Weekly Preaching: December 9, 2018

December 4th, 2018

Last year I published a generalized “Preaching Advent” blog on the nature of homiletics during this season, with lots of illustrative material that could work any Sunday, as well as a general “Preaching Christmas” blog. Also, my little book of Advent reflections, ruminating on various theologically poignant phrases in carols and secular Christmas music, Why This Jubilee?, has lots of preaching stuff.

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How odd for us who are Protestant to see Baruch 5:1-9 as the Old Testament lection for Advent 2. What a lovely, profound, hopeful, memorable text! I might read it to my people to let them know what they’re missing, and what their Catholic friends may delight in: elegant clothing images (“Take off the garment of your sorrow, put on forever the beauty of the glory from God; put on the robe of righteousness; put on your head the diadem of glory”), seasonally-appropriate directional stuff (“Look toward the east!”), and “God will lead Israel with joy” (God’s joy?).

The Protestant canonical Old Testament reading, Malachi 3:1-14, is itself rich in possibility. The name Malachi isn’t really a name; it simply means “my messenger” or “my angel.” God sends messengers, angels, and they are God’s (“my”). We’ve trivialized angels, at Christmas more than any other season. Yet “angel” means “messenger,” and God sends them.

Who could forget and not use in a sermon Elie Wiesel’s famous remark, “If an angel ever says ‘Be not afraid,’ you’d better watch out: a big assignment is on the way.” I think I heard Will Willimon say that if you’re “touched by an angel,” you might wind up pregnant… Karl Barth pointed out that angels are there at the birth of Jesus and then at his empty tomb. They are witnesses to ultimate truths. Angels praise God in heaven all the time, and our songs of praise, especially during Advent, join their voices as one holy choir.

God sends “my messenger” to people who doubt God’s care, who are cynical and hopeless. As such, they invert good and evil. For these people, their most woeful characteristic is they are indifferent to God’s will. In the thick of World War II, to would-be isolationists, Eleanor Roosevelt said “Wishful thinking is one of our besetting sins.”

These same people go through the motions of prayer and worship but do not really expect anything from God (sound familiar?). Malachi thus speaks of “the God whom you seek, in whom you delight” — but they don’t really, and so Elizabeth Achtemeier spoke of these words as “ironical.”

For them, talk about God’s covenant, chatter about God’s promises of old, is mere talk, empty words.

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God’s response isn’t scolding or smiting. And God doesn’t float down a new covenant of words on stones, or scrolls with more promises. What God gives is quite simply… God. God gives God’s own self. This is the heart of Advent. The gift God gives is the gift we want in our deepest heart of hearts, not anything you could jot on a list, or purchase in a mall, or wrap and place under a tree. We want God. And what we desire is what God gives: God’s own self.

Malachi pricks the imagination by declaring that “the Lord will come to his temple.” He’s thinking the sanctuary in Jerusalem. As readers and believers, we know Jesus did come there, but then he actually became the temple. He became God’s presence, he was in his flesh the way to God, God’s way to us, God with us.

Mind you, the consequences of this coming are misconstrued. We think of comfort, or maybe forgiveness, or our dreams coming true. Malachi speaks of the “refiner’s fire” and “fuller’s soap.” We want forgiveness, maybe a healed relationship with God. We forget that God’s ultimate purpose for us is that we will be holy, pure, and clean. C.S. Lewis (in Letters to Malcolm) envisioned showing up at the gates of heaven:

“Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d *rather* be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’”

What do we sing? “Pure and spotless, let us be,” and “Fit us for heaven to live with thee there.” More on this in the Gospel lection. It's hard not to think of that corny old Burl Ives song, "Silver and Gold" (in "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer"). Sam the Snowman prefers silver and gold on the tree to the hard stuff... Malachi might suggest that the beauty in the refining is that you surprisingly are silver and gold!

