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Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary
Preaching Year B
By Paul Scott Wilson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
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First Sunday of Advent
The Lessons in Précis
During Advent the church assumes a posture of waiting, remembering the sense of anticipation before the birth of the Messiah, and looking toward God's continuing action through the risen Christ in a second advent.
Isaiah 64:1-9. The prophet implores the Lord to put aside divine anger at the people's sin and to act on their behalf to manifest the divine name in a powerful way.
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19. The psalmist pleads for a powerful God to forgive the people and act on their behalf. The image of God as shepherd connotes care, yet the people have shed tears over God's absence or neglect.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9. Paul assures the readers of God's actions within the individual and community to enrich, strengthen, and grant peace as the church waits for the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Mark 13:24-37. With apocalyptic imagery, Jesus teaches that the unpredictable Human One (or Son of Man) will affect nature and result in the establishment of a community of the elect. The church responds to the promise of this event by maintaining a sense of expectancy, even in uncertainty.
Christ is coming. A sense of anticipation for God to act runs through all of these texts. God's nature includes the willingness to act favorably. The two New Testament texts proclaim the coming manifestation of the risen Christ in a second advent. In anticipation of the appearance of the Christ, the church waits expectantly and receptively.
A Key Theological Question
The season of Advent is a season of anticipation and expectation. Liturgically, Advent is preparing us to celebrate the birth of Jesus by cultivating a certain type of desire that longs for the coming of God on earth. But this raises the question, "What is it that we are anticipating? What is it that we are hoping for?" In traditional theological terms, the formation of communal desire or the cultivation of a common hope for the coming of God usually refers to eschatology. As we enter into the Advent season, we must reflect on what the season is training us, both as individuals and communities, to long for. Theologically, this question asks what eschatology is aiming toward and how that might transform the desires cultivated in society today.
Our desires are some of the most intimate things about us because they shape who we are, what we do, and what we hope for in the future. Yet, while our desires are intimately personal, they are also undeniably social. Our particular desires are deeply formed by our social context and events we have experienced, and our desires affect those persons around us. This is perhaps most apparent in advertising. While advertising certainly can function to make us aware of the availability of a previously unknown product that meets a long-standing need or desire, advertising is always also functioning to stimulate a new desire for the product on display. As Christian communities, we must be conscious and critical of how our desires and hopes for the future are being shaped by our social context and how that affects the type of society we are working to cultivate in our communal practices.
The social nature of desire is not inherently problematic but can become detrimental to individuals and society when the pursuit of desires begins to sacrifice the fullness of life (one's own or that of others). Brazilian theologian Jung Mo Sung's Desire, Market and Religion argues that as social collectives we have a tendency to imagine an unachievable "perfect" society and justify any "necessary sacrifices" in our collective pursuit of utopias (Sung, 2007, pp. 26–27). In response, we must be conscious of those persons and parts of the environment that our society is willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of our desire for what we imagine to be the perfect society. The social formation of desire can produce collective desires that cultivate systemic destruction of life in society, including in the practices of the churches that accept the necessary sacrifices of persons or the environment in the name of the coming of God.
The question this poses for us in the church is "What do we desire when we hope for the coming of God?" The desire for the coming of God on earth is itself perhaps natural for humans. But, when our particular, historical answers to the question of what it is we are hoping for in the coming of God are not oriented to the particular, historical form of the coming of God in the birth of Jesus, we sacrifice people and creation in the name of God. The particular, historical coming of God in the birth of Jesus testifies to the fact that God does not desire sacrifices but justice (Ps 40:6). Jesus' life and ministry resisted the sacrifice of the poor and outcast by the social order undergirded by the Roman Empire. Jesus exposes the illegitimacy of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), which is achieved by sacrificing the livelihood and even the lives of many in first-century Palestine. The result is that Jesus too is sacrificed by the Roman Empire in the name of peace because he shakes things up when he resists the sacrifice of the poor and outcast. But this is not the ultimate end, because Jesus' resistance inspires a community committed to the remembrance of life of Jesus as the coming of God on earth. The remembrance of the birth of Jesus is simultaneously a turn toward the future and eschatology. When we keep the doctrine of eschatology tied to the historical coming of God in the birth of Jesus, the doctrine of eschatology aims to cultivate a desire for justice through the future coming of God that shakes up unjust social systems that sacrifice in the name of progress.
