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Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary
Preaching Year C
By Paul Scott Wilson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
THE LESSONS IN PRÉCIS
Jeremiah 33:14- 16. After years of trouble, God will raise a righteous Branch (leader) from David's line and the people will be saved.
Psalm 25:1- 10. The psalmist cries out for rescue and forgiveness for his youthful sins and testifies to God's steadfast, reliable love.
1 Thessalonians 3:9- 13. Paul gives thanks for the joy he receives from knowing the Thessalonians, and prays that they may be blessed in all ways and be blameless at the coming of the Lord. Note: the troubles that are present in the other texts can be found in verses 6-8.
Luke 21:25- 36. Jesus warns his disciples of the terrifying signs that will precede the coming of the Human One. He urges his disciples to watch for signs of his coming, to be alert, and not to allow self-indulgence or worldly worries to keep them off guard.
Christ is coming so be ready! The context of all the day's texts is trouble. Amidst that trouble the biblical writers have hope that God will act. The Gospel foretells the decisive act, the coming of Christ. So remain faithful and be ready.
A KEY THEOLOGICAL QUESTION
Advent is the season when we pay close attention to the phrase "from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." These texts draw our attention to the doctrines of the end time (eschatology), sin and salvation, Christology, and end-time Christian living.
The lessons for the day draw a tight link between the coming decisive action of God and the present life of the individual believer and the community of faith. Present hope and joy are generated in light of what God is about to do in spite of current troubles. The coming action of God is not anticipated by the surface of world events, nor is it a logical deduction from historical processes. The coming near of the kingdom of God is not a natural, immanent possibility; only God can and will do it. Joy and hope are the character yield in the life of a community that invests in the promise of the coming of God, despite ominous current conditions. These virtues are nurtured through worship and reading the word in the light of God's promises, not the promises in the light of the world. As with so many of the texts that will be read in the season of Advent, the appropriate posture is sitting on the edge of our seat, looking up and around in watchfulness. People who hope in God look up toward the coming rule of God in the Human One's return.
Leaning and looking forward to the coming of God is not generally a posture of the Church, individually or corporately. The sort of doomsday scenario presented, particularly by Luke's Gospel, is at odds with much of mainline Christianity. The idea of God coming near and shaking down the powers in a cosmic work of rebirth isn't often within the imaginations of what is left of establishment Christianity. Our imaginations are stoked not with eschatological promise or stories of apocalyptic change, but rather with natural probabilities. Church architecture often bespeaks, for example, permanent and settled arrangements; our forward planning for church life may involve one- dimensional models that anticipate our action, not God's. Our church investments in community, government, military, and economy are based on things as they are rather than what they will be. We struggle with these biblical texts both at the level of imaginative comprehensibility and possibly at the level of their threat to our long-term investments in the current status quo. It's hard to be joyful and hopeful about the shaking down of Wall Street or the Pentagon, or "the powers of the heavens" (Luke 21:26, nrsv), when they are the guarantors of current fragile prosperity and safety. Proclamation of these texts can feel more like, "Put your head down—your damnation is drawing near."
Reinhold Niebuhr (1964) divided his treatment of sin into two parts: pride and sensuality. The second of these categories is particularly rich for conversation with our Advent texts. Sensuality is actually the sin of putting our heads down and settling in, chameleon-like, in the world as it is. Among other things, sensuality, says Niebuhr, is "an escape [into unconsciousness] from the tension of life" (237). Our Gospel text, together with other Advent readings (Rom 13:11-14; 1 Pet 4:1-6, Eph 5:15-18), singles out sins of dissipation as particularly alluring when waiting for regime change. When trouble is served in the form of exile, displacement, crises of conscience, or marginalization, the temptation is to sink into sensuality rather than to hold out for what God will do. Debauchery and revelry are anesthetizing schemes, ways of losing our faithful selves and relieving the tension between the not yet and the already by not paying attention, even doping down the attention we can pay. This is a sinful move because it is a form of unbelief and lovelessness. It is distrust in God's promise and denies the neighbor the church's joyful, hopeful witness to a new order that God is already bringing. Cynical and doped-up-sleeping-on-your-feet living does not correspond to the promise of his coming again.