Advent is a season of purification, of asking for cleansing. “Let every heart prepare him room.” The preparation begins with God’s sending of “my messenger” to “prepare the way of the Lord.” We will probably use that cute but moving grand opening from Godspell — probably without the splashing in the fountain, though. The phrases are dramatic and involve all of creation. Now is the time to get ready, to wait, to expect, to dream. Like a pregnant woman who’s in labor and shows up in the delivery room, we aren’t leaving until the new life has come.

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Philippians 1:3-11 illustrates what we might do for others for Christmas. Paul bursts forth with immense, personal gratitude — a virtue downright counter-cultural in our culture of entitlement. Jesus came to create grateful people. Gratitude banishes resentment, selfishness, and a bevy of other ugly personality quirks.

Paul prays for his friends (this is what friends do!), and his prayer is stunning. It's not for their health or jollity; rather, he’s fixated on the “work God has begun in you.” It’s like you’re an old house, and God is engaged in an extensive renovation project, yanking out old flooring beneath your feet, rewiring you, giving old rooms new functions, beautifying, cleaning. The coming of the Lord? Marianne Williamson suggested that you invite Jesus into your life, expecting him to show up like an interior decorator to spruce the place up a bit. But then you look outside one day and a wrecking ball is swinging, about to demolish the thing and start over.

The disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Did Paul’s listeners ever ask him to do the same? Pray! — but how? and for what? Paul’s prayer is “that your love may overflow with knowledge and insight.” What a prayer for others and, frankly, for ourselves! All these intertwine in intriguing ways, as Stephen Fowl captures it: 

“The love, prayer, knowledge and wisdom needed to live faithful lives are not separable components... but a set of interconnected habits that we must cultivate over a lifetime. Growth in one of these habits will lead to growth in the others. Failure in one will manifest itself in a more comprehensive failure.”

Would the preacher dare suggest an alternative Christmas, where we offer to one another words of gratitude and prayers for overflowing knowledge and insight?

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Luke 3:1-6 reminds us that the Gospel is a real thing that really happened in real time in real history. Note the details about the feared, powerful people of the day, and the timelines: the 15th year of Tiberius, when Pilate was governor, when Herod ruled Galilee (with Philip and Lysanias thrown in for good measure). Politics isn’t part of the proclamation of the Gospel? The key players in what will be the crucifixion are named at the outset, including the religious leaders Annas and Caiaphas, portrayed as sinister and conniving in Jesus Christ Superstar. They are “holy” men, but they are in cahoots with the powers that be, as religious leaders are so often. Witness Nazi Germany, and frankly our own country. Luke 3 names them all, the pretenders, the foes of God’s humble, hidden way.

But a hidden, truer, alternate plot is unfolding. Albert Schweitzer famously envisioned Jesus’ insertion into history: “There is silence all around. The Baptist appears, and cries: Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Soon after that comes Jesus, and in the knowledge that He is the coming Son of Man lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes Him. The wheel rolls onward, and the mangled body of the one immeasurably great Man, who was strong enough to think of Himself as the spiritual ruler of mankind and to bend history to His purpose, is hanging upon it still. That is His victory and His reign.”

We could adduce St. Augustine’ complicated, profound reflections on the two cities, running in parallel… but more simply: Jesus comes in the thick of great, seemingly invincible powers, all named in Luke 3. But he is the one. He is the true savior, the real power, the true ruler. His rule is one of humility, love, compassion, sacrifice and holiness. You preach to people whose political ideology is their idolatry; the preacher is to point the way to the true God, exposing the idols for the paltry, transient fakes they are.

John the Baptist, who would be a laughingstock, or someone to be dispensed with by the powers, comes on stage, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance.” The phrasing fascinates. It’s not a demand but a gift, right? Without trying, John fulfills the Isaiah quotation about preparing the way of the Lord, about the valleys and hills, all of creation being transformed. When Isaiah spoke of “the Lord,” John himself thought of Yahweh, Israel’s God. But the readers, in the wake of Christ’s resurrection, realize the Lord whose way is prepared is none but Jesus himself.

In keeping with the Malachi 3 reading, repentance is way more than mere remorse, even with shades of reconciliation. It’s purification, holiness — maybe a re-holying.

What can we say December 9? Advent 2 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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