing — and that then they will see the Son of man coming. In the dark. Just as in creation (again, reading slowly): “Darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving” (Genesis 1:2) in the dark, before the light.
Many years I focus on Old Testament texts during Advent, which makes sense. Israel's Scriptures, pre-Messiah, were Mary's Scriptures while Jesus was in utero. You can see/hear my sermons on two of this year's OT lections, Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 40.
I am determined every year to work Mary in on Advent 3. Protestants, maybe determined not to be Catholic, way under-attend to Mary. Hold a rosary and quote Scripture, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Read Catholic devotionals. Ponder paintings of Mary, so holy, so gentle, undoubtedly strong and courageous. Talk about her without takeaways or morals. We simply look at this human being, the best of us all, who was the first to know and feel Jesus, who heard his first cry (which Madeleine L’Engle said sounded like the ringing of a bell), nursed him, taught him to talk and walk, and to pray.
St. Ephrem the Syrian understood her and the moment well: “Fire entered Mary’s womb, put on a body, and came forth. Through Mary the whole world is illuminated. There entered the shepherd of all, and in her he became the lamb, bleating as he came forth. He who is the Word entered and became silent within her; thunder entered her, and made no sound.” Perhaps this Advent, the word will enter the preacher, and it will sound like a little bleating, or just the sound of silence.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.
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