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Sunday, November 27, 2022
First Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year A
Preachers familiar with the Lectionary will not be taken off guard that the very first Gospel reading to begin the church’s year is a potentially anxiety-inducing warning of the end. The Preacher is advised to lean into that shock and awe, and not ameliorate it to the images of babies in mangers already creeping into parishioners’ heads as the Christmas decorations have already gone up at the department stores. Christ’s words jolt us out of holiday complacency. The Christ Child we picture as a sweet cherub and frame with sugarplums and garlands will come at the end of all things to judge the living and the dead!
The preacher might focus on “coming” in verse 37, parousia, literally “presence,” an ordinary Greek word used for a visit by a political authority, but which the church adopted as a label for intervention by Christ in the course of history. This special sense of “coming” can be used as a single word to describe the visit of the King of Kings that we ought to use for Advent, but also to expect: At the end of the world when he will judge the living and the dead as glimpsed in our first reading, but also in the course of our own lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what Paul speaks to us about in the second lesson. Truly every moment of our entire lives is lived in the anticipation of the advent of our Lord both now and in the age to come.
Sunday, December 4, 2022
Second Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year A
The Old Testament prophets were often commanded by God to do symbolic actions to amplify their verbal message (cf. Ezek. 4, 24). John the Baptist’s entire life is a “speech-act” that heralds Jesus’ life. John’s ministry mimics the Lord’s: He leads a popular movement outside of the religious establishment, preaching repentance, claiming direct authority from God, and executed reluctantly by the rulers. Even the bodies of both men were taken by their disciples after death. In verse 4, John cuts an Elijah-like figure (cf. 2 Kings 1:8), an impression Jesus reaffirms in next week’s Gospel.
The Gospel of Matthew is uniquely focused on the continuity of Jesus with the Old Testament scriptures, and John’s special place in this Gospel’s panoply of types and allusions is as the hinge between Old Testament prophetic tradition and Jesus’ ministry. John, the Old Testament prophet, whose message points the people forward to the one who is “mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” John’s baptism is a pledge of repentance, Jesus’ comes with supernatural gifts. Like the prophets before him, John heralds a coming judgment, and Jesus will execute it.
John the Baptist’s Christ-shaped life is also our vocation as Christians. John reflects Jesus from the B.C. side of history, we do the same from the anno Domini. In this, modern Christians have every advantage, empowered by the Spirit and intimate with Christ. This does not mean all true believers must launch a prophetic ministry in hopes of martyrdom. The Christ-shaped life is not a matter of career planning. Rather, our own lives will take on Christ’s shape when we follow John’s advice to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” The believer who does this daily, repenting of sins, and looking for opportunities to exercise the fruits of the Spirit, will find that her life has indeed come to bear Christ’s image.
Sunday, December 11, 2022
Third Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year A
There are a few puzzling phrases in this week’s Gospel, perennially debated by interpreters. The occasion for John’s disciples request for clarification of Jesus’ mission is nowadays taken to mean that the Baptist himself was puzzled or disheartened while in prison, often leading to homiletical reflections on how even the strongest believers sometimes find themselves in doubt. (More likely, the bemusement came from John’s disciples, with their master electing to put them in direct contact with Jesus himself).
Verse 7 sees a tantalizing allusion to the reed symbol found on Herodian coinage of the time, sparking preachers to harp on a favorite theme of Jesus’ superiority to political authority and God’s operation on the margins of imperial power. Still more argued over is Jesus’ meaning of “the Kingdom of Heaven subjected to violence and the violent take it by force” of verse 12. This is probably a positive comment on how sinners came rushing to John’s message of repentance, bypassing all of the proper religious channels.
A more foundational sermon will focus on verses 11-15 and replace the Psalm with the Magnificat in Luke. Choosing this will cause the readings to resemble the great Deisis icon, used in the Eastern traditions since late antiquity, which sees Mary and John the Baptist flanking Jesus, gesturing toward him.
The message of the image is verse 13, which may also be the main idea of the sermon: That the spoken Word of God of the Prophets is passed through John to its perfection, the Incarnate Word born of Mary. The sermon can be an opportunity to instruct the congregation on the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. The Gospel’s pride of place in liturgical services sometimes scandalizes believers who, rightly, consider all Scripture to be “God-breathed and profitable for teaching.” It may seem stranger still that the peak of the liturgy’s crescendo comes after the ministry of the word at Holy Communion. God’s Word written in the scriptures is perfected by God’s Word Incarnate: Jesus himself. Therefore, all Scripture finds its proper place by pointing to him.
This theme was especially important to the Jewish audience of Matthew’s Gospel. The Law came directly from God and the Jewish peoples’ fidelity to it defined them as a people. Then as now, honest devotion to Yahweh was nagged by the temptation to reduce God himself to the script. Modern believers, tempted in the same way toward a bare textualism in their worship, will benefit from the same reminder: That Christ is not a literary construct or on vacation in heaven, but immanent to his church by the Holy Spirit, who communes with them in a special way by way of the sacraments. All words point to the Word made flesh for us.
Sunday, December 18, 2022
Fourth Sunday of Advent—Advent, Year A
On the last Sunday before the Nativity, it is essential to focus on the mystery of the incarnation. Matthew’s Gospel sheds light on two things: Jesus’s Davidic title through the lineage of Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father (v. 20; also the preceding genealogy is three sets of 14 generations, the numerological symbol of David), and his divine authority of God his true father evidenced by the Virgin Birth. Jesus then is Lord of both heaven and earth. Jesus declares this dual kingship explicitly at the end of the Gospel: “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” ( Matt. 28:18).
As the gauzy haze of the holidays closes in, the congregation may be exhorted to recognize that the Christ Child is not only Lord of Heaven (which is, in our secular age, a safely far-off “spiritual” idea) but his authority is over our earthly lives as well. His words, law, and church therefore, have authority over how and toward which ends we live our lives. This will prepare the congregation to receive his words in Matthew’s Gospel as news and command, rather than inspirational quotes and the off-chance of an afterlife. Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth both now on earth, and forever in heaven.