Preaching Through Advent with Mission in Mind
The Rev. Canon Dr. Scot McKnight talks through each of the Advent gospel lections to help pastors who are preparing to preach and teach the scriptures this season. For the full conversation between Scot and Bishop Todd Hunter, listen to S3E2 of the Intersection Podcast, Advent with Mission in Mind with Scot McKnight.
Week 1, Matthew 24:36-44:
“But about that day and hour, no one knows.”
This is an eschatological passage. How is eschatology meant to affect our life and ministry? How should we as ministers think about this?
This was drilled home for us by George Ladd, if we read him in our college or seminary years. I started reading him in 1974. When Theology of the New Testament came out, I was at Eerdmans bookstore the day it arrived. I picked up a copy for $2.95 and I went home and started reading it. For me, the first thing we have to do when we get an eschatological text is say, “What’s the big picture here?” The big picture is not the Rapture, and the big picture is not “When will this occur?”
Tom Wright said, “It’s not like Jesus is going to come surfboarding out of the sky on a cloud.” Once, when my son was visiting the University of South Carolina as a baseball player, a parachute came out of the sky and landed on the field. I remember thinking, “Not many people are going to see Jesus come back if this is what’s going to happen.” I could barely see the guy until he was 300 feet above the field.
The big picture is the establishment on earth, through God’s redemption, of justice and peace. God wants to make the world right. Evil must be conquered, defeated and banished, and righteousness, justice, peace, goodness and love have to be established. When we read Revelation, let’s not get lost in debates about how much blood has to flow in the Valley of Armageddon to drown those people and horses. If you’re there, you’ll realize it’s pretty hard for anything to be contained in that valley because it’s pretty flat all the way out to the sea. It’s not going to flood like that.
My belief is, we need to see the big picture in Advent readings: God redeeming through his promise made to Abraham, through the people of Israel that became the Messiah, that became the Church. This is the center of what God is doing in the world to make the world right. We need to focus on these big themes and see eschatology as establishing those themes.
If God is going to do this, and if our lives are out of line with justice, peace, wisdom and goodness, we’re going to have to be corrected, to repent and turn from sinful ways so we will walk into the kingdom as people ready for that kind of world. Dallas [Willard] used to say, “Heaven is only for those who really want to be there.” I believe that. It’s for people who want justice in this world, who grieve over injustices such as slavery and trafficking of young children and girls for the sexual pleasure of violent people. God doesn’t want that in this world, and that’s what the Kingdom of God is going to establish. It’s not so we can get together and have Bible study and put yellow highlighters on our favorite passages. It’s much bigger than that. It’s about hoping for what God wants and turning from what God doesn’t want. Repentance, then, becomes central to eschatological implications.
Week 2, Matthew 3:1-12:
Here, we have the anticipation of the Messiah coming, the classic Advent theme of “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his path straight.”
Preparation is a classic Advent theme. An aspect of repentance is this sense of preparation. In my book Pastor Paul, I write about how Paul was preparing Christoformity in his churches and the people in his churches.
But I get nervous about us “doing too much” for the Kingdom of God. I would prefer we learn that God’s grace through the power of the Spirit brings the Kingdom of God, not something that we do. We want to prepare to meet God because he is going to do the right thing and work in us great acts of redemption. One of the Advent themes is redemptive healing, as we see in Matthew 11 and Isaiah 35. Preparing to meet God is a big theme in the Old Testament, specifically preparing for God’s return to Zion so the glory of God will return to the temple.
It’s about a sense of readiness. It’s not like we are out there paving the roads so the Messiah’s trip up the hill is going to be smoother. It’s the work of God to make that path straight and to fill in the valleys. But we want to be ready for the Messiah when he comes. We can’t be ready if every Sunday we come to church in a hurry, and we’re all uptight about everything that’s happening. We need times of recollection, of sitting still so we can encounter the Advent message all over again, as if for the first time.
Week 3, Matthew 11:2-11:
John says to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait?” He is talking about the Messianic waiting. Jesus’ answer was, “Go tell him what you hear and see.” Advent is a time to help Christians and others see what’s real about the world. We live in this eschatological tension: Heaven is here but not consummated yet. We must show the world, “Here is what’s ultimate.”
