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Recovering the Wonder of Christmas

Four pathways for preaching during Advent.

Recovering the Wonder of Christmas

In my childhood, one of the greatest moments of anticipation was Christmas. I couldn’t wait for the chance to decorate, eat Christmas cookies, and, of course, open presents on Christmas Day. Every Christmas Eve I struggled to go to bed, and was usually the first one up to see what was waiting under the tree. The anticipation and wonder were like adrenaline coursing through my body.

As we grow older, most of us lose some of our wonder. The novelty of Christmas starts to wear off, at least a little bit. Along with that, our anticipation gets trampled down under the weight of responsibilities, the rush of preparations, and, at times, the heaviness that comes on those of us for whom the holidays bring sadness.

There is a remedy for lost wonder and trampled anticipation. That remedy is not getting more expensive presents, having flashier decorations, or inviting the right people to our parties. The remedy is stepping back enough to realize what we have lost it, and then going through a journey of recovery. Like a relationship that has lost its spark or a hobby that has lost our interest, we need to take time and effort to see what’s right in front of us with fresh eyes.

The church has a recovery program of sorts for lost wonder and trampled anticipation leading toward Christmas. That recovery program is called Advent, which means "appearing," coming from the Latin word adventus. Advent looks back with wonder at Jesus’ birth over two-thousand years ago, while also looking forward with anticipation to his future return at the end of human history.

As preachers, we have a unique opportunity to help our congregations enter into that recovery of anticipation and wonder. My hope in this article is to offer four pathways for preaching in Advent so that our congregations both taste the longing that leads us to cry out, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and savor the joy that sings, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

Enter into Waiting and Anticipation

One of the most meaningful approaches to Advent is to help our congregations enter into waiting and anticipation. A typical way to do this would be to select Messianic prophecies found throughout the Scripture, such as in Isaiah, and preach them Christologically. This will always be instructive and powerful for a local congregation. However, the season of Advent has a dual anticipation, both for the humble incarnational arrival of Christ two-thousand years ago and the glorious returning of Christ in the future.[1] Most Advent preaching tends to focus on the first of those themes of anticipation. But what if we did something slightly different?

Almost ten years ago, our church slowly walked through the Gospel of Mark over the course of nine months. For preaching purposes, we divided the Gospel into five mini-series that together took us through the entire Gospel.

During Advent, instead of looking at the infancy narratives as one might expect, we focused on key identity markers highlighting how Jesus was the messianic king of promise and the king who would return in the future. This series, entitled “King Coming,” began with one of Jesus’ most penetrating questions: “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” (Mark 8:29).

In this Advent series we traced the major transition between the first and second halves of Mark’s Gospel, focusing on Jesus as the coming King who changes everything about human existence. Here is a summary of each week:

-Week 1: “Who Do You Say I Am?” – A message from Mark 8:27-30, built around that basic question of Jesus.

-Week 2: “Glimpses of Glory” – A message from Mark 9:2-13, exploring the significance of the Transfiguration of Jesus in light of Jesus’ present and future kingship.

-Week 3: “Dying to Live” – This message pulled together Jesus’ three declarations of his impending death in Jerusalem (Mark 8:31-33; 9:30-32; 10:32-34) as critical to our understanding what kind of king Jesus is and will be.

-Week 4: “King Coming” – A final message before Christmas on Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-11), with attention to the new sort of kingdom Jesus is bringing as a new sort of king.

I enjoyed approaching Advent in this way because it forced me and the congregation to look at texts and themes that we do not often associate with Advent. Admittedly, there were times that felt discordant, such as preaching a passage typically associated with “Palm Sunday” during the final week of Advent. Overall, however, the congregation seemed to grasp how both the typical Advent emphasis on Israel’s longing for Messiah and the contemporary church’s longing for Messiah’s return complement one another.

As preachers, there are plenty of other ways to bring this dual emphasis on waiting and anticipation to bear. We could preach from New Testament Epistles, such as 1 Corinthians 15 or 1 Thessalonians 4, that speak to the parousia. We could preach through sections of Revelation, perhaps some of the heavenly songs or visions of judgment which, depending on one’s approach to that book, tap into anticipatory longing for Christ’s return and thanksgiving for the incarnation. Along with this, there are many Gospel texts other than those I outlined in the series above that bring into focus the longing for Messiah then and now.

Enter into the Lives of Biblical Characters that Parallel or Prefigure Jesus

Throughout the Old Testament, many characters appear as types of the Messiah. Advent provides a meaningful opportunity to enter into the lives of biblical figures who parallel or prefigure Jesus the Christ.

