Like every listener, I bring expectations and assumptions to the preaching I hear, which greatly influence how I respond to sermons.1 So, permit me to lay those out for you, so you know where I am coming from.
Preaching is theocentric or christocentric rather than anthropocentric. God is the star of scripture; we are not.
Jesus is our Savior before Jesus is our teacher, example, role model, or life coach.2
The sermon includes a declaration of good news. This good news is God’s activity independent of us. It is good news for the people receiving it, and, ideally, leaves them experiencing this good news.
Exhortation follows or flows from proclaiming the gospel. The more exhorting preachers feel they must do, the smaller their proclamation of the gospel tends to be.3
Pastors and other publicly recognized religious leaders are increasingly expected to proclaim the importance of the survival of the (currently configured) ecclesial institution. I am concerned that this message subverts our proclamation of Christ as crucified and risen Savior.4
Advent sermons are about more than preparing for Christmas. I expect to hear eschatology.
Sermons Rather than Preachers
Even before I read their sermons, I was grateful to our preachers for offering their sermons for synodical and professorial scrutiny. I want to be clear that I am observing seven sermons, not evaluating seven preachers. I also need to acknowledge that I read manuscripts rather than watching videos or listening to audio files. Technically speaking, I am observing manuscripts rather than sermons. Nevertheless, I found something in every sermon that spoke to and nourished me. In addition to being grateful to these preachers, I have been blessed by them.
After every sermon in my preaching classes, I ask my students, “Did you hear the gospel? What is the good news?” I received the gospel for me personally in these sermons. For example, Erik Christensen declares, “Something new is breaking into the world…. Something new is happening. Not only under the sun, but through the Son. We are becoming a new creation.” In this sermon, the new creation is individual. We come into a new way of being. We become more truly and fully ourselves. We are able to let go of our hostilities and respond to one another with holy love. From what I can tell, the society and global implications of Christ coming into the world — restoring and recreating it, and bringing God’s promised reign of justice and righteousness — are summed up in a subordinate clause.
Jesus is our Savior before Jesus is our teacher, example, role model, or life coach.
Kim Beckmann reminds us that God’s people have been in terrible situations before, and God came though. She proclaims Jeremiah’s promise and its fulfillment, Jesus’ promise and the cross, and God’s promise to us in baptism. I am convinced of God’s promise for me at the hour of my death. Pastor Beckmann also honestly names some of the more immediate concerns that keep us up at night — violence in the Middle East, shootings on Chicago streets, melting polar ice, rising greenhouse gases, and the economic collapse of the eurozone. Inasmuch as these concerns are so close at hand, I long to hear the preacher proclaim how Christ comes to these realities with the same confidence with which she proclaims Christ coming to me in baptism to deliver me from death. I need an eschatology that is a bit more realized.
Melissa Bills answers my query with the unsettling assertion, “when Christ breaks in — and I mean really breaks in — to our existence, every shakable thing will be shaken.” Pastor Bills proclaims, “Out of God’s overflowing love, he promises us hope and life and reconciliation and redemption, even if it means turning the world upside-down to bring us all of those things.” Again, her examples are personal and individual. I wonder how might God be turning the world upside-down.
Jon Dumpys moves beyond the individual, assuring us that, amid distress among nations and the heavens shaking, Jesus’ presence endures: he comes with clouds descending, and his words do not die. Jesus is faithful in the end-time. Jesus holds our future, so we look beyond the apocalypses happening all around us to the visions of God acting in the world. One such vision, I think, is the ELCA AIDS and malaria campaign. I confess that this struck me as an instance of my assumption that preachers must preserve the currently configured institutional church, in this case by plugging a laudable denominational program in which God’s work depends upon our hands. The good news is I find myself looking beyond the apocalypses happening all around us to visions of God acting in the world independent of our hands. Perhaps I need assurance that Christ’s coming doesn’t depend upon us.