What a joy it is for the church to be instructed by these readings. An apocalyptic wake-up call gets issued on the first Sunday of Advent. It is about to shake things up. For people who pay attention, a positive reordering of the world is hopeful, encouraging the people of God not to settle too soon for too little. To hope for the salvation that the rule of God brings is to live already with more hope and joy in the world. This is the Sunday the preacher might point to the watch tower that holds the church bell as a symbol of the current moment. The preacher needs to be careful not to lessen the tension between the world on the way and the world as it is now. We need to avoid transposing what is obviously a text about the transformation of the public visible cosmos into simply a matter of the heart or into an ethical or political program of our own clever devising. The joy-and hope-generating news is that Christ is coming; that's the riveting, tiptoe event. Reality will undergo a radical renovation. Paying attention, head uplifted, on the lookout, tensive; that's the posture for the community which believes the promise, "Your redemption is near" (Luke 21:28).
A PASTORAL NEED
The texts for the day say, "Christ is coming so be ready," but we may hear that as, "Christmas is coming, so get ready." There is a difference between those statements! The cultural celebration of Christmas can immerse us in life as it is in the present, a fondue of acquisition and anxiety. Advent lifts our eyes to a broader horizon and invites us to hope.
On this day the candle of hope is lit in many of our churches. It is sometimes said that where there is life, there is hope. It may be that the opposite is also true: where there is hope, there is life. Many Christians have been influenced by Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a psychiatrist practicing in Vienna, Austria, before World War II. As a Jew, he was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. In that dreadful place, he noticed that while there was ample reason for any prisoner to die, those who had a faith which provided a sense of meaning were more likely to survive. These included practicing Jews, believing Christians, and dedicated Communists. These people were more likely to be able to hope. If they lost hope, they would die almost immediately thereafter. Hope may be almost as necessary to life as food and drink.
Any congregation will have individuals with varying pastoral needs. Among all Christians, however, one key need is always having a reason to hope. Our texts point to that hope.
No one knows the date of Jesus' birth. It is sometimes claimed that the church placed the celebration at December 25 as a counterweight to a pagan celebration, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (birthday of the unconquered sun). According to this theory, church leaders were dismayed by the eating, drinking, and loose sex of that celebration and wanted to give Christians an alternative. Perhaps the pagans won! There remains much of what our Gospel reading calls drinking parties and drunkenness (Luke 21:34) in this season. We may avoid such practices, but what about the third quality warned against in the Gospel reading, namely, anxiety? In this connection, one might contrast the official church year with the year as observed in wider society. In the former, the early days of December are part of Advent. In the latter, it is Christmas. If you doubt this, simply listen to the music played in the shopping malls at this time of year. This implies that the celebration of Advent is at least mildly countercultural.
There is a particular Christian ethical posture fit for the Advent season: a readiness to see the world differently from the way the world sees itself, preparation for God's future rather than our own present, selfdiscipline rather than self-indulgence. This is more than merely avoiding the obvious sins of the season. It is also leaning forward into God's future. How to do that is worthy of explanation in a sermon.
It is sometimes possible to hear the gospel, even in shopping malls. Amidst the easy sentimentality of seasonal favorites, you will sometimes hear some of the most profound theology of the Christian faith. Someone will sing, "Word of the Father now in flesh appearing," or "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see," or "O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today." Few will notice. Stores play such music to put us in a spending mood. But for those with ears to hear, the Good News is there: Christ is coming.
There is an amazing video that can be found at www.youtube.com, "Christmas Food Court Flash Mob, Hallelujah Chorus." The video shows a scene in a crowded food court of an ordinary shopping mall. Shoppers are resting and eating. Then suddenly, an organ breaks into the opening bars of the Hallelujah Chorus. A young woman stands, cell phone still to her ear and in a spectacular soprano voice, begins to sing. A young man ceases chatting with his girlfriend and joins his tenor voice. More and more shoppers rise and join the chorus. When you least expect it, in the most ordinary place imaginable, the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ! When you least expect it ...CHAPTER 2
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
THE LESSONS IN PRÉCIS
Malachi 3:1- 4. Malachi prophesies the coming of a messenger to prepare the way before the Lord. But his coming will be hard to endure, as he will purify Israel as a refiner's fire.
Luke 1:68- 79. Zechariah, father of John, praises God who has acted to fulfill the ancient promises to Israel. He prophesies the coming work of John who will go before the "dawn from heaven" (vs. 78).
Philippians 1:3- 11. Paul thanks God for the Philippians who have supported him in proclaiming the gospel and now in prison. He prays that their love may overflow so they may be blameless on the day of Christ.
Luke 3:1- 6. Luke sets the coming of John in the world context. John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 40. Note: this text is a précis of the work of John.
