Tuesday, January 1, 2019

What can we say December 1? Advent 1

   Advent preaching has its peculiarities, delights, and challenges. Check out my general blog, “God Became Small: Preaching Advent,” which reflects on the season and also has a load of illustrative material that might fit in any of the four Sundays.

   Advent 1 here in Year A offers us Isaiah 2:1-5, which helps us immensely by providing a wide-angle lens to help us see the scope of what God’s coming is about. It’s light years beyond the individual, or the handful of people in my home or church. It’s international, even cosmic. Preaching must be brief and alluring during Advent, offering hints more than final answers. Isaiah envisions (or God showed him!) a day when God’s purposes will be consummated. God’s seemingly little hill, Mt. Zion, will be the highest, nations will stream into it, all will learn and walk in God’s ways, and weapons will be reforged into implements of life and goodness. I love John August Swanson's "Festival of Lights."
 
   A review of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech might get us in the mood (and also his 1967 speech about “the arc of the moral universe”); too few preachers dare this kind of thrilling, imaginative visioning.

   The takeaway? That we and our people will share together in this simple desire: “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (and in worship we can sing “I want to Walk as a Child of the Light”).

   I think I will focus on Romans 13:11-14. How better to wade into Advent than by echoing Paul, “It is time to wake from sleep”? The days are long and darker now, and we might even ponder what Christmas morning will be like for little children who wake from their slumbers. There is a kind of sleepy-headed, almost comatose repetition of vapid, cultural Christmas customs. Without bashing anyone, we might invite our people to awaken to something better, richer, simpler.

   Americans have Washington Irving’s old story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep in the Catskills as a faithful subject of King George, then woke up years later and was shocked to discover his beard was a foot long and America was a free democracy; he slept through the Revolution!  But I think about the “Seven Sleepers of Ephesus,” the 7 young men who (according to legend) hid inside a cave in the third century to escape persecution against Christians, then woke up at the beginning of the fifth century to discover the empire had become Christian.  The preacher could explore “sleeping through a revolution,” or it might be even more interesting to ponder what it would imply to wake up in a world where, if everything and everybody are Christian, then is anybody really Christian? 
 
     Americans also have “the Great Awakening,” a revival that was unanticipated and hard to understand today.  Read Jonathan Edwards’s dense, theologically muscular and not very entertaining sermons – and it’s hard to conceive that the masses, especially young adults, were stirred to renewed and deepened commitments to Christ.  Makes you wonder what might actually ‘work’ today.  Lighter, more accessible fare?  Or denser, harder stuff?
 
    I also think of Awakenings, the book by Oliver Sacks (and then the 1990 film) – the story of victims of an encephalitis epidemic who surprisingly began to do quite well after years of affliction.  All are fitting images of the power the Gospel might have on a vapid, routine kind of life.
 
   And I always recommend that preachers think, not only of what a text means for an individual person, but also for the church.  What would the awakening of the church, or of your church look like?  How would it actually happen?  Can the preacher paint the picture, which might draw the church toward the reality?
 
  Romans 13, a rich text, then clarifies what waking up is about: “It is time to cast off the works of darkness.”  We are deeply indebted to this text for its impact on St. Augustine.  This is the passage he stumbled upon while struggling so mightily in the garden of his friend, Alypius.  I love Sarah Ruden’s new translation of this moment in the Confessions:  “I was weeping with agonizing anguish in my heart; and then I heard a voice from next door, a little boy or girl, I don’t know which, incessantly and insistently chanting, ‘Pick it up! Read it! Pick it up! Read it!’” – and it fell open to Romans 13, in particular this: ‘not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy’ (I was doing okay for the first four… but then the last two?).  ‘But put on the Lord Jesus’ (clothing again…), ‘and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’  We have made all sorts of provisions for the flesh to gratify its desires!  We speak fondly of ‘comfort food,’ or for all sorts of occasions we say ‘I need a drink,’ or ‘You deserve that vacation at the beach.’
 
   If you're doing the Augustine angle, don't forget Mary Oliver's wonderful (short, entirely memorable) poem: "Things take the time they take. / Don't worry. / How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine.”
 
    St. John Chrysostom commented on the almost inevitable connection between drunkenness and the others: “For nothing so kindles lust and sets wrath ablaze as drunkenness and tippling… Wherefore I exhort you, flee from fornication and the mother thereof, drunkenness.” We make total provision for the flesh – and even ask God to help!
 
   I shouldn’t diss the Gospel reading, Matthew 24:36-44. But the apocalyptists have ruined Jesus' ominous yet inviting talk about “the day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son” (as if God the Father arranged things so Jesus his son could enjoy plausible denial!). Spooky “left behind” images lead people down a path toward a curious kind of modern Gnosticism, don’t they? It’s all about readiness, not niceness, a vigilant and holy engagement with the things of God – not easily pulled off ever, much less in this season.

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