Weekly Preaching: November 29, 2020

November 25th, 2020

I always count it as some good fortune when Advent 1 falls before December 1. No pressure to make things Christmassy. I wonder how Christmas will feel for people as this downright bizarre year winds down. All month I may ponder Madeleine L’Engle’s great poem about Jesus’ coming: "That was no time for a child to be born, with the earth betrayed by war and hate ... In a land in the crushing grip of Rome; honor and truth were trampled by scorn — yet here did the Savior make his home. When is the time for love to be born? The inn is full on planet earth, and by a comet the sky is torn — Yet Love still takes the risk of birth."

Isaiah 64:1-9, before it was a preaching text in the lectionary, was a communal lament. Biblical people knew how to come together, as a nation — not to cheer or fight but to lament, to confess, to plead together for God’s help and redemption. I don’t expect us to be able to do the same, but naming that they did and we can’t opens a window.

The text about God as potter, us as the clay? Find a potter. Chat about making pottery. Report on Sunday. Here's a video of me with a potter — this week! — that will be part of this Sunday's sermon! It's super interesting theologically, as pottery is dirty work, but the dirt really becomes beauty. Centering is required, as is "opening up," not to mention trimming, firing, etc. It’s an amazing way to connect with the arts, and with things people treasure and might then connect with their spiritual lives.

Verses 10-12 shouldn’t have been lopped off the lectionary reading, as they clarify the devastation in question that is lamented: Jerusalem reduced to rubble, cities burned, but then God’s thundering “silence” when some word is so desperately required. This notion of God hiding from us: not only does it feel this way to our people. Scott Bader-Saye reminds us that this image “disabuses Israel of any notion that God belongs to them or can be contained or controlled by them.”

The very plea to “tear open the heavens and come down” implies there is a thick veil (in how we feel, but even in reality!) between us and God. It required an almost violent act, a wounding, a cutting open. What we wish God would do, and what God will do, are not identical anyhow: v. 3, “You did awesome deeds we did not expect.” Can I think of a time in my life or in history when God did something that wasn’t what I wanted or thought I needed? I think of my church member giving me, as a parting gift after 12 years in his parish, his old pocket knife. I’d never wanted one — but it was the best gift ever, because it was his precious thing, and also that when he handed it to me he said “Carry this in your pocket, and when you’re having a bad day, feel it down there and remember somebody loves you.”

St. Augustine must have loved v. 6: even our righteous deeds are like a dirty garment. We’re proud of what good we do. But it’s not only not enough. It’s not what God is seeking – our goodness. Bonhoeffer shrewdly exposed the way our goodness can be a dreadful substitute to doing God’s will. When we are good, we keep our hands clean. But God asks us to get our hands dirty for God. How to disabuse people, not only that God belongs to us, but that our goodness isn’t what God is looking for?

Our text asks us to weep and lament. Not very Christmassy – but very Advent-ish. I wonder if this is the year we invite our people to sorrow, repentance, fasting, humility? 

1 Corinthians 1:3-9 won’t make my sermon — although as a preacher I should note Paul’s rhetorical strategy. He flatters his reader — as a prelude to diving into deep waters of trouble and summons to change! Can you feel his searing sarcasm in “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift,” given the rest of his letter?

Mark 13:24-37. Oh my. I’m no good at preaching these apocalyptic texts, mostly because I’ve heard it done so badly, and have never quite recovered from my days of being badgered by friends who’d read Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series and, like clever gnostics, knew Jesus was about to come and I was toast. The hints and clues, like the fig, recur, don’t they, which doesn’t make this or that expectation wrong — but that the world is always in a heap of trouble, and we live on that “eager tiptoe of expectation,” or readiness. Hopefully. A sober realization of the mess, creation’s dire need for redemption to dawn, and soon, is light years from the arrogant Gnosticism that prides itself on its insider knowledge of heavenly timetables. I love the old idea from some medieval rabbi responding to the question, If you’re heading out to plant a tree, and you learn the Messiah is coming later that day, what do you do? Answer: plant the tree.

On the “staying awake,” I admire Lillian Daniel’s wisdom (in Feasting on the Word) that our people are “already operating in a state of sleep deprivation.” Given how busy we are, especially during a month like December, this just may be “the season to pass out the sleeping pills or the chamomile tea, to a revved-up, over-caffeinated culture of busy-ness.” I might sit next to Jesus on the Mount of Olives and say “in 2020 though, don’t stay awake, but take a nap, rest, learn Sabbath, the solitude that isn’t loneliness.”


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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