Enriching Our Waiting; Eschatological Preaching in Advent
I was startled. The preacher announced that for the first three Sundays of Advent he would preach on the second coming. I felt a rustling of discomfort around me. Don't we have enough to think about in Advent without worrying about the second coming?
After all, Advent is the time to soberly and joyfully prepare once again to receive God's gift of Christmas. Advent is the time to remember the ancient promises to Abraham, David, and the prophets. Advent is the time to ready our hearts to celebrate once again the joy of God's incarnation.
But, as the preacher made clear in the weeks that followed, God's Christmas gift of Jesus is only the beginning of the story. To be sure, it's a glorious beginning, a beginning filled with angel choirs and brilliant stars heralding Jesus' birth. Still, it is only the beginning of the story that continues through the ages. The end of the story, the climax, is still to come. And waiting for the end makes waiting for the replay of the beginning so much richer!
I wondered just what texts the preacher would use. Passages from Revelation? From Jesus' eschatological teachings in the gospels? From Paul's letters to the Thessalonians? Again I was startled. He said he planned to use the texts suggested by the Common Lectionary.
Intrigued, I later studied the lectionary texts for all three years and discovered that in every Advent season the lectionary calls us to a richer Advent waiting—a waiting for the second, as well as for the first, coming of our Lord. And the lectionary draws the eschatological theme from many different parts of Scripture. In my comments I will not discuss all the texts listed but focus on those that most clearly relate the first and second comings.
Advent Lectionary Texts (Year B)
1st Sunday: Isaiah 63:16-64:8; Psalm 80:1-7; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:32-37.
On the first Sunday of Advent we pray with Isaiah for God to rend the heavens so that nations might tremble before his presence and all flesh might recognize the authoritative presence of our Maker. Surely Christmas is a break in the clouds that conceal the majesty of God from us. But it is only a break. The heavens still await the time of God's final rending, God's final disclosure. If we look only to Christmas as the answer to Isaiah's cry, we will fail to hear God's full response to the ancient prophet. There's more to come! Jesus reminds us of the "more to come" in the Mark 13 passage when he encourages us to keep watching and waiting for the return of the Master who has gone away only for a time.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul draws the other two passages together. He thanks God for the rich faith of the Corinthian Christians—a faith made possible by Christ's first opening of the heavens, but also a faith that looks for the full revelation of God, the day when the barriers between heaven and earth will be fully and finally rent asunder.
2nd Sunday: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8.
The prophetic text for this Sunday contains Isaiah's wonderful call to prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord, says Isaiah, will come as a powerful but ever-so-gentle Shepherd, in whom all flesh will see the full glory of God unveiled.
Mark, quoting the Isaiah passage directly, makes it clear that John the Baptist came in fulfillment of that call. He came to prepare the way of the Lord, who, in his birth, did indeed come to us a Savior and gentle Shepherd.
But we have yet to see the full glory and power of our Shepherd-Lord. For this, we await his second coming. And, in this time of waiting again, John's preparatory voice sounds a timely word to us. He calls to us, as well as to the people of his day, to wait—constantly prepared, watchful, alert—making ready for the glory andjudgment of his return. Peter describes for us the splendor of this return—a splendor so great that before it the very earth and heavens dissolve. In their place a new heaven and earth are brought into existence. And the powerful, gentle Shepherd will dwell with his people in righteousness forever.
3rd Sunday: Isaiah 61:1—4, 8-11; Luke l:46b-55; 1 Thes-sahnians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28.
This week Isaiah describes the mission of Jesus as a mission of bringing good tidings to the afflicted, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and comforting those who mourn. When John in-troducesjesus to the world of his day, this ministry is launched.
But completed? Hardly. With the first coming all the blessings of Isaiah's vision are set into motion, but we still await their consummation. In Thes-salonians 5 Paul reminds us of our continuing wait and tells us how to wait.
4th Sunday: 2 Samuel 7:8-16; Psalm 89:1-4,19-24; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38.
Finally, on the last Sunday before Christmas, we turn to an ancient promise: Samuel tells us that God promises to build David a house and to set upon his throne one who would be "established forever."
Luke is eager to mark Jesus as the one to whom that prophecy points. As he tells of the annunciation to Mary, Luke notes her credentials for bearing God's Savior-King: she is engaged to one in the line of David. The time is close, and our waiting seems almost over as the birth of God's King draws very close.
Yes, at Christmas God's King and our King was born, and by faith we already see on his little head the crown that was placed there when he rose, ascended, and began to rule at the Father's right hand. But we still wait for that day when all things will be under his control, that day when every knee in heaven and on earth will bow to the King of Kings.
Romans 16:25-27 brings to a close our Advent lectionary meditations. Paul commits his readers to God, a God who has already revealed in Christ the mystery of the ages, a God who is able also to strengthen believers in the days of waiting for the full disclosure of Christ to all the world.
The lectionary texts are unambiguous. Advent is a time of waiting for both the first act and the final act of God's drama of salvation in Christ. Faithfulness to the texts calls us to direct our congregations not only to the miracle in the manger but also to the miracle of God's final rending of the heavenly curtain to set the stage for the triumphant coronation of the Baby of Bethlehem. Advent is a coming and a coming again.
New Dimensions for Advent Preaching
As we call our congregations to a new awareness of the first and second comings, our Advent preaching can, I believe, take on some rich new dimensions.
In the first place, our Advent sermons can recognize and freely admit that our world is as filled with problems today as it was two thousand years ago. We don't need to cast a pastel glow over the world to shield us from the harshness that we all know lies just beyond the stable doors. We don't need to pretend, even for a few weeks, that Jesus' first coming set the world straight. On the contrary, we can be realistic about the terrors of our lives and the terrors of our world. We can recognize, as it were, among the gentle stable beasts, the strange dragonlike creature that we read of in Revelation 12:1-6. (Here, by the way, is another good text for preaching during Advent. These verses describe the power of the anti-God force that was at work when Jesus was born and is still at work in our world today.) We can recognize and name him because we know that Christmas was the beginning—but only the beginning—of the dragon's defeat. We know that the dragon is still on the loose but that this in no way negates the victory of Christmas. That victory will be consummated when Jesus returns.
Secondly, eschatological preaching in Advent can become a call to greater involvement. We are not able to bring in the kingdom of God. But to us is given the joyful, if difficult, task of preparing the way of the Lord, of doing all we can to level the mountains of injustice and to make straight the erring practices and policies that perpetuate misery in our world. By such preparations we announce to our world, as John the Baptist did to his, that our Lord is coming again. We call for all to prepare to meet God as Lord and Judge.
Finally, an eschatological emphasis in Advent adds to our coming Christmas joy—the joy of the glorious hope of our faith. Advent and Christmas become more than a season of looking backward and reliving the beginning of God's salvation for us and for our world. They become a season of looking forward to the time when that salvation will be complete, the time when our Christmas Baby will reign forever and ever, the time when he who sits upon the throne of the heavens will say at last, "I am making everything new!" (Rev. 21: 5).
Even so, may our Advent preaching lead to the Advent prayer "Come again, Lord Jesus."