“It’s the most wonderful time of the year” – except, when it’s not. Advent is a time of hope, peace, joy – except, when it’s not.
Preaching can be difficult in Advent, because it brings the messy realities of our world and our lives face to face with holly-jolly holiday consumerism. We wrestle in Advent with the tension between a promise of hope, and peace, and joy, and the reality of Ferguson. We wrestle with the contrast between already – the presence of God already and always with us – and not yet – the presence not yet fully realized, and sometimes even quite hidden by the circumstances of our lives and our world.
That’s why we read and preach the prophets in Advent. The words of the prophets cut through the haze of the present day and proclaim a hopeful future. Prophets “hear God when everybody else has concluded God is silent. They see God where nobody else would guess that God is present” (Deborah A. Block, “Zephaniah 3:14-20: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, vol. 1, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009], 52).
The prophets insist that God is not absent. Our congregations need to hear the prophets’ insistence.
What our congregations don’t need is more words. They hear more than enough talking heads. They hear (and read) endless sensationalized headlines, and they hear the same words repeated hour after hour after hour. They don’t need more words. What they need are new words. Words that call them back to God. Words that renew their hope and restore their faith. Words of the prophets.
Here’s how I used the prophet Zephaniah in a sermon a few years ago, in the wake of the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Perhaps this example will serve as a guide for your own prophetic preaching during Advent:
In Zeph 3:9 (CEB), the prophet speaks for God:
Then I will change the speech of the peoples into pure speech, that all of them will call on the name of the LORD and will serve him as one.
This verse falls just at the turning point of the tiny book of Zephaniah. The turning point between destruction and despair and a joyous hope for a peaceful future.
The first two and a half of Zephaniah’s three chapters are filled with judgment. Zephaniah lived – as we do – in a time of violence. The Assyrian King Manasseh ruled over Israel then, and Manasseh was a cruel and vengeful king. He practiced child sacrifice and murdered his own family. 2 Kings 21:16 tells us that Manasseh “spilled so much innocent blood that he filled up every corner of Jerusalem with it.”
The people in charge killed those they were to protect, and the city was drenched with innocent blood. That was Zephaniah’s context, his world.
That world feels heartbreakingly similar to our world. For some of us, “distress and anguish” came with the week’s news headlines. For others, it came when the doctor spoke the word “cancer” or the divorce papers arrived or the calendar reminded us of a painful anniversary. The “most wonderful time of the year” can be easily overshadowed by days of “darkness and gloom” (Zeph 1:15).
Zephaniah knew that. And he didn’t try to fill the darkness with sparkling tree lights or drown out the anguish with holiday carols. He didn’t start with joy.
He started by railing against the tragedy, by giving voice to the despair and the horror. He names anger, and pain, and grief. And not just our anger and pain and grief – Zephaniah names God’s anger and suffering, too. At least three-fourths of the prophet’s brief words are devoted to calling out the suffering and telling us that God shares it. They are “not yet” words.
He speaks them, and then he sits with them. Our news headlines today repeat hopeless words over, and over, and over again. The prophets don’t. They speak of despair, and then they sit with it as long as they must. So Zeph 3:8 (CEB) calls us to “wait for the Lord. Wait for the day when the Lord will rise up like a witness.”
I imagine, here, a long pause between v. 8, “wait for the Lord,” and v. 9, “In that time I will change the speech … they will call on my name.” How long did the prophet have to sit with the despair before finding the courage to pick up the pen and begin writing again, this time of a different future? How long was the wait?
The pause between those verses – that’s Advent. The waiting for a new word, for speech to be changed into praise. That’s where we live.
But it is not where we stay. The prophets knew that judgment was coming. But they also believed it was not the last word.
The last word, Zephaniah says, is a word of joy.
Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem. For the Lord your God is in your midst; he will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing. (3:14, 17, CEB)
I love these prophetic words – have loved them since I was a college student and first heard them. They are written in the tradition of women’s songs – within the stream of Miriam and Deborah, Mary and Elizabeth – women who lift their voices to praise God and sing for joy even in the midst of some of the most difficult of life’s circumstances. These are the words of women who live with fear and despair, and choose joy anyway.
Their joy isn’t naïve or irresponsible. They don’t turn away from suffering or ignore the pain. But they refuse to give it the last word. They insist that God will yet deliver the lame, gather the outcast, remove our judgment, and restore our wellbeing. And that is reason for joy even in the midst of sorrow.
Sometimes, it is hard to find the words to say. It seems there are already too many words said, and most of them not the right words. And then I realize: we don’t have to find words, because the prophets have already spoken them for us. We just need to hear their fierce insistence that God’s words are the truth: “Wait for the Lord.” “Rejoice.” “I am in your midst.”
[Adapted from a sermon preached at Coraopolis United Methodist Church in Coraopolis, PA, on 16 December 2012.]