This sort of eschatology as hope for the coming of God appears throughout the liturgical readings for this Advent Sunday. In Isaiah 64:1-5, the prophet hopes for the day when God comes again and shakes up the social powers that maintain an adversarial relationship toward Israel. Likewise, Psalm 80 repeatedly recognizes that the coming of God (the shinning of God's face) saves the downtrodden from their oppressors and restores the community to a place of life. Mark 13 exhorts its readers not to despair in the face of social systems that sacrifice—like the Roman Empire's sacrifice of Jesus or destruction of the temple—but instead to "keep alert" by cultivating the anticipation of coming of the God. Paul celebrates that the community in Corinth has been strengthened in every way as they anticipate the coming of God (1 Cor 1:6-7).
The season of Advent serves an important function in helping us reevaluate our personal and collective desires as we anticipate the coming of God in the birth of Jesus. The anticipation of the birth of Jesus during Advent is simultaneously the eschatological hope for the coming of God that brings about a truly just society in which progress and peace are not achieved through "necessary sacrifices" but through a commitment to protecting the livelihood of all persons and all creation. The communal practice of anticipating the birth of Jesus reforms our desires, both individually and collectively, by orienting our social commitments toward resisting social systems that rely on necessary sacrifice. Eschatology is not an imaginary hope for the coming of God that creates new life after the destruction of the world, but a concrete hope for the coming of God that brings life into the world by resisting destructive systems of the world even today.
A Pastoral Need
The Isaiah passage and the psalm speak of the experience of feeling that God is angry. To interpret one's circumstances as the result of God's anger proves a most uncomfortable sensation. Anger feels vindictive and alienating. Scripture affirms that injustice, oppression, and cruelty prompt God's anger. Scripture suggests that God feels the deepest anger at those who seem to get away with hurting others, for those who do not feel remorse for the hurt they cause. We may feel like the object of God's anger when we suffer, when life seems to turn against us. Difficult circumstances likely do not result from God's anger, but from the vicissitudes of life. God shows mercy for those who regret their sin, who wish they could undo their actions. The Isaiah passage and the psalm assure us that God offers mercy for those who feel guilty for their sin. Christians should never simply wallow in guilt. A spiritually healthy understanding of God's wrath knows that God's anger prompts the believer toward repentance and making amends. Isaiah and the psalmist present a God who listens to the pleas of the faithful and offers forgiveness and restoration. Rather than see difficult circumstances as evidence of God's anger, we should see God's presence with us in the midst of our difficulties.
In the Isaiah passage, the prophet intercedes with the deity on behalf of the community, likely during a time of great stress on the community as they seek to rebuild from the time of exile. The psalmist prays for the community as they endure some unspecified time of trouble. The experience of God's anger comes not to an individual, but to the whole community. Paul's letters to the Corinthian church famously demonstrate Paul's pastoral concern for a Christian community in deep conflict, with multiple problems and sources of division. The Mark passage refers to those whom the Human One has chosen from all over the earth. This community should persevere in the face of difficulties and delays. Although Christian communities disagree about the understanding of these chosen ones, the universal church can affirm together at least that God takes initiative to form this community for witness and action in the world.
All of these passages speak to the role of a community, formed by God, to exist and serve in the world in a manner fitting to the Advent of Christ at any moment. As the theological reflection section of this entry asserts, the church serves as an alternative to the ways of the world, exemplified by the Pax Romana. The church as a community models to the world the struggle for justice. Although the church itself does not always manifest true justice, it should strive to maximize justice in its own affairs. Although the church works in the world to change conditions and alleviate suffering, the church influences the world simply by being its true self. These passages for today speak to the solidarity of the community when it suffers, the collective sense of guilt for sin, the need for healing of divisions and conflict in the church, and the perseverance of the church as it waits for God's decisive intervention. Part of the ethical response of the church is to become its true self, so that it forms a clear alternative to the ways of the world. The message of Advent serves to instruct, correct, empower, reform, and transform the church into a community that can exist as a powerful and caring alternative to the world.
