Each week of sermon resources includes:
2. Theme title
3. Introduction to the Readings
4. Encountering the Text
5. Proclaiming the Text
6. Relating the Text
About the Author
Will Willimon has published many books, including his preaching subscription service on MinistryMatters.com, Pulpit Resource, and Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, both published by Abingdon Press.
Read an Excerpt
Will Willimon's Lectionary Sermon Resource Year B Part 1
By Will Willimon
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2017 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
First Sunday of Advent
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Where Is God?
Advent is a time of expectant waiting for God to come among us. Waiting for God can be difficult, yet we wait with the faithful conviction that our God will come among us, and come with power to save.
Introduction to the readings
The prophet Isaiah cries out to God to return to help and to heal Israel in its distress.
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Paul counsels the Corinthians not to lose hope in their waiting for the return of Christ.
Jesus tells a parable about servants who wait for the return of their master.
Dear Lord, we are not doing that
well on our own.
Come down and help us.
We thought we had matters in our
hands, fending for ourselves.
Come down and save us.
We presumed that we had all we
needed to give ourselves a sure
and certain future.
Come down and rescue us from
We lost our way. We sit in
Come, shine your light before us
this Advent. Amen.
Encountering the text
Claus Westermann calls Isaiah 64 "the most powerful psalm of communal lamentation in the Bible" (Isaiah 40–60 [Louisville: Westminster, 1969], 392). This is the anguished lament of those returned from exile, returned to the ruins of the temple and the rubble of defeated national hope. The historical context is that part of Isaiah, so-called Third Isaiah (chs. 56–66), that tries to make sense of the exile after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The lectionary's omission of verses 18 and 19 of chapter 63 is unfortunate. Verses 18 and 19 are evocative images of a people who, having once held the temple, the seat of God's presence, now see the temple in the hands of foreigners.
It is as if Israel no longer belongs to God or, even more frightening, as if God no longer belongs to Israel, "like those not known by your name."
The prayer moves beyond tearful lament to a bold calling of God to account, reminding the Almighty of divine deeds of deliverance in "ancient times."
Do you know people who can readily identify with the prophet's prayer that God "would tear open the heavens and come down"? As pastor, you certainly do.
Our lection ends with the affirmation that "you are our father." The Old Testament has a rich store of images and metaphors for God — the words "you are our father" occur only here. God as father was a pagan, mythical idea that Israel carefully avoided until rare usages in postexilic times. In this highly unusual use of the term, the fatherhood of God is presented in terms of our last refuge when even our ancestors no longer know us. Although our sins are manifold, "But ... you are our father." Upon that great, divine, paternal nevertheless rests the hope for deliverance in Isaiah 63 and 64.
It is a fearful thing for a people to arrive at a point in their history at which they charge God with having "hidden yourself from us." Yet even in our hard iniquity, we dare to believe that we are but clay being worked by the formative hands of a skilled potter. Our hope, at the end of our collective rope, is for the advent of a God who remembers us, even in our forgetfulness of God, and reforms us into people more worthy to bear the image of the divine. In good or ill, our lives show the thumbprints of the hands of an active God.
Proclaiming the text
"If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!" Today's Old Testament lesson, Isaiah 64:1-9, is the anguished outburst of a desperate people, having exhausted all possible human alternatives, having given up on polite, respectfully restrained prayers to God. "Tear open the heavens and come down!" they cry.
People on the bottom, people who have lost hope in conventional means of change, do not have the luxury of a Deistic "Unmoved Mover," a God who merely sets the world in motion without continued intervention in the world. They want God, and they want God now.
Isaiah prays the prayer of a people who long for a God yet cannot see or hear God, people for whom God is absent. Do any of you know what that feels like? Have you ever prayed but felt like you were only talking to yourself? Have you ever stood beside the bed of one in pain and prayed for God's help but felt like God was far away? Have you known the prayer that prayed, "God, tear open the heavens and come down"?
