The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
25th Sunday after Pentecost
(or Advent I, expanded season)
William H. Petersen
Note: The official calendar regards the day as indicated. For congregations engaged in trial usage of an expanded season (see www.theadventproject.org ) this is Sapientia (Wisdom) Sunday. The designations for the Sundays in this schema are taken from the Messiah’s scriptural titles as found in the Great “O” Antiphons. In either case, the readings and psalms are identical.
Whichever designation one employs for this Sunday, it is evident that – as in the world around us – the long “green” season is over and the atmosphere has changed. The eschatological note that pervades the readings for this first Sunday after the Feast of All Saints will be sustained until the very last Sunday of Advent. Only then will the readings begin to make a transition to incarnational emphasis of the Christmas season.
These readings will unfold the eschatological focus in one or both of two ways: (1) a looking toward the time of what John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s great cleanup” (cf. his God and Empire). Whether presented by prophetic or apocalyptic vehicles, the emphasis will come in one or the other or both of two forms: (1) pronouncing judgment on a creation gone flawed and the human community with a long history of behaving badly; or (2) presenting of a vision of God’s reign in, with, and by which God’s people are called to live and work. In either case, a radical transformation will occur in terms of justice, love, and peace.
Often the tension involved in the eschatology of this period is put in terms of the Reign of God or Kingdom of Christ as “now but not yet” That, however, by the evidence of reflections from those who must listen to sermons, is frequently found to be confusing (e.g., “Well is it or isn’t it?”) Perhaps a better tack or construction would be to say, “since Christ’s resurrection now and yet still more to come!” In any case, all this seems appropriate to entering a new cycle of the liturgical year. The eschatological beginning of the annual round is foundational for the entire year so that the cycle can be raised out of routine as it is infused and informed by the ever higher expectations, broader horizons, and deeper understandings of Advent’s principal focus.
Reflection on the Lections
The RCI gives two sets of First Readings (Haggai or Job) and, indeed, yet another choice of two Psalms after the Haggai lection. An embarrassment of riches!
Haggai 1:15b - 2:9. The prophet starts with exact dating, which for us would be 536 BCE. The context is post-exilic and concerns the rebuilding of the Temple and the time of the year is the festival of Tabernacles coming at the beginning of the Jewish religious year. It is often associated with the fulfillment of messianic hopes. As the prophet reminds his hearers of God’s promise at the time of Israel’s original deliverance (look backward: “when you came out of Egypt”), so now he calls them to look towards its fulfillment in a final sorting out (look forward: “Once again...I will shake the heavens and the earth...I will shake the nations”). As a result the prophet puts before the people a vision of ultimate prosperity. On a crass level, of course, the lection’s focus on treasure could simply be read as a fund-raising speech for the Temple’s rebuilding. In the history of interpretation it has been taken more in seeing the Temple as a center of righteousness not just for Israel, but also for the “nations.” For contemporary preaching, both the eschatological note and the vision of spiritual prosperity or flourishing remain significant.
Psalm 145:1-5, 18-22 or Psalm 98. The choice here is really between a response of praise cast either in the singular (“I will exalt you, O God my king...” Ps 145) or as the community is invited to “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things...” (Ps 98). However, as fine as Psalm 145 is in itself, the context of the Eucharistic Assembly argues for Psalm 98.
Job 19:23-27a. This brief, though profound, reading near the end of Job will be familiar to clergy as it forms part of an anthem at the outset of the Burial Office. The expression of Job’s enduring faith and devotion to God, even in the face of the calamities which befell him, here reaches a sublime climax in his declaration that “I know that my Redeemer lives...” and that, audaciously, Job will see the Holy One as a friend and not as an alien, a stranger, or his enemy. The magnificence of this statement is only increased by the eschatological hope that is at its very center: “on the last day” God will stand upon the earth for its (and our) redemption. For the preacher whether that “last day” is at the end of the temporal series or whether it intercepts and intersects history is something to explicate for the assembly. This, in other words, is the “now and yet still more to come” aspect of the Reign of God’s presence and implications for us.
Ps 17:1-9. The portion of Psalm 17 appointed is, of course, an apt coda to the Job reading (“Hear my plea of innocence, O Lord...”) and for those of us reciting it, it will always provide cause for reflection, confession, and – literally – refinement (“Weigh my heart...melt me down...”).
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17. Whatever it is that has caused the congregation anxiety and unrest (and this is not made clear in the text), Paul hastens to recall the Thessalonians to a steadfast faith and practice as they represent “the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit...” It is likely that some apocalyptic interpretation of the “last day” has short-circuited the “now and yet still more to come” in regard to God’s reign. In response, Paul offers his own unspecified rationale as a calming, re-centering incentive to his hearers. In the midst of all this, his final benediction is instructive, not just to the Thessalonians, but as today’s preacher explicates the eschatology of the letter: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” In other words: grace for life, energy for mission — pay no attention to the rapturists and millenialists! Stay calm and carry on.
Luke 20:27-38. Again, things eternal and eschatological are present in the Gospel for the day. The trap for the preacher in this pericope is the temptation to get bogged down in the details of the question and Jesus’ pointed response to them. What is central, rather, is the occasion of the question and the radical eschatological affirmation about resurrection with which Jesus concludes. One of the key phrases is: “in the story about the bush.” Here Jesus invokes the uncreated light of that creative Wisdom which Moses confronted in the bush that was aflame-yet-not-consumed. In effect, Jesus dismisses his opponents question as not only unwise, but irrelevant to things eternal. It is also the case that in his response about God being the “God not of the dead but of the living,” Jesus more than hints that the eternal is not just time extended indefinitely, but that which, from the divine perspective, intersects and qualifies past, present, and future. As the Orthodox would say, “This is wisdom, let us attend!”
Here is a collect for the day that for those following an expanded Advent is the thematic prayer for this Sunday. For others, the prayer may be employed as a concluding collect following the Prayers of the People:
Eternal God, your Word of wisdom goes forth and does not return empty: Grant us such knowledge and love of you that we may perceive your presence in all creation and every creature; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.
William H. Petersen, Emeritus Dean & Professor of Bexley Hall Seminary, is Founder & Convener of the Advent Project Seminar of the North American Academy of Liturgy. He is an Honorary Member of APLM Council.