I would set this into the context of how John the Baptist and Jesus seem to have had an ongoing dialogue of who does what in the Bible. It’s a fascinating conversation. John always seems to be three to four steps behind and not always on target. I think what John is saying in this passage is, “Jesus, remember your first sermon back in Nazareth when you said the prisoners would be set free? Are you that guy or not?” And Jesus says, “John, John, John. You’ve got me connected once again to the wrong figure. I am the one talked about in Isaiah 29, 35, and 61. I am the Messianic figure who will suffer and heal and fulfill those expectations, but people are going to be offended by me. Don’t take offense that I’m not going to be right there where you want me to be.” John seems to be appealing to Malachi, and Jesus says, “No, let’s go back to Isaiah. That’s who I am.”
Again, it’s a matter of identity, and when we see who Jesus is, we see what the world is. This is a world that’s blind, lame, unclean, in need of redemption. Stanley Haeurwas said, “The purpose of the church is to reveal to the world its worldiness.” I love that. That’s what Jesus does. He says, “These are things you don’t want to talk about—but this is what it’s about.”
Week 4, Matthew 1:18-25:
Here we read the prophecy in v. 21 that Mary will bear a son, named Jesus, “for” he will save his people from their sins. What could this have meant to the original hearers, that this baby will save his people from their sins? How can we help our congregations hear this today, and understand the import of our sins being forgiven?
Israel has hope. A deep thread running through all the Prophets is the expectation that God will liberate the people from all oppressions, from all conquerings, and turn them loose in the land, and the temple will be flowing as it should (see the Song of Zechariah in Luke 1 and ultimately the Song of Mary in the Magnificat from Week 3). Israel is expecting God to come back and redeem and liberate his people.
For Israel, salvation from sin is individuals who have sinned against God and who need to confess their sins—that’s why they have Yom Kippur. At the same time, it’s national—Israel sins constantly. In Isaiah, to be forgiven from their sins is to be returned from Babylon back to Israel where again order will be established, Yahweh will be on Mt. Zion, the temple will be filled with the glory of God. This is what Matthew is seeing in our passage. He is quoting Isaiah to remind the people of the expectation they’ve had all along that is now going to be fulfilled in this baby boy, who will be the Messiah and who will return to Zion to once again fill the temple/people of God with the glory of God.
I think we need to preach the whole Bible when we preach Matthew 1-2. These Old Testament texts are trying to get us to see the Bible coming to fruition.
In Matthew 1:22, we see the statement that “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.” When the Message first started rolling out, Eugene Peterson wrote little introductions to all the books. He wrote in his intro to Matthew: “Fulfilled” in Matthew is a characteristic verb … Over and over again, Matthew says “such and such happened that it might be fulfilled.” Eugene talks about the importance of narrative. One of the great things I love about the church calendar and Advent is that it gives us such a great opportunity to preach narratively, to stitch together this big story from the calling of Abraham to the consummation of the eschaton, and the church’s place in it, and the disciples’ place in it. Matthew was aware of an unfolding narrative. This is a good time to help people in your church answer their questions of “Who am I? What does it mean to be alive? What is my purpose?” If we can answer that narratively, I find it to be really powerful.
Eugene Peterson also critiques systematic theology for ignoring too many narrative passages in the Old Testament: “Once we’ve figured out our theology, we don’t need the Bible anymore.” I’m reading Leviticus right now. You read some of these stories and you go, “Oh boy, I’m not too proud of some of these people.” It reminds me of some crazy uncles I have in my own family. We’ve got some sins we’re not too proud of. But this is our people. If we don’t embrace that, we don’t get to embrace the hopes these people had, that they would be delivered from crazy uncles, that they would be given a leader who would be good unlike the corrupted leaders Ezekial and Zechariah talk about, that Jesus would be a good shepherd. People just want to get to the theological significance of this passage, but we must root it, baptize it, immerse it in the stories awakening this hope in us.
To go deeper on this topic, listen to S3E2 of the Intersection Podcast, Advent with Mission in Mind with Scot McKnight.