Why bother with Advent? Paul Santmire reflects on the start of the Advent season and offers a sermon example.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Paul Santmire in 2016)
Readings for the First Sunday in Advent, Year A (2016, 2019, 2022)
The season of Advent in North America is all-too often swallowed up by the so-called “Christmas spirit.” Pastors know well the pressures from congregational members to sing Christmas hymns as soon as possible. Never mind the fact that Christmas decorations already have been up for sale in Home Depot since the end of August. Why bother with Advent?
Most pastors also know well that the biblical meanings of Christmas only make sense when they’re interpreted in terms of the rich texts of Advent. Christmas, biblically interpreted, is countercultural. The countercultural pilgrimage of Advent prepares the way for such understandings. It’s not enough, in other words, for the people of faith to realize that “Jesus is the reason for the Season” of Christmas. They need to understand that the biblical Jesus stands over against every human season, both in judgment and in promise. Advent, rightly preached and enacted, will help the faithful claim that understanding as their own.
Karl Barth was wont to talk about “the strange new world of the Bible.” What if the presiding pastor were to say, in introducing the themes of Advent: “You’re not going to ‘get’ our Advent texts, at least not the way you might want to. I sometimes have trouble understanding them myself. Listen to them as if they were beamed here from some hitherto totally unknown planet in some strange language. Advent texts refer to difficult ideas, like ‘the end of the world,’ which some Christians think they know all about, but which in fact are obscure to the point of being unintelligible. On the other hand, what if the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is urgently concerned to speak to you through these very texts?”
Isaiah 2:1-5 is a kind of free-floating text, only loosely related to its context. Likewise for Micah 4:1-3, which is roughly identical with the text from Isaiah. The words we have in Isaiah appear to reflect a kind of communal affirmation of faith, analogous, in Christian practice, to use of the Apostles Creed. Why did that prophetic text have that kind of traditional place of honor in the memories and celebrations of the ancient People of God? Its countercultural witness to a coming world of universal peace seems to be almost too much to believe in a world of constant warfare, with which the ancient People of God were well-acquainted.
Psalm 122 picks up many of the same themes of universal peace, flowing from Jerusalem. Note the play of words with the name of the city, shalom or “peace.” In terms of the history of religions, moreover, the city of Jerusalem for the Hebrew mind is a kind of umbilical center of the cosmos, the place where heaven and earth, the Divine and the mundane worlds are joined with unique intensity.
Romans 13:11-14 discloses the eschatological mind-set that permeates the faith of the Apostle Paul, a mindset that is sometimes forgotten as interpreters, especially Lutherans, focus on the Pauline theme of justification by faith (Romans 1:17). But for Paul, the two are inseparable. The Pauline vision comprehends the whole history of God with the creation, not just the pro me of justifying faith.
Matthew 24:36-44 may be the single most difficult biblical text to preach on in North America today. Countless millions – including many members of mainline churches – have read the many popular novels in the Left Behind series, the idea being that the day is at hand when a few believers will be “raptured” up to heaven by God, saving them from the total destruction that God is allegedly about to wreak on the whole world. For New Testament faith, on the contrary, the heavenly Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth (Rev. 21:2), leading to a new heavens and a new earth. Jesus’ language here is figurative throughout, not literal. It’s intended to shock the hearer into a new way of hearing and understanding (cf. “Keep awake”), akin to his puzzling reference to a camel going through the eye of a needle. (Luke 18:22-25)
Sample Sermon: Let it Dawn on You Today
Text: “…It is the hour for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” (Romans 13:11-13)
St. Paul’s words to the early Christian Church at Rome strike me with a certain terror. Because I’m a night person.
Are you a morning person? Or are you a night person? If you’re a morning person, let me tell you what it’s like to be a night person. It’ll be good for your spiritual health. If you’re a night person, like me, then I imagine you’ll be glad to empathize with me, every step of the way.
First, and you morning people may find this difficult to believe, it take a lot of energy to wake up.
My wife’s a morning person. It took her many years into our marriage to realize that it didn’t make any sense for her to say anything of significance to me first thing in the morning. You know, she pops right up, and starts talking to me about my “honey-do” list. And I respond obediently, “uh-huh, uh-huh.” Two hours later she discovers that I don’t have a bird of an idea what she said to me.
Sin is like that. It takes a lot of spiritual energy to wake up. So you’re a smoker. You know that smoking’s a kind of suicidal behavior. You know that the Lord doesn’t want you to kill yourself. You’re going to stop sometime, you know. But it never really dawns on you that now’s the time to wake up.
So you’re a cheater, at times. Maybe it’s on your exams at school. Maybe it’s cutting corners at work. Maybe it’s on your spouse, real or imagined. Maybe it’s on your income tax, hugely or just in detail here or there. You fill in the blank.
Mostly you don’t get caught. But the whole thing troubles you. What’s more, you know that once you get into the habit of cheating one thing can lead to another. And that could be catastrophic for you or for others. If you’re a surgeon, the sleep you cheat on at night could lead you to amputate the wrong leg the next day or to fall asleep at the wheel on a high speed family outing.
