Advent 2, A Sermoblog

A response to a Twitter challenge

From: http://www.methodist.org.uk/mission/support-our-work/advent-offering

Bible readings for the second Sunday in Advent 2016: Isaiah 11:1–10; Psalm 72:1–7, 18, 19; Romans 15. 4–13; Matthew 3.1–12.

We have been brought up with the idea of expectation, especially during the season of Advent, though there was no Advent in the time of Jesus. Let’s consider together how this season in the Christian calendar has shaped our thinking about scripture, turning the whole story of God’s people in the Bible into one of Advent, and of course we are still waiting.

I always like to begin with a story, and Advent is a good time for this. Last week I wrote a blog for the beginning of Advent. I explored how Jesus himself was inspired by Scripture and uses it to bring his own story — Gospel, manifesto — into the religious world of his audience. I challenged the idea that the Hebrew Scriptures were actually foretelling what Jesus would do, on the basis that he reuses it creatively — ‘this scripture is being fulfilled right now’, ‘you have heard it said, but I say’. One of my contacts on Twitter, a minister, then asked me, after I had tweeted my blog, what I preached on at Advent. As far as I know I have never preached about Advent, until this sermon/blog. He was concerned that being too liberal with the text of scripture was like overcooking vegetables so much that there is nothing left worth eating. I wonder if that is true?

The Apostle Paul sets the scene for us in one of our lectionary readings (Romans 15. 4–13):

For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written … (v.8, 9)

Thinking about Paul, he was an inventive and creative man, God wants us to use our wits and creativity to communicate and this is what Paul did. He urged us, in words that are often maligned and misunderstood these days, even in Christian circles, and they certainly give a lot of room for the inter faith initiatives I have been involved in, to be ‘all things to all people’. Of course in being creative Paul followed the example of Jesus, surely this is what strikes us when we read the Gospels as we read many, many different stories which Jesus told. An indication that we should be telling stories ourselves, to ourselves and to those who are unaware of Jesus and our stories. Often, instead, we settle for statements and doctrine, not what Jesus had in mind — ‘you have heard it said, but I tell you.’ So hold on to that word, ‘story’.

Paul also had some challenges that Jesus did not face — he did not have the authority of Jesus, hence his use of argument and debate and he was seeking to do something which Jesus did not do, did not have to do, and was seemingly uninterested in doing, persuading people of the significance of Jesus himself. Of course Jesus has an advantage, otherwise we would not be here during Advent in expectation of Jesus, something else to bear in mind if we are thinking of emulating Paul, as he did not have the Gospels available to him. We have an advantage over Paul in that we have four versions of the story of Jesus, just in case we need a strong incentive to share his story! As I have been doing in various places over the last few years — finding ways of telling Jesus’ story in drama, writing (read ‘Jumbled up in Jerusalem’ here) and in soundbites on Twitter. This should be an encouragement to make our preaching lively and interesting, like roast potatoes, rather than overcooked sprouts, or indeed delicious sprouts that have been cooked properly. Yes, we can tell the Advent story with seasonal food too!

Telling stories is fine as far as that goes, everyone likes a good story. But there is more to it than that. The good, or Divine, story, also asks us a question — What does this mean to you? Who is the main character in this story? Or, often quite powerfully, Who are you? So, rewinding a little, Paul offers us some time-shifting, or a flashback, to the time of the patriarchs. One moment he is talking about Jesus, as we are today, and the next we are back with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Hagar, Sarah and Rachel. The key point Paul makes is that Jesus ‘confirms the promises given to the patriarchs’. Promises do not need to be confirmed, unless their realisation has been delayed, they need to be delivered on. It’s difficult to introduce the idea of scripture in conflict or contradicting itself (though it is not a single entity but a collection), especially in a sermon, though my friend and I wrestled with this before when we preached on Jonah. We also have to acknowledge issues around translation, changes in the use of language, different cultures and approaches to scripture (the Methodist Church rejoices in having seven different versions of this). So let’s talk about tension, which promotes both growth and creativity. Jesus and Paul were not short of tension and we should be more aware of it.

The tension here is that Jesus came and delivered his very simple message — of the generously loving and intimate closeness of God which heals and restores, not just if we will let it but if we recognise it all around us. Religion is very simple, it is faith, being aware of God, the Divine, and resting in it. Though some of us, like me, are restless. Or having a deep, even unexplainable, trust in the amazing compatibility of God and people — Jesus being the example of this — God really is feeling pretty good about us, while we like to think negatively about ourselves and each other, just look at the tabloid newspapers. Surely if Jesus were here today, preaching for Advent, he would tell the parable of the over the top tabloid headline, probably a seasonal story about immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Paul does go on to illustrate his point with scripture quotations, though they are from the Psalms and Isaiah (not the patriarchs), so, as I said before, he is being creative, just like a preacher. In fact, Romans is undoubtedly a sermon blog of its time. If we wanted pinpoint accuracy we would go to an academic text or lecture, but reflections and sermons are not lectures. Importantly, he quotes from today’s lectionary passage of Isaiah 11, which is the reason why these readings have been put together. So Paul has set the tone for our lectionary and our reflections today, through his choice, not because these things actually go together. If a lectionary or liturgy in 2000 years’ time was based on this sermon blog that I am currently writing I would be rather concerned. But in fact Paul is not quoting exactly from our Isaiah text, the words that we read in today’s lectionary passage are rather different to those which he quotes, more proof that he is being creative, although we should check whether they correspond to the Greek translation of Isaiah, which likely they do, more creativity in scripture.

