The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts about next Sunday’s sermon,
26th Sunday after Pentecost
(or Advent II, expanded season)
William H. Petersen
Note: The official calendar regards the day as indicated. For congregations engaged in trial usage of an expanded Advent season (see www.theadventproject.org ) this is Adonai (Lord of Might) Sunday. The designation 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.
Again this week the embarrassment of riches continues with three (!) options for the first reading. Yet each of these along with the Gospel lection all combine to continue and emphasize the unifying eschatological focus of this season at the outset of the liturgical year. For those following an expanded Advent, the “O” antiphon which designates the Sunday is Adonai – the “Lord of might” who gave the law on Sinai’s height “in cloud and majesty and awe.” The two options from Isaiah and the alternative from Malachi all set forth the activity of this same Lord in putting things to right. The Gospel goes on to make explicit for Christians the identification of Adonai with Jesus as the true Messiah who is, as such, not only Lord of history but protector- savior of those who faithfully persevere. As last week we heard Paul, this week – in the face of cataclysms of apocalyptic proportions – we hear the voice of Jesus encouraging us to “keep calm and carry on.”
Reflection on the Lections
Isaiah 65:17-25. In this reading we have, of course, the magnificent vision of the peaceable kingdom where health, wealth, fertility, and longevity abound for all. The Adonai who gave the law for righteousness on the mountain now acts to “create a new heavens and a new earth” where “they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” These two phrases bracket the vision. As that vision is effoliated by the prophet there are splendid phrases along the way that preachers can employ to great effect in relation to our own times and the events of the day. I am always, for instance, deeply moved by the hope expressed that “they...shall not bear children for calamity” or the Lord’s assured and prevenient presence “before they call, I will answer.” There also might be room for some humor in the sermon to explicate how the world would see this vision (and as the world always misses the point of transformation). For instance, one might work in Woody Allen’s, “Sure the lamb will lie down with the wolf...but the lamb will be very, very nervous.”
Isaiah 12:1-6. The majority of this lection will be familiar to most as Ecce Deus (The First Song of Isaiah) as it appears among the Daily Office canticles. In the former reading the prophet speaks as the voice of the Lord articulating the vision of things set right. Here, by contrast, the prophet has the Lord giving to us fitting words of confession (“you were angry with me, [but] your anger turned away”) and gratitude for the gift of salvation. It is the Lord who gives us even the words we need and that source is profound: “you shall draw water from the wells of salvation.” We are called not only to voice a paean of praise, but to fulfill a mission of proclamation as well: “make known his deeds among the nations.” We will need that water for such work in the desert of this world. And again, there is here the affirmation that it is Adonai, the Holy One who is with us in all this.
Malachi 4:1-2a. While from one perspective or another, the Isaiah readings present a largely positive vision of the kingdom or reign of God, this short lection from the concluding book of the Hebrew Scripture presents the final judgment in a sic et non manner. First, “the day [that] is coming” is announced as the negative aspect of “God’s great cleanup” – all that stands over against the Lord’s righteousness will be like stubble to be burned and the conflagration will be comprehensive and permanent (“root and branch”). But at last, and positively, for those who revere Adonai’s name and God’s righteousness, a new and healing day will dawn. Preaching judgment is never popular, since most contemporary English-speakers usually hear “judgmental” when the concept of judgment is broached. Nevertheless, a careful handling of the distinction may have good results. In any case, it will be important here to emphasize the difference between what might otherwise be interpreted as Divine violence and “the arrogant and all evildoers” enduring the consequences of their own attitudes or actions as over against God’s righteousness.
Psalm 98. Well, there’s no getting around it: if the choice of Psalm 98 was taken last week, here it is again, but this time without option! There are, however, several strategies to meet this exigency. One option is disguise: have the assembly (or the choir) sing it to Anglican chant rather than Simplified Chant (or vice versa) depending on what was done last week. Another ploy would be to recite it in a different way, e.g. by a cantor/lector taking verses with the assembly singing/reciting an antiphon. Or, for something completely different, since Advent – from the world’s point-of-view – is the subversive season, the assembly could sing Isaac Watts’ great paraphrase of Psalm 98's second half (vss. 5-9), namely, Joy to the World. A careful reading of the text discloses that it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas and everything to do with the parousia – “the Lord has come” (besides as a good scion of Puritan stock, Watts would never, ever have written a Christmas hymn!). Of course, your congregation will think you’ve gone mad. So one of the former strategies is commended.
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13. Compared to the clear eschatological note of last week’s reading from this epistle, there is seemingly little in this week’s continuation to raise the lection above the level of a moral exhortation (or, for those who do not find the Apostle congenial, a rant). Nevertheless, the preacher might notice two points. First, from the outset Paul grounds the authority for his message on “the name of our Lord [Adonai, again] Jesus Christ.” Second, it just may be that the idlers and those in the congregation who appear unwilling to work are those who were maintaining that the “day of the Lord” had already come. As a consequence they might have felt liberated from mundane tasks or bearing their fair share. Such an interpretation would certainly give more urgency to Paul’s moral message as it affects underlying formational values that, when put into practice, build character and bear on behavior in the community.
Luke 21:5-19. Point-of-view is important to reading the obviously present eschatological note of this passage. For original hearers Jesus makes an apocalyptic pronouncement about the fate of the Temple that must have been received as nearly, if not outrightly, blasphemous. From the evangelist’s place in time, that cataclysm had already occurred at the hands of the Romans in AD 70. With the perspective of two millennia, the list of “dreadful portents and great signs” enumerated by Jesus in the passage may appear to us as itemization of “this is the way human history unfolds” (or to paraphrase Augustine’s later statement: just one damn or damnable thing after another). For any and all hearers to the present time, however, what counts in this reading is faithfully living in terms of the kingdom or reign of God. The concluding phrase is meant both for our comfort (in the usual sense of the word) and strengthening (in its more unusual sense). In regard to the eschatological dimensions of the reading, and if Eucharistic Prayer B (BCP 1979) or Eucharistic Prayer 3 (BAS) is appropriately being used in this season, the preacher could call attention to the operative phrase for why we are engaged in giving thanks: “For in these last days...” – what follows covers from then to now and into the future.
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:
O Lord our God, you gave your law that righteousness might abound: Put it into our hearts to love justice for others as much as we desire it for ourselves, that, as we know you to be our judge, so we may welcome your reign as it is manifested through Jesus Christ our savior; to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever. Amen.
William H. Petersen is Emeritus Dean & Professor of Bexley Hall Seminary, Founder & Convener of the Advent Project Seminar, and an Honorary Member of APLM Council.