All of these texts speak to the corporate nature of the church. Contemporary North American Christianity focuses too much on the needs, sins, attitudes, and relationship to God of the individual. True community proves difficult, with personality clashes, conflict, selfishness, and a host of other problems that undermine a sense of community. The good news is that it is not all up to us and our own abilities. Advent is not about waiting for God to appear in some form or other. It is about waiting for God who has already appeared to us in Jesus Christ, whose life, death, and resurrection define the kind of love the church is to emulate. Advent announces the time is near when God will again act decisively. In the meantime, the church nurtures the individual and bears witness collectively to the world. The community suffers together, repents together, and works together. God empowers the church to demonstrate to the world that disparate, diverse people can come together to form a community that loves, gives, creates justice, sacrifices, forgives, and seeks spiritual growth and development. The community accomplishes more and bears more effective witness than the individual can do alone, and more than humans can do on their own. These passages invite the church to show the leadership and spiritual maturity to form community as a presence in the world that mediates God's presence.
Second Sunday of Advent
The Lessons in Précis
Advent is a time of comfort and favor.
Isaiah 40:1-11. The prophet and a member of the heavenly council proclaim God's comfort to the people of Israel who have experienced God's absence as punishment for their sins. In response, the people prepare for God's coming presence.
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13. Even though the people now experience divine anger, the psalmist declares that God's favor will return. Favor forms a more basic part of God's nature than does wrath. Using imagery of romance (v. 10) and abundance (v. 11), the psalmist prepares the people to experience divine favor again.
2 Peter 3:8-15a. The delay of the second manifestation of the risen Christ is an act of grace and patience. In anticipation of the manifestation of Christ, the church acts in holiness.
Mark 1:1-8. John the baptizer embodies the prophecy of Isaiah 40, becoming the voice proclaiming God's act in the coming of Jesus, the Son of God. John's ministry included baptism and proclamation.
God brings comfort. Advent recognizes the experience of longing for God's full presence. Sin and guilt contribute to that sense of divine absence. God comforts and forgives by nature. God acted in the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark), and will act in another manifestation of the risen Christ (2 Pet) to overcome the longing for divine presence and the redemption of creation.
A Key Theological Question
The anticipation of the Advent season turns this week to the recognition of suffering and longing for comfort from God. How does God respond to the serious traumas that shatter our lives and our communities? Where is God when we find ourselves alienated from the ongoing life of the world? And what does this mean for how the church ought to respond to trauma and suffering? The presence of God as a compassionate comforter of those who suffer is often discussed in theology under the work of the Holy Spirit, which organizes the identity and mission of the church.
Isaiah 40:6-8 witnesses to the fact that humanity is fragile—psychologically, physically, and socially. This is a truth that we are not very comfortable with and often seek to repress because it forces us to confront our own vulnerability. While life as we know it and the joys of love and community are not possible without vulnerability, the fragility of humanity is not something to celebrate uncritically. Our fragility also leaves us vulnerable to trauma that can rupture our lives and even our very sense of self. Theology cannot naively celebrate the wondrous possibilities of intimacy and love made possible by our vulnerability to others without addressing the systemic sources of trauma that undermine the capacity to live and love. Christianity has too often turned the narrative of the crucifixion into an easy, one-sided triumphant account of victory over death, without dealing seriously with the trauma at the heart of the story that not only destroys the life of Jesus but shatters the community surrounding Jesus. This disruption was precisely the effect for which the Roman Empire designed crucifixion, namely to disband revolutionary movements by invoking a fear of vulnerability in everyone through the public spectacle of a tortured body that dared to resist the empire.
When theology rushes past the traumatic nature of the cross event, Christianity suppresses the ongoing experiences that still rupture lives in our churches and across society. Theologian Shelly Rambo demonstrates that the Spirit remains in the wake of the traumatic events of the cross as the witness to ongoing trauma in the tenuous space between death and life (Rambo, 2010, p. 137). Christian communities that live and move in the Spirit must remain with those living in the wake of trauma without opting for easy answers and cheap promises that all will be okay. This is the cry of God through the prophet: "Comfort, comfort my people!" (Isa 40:1). The Spirit empowers churches to remain with those whose lives remain ruptured, refusing to banish the traumatized to shadows of congregational celebrations when what they need is to receive the love or forgiveness of God. Rather, the Spirit empowers churches to witness to the reality of the ongoing presence of death and loss in the lives of the traumatized. In a culture that prefers to celebrate the victories of the few who overcame adversity, churches must create space to mourn the losses that can never be restored and to affirm the ongoing pain of those who may never see a hopeful future in which they overcome adversity.
Excerpted from Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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