Michael Fick promises that the One who is coming will call to himself all things, all our things. In the meantime Christ does not leave us alone. This is good news indeed! Yet, I wish the proclamation were crisper and more explicit, with shorter, God-as-subject, active sentences, and a verb stronger than call. If Pastor Fick honored me by enrolling in a preaching class, I might suggest: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem to gather all things to himself. He lived, died, and rose on this blue-green orb to gather all things to himself. Jesus will come again on the clouds to gather all things — all our things — to himself.” Rather than exhorting, “Prepare for something new to grow in your most barren and desolate place,” proclaim that God’s grace is growing in our most barren and desolate place, whether that be the pain of our lives or the brokenness and injustice of our world. Make God the subject to make clear that God is the actor.
The sermons move effectively from Christmas to Second Coming. Melissa Bills sums up the season well: “Even as we spend the season waiting to hear again the story of Christ’s first entry in the world, we recognize that our entire lives of faith are spent waiting for Christ’s re-entry into the world.” As Erik Christensen notes, the “parousia” — the second coming of Christ — is the “coming” to which Advent points, particularly as imagined in the gospel image of “the Son of Man coming in a cloud.”
The question, of course, is how we speak of Christ’s second coming. The traditional approach is to look to the future with fear. Antonio Cabello reminds me of Advent preaching I heard growing up. Jesus is coming again to judge, not “to give us a second chance or to forgive people.” Jesus needs us to know that we are to serve him “because we may not be serving or glorifying God with our lives.” Pastor Cabello observes that in our society things are not so bad, and so we do not consider God’s commandments and the demands of the Gospel.
Pastor Cabello reports that this image of Jesus as judge is based on Daniel 7:13-14, which is not an appointed reading but does well to compel me to regard Christ’s coming as a nightmare. While I might point out that we preach on the readings heard in worship and are careful with our use of other texts, Pastor Cabello might counter that we need this nightmare because we like to remove the image of a God who will come to judge, who expects our service, a God who is not a friend who will support or even tolerate our misbehavior because he loves us. Pastor Cabello names our aversion to being accountable as Christians in our post-modern society and our age of relativism. So, if the image of God as judge does not work, we simply change it. Yet, Jesus the judge is coming. It seems the way we avoid the nightmare is by doing what Jesus expects: “Lift up your head, believe my words, be watchful and pray.” The good news seems to be, though the clock is ticking, we still have time to straighten up.
Michael Fick’s Advent instructions strike me as subtler but no less demanding. Although Pastor Fick uses the word “Advent,” as in “Advent is” and “Advent is not,” the underlying message is “We are” and “We are not.” We are not “to build up our powers of denial so we can ‘ENJOY’ a postcard Christmas that has been purged of reality and real hope at the same time.” We are not “to numb and dull every pang of acknowledgement about how the world really is” through consumption. We are “to acknowledge what is dying around and in us, and to, in the midst of it, be reborn in strength to stand before God.” We are to rise up, look, listen, and light one candle. We are to prepare for something new to grow in our most barren and desolate place by stopping, by being in the reality of a world that is passing away.
Erik Christensen and John Dumpys approach the end times differently. Pastor Christensen observes that Christ’s coming will happen whether we’re ready or not. He then invites us to “stand up and raise our heads” so that we can get a better view of the in-breaking reality of God, the redemption that is drawing near. Advent is about anticipation rather than fear, what God is doing rather than what we need to do. Pastor Dumpys says that, rather than giving us something to fear, God paints a picture of the end times to assure us that God is breaking in and breaking open our time, and turning our time into God’s time. God knows that we need this assurance, this promise, in order for us to let go and trust that, since Christ will reign with us at the end of time, surely Christ will break in and become real in our present time, too. I changed the conditional if/then construction to the declaratory since/will construction.
Some of the sermons approach the end times by employing the readings to describe what is rather than predict what will be. Kim Beckmann sums up our state of shock and disruption, the dissolution of core identity and the basic trusts of life, and the loss of a vision of an easy unlimited possibility as “couch sleeping,” an experience common to most of the people I know. Dr. Beckmann effectively moves us outward, from the individual to the societal, from our giddiness for Armageddon (which she dismisses) to the economic and environmental evidence (which we cannot dismiss). Pastor Beckmann brings it home to this audience by naming the end of denominations and our lament over the Church’s decline in authority and loss of moral power, numbers, vitality and general attractiveness to this or any generation.
