As always, thank you for what you do—preaching the strange, grace-bearing, kingdom-creating word of the gospel of Jesus Christ in a law-serving, free-will-grinding world. Thank you.
A blessed Advent to you and yours.
Speaking of Advent—the Third Sunday of Advent is upon us. In most years, this high holy day is known either as “Sunday School Christmas Pageant Sunday” or “Choir Cantata Sunday.” In these days of pandemic, it may be that your congregation(s) is still finding a way to make this Sunday about the kids or the choir.
If so, that may be fitting, since the Third Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudate Sunday, taking its name from the Latin for “Rejoice!” This tradition traces back to when Advent was primarily a penitential season (like Lent), leading up to the Festival of Christmas. When the focus was on penitence, Rejoice Sunday was a welcome intrusion of joy leading up to Christmas, based on Paul’s words to the Philippians, which form part of the introit to the Catholic Mass on this Sunday: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5). The call to rejoice is a fitting time for a carol sing, a choir concert, or a children’s program. Rejoice!
I would have been remiss and scolded by my colleague Matt Skinner, had I not mentioned Gaudate Sunday. So there. Now who’s naughty and nice?
But back to you and your work, Working Preacher. It may be that you that you still are called to preach this Sunday—either because the Christmas program or choir cantata is cancelled in this time of pandemic, or just because you always preach the word, whether there is a program or not.
Which brings us to the Gospel text for Sunday—the adult John the Baptist preaching and bearing witness to the advent of Jesus.
The Adult John the Baptizer in Advent?
Speaking of John the Baptist, I would also be remiss and scolded by my colleague Karoline Lewis, if I did not say that in “this Gospel” (meaning the Gospel of John), John is not “the Baptist,” because he doesn’t baptize Jesus. Rather, he is “John the Witness” because he bears witness to the advent of Jesus: “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 1:7-8). And also, “Among you stands one whom you do not know … the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (John 1:26-27).
I’ve always been confused by what the adult John the Baptist—or John the Witness—is doing in Advent.
Shouldn’t we have the adult Elizabeth in Advent, in whose womb the unborn saint leapt for joy (Rejoice!) when Elizabeth heard the greeting from her relative Mary, who was carrying the unborn Jesus in her womb? Wouldn’t that make a better Advent text? In fact, it is the alternate Psalm for the Third Sunday in Advent—at least the psalm people get it right as usual.
But let’s role with the adult John the Baptist—or John the Witness—for a moment. And let’s take him as the model for what a working preacher is supposed to be in Advent. Namely, a working preacher is a witness to the coming of Jesus and the incipient inbreaking of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection.
If we take John as our role, we Working Preachers are not to focus on our preparations for Christmas, but on the work of God. We are not to focus our peoples’ minds on the worldly preparations for Christmas—the decorating, the baking, the cleaning, the gift buying and wrapping, the cooking. And we are not to focus our peoples’ minds on the spiritual preparations for Christmas—not the spiritual waiting, the fasting (as if), the meditations, the devotions, the waiting, or even the penitence.
If John the Witness is our model, we are to bear witness to the coming of Jesus and to the work of God through his birth, life, death, and resurrection. That in Christ Jesus God has been at work reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us. And of this we are ambassadors (see 2 Corinthians 5:19-20). That is, we are witnesses. That alone is the gospel. And there is no other, as Paul has taught us.
And that alone is our calling as Working Preachers. To point to Christ—being born of a virgin, nursing at her breast, going about calling the outcast, healing the broken, forgiving sins, being crucified by the empire, dying, rising again, giving us victory over death. Good news indeed.
John in Advent is a witness to Christ. And as such he is a role model for the working preacher. This is the way that Martin Luther taught new Reformation preachers to approach this text about John the Witness during Advent. In his 1522 Advent Postil (a Postil was a model sermon), Luther wrote this concerning John 1:19-28:
The way of the Lord, as you have heard, is that he does all things within you, so that all our works are not ours but his, which comes by faith. This, however, is not possible if you desire worthily to prepare yourself by praying, fasting, self-mortification, and your own works, as is now generally and foolishly taught during the time of Advent. A spiritual preparation is meant, consisting in a thoroughgoing knowledge and confession of your being unfit, a sinner, poor, damned, and miserable, with all the works you may perform. The more a heart is thus minded, the better it prepares the way of the Lord, although meanwhile possibly drinking fine wines, walking on roses, and not praying a word.1
Don’t miss that last part. When the soul is prepared for the coming of Christ by preaching the good news that in Christ God is at work to reconcile and save the world, then in Advent “possibly drinking fine wines, walking on roses, and not praying a word” might also be appropriate parts of our Advent preparations. Even though, personally, I’m not much one for walking on roses.
So maybe the adult John in Advent isn’t such a bad idea after all. “He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him” (John 1:6).
Thank you for what you do, Working Preacher. And may you and yours have a blessed Advent.
Rejoice and bear witness!
- Martin Luther, Sermons of Martin Luther: The Church Postils, vol. 1, ed. John Lenker (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 20.