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PREACHING THROUGH THE YEAR OF MATTHEW
By ROGER ALLING, DAVID J. SCHLAFER
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2001 Roger Alling and David J. Schlafer
All rights reserved.
Preaching Through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1–10; Psalm 72; Romans 15:4–13; Matthew 3:1–12 Timothy E. Kimbrough
DO YOU remember the first violence done in the garden of Eden?
"Why start there?" you ask.
It is the place of our first being, the seat of innocence, an example of what was meant to be, and of what that became. To return to this story each Easter and Christmas, as we do in our Vigil readings, is to open the family album, looking for clues that might explain why we live as we do today, looking, as well, for a reason to hope.
So I ask again: Do you remember the first violence done in the garden of Eden? Cain killing his brother Abel? No. That happens a little later in Genesis.
The casting of Adam and Eve out of the garden, and the placing of sentries with flaming swords at the gates to prevent reentry? Well, that is a violence of sorts; but I'm not sure it's the first violence.
If you want to talk about the violence of lying and deception, then maybe you'd point to the exchange between Eve, the serpent, and Adam. But, I think, you run the risk of domesticating violence if you start there.
How about this: "And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them." Initially Adam and Eve were naked without shame. But after eating the forbidden fruit, the urgency for clothing is apparent—first in a set of fig-leaf tights that Eve whips together, and then in animal skins that God provides for them before driving them out of the Garden. Vulnerability leads to shame, and shame to violence. An animal is killed to provide protection for Adam and Eve—protection from the elements, from the environment, and from one another. An animal is killed.
Tradition suggests that this animal was a lamb, thus drawing a straight line between the violence of Eden, the violence of Israel's cult of ritual sacrifice, and the violence of the cross of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Violence is present in the Garden of Eden after the Fall because it represents the way of the world. It represents how we are. It represents the manner in which a fallen world responds; how you respond when you are threatened, challenged, made vulnerable, and confronted by your own weaknesses. Nations go to war when sovereignty is threatened, or when additional land for protection is required. Terrorists engage in acts of random violence when they are cornered. Perpetrators of domestic violence, spousal abuse, and the beating of children often lash out against those around them because they themselves have been made vulnerable to such violence and abuse in their youth.
Society then engages security networks and the police, examples of socially sanctioned violence, to protect law-abiding citizens. And the state employs the death penalty as punishment and deterrent against the next capital crime.
If you can't see it in the world around you, Eden teaches you that violence is a way—the way—of life for us. From the food we eat, to the clothes we wear; from the wars we fight and fund, to the law enforcement officers we invite into our homes and communities; from the land we presume to own, wrested from those who went before us, to the neighborhoods we designate as safe and unsafe—violence is the way of life for us, and a primary marker of sin.
Yet all the preparing, and watching, and waiting we are asked to do during this season of Advent is informed by the prophets' shout: The Reign of God, when it comes, will be characterized by the absence of violence.
Isaiah writes: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The sucking child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain." Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome to live in harmony with one another and prays that "the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace." And the Psalmist sings that "in his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more." Such images are as unthinkable as the beating of swords into plowshares. They are beyond what we can imagine. In fact, they are beyond the desire of our hearts, so ingrained is this way of violence.
Do you have trouble considering what the church means when it speaks of Original Sin? Think of it in terms of violence, and perhaps you will recognize a marker of humanity's flawed nature. Some will turn their heads indignantly and suggest they eschew violence of all kinds. And yet, no matter whether you are a vegetarian or a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, or the Sierra Club, you cannot divorce yourself from a society that hallows the electric chair, firing squads, and hypodermic needles.
John the Baptist points his finger at the Pharisees and Sadducees who have come to him for baptism without having repented of their sin. He despairs. They have refused to renounce a system of worship that does not seek the reform of heart and the reform of society. "You brood of vipers!" he shouts, "... [b]ear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'" When he prophesies against them, he is shouting at a world that has refused to embrace the hope of the prophets, refused to see sin in their violence, and refused to kneel before the mountain of the Lord.
The Kingdom of God will be like this: not as you expected. Neither the violent, nor the powerful, nor the politically astute will hold sway in the Kingdom of God. No. The first will be last and the last first. And who are our last? The poor, the imprisoned, the victims of their crimes, the dead by capital punishment, the sick, the lonely, the disenfranchised, the victims of racism and social prejudice of every kind. The first will be last and the last first. The wolf and lamb will lie down together. Swords will be beat into plowshares, and pedigree will count for nothing.
