Preaching the Advent Texts: An Overview

The Advent texts for Lectionary Year C present a rich array of homiletical possibilities.

Old Testament texts speak of promises fulfilled, savior and warrior figures of salvation, purification, righteousness, and the establishment of security and peace.  Epistle texts are rich in themes of comfort, preparation for the return of Jesus, and specific instruction in what it means to live the sanctified life until his return.

Advent Year C texts are key for the preacher’s work in unfolding the year-long preaching work in Luke. The First Sunday in Advent signals a significant change in tone from the brevity of Mark to the extensive details and prophetic emphases of Luke’s Gospel.  Luke has extensive material focused on the people, places, and events leading up to Jesus’ birth. Its passages are so deeply engrained in our thinking, liturgy, and Christmas customs that preaching Luke in Advent becomes a particular discipline of restraint in looking at those stark texts which proclaim discipline, repentance, and anticipation of Jesus’ arrival.

Because the Gospel tends to be the text most often preached on a Sunday, it is important to note some of the overarching Lucan themes, however directly or indirectly they appear in these particular Advent texts.

Luke’s extensively utilizes prophetic texts. These often serve as the punctuation point to what a given character might say or do in a text.  The contents of many texts and their quoted prophecies focus on reversals and changes in fortune.  Such reversals are tied to historical events or the conversion of the sinner to the ways of God. Finally, Luke is deeply embedded in his world. He notes the historical setting of his time and while the forecast of what is to come is important, there is a sense of being securely anchored and cognizant of daily events which influence and herald the upcoming Incarnation. There is, one might say, a kind of hominess about some of the texts.

Following is a brief summary of some potential preaching themes and possibilities for each of the Sundays of Advent.

I. First Sunday in Advent

Texts from this day seem to represent a natural progression from the situating of where God’s actions and announcements of salvation will occur. The Jeremiah text proclaims a God who will bring salvation and “justice and righteousness in the land,’ specifically to Israel. The selection from Thessalonians presents a different staging area of God’s predicted arrival, which is in the human hearts of those who await him: “may the Lord so strengthen your hearts in holiness.” Finally, the Gospel text presents the coming of Christ against the backdrop of the entire cosmos.

II. Second Sunday in Advent

This Sunday focuses on the messenger theme. God’s arrival is foretold through the agency of human personality, actions, and words. Each of the texts describes somewhat differently the content of the messenger’s work in proclaiming the coming one. Malachi speaks of the “day of his coming” which will feature one whose work is to purify and refine the people of God. The images are fiery and radical, and the intended outcome is to produce the people righteous before God. Philippians takes up the same theme from the messenger Paul who sees his work in Christ as a striving for a “harvest of righteousness.”  The Gospel describes the familiar figure of John, situated firmly within the context of empire, baptizing and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. This Sunday’s Gospel demands radical change, decision, and new outcomes.

III. Third Sunday in Advent

Texts for this Sunday speak to the “How shall we respond?” question for those awaiting the coming God. Zephaniah bids the people not to be afraid, not to let their “hands grow weak” as they witness the specific works of God saving what may seem the unsalvageable. The text from Philippians anticipates the fears believers may have and advocates a “Don’t worry!” approach. Paul speaks of God’s proximity in the midst of trouble and the calming effects, through prayer, of God’s peace and provision.

The Gospel text for this Sunday is long. John’s proclamation provokes anxiety in the listeners and so he responds by telling them how they might live in response to God’s righteousness. He speaks variously to different stations in life, each with their own appropriate ways to respond: the people, the soldiers, the tax collectors. This Sunday is a good opportunity to address that often neglected part of proclamation: sanctification. How does one lead the holy life in awaiting God?

IV. Fourth Sunday in Advent

This Sunday offers a definitive focus on what might be called God’s body in the world. The familiar Micah text speaks of a woman giving birth and a ruler to come. The epistle text speaks in very specific terms of what it means to be made holy: “through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  A reading of this text in Advent becomes not a focus on the Eucharist so much as the body of the child to be born.

The Gospel text is framed by the story of Mary and Elizabeth. In true Lucan fashion it is reinforced by what parishioners know as the Magnificat. This work has its own mirror image in I Samuel 2: 1-10 where Hannah is praising God for Samuel’s birth.