Preaching Advent 1 Year C, Nov 28, 2021

November 21st, 2021

I grumble every year about the Advent lections, fully understanding it’s not Christmas yet, but puzzled that the RCL concoctors seem virtually allergic to Mary, surely the most Advent-ish of all characters. Year C is the worst of the lot, harsh apocalyptic on Advent 1, with Advent 2, 3 and 4 stuck on John the Baptist. I love his pivotal role in Advent and was gifted by a listener with the world’s first John the Baptist greeting card after mentioning he’s big in the story but absent on the cards! But sheesh. 3 weeks?

My best use to you for preaching Advent is called “God Became Small,” full of illustrative stuff from literature, history, film, and art. At our place, we’re doing a theme fitting for coming home to worship after a Christmas in exile due to the pandemic – which is a theme sounded in the Old Testaent readings for Advent Year C, Zephaniah 3: “And I will bring you home.” Home for Christmas. It may verge on the corny, but we’ll keep it in the road, counting on novelists like Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping), Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant) and Anna Quindlen (One True Thing) to keep our imaginations piqued.

Jeremiah 33:14-16. So lovely. God fulfills God’s promises – an idea we individualize way too much, making it all about us. It’s God’s promise for the people of Israel, God’s promise to fulfill God’s large plans for the redemption of all of creation. The Hebrew for “promise,” incidentally, is “the good word,” and I like that a lot. It’s less about God committing to some prescribed pattern or timeline, and more about God being true to God’s own good speaking.

The pledge is that “a righteous branch will bring justice and righteousness.” The Hebrew is so very rich: righteousness (tzedekah) is far more than good behavior, but it enters into the Christian lexicon as dikaiosune, a right, righted relationship with God. And mishpat, justice, isn’t fairness or just desserts but rather the poor being cared for.

Jeremiah’s laconic vision is stirring. Jerusalem will “live in safety.” Safety is so basic, something we take for granted but most people in the world cannot. Simple safety, not secured by policies and guns, but only by God’s redemptive healing. The city is even given a new name: Adonai zidkenu, “the Lord is our righteousness.” Try city council where you live and see if you can get this name change! How lovely, such a holy, trustful identification of who we are!

You have to appreciate Heidi Neumark’s notion that she loves Advent because “it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time” – and that is a mood of longing. Indeed. Your people, no matter how cocky or self-assured they may pretend to be, are longing people. And they know despair, which Reinhold Niebuhr described as “a failed attempt to secure security for yourself.” This is where we live, all of us, all of us longers.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13. Acts 17 narrates how a riot was touched off in Thessalonika when Paul came! And now Paul is grateful for them. His gratitude is linked to joy, as it always is and must be. Joy isn’t fun or happiness times seven. It is the grateful life, understanding how in the thick of trauma and sorrow there is light and goodness.

Paul tells how he is praying for them. We say “I am praying for…” with little to no specificity. Perhaps we are asking God just to help the person, or to further what the person needs or wants. Paul prays that they will see one another – so basic! – and that “what is lacking” in their faith will be restored. I recall in seminary learning the distinction between fides qua and fides quae, between faith as the content of what we believe contrasted with faith as the mood, the posture of faith in the believer. Is his prayer that they will be doctrinally advanced? Or that the intensity of their faith will be augmented?

Yes. It’s their total response to God. He piles on adjectival terms: “increase and abound.” Is he being redundant? Or trying in words to capture how fabulous, how deep, how extravagant it all can be? What is lacking (hysterema) is the polar opposite of fullness (plerouma). And what is this “fullness” he’s after in his prayer for them? It is love – not a feeling you have or don’t but that agape love grounded in God’s love, a deep and unflappable commitment. And he prays that God will “strengthen their hearts in holiness.” Do we ever pray for holiness in ourselves or others? What a perfect prayer, so Advent-ish! Instead of asking God for favors in our unaltered lives, we pray for ourselves and for others simply to be holy.

And why? As a bracing for, and an embracing of the Lord’s coming. If the Lord is coming, if we believe such a thing, then do we pray for trifles, success, or comfort? Or do we pray for something far larger and more enduring?

And then we detour to the apocalyptic reading of Luke 21:25-36. Jesus, on the Mt. of Olives, overlooking the holy/unholy city of Jerusalem that will be his doom and glory, Jesus envisions… what? The obliteration of history? N.T. Wright has persuasively argued that Jesus was expecting judgment on Jerusalem, not an end to history.

Jesus speaks of what Fitzmyer calls “apocalyptic stage props,” a signal to the reader that we are into bizarre, symbolic territory far beyond the realm of the doable, the practical, the historical. I wonder if we experience some of these (the confusion and distress, the natural calamities like “the roaring of seas and waves,” with our climate issues and perilous changes! – all reminders that this world is temporary and not to be relied upon all that much).

Reflecting on the nature, sky imagery, Kathy Beach-Verhey (in Feasting on the Word) spoke of Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” He began as a pastor himself. The preacher might ponder the apocalyptic sky, the small town, the church steeple, and Kathy’s words: “The famous painting elicits differing reactions from those who admire it. Some see it as a daunting image of a frightening sky, others as something bold and beautiful, others as a glimpse of God. Like van Gogh’s great painting, Luke’s apocalypse elicits different reactions… and this is what Jesus offers on this First Sunday of Advent.”

You might love, or tremble at Jesus’s courage and encouragement: “When these things happen” – so terrifying to the world – “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” We are those who need not cower. We can embrace trauma and hardship and horrifying uncertainty, because we know God’s “got the whole world in his hands.”

It’s far bigger than me and my salvation. Sharon Ringe suggested picturesquely that “the ‘redemption’ promised is not a private lifeboat to save a few privileged folk while everything else is destroyed. Rather, redemption is equated with the coming of God’s reign, which spells transformation, healing, and wholeness for all of life.”

In the meantime, we should “be on guard,” “not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, and worries…” My daughter and I visited the Bolton Priory in England – a lovely place, with a ruined gothic sanctuary. As we entered to take photos, a woman handed us a prayer card and invited us to something higher than tourism. The card contained this prayer:
“Humbly and sorrowfully I crave thy forgiveness ... for every weakening thought to which my mind has roamed ... ” This notion of weakening thoughts bears some examination and pondering – perhaps especially during this season of preparing for the coming of the Lord.

About the Author

James C. Howell

Dr. James C. Howell has been senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church since 2003, and has served read more…
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