Sermon Thoughts for the First Sunday of Advent
- Old Testament: Jeremiah 33:14-16
- Psalm 25:1-10
- New Testament: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
- Holy Gospel: St. Luke 21:25-36
Texts In Summary:
As we move into Advent, we begin at the end – with a dose of eschatology and apocalypticism. In November, the lectionary cycle ended with a distinct turn towards the end of things, and we pick up there as well, like a snake devouring its own tail.
The Advent 1 texts refuse to let us turn this season into a Christmas countdown. We may end the season with the Blessed Virgin Mary, but the first Sunday demands we pay attention to Christ’s advent in the eschatological sense – he is the coming King and Judge, and the corruption of this world trembles at his approach. If I might be a bit melodramatic, we’re on our way to Megiddo instead of Bethlehem. This will continue for the next two weeks when we get to John the Baptist and hear his warnings of “wrath to come” and chaff burned “with unquenchable fire.”
While modern Advent devotions focus on hope, peace, joy, and love, the first week is a good reminder that the older themes are the four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven.
Appropriately, we spend our first week (“Death”) reading from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, a church worried about the end of the world. What would happen to those who died before Christ returned in glory? (Though I dare say the appointed reading misses the opportunity to embrace that theme.) John Rollefson has a less critical take of the pericope: “the passage underlines the joyful character that is to mark this interim period of waiting on the fulfillment of [Christ’s] promise.” Which, ok, fair. But given the nature of the other two texts and Paul’s own emphasis on “those who have fallen asleep in the Lord” in 4:13-18, the appointed reading seems ever so slightly…off.
The Jeremiah lection tells of “a righteous Branch” which shall “spring up for David” – echoing Isaiah 11’s
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
To my mind, this brings forth images of new growth after forest fires – Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains seem the obvious choices. (See more on this below.)
Jeremiah – and much more so Isaiah – raise questions for interpreters regarding the nature of prophecy. Do we interpret Jeremiah’s words as about an event in Jeremiah’s near future – a restored Davidic kingdom – or his far future – a coming Messiah? For a more robust conversation on this than I can offer, see Joel Baden and Tisa Wenger’s conversation on the Chapter, Verse, and Season podcast from Yale Bible Study. For my part, I find it important to know how the original audience heard Jeremiah’s words but I don’t think an original meaning necessarily precludes a distinctly messianic interpretation. It’s possible that God’s word to Jeremiah meant more than one thing – just as the Lord has surely delivered the elect more than once. And for those of us in the pulpit, we had better hope there’s more to Jeremiah’s words than an event some 2,500 years ago – otherwise, we’re left doing a book report on the history of an ancient text rather than preaching a living faith in the one who will bring forth new growth from the stumps.
Advent 1 means a new cycle of Gospel readings, and this year we are blessed with St. Luke. One of my favorite things about the Revised Common Lectionary is something I just learned this year. In Years B and C, the Advent 1 Gospel comes just verses after the Gospel for the penultimate Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Advent 1B: Mark 13:24-37
Proper 28B: Mark 13:1-8
Advent 1C: Luke 21:25-26
Proper 28C: Luke 21:5-19
(Year A functions a bit differently because of how Matthew’s Gospel is incorporated into Christ the King; Year B cuts to St. John’s Passion narrative, and Year C cuts to St. Luke’s depiction of the Crucifixion, but Year A lets Matthew keep going in the apocalyptic discourse. I confess I’m frustrated by the inconsistency here – it’s like the RCL almost does something really cool, placing the Passion of our Lord as the summit of apocalyptic imagery, but then can’t commit to doing it all three years. As always, two cheers for the lectionary.)
Like a lot of apocalyptic literature, St. Luke’s language is good news that sounds like bad news: “distress among the nations,” people fainting “from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the earth” as “heaven and earth will pass away.” But as everything else fades, “my word will not pass away.” These frightening signs mean that our “redemption is drawing near.” The response is not to cower in fear, clinging to what will soon perish but to “stand up and raise your heads.” As Gregory the Great says, “Do not love what you see cannot long exist.”
Pope Gregory’s sermon can be challenging. He sounds a lot like John Piper, calling a tornado a “gentle but firm warning.” This is the trouble of preaching apocalyptic passages. But the other path is to say
God was never angry….
God’s not disappointed.
God’s not keeping score and
God’s not judging my mistakes.
On the one hand, John Piper directs God’s wrath at the individual and denies that nature itself is fallen. On the other, CCM band The Outer Banks denies God’s justice – as though God is not angered by injustice and oppression nor could God the Righteous Judge settle the score on behalf of the oppressed. Christ’s message in Luke is that there are perils, but they are signs, not judgment itself. G. Kevin Baker writes:
Don’t stop reading there…. Redemption, not your destruction….That is what makes the real difference between reading the signs and reading the Gospel. Those who read the Gospel know the real deal. We know what it is that is really coming; what is really around the corner; what is lying at the end of salvation history.
The fallen cosmos will pass away – but God’s word will endure as a righteous branch rising up.
Post-Script: It occurs to me that as Christ says “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars…,” we should not neglect the connection to Bethlehem. Just as Christ’s birth was heralded by the sign of a star calling Magi from the east to greet the King of Kings, so the King’s return will be heralded by cosmic signs. Granted, this connection requires the preacher to jump between the Nativity in St. Matthew and eschatological sayings in St. Luke, but the connection is there.
I am always tempted to use a “This Isn’t Christmas” sermon style for Advent, juxtaposing the cheerful decorations and music all around us and the dreary tone of our readings. If I do that this year, I might use Scrooge’s words to Jacob Marley: “Speak comfort to me,” and the later exchange:
“I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate….You will be haunted by Three Spirits.”
Scrooge’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.
Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded in a faltering voice.
“I — I think I’d rather not, said Scrooge.
Yes, yes, I know this approach is kitschy, but Scrooge’s exchange with the ghost of his dead business partner really does encapsulate the sense of dreadfully good news.
As mentioned above, the Jeremiah passage also opens up the opportunity to discuss new growth after a forest fire – a metaphor I’m avoiding this year because I’ve used it a little too frequently during both Advent and Easter in years past. This year, that imagery can be revisited during Advent 3 when John the Baptist warns of unquenchable fire.
Likewise, the preacher can tie in forests that have grown back after being clear-cut for logging. The Elkmont section of the Great Smoky Mountains is a great example of this – once cut down by timber companies, the mountains rebounded. Hikers can now visit the crumbling ruins of company towns surrounded by verdant woods.
I’m still not sure what, if any, illustrations I’ll use – sometimes, sticking close to the world of the text is enough.
Post-Script: Signs might prove a fruitful avenue to probe. As of Saturday morning (a late start, I know), I’m leaning towards using Christ’s words about signs, specificially in the stars. For those who have experience in farming or gardening, seasonal signs about planting might be a useful path into the sermon.
Who I’m Reading to Think Through This Week: