Preaching Notes for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B (December 7, 2014)
Instead of preaching on this text, consider using it as a supporting text for a message based on the gospel reading, perhaps as the inspiration for a prayer, wreath lighting, processional, or congregational litany.
My colleague Dean McIntyre has written an Advent Wreath meditation that would be especially appropriate if you are using the sermon notes below on the gospel lesson to inspire your own sermon.
An excellent Processional Litany, "Do Not Be Afraid," is also available.
Taylor Burton-Edwards has also written a more extensive dramatic setting for a reading of Isaiah, but this should only be done if time allows. You might draw inspiration from this setting and adapt them for your own specific context and time allotment. You can find Taylor’s instructions for the dramatic reading here: http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-of-advent-year-b#planning
Examples of prayers and litanies can be found here:
- A Litany for Longest Night (even though this was written for a Blue Christmas/Longest night service it would also work well here).
- Prayer of Repentance
And finally, if you are celebrating Holy Communion this Sunday please consider using this new setting from Taylor Burton-Edwards, which would be especially appropriate for this week’s texts: A Great Thanksgiving for Advent.
Every year on the second Sunday in Advent some version of this basic message is proclaimed:
Prepare the way of the Lord!
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Marks’s version of the story draws directly from the reading from in Isaiah 40:1-11, and then gives us the basic message that both John the Baptist and Jesus preached to the people of their day. So the question we have to ask, as always, is what do these old messages, told some two thousand years ago to a people in another land, have to do with you and your congregation as you gather in your specific context of the second Sunday in Advent in the year of our Lord 2014?
To answer that question, let us think about at what most Americans, including many of us, are doing during this month of December in the year 2014. We have, as of last Sunday, entered into the season of the Christian Year that the church calls “Advent.”
The word “Advent” comes from a Latin word, adventus, which means, “to come to” or “to arrive.” What is coming, or arriving? Jesus Christ is coming! (Or at least Santa Claus is coming.) We hear the announcements of his impending arrival both inside and outside of the church, especially in the words of all of those songs blaring over loudspeakers everywhere we go. It’s hard to miss it.
So this is the season in which we prepare to celebrate the coming of, or the arrival of, Jesus Christ, into our world over 2000 years ago.
How do most people prepare for the coming of Christmas? Invite your congregation to help you come up with a list, like on Family Feud. The list might include:
- Buy gifts
- Send out Christmas cards
- Make cookies
- Decorate houses
- Attend Christmas parties
- Make Christmas wish lists
- Put up and decorate trees
- Hang lights
- Visit Santa
These are the things people do in their homes to prepare for the coming of Christmas. But we prepare for Christ’s birth at the church as well. We put up special decorations. Perhaps the children prepare a Christmas program or the choir prepares a cantata. People go Christmas caroling. And on Christmas Eve, most congregations gather for a special worship service.
But I have a question: When we do all of this, does it help us to find God? When we mail out those cards, or brave the crowds at the shopping mall, or decorate our homes and our church, or go to a holiday party, or come for the children’s Christmas program, or go Christmas caroling, or attend the candlelight service on Christmas Eve, do those things enable us to find God?
The answer is “not necessarily,” I’m afraid.
Why would we not find God in all of this? Well, one reason might be because we might not be looking for God when we do these things. Maybe we are doing all of this as a kind of chore, or duty, or even an annual ritual that has become, over the years, mostly empty of any meaning. If this is the case, if the things we have been doing to prepare for Christmas have just become a duty or a chore, then perhaps we need to do more than buy presents, go to parties, send cards, and decorate the outsides and insides of our homes and our church. Perhaps in place of these activities (or in addition to them), we should concentrate more on preparing our hearts.
The reason that the old sermons that John the Baptist and Jesus preached all those years ago are still very relevant to us in December 2014 is that they tell us how to prepare our hearts to find God.
It is, therefore, a wonderful thing that the Gospel of Mark gives us a basic overview of the messages of both Jesus and John the Baptist. Furthermore, I think it is very helpful to compare the two basic messages:
John the Baptist preached, “Repent! Turn away from your sins and be baptized, and God will forgive you!” (Mark 1:4)
Jesus preached, “The Kingdom of God is near! Repent, and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)
The difference between these two messages is pretty clear. Jesus announced the good news that the Kingdom of God had been brought near. How? In Christ himself, God’s Kingdom was brought near.
John the Baptist, on the other hand, taught that if we will fall down on our knees before God and ask forgiveness and be baptized in the Jordan River as a sign of washing our sins away, showing God our good intentions, God will forgive us.
Most of your members, I would guess, are already baptized. Furthermore, it has now been two thousand years since Jesus brought the Kingdom of God near, in the flesh, for the people of his generation. But there is something in both Jesus’ and John the Baptist’s messages that is timeless and as relevant for us today as it was to those who heard the messages in person. That something is the instruction to us to “repent” in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus taught that if we want to find God, the first thing we must do is to turn away from our sins. And that would include turning away from activities that have turned into duties, chores, and empty traditions. If our lives and our rituals have become meaningless, then what we need to do first is turn away from our sins!
But didn’t the people already turn away from their sins? Isn’t that that what they did when they were baptized, and when they joined the church? And the answer is yes, that is part of what it meant to be baptized and to join the church. It means that we vow to turn away from our sins and live a life that is characterized by living as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Even with the best of intentions, many people drift back into those old, familiar, sinful patterns. In the Baptist church they call that backslidin’; and in some cases, they may insist that a rebaptism is needed as a sign of the person’s intent to get back on the right track.