Erik Christensen describes our reality in terms of the nightly news and the cumulative effect of hearing the same story on a nightly basis — weariness, sadness, anger, fear, and cynicism. Again, we are not sleeping. The newscaster’s subliminal message to give up is the last whisper we hear as we drift off to sleep and so our sleep is fitful and our visions troubling. Michael Fick names the flashes of something else that catches us amid all the joyful preparation: the panicky feeling that no matter how much we buy, it will never create in us a Season’s Greeting or a Happy Holiday; the moment of terror that turning up the Christmas tunes will not cover; the sinking sadness that tidings of comfort and joy seem to be better suited to someone else’s life. The end times are neither a future to fear nor a completion to be anticipated. They are present realities from which we need God to rescue us.
Julie Eileen Ryan is not as concerned with the realities we need rescuing from as with the rescuing God is doing even now. “When we stop caring, stop trying, when we’ve given up hope, when the darkness of the night, when the wintry cold of the grave, seem to be the only reality there is,” Pastor Ryan says, “Jesus does a very odd thing here: he distracts us from our hopelessness by capturing our attention: ‘Look at the trees!’ he says.” Pastor Ryan’s sermon is the only one of the seven to tackle the parable of the fig tree. Her Advent instructions are concrete, simple, and straightforward and, therefore, work well for me.
Pastor Ryan tells us to look at the trees, not just at the fig tree, symbol of the Israelites, but all the trees, standing for all the nations. Not just the trees in the world, but the trees in the books of the prophets; not only the noble cedars and oaks, but also the little signs of life. Not just the forest, but also the trees; not just the trees, but also the little tiny signs of growth — signs of hope. Look at the trees, and we know that God is acting. So, if and when we see apocalyptic stuff happening, we stand up, raise our heads, refuse to cocoon — but rise to greet the one who is coming. We take courage because, in Christ, what seems like all hell breaking loose is the start of the new creation, when God will rule all in all. Pastor Ryan then assures us that the one who fulfills all promises gives us the strength and hope to not worry, to look at the trees, and to stand up. Perhaps I appreciate Pastor Ryan’s instructions because, in addition to giving me something to do, she assures me that God gives us the power to do it.
I am very pleased that these sermons draw illustrations from the church’s treasury. Three of the sermons employ the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer — “Your kingdom come” — to provide an accessible entrée for the hearers. One sermon refers to the second article of the Nicene Creed. “Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” Several sermons use the worship service experience. One describes Advent as “washed in blue and candle-light.” Another points to the bare sanctuary and stripped-down liturgy as ways the church stays awake for the One who is on the way. These illustrations convey to me that the church’s treasury has value and invite me to enter in and examine it.
More than revealing what is preached in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod on the First Sunday in Advent, this reflection reveals what one listener longs to hear. Perhaps my best contribution to this conversation is to encourage you to spend time with some of your parishioners asking what they long to hear when you stand to preach.
This may merely be my bias. I always ask myself what I missed or where I zoned out in a sermon. While undoubtedly inspirational for the preachers, the new TV show Revolution, Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” Carmina Gadelica, and commercials for the ELCA all pulled me out of the sermon and its primary texts of Scripture, creed, liturgy, and Lord’s Prayer, as well as my own internal conversation with the sermon. I am left wondering whether these illustrations help to prepare the way or simply clutter the way for the Christ who is coming. I suspect that depends upon the listeners.
This brings me to my concluding thought. More than revealing what is preached in the Metropolitan Chicago Synod on the First Sunday in Advent, this reflection reveals what one listener longs to hear. Perhaps my best contribution to this conversation is to encourage you to spend time with some of your parishioners asking what they long to hear when you stand to preach.
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1 See Craig A. Satterlee, When God Speaks through You: How Faith Convictions Shape Preaching and Mission (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2007), esp. pp. 55-76.
See Craig A. Satterlee, “Preach Jesus, Not Oprah: Proclaim Christ as Savior,” The Covenant Quarterly, Vol. LXVIII, Nos. 3-4 (August/November 2010): 25-38.
I require my introductory preaching students to prepare a 50-word statement of the gospel, which I review and approve. I then instruct them to check to see that some form of that good news is included in their sermons.
I will explore this topic more fully in my forthcoming book, This Isn’t Your Father’s — or Mother’s — Church: Revisiting Our “Churchly Context” (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2014).