Five years ago, I led our church through an extended exploration of the story of Moses, the Exodus, and the journey to the Promised Land as a way of understanding the good news of Jesus Christ more fully. In working out the preaching schedule, I planned a series in Advent beginning with Moses’ call at the burning bush, through his return to Egypt in obedience to that call, and concluding with the Exodus itself. God sent Moses to Egypt as a deliverer for the enslaved people of Israel in response to their cry for hope and change in their lives and circumstances. Recognizing that the Israelites’ situation was not that different from the state of the world at Jesus’ birth as the Messiah, we titled the series, “Expecting a Miracle,” as a way to explore how Moses and the Exodus paralleled to Jesus’ arrival.

Here is the outline of this four-week series:

-Week 1: “Is There a God Who Hears Us?” – This message set the tone of the series by connecting the Israelites’ longing for deliverance in Egypt (Exodus 2:23-24; 4:29-31; 5:1) with the longing for Messiah before Jesus’ incarnation and our longing for Jesus’ return at the end of human history.

-Week 2: “When You Face a Mountain” – A message from Exodus 5:1-11:10 on Pharaoh and the Egyptians’ opposition to God’s work through Moses, and how the Israelites struggled to look to God in the midst of that opposition. This connected both with the longing for Messiah Jesus in the incarnation and our longing for God to bring deliverance in our own lives until he returns.

-Week 3: “Wonder-Working God” – This message, also based upon Exodus 5:1-11:10, focused more on God’s power in the plagues and miracles within Egypt as a way to explore the character of God, how that is eventually revealed in Christ, and the longing for ultimate deliverance.

-Week 4: “Set Me Free” – The series concluded with a message from Exodus 12-15 on the joyful freedom of the Exodus, the freedom that God brings for all peoples through Jesus, and how we enter into that freedom as we prepare to celebrate the nativity.

Many congregations enjoy walking through biographical studies of characters from Scripture. However, preaching the connections between the Exodus with Moses and the good news of salvation in Jesus proved to be a little challenging, yet very powerful. Because we skipped around quite a bit in this series, it required a lot of background work and summarizing large sections of the Book of Exodus.

There were positives and negatives to this, but linking this series with Advent required being selective over the course of four weeks. Despite this, the congregation entered into the story and connections more fully as I related our own individual desires for freedom with the desires of the Israelites in Egyptian bondage and the people waiting for Messiah in Jesus’ day.

As a preacher, there are many typological approaches to preaching Christ.[2] We always must be cautious of letting our imagination get away with us here by rigorously letting the text lead us in this type of preaching. With that said, however, walking through the life of Abraham or David would work relatively easily during Advent. Approaching some of the prophets biographically as Christ figures, whether Elijah, Elisha, Hosea, or Jeremiah, would also provide meaningful Advent parallels that point to Christ.

Enter into the Longings of the Human Heart

The strong drive to draw our sermons from the biblical text should not hinder us from framing the sermon series directly from the desires and questions of the human heart and mind. Not too long ago, one of our Advent series intentionally took this approach. Titling the series, “All I Want for Christmas,” we acknowledged that the season of Advent to Christmas is a time when many of us draw up simple lists of gift ideas, writing down what we hope to receive. Beyond lists of gifts, the holidays highlight deeper hopes and desires we have for our own lives and the world.

Knowing that Advent is a time of anticipation and expectation leading up to the Messiah’s arrival, we tapped into some of these deeper hopes and desires, connecting them with the words of the biblical prophets, particularly the prophet Isaiah. This opened pathways for preaching on the season of Advent as both engaging our longings and sometimes challenging our longings prophetically.

-Week 1: “All I Want Is for God to Show Up” – The first message explored Isaiah 64:1-9 with Paul’s mention in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 as a way to connect with our desire for God to show up and bring ultimate healing and deliverance in the midst of difficult circumstances.

-Week 2: “All I Want Is Some Good News” – Building upon the well-known words of comforts in Isaiah 40:1-11 and its parallels in the Gospels (Matthew 3:1-12; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-20), we looked at how God’s promise of comfort arriving and light breaking into a dark world is fulfilled in Jesus at his incarnation and even now in our lives.

