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Sunday, December 3, 2023
First Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year B
The church always begins her year looking forward to the Second Coming of Christ. Advent is not a dramatic reenactment where the church pretends to wait for Baby Jesus to come visit us. It is an opportunity to actively anticipate Christ’s second coming at the end of time. Sermons from the Gospel reading should center on Jesus’ advice to be ready for the Day of the Lord to come very quickly, and exhort the congregation to exercise a vigilant, hopeful anticipation for that day.
It is also worth stressing that, for Christians, the Day of the Lord is now! Jesus arrives in our lives through the empowerment and conviction of the Holy Spirit, so do not wait until the end of the world to respond to his presence and promptings. Parallels may be drawn to Isaiah’s prayer, especially his fearsome description of the Lord acting with finality from on high, and his affirmation that the Lord is on the side of those who wait faithfully for him. Verses 7-8, in the 1 Corinthians reading, also reinforce the theme of hopeful and vigilant preparation to receive the Lord when he comes, noting that the source of such faith is in the grace of God, not human power.
Sunday, December 10, 2023
Second Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year B
Advent is a time where John the Baptist’s voice is heard most clearly. We do not need to look farther than him for an example of what it means to serve the Lord in vigilant anticipation.
In the Gospel reading, John fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the messenger who goes ahead to prepare the Lord’s way. How does he do this? Both the Gospel’s quotation and the text of the first reading tell us: It means making rough places smooth, filling valleys, and razing hills to make a level place. Verse 9 in the Isaiah reading speaks of the glorious and hope-filled message of the Day of the Lord from “up on a high mountain.” And so the Messenger’s job is to level any other high and prideful place that would interfere with the signal of God’s broadcast, to lift up those in low places so that they can hear the message clearly, and to straighten the winding paths of fruitless and vain pursuits that distract from attending to the Lord’s words and his presence.
Preachers may want to align John the Baptist’s vocation with that of the Christians to whom they speak. It is the job of all Christians to be messengers like John: To clear the floor so that they and those around them can hear clearly God’s promises and act accordingly.
2 Peter reminds us not to expect God’s timing in making good on these promises to line up with ours. What appears to us to be slowness (verse 9) or frightful suddenness (verse 10) results from our limited perspective. The only proper response is diligence, cultivating lives of purity, peace, and blamelessness (verse 14).
Sunday, December 17, 2023
Third Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year B
John the Baptist’s testimony about himself contrasts with his testimony about the Christ who is coming. It is a good opportunity to bring forward the joyful humility the Christian life brings.
It is too common today to think of the Christian’s imitation of Christ as an amplification of the self. “Jesus wants you living your best, brightest life now!” seems to be the message. But John’s confession is the opposite: A joyful renunciation of his own authority. He is not the Christ, nor does he claim the mantle of Elijah, nor the Prophet spoken of from of old. He is, instead, merely a voice that speaks of Jesus. He baptizes with water only, prefiguring the baptism of the Holy Spirit. He is not even worthy to adjust the Master’s footwear! He is not the light confirmed by his later affirmation in John 3:30 that he must decrease as Christ ascends.
Preachers may attend to the 1 Thessalonians reading to describe the content of John’s (and our) disposition toward Christ. If we empty ourselves like John, it is to make room for his infilling which produces a life attuned and alert: rejoicing, vibrant in prayer, careful in discernment, quick to give thanks, and shielded from sin.
Sunday, December 24, 2023
Fourth Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year B
The Old Testament and the Gospel, on this final Sunday before the Nativity, bear a striking contrast: God chooses a surprising and unexpected dwelling place! God refuses David’s offer to bless him with a splendid temple and chooses instead a Virgin’s womb. This contrast is fruitful ground to explore several important themes and charges. That humble and small beginnings are chosen by God in order to display his power, that luxury and power are man-made and mean nothing next to God’s might, and that God loves to lift up the poor.
The preacher should not fail to miss the Lectionary’s focus on Mary as God’s choice of temple, the means by which he accomplishes his promises to David. The Romans reading affirms that the promise to establish David extends to all Christians through the gospel.
The implications are dizzying, but the preacher may be anchored by the option to replace the Psalm with the Magnificat. Mary herself shows the best response to God’s grand and mysterious plan—joyful and total submission to God and his will.
Sunday, December 24, 2023
Nativity of the Lord - Proper I Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B
At Christmas Eve, the preacher must be vigilant not to ease into a comforting exposition of the well-known Christmas story. As the last Christian feast our society bends around, the temptation will be to preside over the palpable sensations of hearth and home like the merry Spirit of Christmas Present. But the feast is too foundational, the Scriptures too portentous, to cover over with gauzy sentiment.
It is probably a good idea to let the Isaiah passage lead the themes and exhortations, because it gives meaning to Luke’s moment. The Lectionary gives us no room to shy away from the Christological target of the millennia-old prophecy. It is about the gladsome arrival of Jesus Christ, the promised child, surely more (and more wonderful) than anyone bargained for. The new birth is the realized hope of Israel and a light to the nations. The congregation would be well exhorted to imitate Mary as they go home to their dinners, presents, and families—to treasure these things quietly in the midst of the hubbub, that their faith may not burn off with the moment, but be confirmed by prayerful contemplation.
Sunday, December 24, 2023
Nativity of the Lord - Proper II Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B
In this first of the two Christmas day services (traditionally at dawn), the Gospel reading from Christmas Eve is (largely) repeated, however a new Isaiah reading takes center stage. God’s vow to restore Jerusalem ends with an encouragement that the “Daughter of Zion” recognize her salvation is arriving. The preacher should not be timid to draw the Marian parallel here since she is a type of the church. Salvation is indeed “with her,” literally to be found inside of her, and from her womb springs the firstborn of a redeemed, holy people. Titus spells out the terms of that salvation hinted at in the Isaiah passage: Entrance through the baptismal waters of new birth in the Spirit, justification by Christ, one great movement leading to the hope of eternal life.
Sunday, December 24, 2023
Nativity of the Lord - Proper III Christmas Eve & Day—Christmas, Year B
The principle text for the feast of Christmas is undoubtedly John 1. Each of the Gospels, in the sequence in which they were written, begin Jesus’ story earlier than the last. Mark begins at Jesus’s baptism, Luke at the Nativity, Matthew’s genealogy extends back to Adam himself. John, astoundingly, begins before all beginnings.
From this dizzying vantage point before and above all creation, the preacher may feel vertigo, since there is literally nothing in all the universe that is irrelevant to this text, and therefore an infinite number of possible themes to be explored, so it will helpful to follow the text of the Gospel itself to properly relate these cosmic mysteries to the church to whom they have been revealed.
John 1:14 grounds the mystery of the eternally begotten logos and the incarnation, not in an appeal to philosophical categories, but in concrete experience. “We saw his glory” (NASB) ought to be taken straightforwardly as an eyewitness report, not some sense of spiritual or intellectual “seeing.” Though Christ is above and before all things, the main message here is that he was directly experienced, and may still be today through his Holy Spirit and in prayer.
Ordinary human contact with the divine is what our faith is built upon, not clever philosophical ideas. Hebrews drives this point home, declaring that Jesus is the “perfect imprint” of the Father. The un-seeable God is made perceptible, which brings theology into simplicity, eternity into time.
Preachers ought to craft their messages with this “downward” movement in mind, not staying in the clouds of cosmic mystery, but proclaiming the gospel that the highest God has made himself fully knowable to limited beings, even little children. Our sermons ought to be just as knowable!