Perhaps you are surprised that anybody in the Bible ever prayed this kind of prayer. Sometimes you get the impression that people in the Bible always have God right next to them, anytime they snap their fingers and call for God. Paul met God in a blinding flash on the Damascus Road. If God were always among us in a blinding flash, then being related to God would be easy.
Isaiah had such an experience with God when he was young (Isa 6:1-6). One day, praying in the temple, it was as if the heavens were opened and Isaiah looked right up into heaven and saw God sitting upon a throne, clear as day.
But that was a long time before today's scripture. In today's scripture Isaiah is not a young man on the way up, but an old man returned with his people from exile, returned to a city in ruin, a temple in ruin, their lives in ruin. Perhaps, remembering his vision as a young man in the temple, standing now in the rubble of a lost temple, the ruins of lost faith, Isaiah blurts out, "God, tear open the heavens [again] and come down!"
Something in me wishes that God was always present, visible, clear as day standing beside us. But in my experience, that's not the way it is with the living God. Sometimes there is the blinding flash of light, the unmistakable voice from above, but in my experience God speaks most often through whispers, not shouts. God is found in the shadows, rather than appearing as blinding light.
Sometimes the whispers are very low whispers, and sometimes the shadows are very dark shadows. In fact, sometimes, I am not that sure of his words or his will.
Sometimes, when you are the only one who sees a glimpse of God or hears what God says, you wonder if you really saw and heard God. For instance, when you are recovering from an illness, try saying, "God restored me to health." How will your friends respond? With strange glances? You believe that God has restored you to health, but it was not obvious. Not everybody sees God the way you do. So you wish there would be a voice, a nice, clear, possibly bass voice, saying from the heavens, "This is God. I helped Mary through her illness."
Say to someone, "God answered my prayer." How will that person react? Probably they will somewhat nervously say, "You always were lucky," or, "What a coincidence that should happen." I heard the great preacher Fred Craddock, someone who speaks marvelously for God, confess, "My problem with God has been God's timidity, God's quietness."
If someone who daily communicates with God, speaks for God, says that God is timid, quiet, how much more must it be for the rest of us.
Did God once communicate with people, in a voice unmistakably loud and clear, but no longer does? If that were the case, then why today's anguished prayer from Isaiah? How could the one who once saw God face-to-face in the temple now cry out, "If only you would tear the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, ... so that the nations might tremble at your presence"?
There is a curious kind of presence and absence in many biblical people's experience of God. When the resurrected Christ appeared to Paul on the Damascus Road (Acts 9), note the difference in the way Paul heard these voices compared to those who were with him. Paul clearly heard the voice of Christ, so clearly that his life was changed forever. But those who were with him heard nothing. Have you ever had that experience?
Fred Craddock suggests that the presence of God is so easily missed because what may have originally happened in rather muted tones, is later reported in technicolor in the Bible. For instance, when Luke tells of the death of Herod, he says that God struck him dead instantly and he was eaten up with worms (Acts 12:20-23). However, history tells us that the original Herod died of the gout.
Exodus says that God buried the chariots of the Egyptians. And yet contemporary historians don't even notice such an event. Maybe to the casual onlooker it was a matter of the Egyptian chariots getting stuck in the mud, so the Hebrews escaped. But in the eyes of faith: God stepped in and dramatically saved us from slavery.
You know how preachers, in order to make a point, in order to be heard, sometimes overstate things. Maybe it's that way in the Bible, too. The voice of God, which was a whisper to them, is reported to us as a great shout.
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul tells his own story very quietly, in subdued tones. It is quite different from the way Luke tells it in Acts — with a vision, the light, and the voice.
Sometimes the difference lies in the way you tell something. Have you ever tried to tell somebody why a movie meant so much to you?
You finally just give up and say, "Well, you'll have to see the movie for yourself, then you'll know why I liked it so much."
Rarely are events as obvious as they seem to those who are actually experiencing the event.