Then there’s voting, in particular, and political action, more generally. If press reports are to be believed, a majority of the U.S. electorate is now disgusted by the tenor and even the substance of our recent elections. You may well be tempted to throw in the towel of politics, as if nothing political matters any more. But the truth of the matter is that everything political matters today, perhaps more than ever. What about the biblical vision of a just peace for all peoples and indeed for the whole creation?! You heard it again in our readings today. But if many Christians let themselves go groggy or even fall asleep on the political superhighways of our society, what’s to become of the promise of peace on earth, good will to all?
That’s why we night people need alarms. Sometimes I set two alarms, one on the bed table, one across the room. Because I don’t trust myself. I’m likely to turn off the alarm next to me, roll over, and go back to sleep. Now as a bona fide night person, I hate those alarm clocks. But all the more so, I know how much I need them.
Did you ever think that God is setting off dozens of alarms all around you?
Everybody these days is “in” to spirituality. Go to your local big box book store and you’ll find dozens and dozens of books on spirituality. So you stand there, like a deer at night staring at the headlights, wondering how you can possibly read enough of those books to be the kind of spiritual person you want to be.
In the meantime, God is setting off alarms all over the place. Your physician tells you that you’d better quit smoking or you’re going to have a heart attack by the time you’re fifty. Your teacher at school quietly takes you aside and tells you that moral integrity is more important than straight A’s, so you might consider writing your own papers and not getting them on line. Your secretary tells you that she’s leaving, because the environment you wink at in your office is so abusive that she can’t take it anymore. Then your pastor tells you that, notwithstanding all the toxicity of the last election, Jesus calls you to get back into the political struggle in behalf of the poor and the oppressed and indeed the whole Earth, that Jesus wants you to plunge in, not drop out.
Some people wonder where God is in their lives. If that’s you, you could start by listening to all the alarms that’re going off all around you, every day. “It is the hour for you to awake from sleep,” says Paul.
But I can assure you. There is hope, even for bona fide night people like me.
Let me tell you what characteristically happens to me on Sunday mornings. Both my alarms go off. During the dark winter mornings that we have in Advent, I stumble around in the twilight to get ready. I rummage through the paper to see what happened the day before. I say a quick prayer. I gulp down some coffee. And off I go.
Now and again, it happens. I’m driving along West Market Street heading downtown, in the dawn twilight. And then I happen to see the first rays of the sun. On occasion, this is my vision. At the top of the last hill down into the city, I look across the way and I see the sun coming up, right behind this church! What a marvelous sight!
Did it ever dawn on you? Did it ever dawn on you that if you were at the right place, at the right time, you could see that this world of sin and death and disappointment and political toxicity is in fact God’s world, where God’s struggling to overcome all the darkness? Did it ever dawn on you that this commonplace society of sinners here on Sunday mornings who are struggling to believe in the midst of the darkness of this world: that here’s a reliable place for you to see the Light of God?
That’s the way it’s been for me all my life. However much I’ve stumbled around in the darkness, the Light of Christ has already been there for me, beginning with the mysteries and the ministries of the Church of Christ. That doesn’t mean that the darkness is going to go away. That means that you have seen the Light, baby. Actually, in the person of a baby. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself – because this is Advent, when what I need to be working on first and foremost is waking up, not figuring out how to hold an infant in my arms.
Let me tell you a story. Happens to be a true story.
When I first started preaching and teaching about God’s love for the whole creation, not just humans, I felt very much alone. In those days, back in the early nineteen-sixties, most of the Church’s preachers and teachers had other axes to grind. Only a very few, like the great Lutheran theologian of nature, Joseph Sittler, even cared about such things. Meanwhile, a few of us were indeed convinced that God so loved the world that God gave the Beloved, God’s only Son, so that the world might be saved through Him.
Similar developments were unfolding in a number of Christian churches. By now the spiritual vision of God loving the whole world – every creature! – has taken over the hearts and minds of Christians throughout the world. Pope Francis’ justly celebrated encyclical Laudato Si’, is the most visible of these developments, but only one among many.
In Lutheran circles, a growing grassroots ecojustice network, Lutherans Restoring Creation, is being used by God to transform Lutheran minds and hearts throughout our church. A new generation of Lutheran theologians, too, dedicated to Earth ministry and to the poor of the Earth, is now calling on our congregations to participate in a new Eco-Reformation – the title of their recently published theological manifesto, which will hopefully inspire new conversations and new commitments in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
Once upon a time, when I was working through my days of depressed theological slumber about these theology and ecology matters, I never could have anticipated what has happened in our churches in the current generation. But now it’s dawned on me! God has not forsaken his churches! I just had to wake up and see! I also had to wait – but that’s another Advent theme for another day.
It’s not easy being a night person, as I say. Sometime it takes a long time to wake up and see the light! But I can tell you, on the basis of my own experience, that sometimes, when you do get around to waking up, after you’ve heard the alarms, the experience of the dawning Light can be remarkable, even overwhelming, right in the midst of the darkness of this world of sin and death.
Hear this Word of the Lord, therefore. Let it dawn on you this day: “…It is the hour for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, the night is advanced, the day is at hand.” Amen.