This is the gospel of the prophets, the gospel of John the Baptist, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Turn and repent from every way that sustains the first, the elite. Stand with the last. Love the last, the least, the lost, and the forgotten, and so anticipate the Reign of God.
Now, I realize, it is hard to preach this gospel with Bing Crosby (as much as I love him) singing, "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere I go." Why? Because if the coming of the Prince of Peace looked like the prophets describe it, then it would mean the end of the world as I know it. And that is simply more than I can take. I love life like it is too much.
So does the world. Every time someone comes preaching this gospel we kill him. We isolated the great prophets of the Old Testament. John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus, crucified. Stephen, the Deacon, stoned to death.
And we still kill them. Take someone like Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated for his vision and proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Take someone like Oscar Romero, archbishop of El Salvador in the 1970s, assassinated by government troops during mass one day for his work as a fearless defender of the poor, the suffering, and the tortured in his society. He preached the gospel of Jesus Christ and gave his life for it.
When you look around you see the church in conflict with itself and with the world around it. Do not despair. Better, conflict with the forces of this world and of evil than complicity with them.
Over twenty years ago Archbishop Romero, speaking to the role of the church in society, included the following words in an Advent homily to his flock: "This is why the church has great conflicts: It accuses of sin. It says to the rich: 'Do not sin by misusing your money.' It says to the powerful: 'Do not misuse your political influence. Do not misuse your weaponry. Do not misuse your power. Don't you see that is a sin?' It says to sinful torturers: 'Do not torture. You are sinning. You are doing wrong. You are establishing the reign of hell on earth.'"
As newspapers, radio programs, and the evening news bring us the promise of economic bonanza for merchants, and as they continue to chart the remaining shopping days until Christmas, do not forget to give this gospel equal time. John the Baptist's call to repentance is a call to acknowledge the violence of sin in our lives, and a call to turn from that.
The coming of the Prince of Peace and the vision of Isaiah's holy mountain are going to turn your world upside down. You can either ignore the prophecy and deny its truth, or embrace it and continue your pilgrimage of repentance, ascending the holy mountain of God.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world: grant us peace.
Timothy E. Kimbrough is rector of the Church of the Holy Family, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:18–25 Catherine Woods Richardson
IMAGINE HOW you'd feel.
Your fiancée tells you she's pregnant, and you know you had nothing to do with it. She's got some cockamamie explanation that really doesn't make sense; and even in the face of certain disgrace, she doesn't seem ashamed. Instead, she looks more radiant than you've ever seen her. It feels like a kick in the gut.
You're confused and hurt, and you don't know what to do. No matter what the truth is, people will blame you. They'll whisper and avoid you on the street, take their business somewhere else. You're a good man; you've tried hard to do what's right by your family and fiancée, and now this. Betrayal. You'll never live this down, and you didn't even do anything wrong.
Human life is messy. And I think one of the truths of this Advent and Christmas season, once we get past all the hype and sentiment of commerce, is that sometimes God comes along in our messy human lives and makes them a whole lot messier. Gee, thanks, God.
Jesus' conception completely overturns Mary and Joseph's lives. Jesus was born in a time when, at best, unmarried parents faced certain social disgrace. At worst, unfaithful women could be stoned to death for adultery. This new babe growing in Mary's womb is a burden indeed. No one has asked for this to happen, least of all Joseph. Joseph is stuck between a rock and a hard place. There is no good decision for him to make when he learns of Mary's pregnancy.
I think many of us find ourselves in Joseph's shoes, one time or another. I don't mean in dealing with another's mysterious pregnancy, at least in a literal sense, but in finding the spark of God growing in someone to whom we're promised, changing him in ways we'd never planned or imagined. Upsetting our own lives. It can be disorienting and deeply painful. It can feel like betrayal—the spouse who wants to change careers, once we've finally got things in order; the child who leaves the church, or drops out of college; the friends or siblings we feel so distant from, now that our lives have taken different paths. When people we love change in unexpected ways, it can be very hard—even harder than when we ourselves change.
When we're growing in God, we may at least know a bit of what is going on. But family and friends often know much less; and they can feel cast off and abandoned, as we enter into the mystery of God's workings. God doesn't promise that our lives will be neat and tidy, that they will be free of conflict or tension or uncertainty.
