Weekly Preaching: December 13, 2020

December 9th, 2020

Advent 3, during such a weird Christmas season. Check out my blog, "God Became Small," with reflections on the peculiarities of preaching during Advent in general, with lots of illustrative stuff. And you'll enjoy this conversation I had with Matt Rawle on "Christmas and..." the stuff he's written on, Scrooge, Nutcracker, the Grinch and more.

Our texts are difficult, distant prophetic texts (doesn’t John the Baptist feel more like an Old Testament prophet than a New Testament character?), as we’re drawing a beat on Christmas. I am leaning toward Isaiah, maybe John 1, or I might fiddle with both briefly before shifting my attention to Mary. The pink candle, her Sunday. Here is a blog from a prior year on the kinds of things I like to say about her and why she matters so much for us Protestants (along with a big stash of illustrative stuff for Advent and Christmas preaching in general!). And I’d commend my chapter on her as a real pregnant young woman and someone who endured brutal labor in my book on Birth: the Mystery of Being Born (in Baker’s Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well series).

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. My mind quickens a little when we have a text that occurs in our common liturgy. You have to admire the prophet’s “instead of”s, which are polar opposites, reminding us that Christianity isn’t being or getting 7% or even 12% better or healthier or calmer. It’s an “instead of.” The Psalm for the day (126) echoes this.

I wonder, since God’s people will be called “the Oaks of Righteousness,” if we try to pair that idea with the presence of chopped down trees (cedars probably, not oaks!) in our homes. Isaiah’s oaks “display God’s glory.” Can we see our Christmas trees as such displays of that glory? Thomas Merton memorably said “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree” – and then asks if God isn’t asking us simply to be ourselves, to be what God made us to be, instead of lunging for something else, something determined out there instead of within.

God’s plan has to do with “repairing ruined cities,” and so we have to ask where the ruin is in our city, in our town, and what repairing needs to be done. Examples abound, and are local. And essential since “I the Lord love justice,” the Hebrew being mishpat, which isn’t fairness or the good being rewarded and the wicked punished. Biblical mishpat justice is when everyone has enough, when the neediest are cared for. So a little spasm of sentimental charity — since it’s Christmas — won’t do, will it? A needy child gets an abandoned worn out coat or a plastic shovel? Ruined cities require repair, not bandaids. Justice isn’t a quickie handout but a fundamentally different way of being.

The secret lies in the verses the lectionary weirdly lopped off. Verse 5 is about the inclusion of strangers. In our lives, in our homes, at our tables. If Christmas is anything, it is a season that invites us (albeit with Covid precautions) into new relationships with people we’ve not met. Mary and Joseph found no room in the inn. We leave room. We after all are, in another lopped off verse, “priests.” It is ours to bless, to pray with, to share relationships and life with others. How to invite our people into this during a distancing season of coronavirus but then also during Christmas, which has as its norm frivolity with family and friends?

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24’s counsel is for the preacher, and all of us, always: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances – but of special importance during December, “Test everything” (verse 21), especially all that goes on in the name of Jesus in December! How to engage in this daunting battle without scolding or judging our people? How do we lovingly invite them into something higher, nobler, more satisfying?

John 1:6-8, 19-28. There he is, hairy, hollering John the Baptist. I heard a sermon years ago pointing out that you can’t get to the Christ child without going through John – and how he’s in the Christmas stories but never ever on a Christmas card. I mentioned this in a sermon, and someone listening created – just for me! – history’s first John the Baptist Christmas card. It is indeed, and always has been, a season of repentance, which isn’t groveling or guilt but a metanoia, a change of mind. Maybe, as 2020 has been quite the year, this is the year we will come to changed minds and hearts, not “getting back to normal,” but stepping forward into God’s new day.

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

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