Weekly Preaching: December 15, 2019 (Advent 3)

December 10th, 2019

In a moment I’ll offer an unusual take on this Sunday’s lectionary selections. I’d refer you regardless to my general blog on Preaching Advent, and also to its friend, Preaching Christmas. In both you’ll find thoughts about how to preach in this curious, lovely season, and lots and lots of illustrative material, stories, songs, images, historical moments.

By Advent 3, I find that the lectionary selections grate, not only on the nerves of my church people scurrying toward Christmas, but on me as well. We’ll light the pink candle, the Mary candle  but she’s nowhere to be found in the texts (although admittedly the alternate Psalter is her Magnificat!). What to do?

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I might reflect on the lections that Mary knew, and try to divine what her perspective on them might have been when she was so very pregnant. The prophecy of Isaiah 35:1-10 must have thrilled her with its inspiring vision of the transformation of nature. “They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God”  so whereas Isaiah was thinking of an eschatological revolution in nature, Mary might have been dimly, courageously, hopefully aware that the child pressing against her belly, in her very own body, would be the glory and majesty of God about to appear. She would be the lucky one to see the glory and majesty first.

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Surely the prayers, “Strengthen the weak hands, make firm the feeble knees” must have resonated with her in her exhaustion, carrying extra weight, with her daily chores, having made an arduous journey to visit Elizabeth. Isaiah 35 prays for those with “fearful hearts,” encouraging them to “be strong, do not fear, here is your God, he will come.” I just love how Amy Grant sang her surmises of what must have gone on in Mary’s heart during those days: “I am frightened by the load I bear, in a world as cold as stone / Must I walk this path alone? Breath of heaven, hold me together, lighten my darkness / Help me be strong, Help me be, Help me.”

Of course, the tone of Isaiah shifts, as does the music I hear in my head. A powerful alto thunders in with Handel’s text taken from Isaiah: “Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened…” Oh my. My soul just rushed from the quiet by a well in backwater Nazareth to a concert hall in London. Notice all the singing in Isaiah’s text. The ransomed don’t just trudge back to Zion; they sing their way home. Mary was a singer (although I’ll never picture her as the alto with the big vibrato).

On the way home during Advent, the preacher could do worse than invite people simply to ponder the holiness, the faith, the courage, the anxiety, the hope, the isolation, the uncertainty that was Mary, mother of our Lord. So much beauty. There’s no takeaway, no lesson, no “point.” We just ponder. I think my best preaching dares to do such a thing.

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James 5:7-10 has the lovely Advent-ish counsel, “Be patient until the coming of the Lord.” His analogy is of the farmer waiting for the crops to come in. Advent 3 begs me to shift the metaphor: it’s like the pregnant woman waiting for her child to come. Fortunately it takes time, and yet the wait has its own agonies, like the life of faith. Here’s a playful question I may pop into my homily: if James, this James, was the brother of our Lord, did he for a moment reflect on his own mother — Mary also! — pregnant with his brother Jesus, or with him? Had she sung to him, to them? Another reverie may be in order, no takeaways or points, just inviting people to gawk at the tenderness, the beauty, the holiness of the holy family.

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Matthew 11:2-11 reverts to John the Baptist, who gets so much play time in Advent! And not wrongly! But then at some point he’s hollered at us to repent and we’ve been doing that by now... or not. This scene is picturesque: John in prison, sends a messenger to ask about Jesus’ true identity. Had he forgotten? Was it too hard to believe? All the miracles attesting to Jesus being the One: Did John yearn for one to be dashed off in his direction to get him out of jail?

What can we say December 15? Advent 3 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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