Going back to our food theme, Paul gets a little carried away with the gravy, hiding a paucity of vegetables, and meat too, with four random references, when he could have been talking about Jesus instead. So, let’s think about Jesus, as we should. The Hebrew Scriptures were talking about a God who could not be contained, as referenced in God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 (this would be the most relevant patriarchal text but Paul does not mention it in Romans, he does in Galatians though). A God on the global stage with global interests, speaking to people in a tiny country. This is exactly how Jesus portrays God’s love — repeated positive stories about Samaritans, praises of Gentiles who responded to him, being told off, with a twinkle in her eye, by a Syrian woman, and then launching his disciples into the Gentile world with the ‘Great Commission’, another reason why we are here today. And yes, taking the Gospel to the Gentiles was a controversial question in the Book of Acts, yet it had already been answered by Jesus — another example of why, if we intend to use Scripture passionately and robustly, rather than treat it like squishy vegetables, we need to give it a damn hard look. The Great Commission may well be the words of the early church responding to Jesus’ message, rather than the words of Jesus himself. Scripture is a rather different animal post-Jesus and surely he was not expecting any future Scripture, do read his words.

People these days talk about ‘cognitive dissonance’ (every sermon needs some strong terminology to exercise our minds, helped along by the preacher of course), especially when arguing/debating, often about religion. It’s that sense of uncomfortability which we are unable to resolve, rather like the problem Jonah has with God’s confusing and contradictory commission, or the ‘happy ending’ of Job, something is not quite right. This is an Advent problem for us. We have lovely, strong, triumphal texts of God at work, or about to be, in Isaiah which are pinned onto the story of Jesus. Yet when we read the story of Jesus we don’t see those things happening, while we are so convinced by ‘prophetic fulfilment’ and apostolic authority that we will never say, ‘Hang on a moment!’ and there are no opportunities to do so, which is why we hope for more from our preachers, if they are brave enough … This is another cognitive dissonance in the pew, for those who are sensitive to it and well explains why preachers and churches are not always sensitive.

So, no, parts of what Isaiah says do not fit, they are not realised in Advent expectations, or in Advent 1.0, the birth and life of Jesus. What then happens is that we push our expectations further on into the future, heightening our sense of expectation, perhaps offering further encouragement. But, Isaiah, speaking to his own generation did not have this in mind, indeed Jesus himself reacts against these expectations, refusing to be a human ruler, avoiding any role for himself as a judge (he is asked to resolve a legal dispute). Holding on to this second, or double fulfilment, whether or not we think Jesus himself is in agreement with it, we then have a prophetic paradigm of two-stage fulfilment, you may have heard preachers expound this. In fact, coming back to that sense of uncomfortability, a complicated two-stage fulfilment theory is the answer to the cognitive dissonance that was looking for a resolution. You will have to judge for yourselves whether it works or not. Far better to focus on Jesus though and his role in the story of Advent.

Jesus is introduced to us at the beginning of all four Gospels, though differently, yet for and in himself he needs no introduction. He does not introduce himself, which is at least interesting. For other Biblical characters there is a brief intro, but no backstory as we have with Jesus. Our introduction to Abraham is essentially God saying to him, ‘Get going.’ Elijah just appears on the scene. The extended intro or backstory is the writers’ idea, Mark is the most economical of them. But Jesus himself arrives and starts his preaching tour immediately, preaching a gospel of repentance, which is what happens in the chapter following our Matthew 3 reading, in Mark it is immediately after the abbreviated temptation which takes place following Jesus baptism. So how does Jesus introduce himself? A good question for Advent! In short, he doesn’t, but he starts by preaching the words of God, whether as invitation or as manifesto (Isaiah 61 in Luke 4). Advent will have served the first part of its purpose if it makes us focus on how Jesus related to Scripture (and not earlier scripture but just Scripture, it was the only scripture he had, it was not ‘Old’ or deficient, all the source material he needed was there). If Advent also encourages us to read the Hebrew Scriptures with fresh eyes, not through the ‘lens of the New Testament’, then that will be another great Advent fulfilment.

Whether this puts us all on the same page, or ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, may be too far a stretch, but I will appeal to Paul at this point, who does point us back to Jesus and what Jesus wants — ‘May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.’ (v.5) Harmony is even better where we have different perspectives but are not divided by them, enjoying our delicious vegetables, and God’s tasty treats, together.

Read my Advent 1 blog ‘A Time of Rescue’ and look out for Advent 3 next weekend.