In United Methodism, we expect that the movement of discipleship begins with baptism and progresses towards perfection of all of our lives. There is a certain two-steps-forward, one-step-back rhythm to the Methodist way. We know that Christ-like living takes time and effort to achieve, and that along the way there will be setbacks. As such, each year during the seasons of Lent and Adven,t we call upon our members to take stock of their lives anew, and to repent and turn away from those sins that are getting in the way of their ability to love God, neighbor, and self. Step one comes from John the Baptist: Confess your sins and repent! Step two comes from Jesus himself, and he calls us to believe the good news. But what good news is there to be found in our preparation? If we aren’t finding God in what we are doing, then perhaps we need to reassess our preparation.
Are we, as part of our preparation for receiving Christ, calling upon our people to take time every day to look for God?
Many people worry about how they can’t afford all the things they feel like they need to buy for people, yet the one thing they simply can’t afford to leave off the to-do list is to prepare their hearts for Christmas. How can we help our members prepare their hearts to receive Christ?
- Encourage your members to make a commitment to look for God every day.
- Ask them to agree to take some time out of each day before Christmas to be alone with God, to pray about their sins and ask for the strength to turn away from the habits that keep them from being in harmony with themselves, with others, and with God.
- Invite them to covenant with one another in this process of reflection and spiritual preparation and to hold one another accountable.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus agree that if we fail to do these things, if we fail as individuals to turn away from our sins, and if we fail to hear the good news in the announcement of Christ’s birth into the world, we will find ourselves unable see past the gloomy darkness of despair that has a death grip on our hearts. As Christmas approaches, the light of God does indeed still shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not put out that light; but if people are going to be able to see by that light, they need be intentional about turning away from their sins, yet again. Part of the work of making disciples is to call them to do so!
A second preaching option for this Second Sunday in Advent, if you choose to forgo the Isaiah-Mark combo (see notes above), would be to focus on this text from Second Peter.
By the time Second Peter was composed, it was becoming increasingly clear that the return of Christ was taking a lot longer than anyone had expected. The enemies of the Christians began making claims that the earlier generations’ expectations had been misguided. The world, they said, didn’t operate by the hand of any singular or providential God. The world operated randomly. Any claims about an impending divine judgment were ridiculous. People should be free to live however they choose, they chided!
As the time between Jesus’ earthly life and his promised return grew longer and longer, the restrictive regulations by which the early followers had tried to live began to loosen. With both outsiders and some heretical insiders preaching a gospel of toleration, the lives of these second- and third-generation Christians began to be harder to distinguish from the lives of non-Christians. What was so wrong, after all, with doing a little business or socializing with people who didn’t follow Christ? Especially if there was no imminent danger of God’s judgment? Why not live it up a little?
Second Peter was written to challenge these messages. In the first part of the letter, the author reminds the Christians in this generation that the biblical record demonstrates that God has judged the wicked in the past (see 2 Peter 2:4-16). Then, in this part of the letter, he offers an explanation for why Jesus has not yet returned. He gives two basic reasons. First, he says, we don’t know how time works in God’s kingdom, so we can’t presume to judge God’s timing by our own limited vision: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (verse 8). Second, the delay has given us all a little more time to get ready, to prepare for the time when we stand before the Lord, which could happen to any one of us at any time. We don’t know when it will happen. Our job is not to know when. Our job is to be ready at all times.
How do we make sure we are ready? By “leading lives of holiness and godliness” every day that we are blessed to be on this earth.
The passages from these first Sundays in Advent all press us to take stock of our lives, to look at the choices we are making and, if we would not be found “without spot or blemish” right now, this very day, then we need to make some changes. As my colleague has noted, this text was echoed by John Wesley, who not only called the Methodists to be holy in heart and life, but who provided us with clear instructions on how to move toward that goal.
My colleague Steve Manskar puts it succinctly when he writes,
The United Methodist Way is the pursuit of peace with all people and, most important, holiness of heart and life. Our tradition is too often said to be defined by particular beliefs, programs or polity. However, according to Wesley, the distinguishing mark of the people called Methodists was their singular striving after holiness of heart and life. Beliefs, programs and polity exist to move the people toward the goal of holiness.
Wesley’s definition of holiness is Scriptural: “the loving God with all our heart and soul, and our neighbour as ourselves. It is love governing the heart and life, running through all our tempers, words, and actions.” The purpose of the societies, class meetings, bands and corresponding “rules” was to form communities of social and personal holiness.
In their striving after holiness the Methodist societies became channels of grace for the world. They pursued peace, the shalom of God, as they followed Christ in their world by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the strangers, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoners.
As we engage in the practices of holiness it is important to always be reminded that they are only the means to a goal. Too often we focus on what we are doing for Christ and end up taking our eye off of Christ. We end up confusing the means (works of piety and works of mercy) with the ends (holiness of heart and life). The emphasis shifts from witnessing to Jesus Christ in the world to how I am blessed.
Therefore, we need to always remember that the General Rule of Discipleship and Covenant Discipleship groups exist to form communities of holiness. They do not exist for the personal benefit of individual members. The Rule and the groups are designed to equip congregations to participate in Christ’s mission in, with, and for the world.
(Information from Steve Manskar, Holiness: The United Methodist Way, November 4, 2011, available at http://wesleyanleadership.com/2011/11/04/holiness-the-united-methodist-way/).
As United Methodists, we have well-established methods in place for helping people to lead lives of holiness and godliness. If you need more information about beginning a program of covenant discipleship in your congregation, or resources on the United Methodist Way, I urge you to contact Dr. Steve Manskar at Discipleship Ministries ([email protected]). He would be happy to help you find the resources you need, and what better time to establish something new than now, at the start of a new year!