Prepare the Way Worship Series, week 1: STAND
December 2, 2018 — First Sunday of Advent
Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. A former district superintendent and director of congregational development in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, he is currently the pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Warrington, Pa. Dr. Cotto is the author of Fiesta en la Casa de Dios, a book on pastoral reflections regarding worship. He has led training workshops for lay missionaries and has written training modules for the National Hispanic Latino Plan.
Key words: hope, redemption, alert
It almost seems inevitable for some local churches to rush into singing Christmas carols once they get past Thanksgiving. One can understand how the fascination with lights, food, music, and family gatherings can raise the anticipation and, thus, the desire to jump rather quickly into celebrating the birth of Jesus. As I was growing up, that was certainly the case. And although I have fond memories of those days when my home church would sing hymns alluding to the nativity with little or no reference to the Advent Season, over the years, I have increasingly developed a greater awareness of the need to wait, reflect, and prepare during the weeks prior to Christmas Day. It has helped me spend more time thinking about how the gospel message has multiple implications for our daily living from matters pertaining to our personal lives, to matters pertaining to our collective life as a nation.
Concerning Advent, The United Methodist Book of Worship, states the following: “The season proclaims the comings of the Christ—whose birth we prepare to celebrate once again, who comes continually in Word and Spirit, and whose return in final victory we anticipate.”1
Therefore, in preparing the sermon for this week, the audience will benefit greatly from a message that captures the “yet and not yet” of our eschatological hope. In the liturgical assembly, the homilist is given a wonderful opportunity to enhance the coming of Jesus, particularly in the Eucharist, since it is usually celebrated on the first Sunday of the month, as well as at the end of history.
In the gospel for this first Sunday in Advent, Jesus is uttering a prophetic message concerning the future. Several signs are to precede the final “coming of the Son of man,” which can be interpreted as sources for distress, anxiety, hopelessness, and ultimate annihilation. Many preachers of doom and destruction have capitalized on this, which harms many of the faithful and damages the credibility of Christianity in society.
Without a doubt eschatological preaching presents a word of judgment against injustice, inequalities, and indifference toward love, compassion, unity, and fraternity. It also brings a word of hope. For persons of faith, particularly the Christian community, Jesus’ message of “end times” is about “joyful expectation”2 in light of the coming kingdom that promises release and deliverance (Greek: apolytrōsis). A responsible and caring preacher will not hide the message of hope, even as he or she points out the things that are wrong, evil, and against God’s will.
The text from the book of Jeremiah (33:14-16) points to the coming of a “righteous Branch to spring up for David” (v.15) who will bring a message of social restoration, giving way to a new season of celebration and possibilities. Herein, the vision for the future is not a panacea or a decontextualized prophetic word. It is a vision with concrete implications for the present circumstance in which the people of God find themselves. As an Advent community, the church claims the message of this first Sunday of the season as an opportunity “to announce a future that enters around the restoration of this world to its proper character as God’s creation.”3
There are thousands of believers in all world religions, and, in particular, in the Christian world, who are constantly working toward the elimination of oppression, dehumanizing policies and practices that cheapen our God-given life and that deprive the most vulnerable and disenfranchised human beings, (children, elderly, ethnic minorities, women) from enjoying a life of respect, fairness, and freedom.
Jesus offers words that call us to be ready when the kingdom of God bursts into our daily existence. The kairos of God disrupts our human chronos (God’s time and human time, respectively), and things cannot remain the same. For those who live to step on others, the message of Jesus is a message of judgment and a call to repentance. For those who cling to the promises of God in spite of all the social injuries they have been exposed to, the coming kingdom is a time to look up with hope and celebration. Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk. 21:28).
Thus, the Sunday sermon during this first week Advent could include words of concern and lamentations for the bruises and brokenness caused by a culture of violence, discrimination, prejudice, and intimidation, followed by or alongside words of encouragement, and assurance, in anticipation of the coming Savior.
In addition, the sermon could center on challenging the faithful to deepen their spiritual disciplines as a way of being available to God and, therefore, being renewed to engage in activities that reflect the values and the priorities of the coming kingdom. Jesus asks his disciples to be watchful and prepared, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk. 21:36).
It seems critical that listeners be made aware of the “signs of time” so that they appreciate and welcome the Parousia. (Parousia is the Greek word meaning presence, arrival or visit.) This means daring to connect present socio-political realities working against the reign of God in contrast to the witness of Christian communities who, along with other faith communities, are fulfilling their prophetic vocation.
For personal reflection and sermon preparation:
- How can we adequately communicate a message of hope to people in our congregation who are facing all sorts of discouraging circumstances?
- At a time when the political climate of the nation is one of division, what seems to be the mission these Scriptures call us to fulfill?
- Where do we see signs of the coming kingdom?
- The season of Advent calls us to live in joyful expectation of a new thing God promises to do through the coming Savior. What are some possibilities for new initiatives that will make a difference in our surrounding community?
2 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible, vol 28 A, 1349.