God sends a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. Preparation is necessary before the day of the Lord. That preparation will be difficult and demands repentance, but forgiveness will result. John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus, but preparation remains necessary today.
A KEY THEOLOGICAL QUESTION
Putting the Crisis Back into Christmas
On this second Sunday of Advent, we greet John the Baptist, whose preaching provokes a crisis. The teachings of the church that intersect in these passages are the doctrines of God, redemption and the kingdom coming in Christ. The prospect of judgment/salvation is raised at the impending arrival of "God's deep compassion" (Luke 1:78). Repentance and forgiveness signified in ritual baptism are practices that anticipate the "dawn from heaven" (Luke 1:78).
John the Baptist summons up recollections of First Testament prophets. Like Jeremiah (1:4, 11), Hosea (1:1) and Joel (1:1) his prophetic career is kicked off with "God's word came to John." His unusual attire, described in Mark 1:6 and Matt 3:4, reminds the reader of the hairy mantle and leather belt of Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8). His coming again was expected to precede the coming of the Lord and to signal the end of the age (Mal 3:1; 4:5-6). Like other prophetic ministries (Hos 1:1; Jer 1:1; Isa 1:1), the Gospel writer identifies the political and religious powers in place at the time of John's prophetic call to speak the word of the Lord. Readers familiar with biblical calls, the prophetic office, and messages entrusted to prophets by the Lord rightly anticipate disruption, crisis, and conflict with the powers. Ordinarily, God does not requisition the life of the prophet to deliver a status quo, everything-is-just-fine message.
Will Willimon says John the Baptist gets introduced into the story of Christmas to keep it from becoming a Hallmark occasion. In a church where I served, we tried for a number of years to introduce the figure of John the Baptist into the Christmas pageant. His trail traced by a spotlight, he bounded into the church sanctuary yelling, "Repent, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" What a contrast to serene, youthful Mary, awkward-adolescent Joseph, cute shepherds, and regal wise men parading into church in costume. Every year this "innovation" was greeted with some chagrin. At first, we toned down our efforts. Eventually, we dropped John from the cast. John the Baptist comes to provoke personal and collective crisis (Mal 3:1-4) at the coming near of God. He is not an "I'm ok, you're ok" prophet. This last of the Old Testament prophets straddles the BCE/CE divide. He signals upheaval just around the corner in the midst of settled political and religious arrangements. In the days of emperors, rulers, and high priestly appointments, the word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness.
If postmoderns are right about the importance of social location, then we ought to take note that John works not the tall-steeple circuit but the outback. He's the kind of preacher who names what is crooked and rough, and so provokes crises. John spends time in prison and is murdered for calling a king to repent (Matt 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9). If a prophet wants to provide critical commentary on current moral and power arrangements, it may be best to rent space where contact sports and tractor pulls ordinarily take place. John does not come to the established centers of power to deliver his word from the Lord. He gives it where he gets it—in the wilderness. People come to him to hear the word of the Lord. God is about to shake up the current arrangements—mountains and hills made flat, crooked places made straight, rough ways smoothed out. Salvation is announced as leveling, upset, and overturning. The announcement takes place at a distance from the bricks and mortar of concrete society. The act of coming out to the wilderness may in itself render pliable hearers of John's message of repentance.
Crisis as a theological theme in the prophets is not meant to leave us with a reigning sense of catastrophe. Wherever a sense of crisis looms as though judgment and doom were the last and final words, the word is not from the Lord. Karl Barth's early theology, a theology of crisis, has much to teach us here. Crisis, God's "no" to the current arrangements, is always and only the other side of the definitive "yes" God speaks in the Gospel. The "no" to crooked ways, rough arrangements, and mountainous hubris, is for the sake of making the divine "yes" heard. "The divine Yes is the background of the radical crisis which is suspended over the whole of life" (Berkhouwer, 1956, 33).
In the preaching of John the Baptist, crisis is evoked by the coming of salvation. A sense of crisis—economic, military, and political—is a part of life in the Western world these days. The work of the preacher on this second Sunday of Advent will be to direct our attention to the central crisis, the theological crisis, the one generated by the coming near of God. It may be that this Sunday our work is to give people trouble they did not realize they had; but this is trouble worth having. We are not the sort of people who are ready. We're comfortable in ambient arrangements. We are not the sort of people who can by our own provision make ourselves ready. The coming of salvation from outside of us exposes our need. We can only accept the crisis in penitence and sorrow, and receive baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We can only turn toward the covenant-keeping God whose provision, mercy from on high, comes.
Excerpted from Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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