Joseph never would have said that God plays fair. After all, he was a righteous man, not looking for any trouble—and look what he gets! Before he has fully decided what to do about Mary's news, he sleeps on it. An angel of the Lord appears to him, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." These do not sound like reassuring words. An illegitimate child of uncertain parentage is bad enough, but now the angel says it's not even an ordinarily conceived human child, but something conceived from the Holy Spirit. What on earth will that turn out to be?
The angel says, "Don't be afraid"? Yeah, right. Try "terrified" instead. Things were bad enough before this news. Whatever happened to a nice, quiet life in Nazareth?
God didn't give Jesus a nice, quiet life in Nazareth, and he didn't give it to Mary and Joseph either. All three of them bore their crosses—Jesus' was of wood, but Mary and Joseph's cross was Jesus himself. It is no small task to be a human father to God incarnate.
It is no small task, but it is an awesome and wondrous one, and surely Joseph knew it. Joseph was a righteous man, a faithful Jew. Could anyone less be blessed and burdened with such amazing news as Mary had to share? Could anyone less have borne the consequences?
In the collect for this last Sunday of Advent, we pray: "Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself." This collect, and the example of Mary, the Mother of God, reminds us of our call to be Godbearers, to carry and bring to life the spark of God in a suffering world.
But this Sunday, too, as we hear Joseph's story, we are reminded that we are also called to be companions to the ones in whom the spark of God is growing. This may be a harder task yet, to welcome God's transforming work in the lives of those closest to us, as they change and grow into new and different people before our very eyes.
But there are rewards. When we join Joseph in accompanying another who carries Christ within, we can find ourselves, some cold, dark night, as midwives to the greatest power of this world. We can be struck to awe-filled silence by the wonder of God's love embodied in this person we thought we knew so well. We can hold the Christ child in our arms.
Will this be messy? Sure. Will it hurt? It will likely break our hearts and souls wide open. Will it be the most amazing, awesome, and wonderful thing we could ever do? Yes, that too. In these last days of Advent, let us join Joseph and go look for Mary. And when we've found her, and told her we're still here, let us set out together on the road to Bethlehem. Let us walk these dwindling days to the place where God is born.
Catherine Woods Richardson is interim pastor of St. Paul's Church, Elk City, Michigan.
The Most Special Effect of All
Luke 2:1–20 Matthew R. Lincoln
WHEN YOU see a blockbuster movie these days, some of the key ingredients are sure to be the special effects. The effects sometimes do more to attract an audience than the starring actors. When I was a kid, watching special effects was often amusing, rather than scary. It was easy to tell that the ship being blown up was just a boat in a bathtub.
It is still fun, but detecting the special effects is now more of a challenge, a kind of game. You want the effects to be believable; but you know they can't be what they appear to be, and because of that knowledge, you can gauge how convincing the special effects are. A really satisfying effect is one that you can say was convincing. The irony is, however, if it had really been convincing, you wouldn't have recognized that it was only an effect. You wouldn't be sitting back and deciding whether or not it was convincing; you would simply be convinced.
We like our special effects to be big and bold, but somehow, visibly unreal. They are safer that way. Being terrified by them is only an amusement.
Is that how you would like God to be? Would you like God only to look almighty—that is, to look spectacular while, in fact, being safely unreal? That would have advantages. The spectacle would give us something to get excited about; but we would be left to ourselves to decide what we care about, and how we want to spend our lives.
Have you ever wanted God to make a real difference in your life, such as when you or someone you love was gravely ill? You pray for a miracle cure, or a rescue from trouble—a zap from a distant, impersonal God that will put things back the way they were. Such a dramatic act by an impersonal God would seem to be powerful, like a special effect. But such an act would not really change anything.
On a movie screen, a great huge ship can hit an iceberg and sink at 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 P.M. (with senior citizen discounts at the early shows); then do it again five times on the following day. You feel scared while you watch, but nothing changes. An impersonal God might be talked into doing something for you, like a cure. But that cure would do nothing except return things to normal. If your life is in chaos because of an illness, "normal" sounds pretty good. But think about it. Would you really like things to go right back to where they were, with you about to get sick all over again?
Excerpted from PREACHING THROUGH THE YEAR OF MATTHEW by ROGER ALLING, DAVID J. SCHLAFER. Copyright © 2001 Roger Alling and David J. Schlafer. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Reign of God is Like ...
1 Preaching Through Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
2 Preaching Through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter
3 Preaching Through the Season After Pentecost
4 Preparing to Preach—Homiletical Reflections
5 The Calling of the Preacher—Sermons in Celebration