The Virgin and Child. Icon from Tsilkani, 9th century. Art Museum of Georgia via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image.
Dear Working Preacher,
Thank you, thank you, thank you! First, of course, for your faithful ministry. But also for your support of this website, support that makes it possible for us to continue furnishing working preachers around the globe with resources that are fresh, faithful, and free. Thank you.
Now, to the passage at hand: We’re into the year of Luke, and given the peculiar logic of the lectionary we begin with a prediction of the end of the world, continue with two weeks of the ministry of John the Baptist (and the story of John’s birth), and then wind things up the songs of Elizabeth and Mary. Talk about confusing.
Or, depending on how you look at it, talk about a great opportunity for a sermon series! Anytime is a good time for a sermon series, I believe, simply because a series gives a sense of purpose and progress that adds to the expectations and anticipation our folks may bring to Sunday morning worship. But seasons like Advent seem particularly ripe to help us move beyond the narrative confusion of the season and into the deeper theological and catechetical design of the lectionary. With that in mind, I’m going to take the coming four weeks to propose just such an Advent sermon series, though whether you want to engage in the whole series or not, I hope and expect that each week’s column will still be useful to you.
The theme of the series: The Promises of Advent. And, for those who are interested and want to plan ahead, here is the proposed outline:
December 2, Advent 1: Luke 21:25-36 – A Promise Big Enough to Save
December 9, Advent 2: Luke 3:1-6, Luke 1:68-79 – A Promise So Ordinary Its Easy To Miss
December 16, Advent 3: Luke 3:7-18 – A Promise Each of Us Is Invited Into
December 23, Advent 4: Luke 1:39-55 – A Promise That Changes the World
Luke 21:25-36 – A Promise Big Enough to Save
In order to preach this text aright, I believe we should first and foremost admit that it will sound to most of our hearers – and, quite frankly, also to us (if we really listen to it) – as sheer fantasy.
Really. I mean, in this passage you have Jesus promising his disciples that there will come a time of great tribulation and difficulty and trial and testing and that during that time the son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory and his appearance will inaugurate the redemption of his followers. And here’s the thing – have you seen it, or for that matter anything remotely like it? Oh sure, trials and tribulation, the roaring of sea and wave; feels like the evening news, especially this year after Sandy. But the coming on clouds in power and glory? Probably not. Except maybe in a movie, or a comic book, or a fairy tale, or a science fiction novel,… or the Bible.
Which is why I describe it as fantasy.
Notice, however, that I didn’t say it’s not true, but rather that it’s fantasy – as in fantastical, beyond our experience, extraordinary, not of this world. And, I would argue, precisely because it is not of this world, because it is beyond our physical and material existence and experience, it has the power to redeem us. That is, I believe the Bible not because it tells me of things I have seen and know for myself but precisely because it describes a reality that stretches beyond the confines of my finite, mortal existence and therefore has the capacity to redeem me…and you…and this life and world we share.
Near the beginning of his lengthy Christmas poem, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden pens the following confession: “Nothing can save us that is possible: We who must die demand a miracle.”
And there it is: when you are on the brink of death – from illness or failure or disappointment or heartbreak or calamity or oppression or depression or burnout or whatever – when you are on the brink of death you are keenly aware that you are insufficient, that this world and reality is temporary, and that you stand in desperate need of the miraculous, of salvation, for that which is merely possible cannot save. And that is what the gospel offers – an impossible possibility, a reality that transcends the everyday real, a Truth deeper than all else we have been told is true, a story that stretches beyond and encompasses all our stories so as to give them meaning, integrity, and purpose.
Now some, I know, would call this an escape, a flight from reality and the specter of death. And, honestly, let’s not fool ourselves: this is the great risk, the significant gamble of the Christian life. For the truth the gospel proclaims is not some mere fact that we can verify but rather is a claim, a confession, even a wager, that there is a Reality and Truth beyond the confines of our mortal, meager existence that we will not fully experience until the world as we know it passes away and then and only then will we see through the glass clearly and understand fully even as we are fully understood.
But it is a risk, make no mistake, one that we cannot calculate or estimate ahead of time but which we throw ourselves into mind, body, and spirit simply because we not help it; because, that is, we have been taken captive to the Word of God through our encounter with Scripture, drawn into this world of faith like Lucy through the wardrobe and, having tasted the promises of God, cannot return. And so there it is: the gospel is true, and it is fantastic, otherworldly, beyond our experience.
Now, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure we get that. Or maybe we’ve just forgotten it – just how audacious, even ridiculous the gospel is. How contrary it is to all our reason and experience. No wonder Paul calls it foolishness – for it isn’t simply good news, but rather news that is too good to be true. I mean, think about it. Week in and week out, we preach and listen to a gospel story that asserts not only that there is a God who has created and still sustains the vast cosmos, but that this God not only knows that you exist, but gives a damn, actually cares, deeply and passionately about you and your hopes and dreams, successes and failures, cares enough to send God’s only Son into the world to die that you might have life.
I mean, my goodness, but that message is, quite literally, in-credible, that is, not believable, because in the face of the evening news this news is simply too good to be true. Or, maybe, just maybe it’s so good that it must be true. That was the opinion, anyway, of J.R.R. Tolkien, the Oxford English professor, devout Roman Catholic, and author of The Lord of the Rings, who in an essay written half a century ago argued that the gospel story is not only the perfect fairy tale but is actually the root of all fantasy, because it tells the deeply true and ultimately joyful story of humanity – fallen and redeemed – in all of its horror, poignancy, and glory.
Imagine that, if you will, that Lewis’ Narnia and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Rowling’s Hogwarts and even Collins’ Panem are all – some directly others less so, some intentionally others accidentally – only reflections of the deeply true and ultimately joyful story of wayward humanity and God’s passionate, tenacious quest to redeem us through love.
And it’s not just this passage from Luke, of course. For while Luke claims in this passage that Jesus will come again to redeem and to save, Genesis claims that God the father of Jesus created heaven and earth in the first place and placed humanity at the center of this world to tend and care for it and each other, and both of these confessions are simultaneously incredible and true.
And it doesn’t stop here:
After all, Exodus announces that God cares deeply about the way we treat each other; ridiculous, but true.
And the prophets promise God’s comfort and mercy, even for those who have fled from God; unlikely, but true.
In Mary’s song that we’ll listen to in a few weeks we hear that the day will come when the world is turned so that all who are hungry and poor and in need will be satisfied – beyond our experience, but true.
And Galatians proclaims that in Christ there is no distinction between slave or free, male or female, that all are one in the unity of Christ – extraordinary, but true.
And Colossians declares that we are more than the sum of our past failures and shortcomings, that God has in fact nailed the record that stands against us to the cross; highly doubtful, but true.
And at the end of all this Revelation promises that God will wipe every tear from our eyes and create a new heaven and earth and dwell with all of us in peace – sheer fantasy, but true!
Do you see what I mean? From beginning to end the whole Bible makes extraordinary, otherworldly claims and promises about God that are simultaneously too good to be true and so good that when we hear them we just can’t help but believe they’re true, even know they’re true and live our life accordingly.
So let’s face it: this week’s passage is peculiar and hard and odd and wonderful because it announces to us a promise that itself is peculiar and hard and odd and wonderful, a promise, that is, that is big enough to save us.
Please know, Working Preacher, that I am so grateful for your commitment to proclaim this odd, audacious, and extraordinary promise to the health, edification, and salvation of your people. So let me end where I began: Thank you! Even more, thank God for you!