-Week 3: “All I Want Is a New Beginning” – Isaiah’s words in 61:1-11 and Jesus’ declaration that these words are fulfilled in him (Luke 4:14-30) serve as a hopeful look at restoration promised and fulfilled for our world and our individual lives

-Week 4: “All I Want Is Someone to Believe In” – Turning to the Messianic promise in 2 Samuel 7:1-16 and its New Testament echoes (Matthew 21:9; 22:42; Luke 1:32; John 7:42; Acts 2:30), we connected the promise of the prophet Nathan with our longing for a just and righteous ruler fulfilled in the arrival of Jesus

Who hasn’t wanted to see God show up, to find some good news, encounter a new beginning, or find someone to believe in? Who hasn’t longed for that at a personal level and who hasn’t looked for it in our families, communities, or nations? We brought in illustrations and service elements that touched on the real longings of the human heart, and I believe that opened the congregation to finding the encounter with the Word more powerful. As one preacher said, “we not only have to exegete the biblical text, but we also have to exegete the hearts of our people.”[3] This emphasis on connecting the longings of our human hearts with Scripture was meaningful for our church.

As other preachers consider this approach of entering into the human longings at Advent, they will certainly find that the longings we identified for our series are only some of the many options. In fact, it is helpful for preachers to pay attention to how certain seasons in a nation or challenges facing their particular context might open wide other types of longing. A helpful exercise in this for the preacher or preaching team is to brainstorm around the question: “What are people most longing for right now within our city or our church?” Moving from this starting point, prayerful reflection and discussion will yield any number of Advent-based sermon series that connect with the longings of a local congregation or community.

Enter into the Messianic Psalms

Another approach to the season of Advent is to take the psalms as a means for encounter with the Messiah. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Prayerbook of the Bible, writes: “If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ.”[4]

With this idea in mind, I developed a series entitled “Songs of the Savior: Psalms for Advent.” As prayer-songs, the psalms gather up the wide-ranging experiences and emotions of humanity at prayer with God. All through these prayers are clues to God’s plan to bring lasting hope and new beginnings through a promised Messiah. As we both remembered Christ’s nativity and anticipate his return in Advent, we looked at four psalms that are songs of the Messiah:

-Week 1: “The Beloved Anointed of God” – Psalm 2 with echoes in the New Testament (4:25, 26; 13:33; Hebrews 1:5; 5:5, Revelation 2:26, 27; 12:5; 19:15).

-Week 2: “The Suffering Messiah” – Psalm 22 with additional reference to Psalms 69, 16, and 118, as well as New Testament parallels (Matthew 27:39, 43, 46; Mark 15:24, 29, 34; Luke 23:34, 35; Hebrews 2:12).

-Week 3: “The Eternal Priest” - Psalm 110 with many OT and NT references (Genesis 14:18–20; Psalm 80:1-3; Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42, 43; Acts 2:34, 35; Hebrews 1:13. Compare. Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; 16:19; Luke 22:69; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; 5:6; 6:20; 7:17, 21; 8:1; 10:12, 13; 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22).

-Week 4: “The Perfect King” – Psalm 72 with reference to Luke 1:68.

This series is one I will preach this year, and so I cannot quite speak to how the congregation will respond. Based on past experience, I know that our congregation enjoys the psalms at least as much as I do, so I look forward to trying to connect the psalms as not only our prayers but the prayers of Christ.

As you think about preaching the psalms Christologically at Advent, it may be helpful to search out good guides to doing so. I have benefited from the work of Sidney Greidanus on preaching Christ from various texts and his book Preaching Christ from the Psalms[5] specifically addresses preaching within the seasons of the Christian year. There are many other wonderful resources for such an approach,[6] but we always have to make sure that we are not reading too much into the text than is really there.

Conclusion

Regardless of whether a congregation strictly follows the liturgical calendar or not, Advent is a rich moment for any church to meaningfully enter into the story of God and prepare for worship of Jesus in Christmas. As preachers, we have an almost matchless opportunity in Advent to expound Scripture in ways that deeply impact our congregation and touch our communities. While there are more ways than these mentioned here, hopefully they will inspire creativity in your own work with the Word in your congregation at this important time of year.

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Time (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 50.

[2] See Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: A Contemporary Hermeneutical Method (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999) and Edmund P. Clowney, Preaching Christ in All of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003).

[3] Matt Woodley, in “Preaching to the Heart,” Monday Morning Preacher podcast, episode 8; https://www.preachingtoday.com/media/podcast/preaching-to-heart.html.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and The Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), 157.

[5] Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Psalms: Foundations for Expository Sermons in the Christian Year (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016).

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Preaching from the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018); Walter C. Kaiser, Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003); James L. Mays, Preaching and Teaching the Psalms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006); Patrick Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2000).

Matt Erickson serves as the Senior Pastor of Eastbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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