Remember that passage in the Gospel of John, when Jesus hears directly the voice of God, speaking from heaven? But John says that for others who stood there, "Some said it thundered."
Sometimes, only the eyes and ears of faith get the message. Sometimes, God speaks, but we need to be leaning toward him to hear. Sometimes, God is there but is standing in the shadows, therefore we have to look toward the shadows to see. What kind of ear do you bring to the hearing?
Some people saw the miracles of Jesus, and did not say "He must be the Messiah," but rather said, "What gives? How did you do something like this?"
Rarely is God obvious. God is sometimes heard by those who lean toward God. When faithful people hear God, it is often a whisper. Yet later, when they describe what they have heard of God, it is a shout.
Why does God communicate this way? Perhaps that when someone does hear, when someone does say yes, it will be a free, uncoerced yes. We all have moments when we, like Isaiah, wish that God would rip open the curtain of heaven and come among us in irrefutable earthquake, fire, and undeniable vividness so that any fool would say, "Yep, that's God."
Yet such moments are rare, even rare in the Bible, as today's word from Isaiah shows. Why? I don't know, unless it is because our God is a free, unrestrained living God, not some tame house pet on a leash who comes at our every beck and call. There is space between us and God because God is God and we are not. "My ways are not your ways," Isaiah once heard this God say.
If you look directly into the sun, you will only be blinded. You must see the sun indirectly, in the sun's reflection. Maybe it is mostly that way between us and God.
So if God is most often known in a whisper rather than in earthquake and fire, then it must be easy to miss God's voice when it comes to us. If God stands aside in the shadows, flirting with us, appearing among us only indirectly, then it must be easy not to see God's appearances among us.
I fear, when it comes to God's presence among us, we are like those sad teenagers who, having listened to rock music through headphones with the volume so high that their hearing is damaged, are now no longer able to hear any subtleties of sound. Everything must be in a shout to be heard.
Or we modern folk are people who are never free from the blare of the TV or the radio or the cell phone, constantly being bombarded with sounds and sights, so much so that we become numbed, blinded. Sensory overload leads to a kind of blindness.
So maybe that's why the church, in its wisdom, has the season of Advent in the weeks before Christmas. If we are to see the fragile light that dawns among us in Christ, we must sit awhile in the darkness. If we are to hear the songs of the angels, we must first be silent. What could you do (or, perhaps more to the point for us busy people, What could you avoid doing this Advent?) that would make you better able to see God's subtle incursions among us?
I daresay that when many people first saw the babe at Bethlehem, they saw only another poor baby. Yet for those who were listening, leaning toward the light, here was Immanuel, God with us.
"If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!" begs the prophet. But the living, free, loving God rarely does. More often God comes to us in a glimpse, a whisper, a shadow moving in the darkness, and we, whose lives are so full of noise, sights and sounds, lights and thunder of our own creation, miss heaven's opening up for us.
Relating the text
Today's Old Testament lesson arises during Israel's exile. In what ways can it be said that our time is a time of exile, too? Walter Brueggemann says,
"The exile of the contemporary American church is that we are bombarded by definitions of reality that are fundamentally alien to the gospel, definitions of reality that come from the military-industrial-scientific empire ... the voice of this empire wants to reshape our values, fears, and dreams in ways that are fundamentally opposed to the voice of the gospel."
— "Second Isaiah," in Reading and Preaching the Book of Isaiah, ed. Christopher Seitz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), 73
Toward the end of one of his movies, Woody Allen says something like, "It's not that I hate God. I have nothing against God. I think that the worst you could say of God is that God is an underachiever." In our minds, God never quite lives up to God's potential.
* * *
Our director of music refuses to sit in a crowded, loud restaurant. He takes earplugs with him to Duke basketball games. "You see," he explains, "when your life is music, when your main tools are your ears, you must be careful. The difference between making good music and making great music is often the difference between the slightest variations of sound. I must guard my hearing so that I can distinguish between those slight variations."
Second Sunday of Advent
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Everyone needs a time of homecoming, a time to return to that place where we know, in our heart-of-hearts, we belong. Advent is an invitation for each of us to return to God, to our true home.
Introduction to the readings
The prophet Isaiah proclaims comfort to the suffering people of Israel. God is bringing them out of exile and back home.
2 Peter 3:8-15a
The writer urges a group of early Christians not to lose hope for the return of their Lord.
The gospel opens with the appearance of John the Baptist, who proclaims the advent of God's Messiah.
May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may he give us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.
— John Henry Newman (1801–1890)
Encountering the text
Our Old Testament lesson is the first note of a grand symphony of comfort and hope that scholars called Second Isaiah. The poet proclaims that God is working behind the scenes, in Cyrus's war on Babylonia, to bring God's people back home. Like a responsive psalm, the text is composed of four speakers. In verses 1 and 2 the prophet hears the Lord speaking. Then, verses 3 and 5 are the words of a "voice." Verses 6 through 8 are words of a different "voice." The prophet concludes the section with his own words. Listen to each of the voices as a distinctive word of hope for the chosen people.
Today's "Proclaiming the text" picks up on the musical analogy in referring to Handel's Messiah. Today's text speaks of home, homecoming. All people need a home. There is no sadder state than to be homeless. Today's text is the good news that we have a home, that we can return, that by the grace of God, we are returning.
Proclaiming the text
"Clear the Lord's way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened ... 'Here is your God!'"
Messiah opens on a somber chord; then the orchestra moves upward toward a clear, tenor voice: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people ... the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
Last Sunday Isaiah spoke for a people in the wilderness, in Babylonian exile, a people so lost, orphaned, that they could cry, "You have hidden yourself from us" (Isa 64:7). Refusing to blame others for their situation, the prophet told the exiles, "We sinned. ... We have all become like the unclean. ... All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away" (Isa 64:5-6).
Excerpted from Will Willimon's Lectionary Sermon Resource Year B Part 1 by Will Willimon. Copyright © 2017 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
First Sunday of Advent—Where Is God?,
Second Sunday of Advent—Returning,
Third Sunday of Advent—More,
Fourth Sunday of Advent—Back to the Stable,
Christmas Day—God Gets Local,
Christmas Day—The Future of Flesh,
First Sunday after Christmas—The Ordinary Resumption after the Grand Intrusion,
Second Sunday after Christmas—God of New Beginning,
New Year's Day—Joy in the Time Being,
The Epiphany of Our Lord—Starstruck,
First Sunday after Epiphany/The Baptism of Our Lord—Receive the Holy Spirit,
Second Sunday after Epiphany/Second Sunday in Ordinary Time—God Bridges the Generation Gap,
Third Sunday after Epiphany/Third Sunday in Ordinary Time—Revolution!,
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany/Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time—Look Out for the Weak,
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany/Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time—Holy Agnosticism,
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany/Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time—Divine Distance,
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany/Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time—We Never Saw Anything Like This,
Eighth Sunday after Epiphany/Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time—Christ's Letter to the World,
Transfiguration Sunday/Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time—Why Worship?,
First Sunday in Lent—Being Born Anew,
Second Sunday in Lent—The Faith Gap,
Third Sunday in Lent—Spring Housecleaning,
Fourth Sunday in Lent—Keep Curious,
Fifth Sunday in Lent—The Good in the Bad,
Passion/Palm Sunday—Carrying the Cross of Jesus,
Passion/Palm Sunday—Cruciform Imitation,
Good Friday—The Family at the Cross,
Good Friday—In the Silence,
Easter Day—Afraid of Easter?,
Easter Day—The Never-Ending Story,
Second Sunday of Easter—In the Midst of Us,
Third Sunday of Easter—Victory!,
Fourth Sunday of Easter—A Sermon Too Short,
Fifth Sunday of Easter—Pruning the Vine,
Sixth Sunday of Easter—Just Obeying Orders,
Seventh Sunday of Easter—Jesus as God,