Preaching Advent has been a highly rewarding experience (well for myself in any event . . . I won’t speak for the congregation). I preached three of four Advent Sundays. I decided to follow the Romans texts. I was able to integrate the first two texts within the broader and more traditional context of Advent with relative ease. First Advent was a re-evaluation of time (entering Messianic time); Rom 13. Awake the time is at hand. Second Advent was the need for local, particular traditions to be challenged so that Christ might enter into them; Rom 15. Fourth Sunday in Advent, however, takes us right back to the beginning of Romans. It was in preparation for this sermon that Paul’s non-Christmas imagery was catching up with me. What the hell I am supposed to do with Paul’s call to be a servant, set apart for the Gospel? I could focus on his note that this was promised beforehand through the prophets but that felt like a cop-out. I decided to go canonical on this one and embrace a Pauline Christmas. Romans 1 is the first chapter of Paul’s first book in the New Testament so I took it as programmatic and read this as Paul’s Advent. Here are a few excerpts;
There is no Christmas story as such in Paul’s letters. . . . The beginning for Paul then is not the birth of Jesus but the birth of his faith. In many ways our reading this morning was in fact Paul’s Christmas story. He begins the book of Romans which is the first of Paul’s letters in the New Testament saying, Paul a servant of Messiah Jesus. The Greek is beautiful in its simplicity here. Paulos doulos, Christou Jesou. Paul servant / Messiah Jesus. We could say that Paul’s first encounter with the baby Jesus is when he came along and knocked Paul off his horse on the road to Damascus. Advent simply means arrival. For Paul there is now no other arrival than encountering the resurrected Jesus. That is who we now encounter. There is no need to try and reclaim, reconstitute and refresh the old story of Christmas. The old story is new. The story is today. The story is now. . . . The story of Jesus’s birth, for Paul, is the story of Jesus being birthed in the churches. Paul states this clearly in his letter to the Galatians when he says, My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now.
This dramatically shifts our orientation for Christmas. It engages us. More than that it casts us unwittingly in the role of Mary, who usually is the most passive and still character in the Christmas pageants but now finds herself in the anxious final stages of pregnancy. Jesus has not come and yet Jesus is here. [inserted was humorous and uncomfortable observations of seeing my son being born] The tradition is not something we can suddenly pack up, stick a label on and then bring downstairs for the year.
We become Mary. We were the ones nine months ago, maybe nine years ago, maybe more when had a strange visit. God seemed, at least for that moment, to be clear. God called us. God loved us. God found us. God dwelt within us. But again, time moved on. We lost that feeling. In fact some mornings we felt sick. We found that things starting changing. Something was growing and taking shape that at once could feel so natural and yet also completely strange and foreign at the same time.
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This Advent thinking draws us away from turning the church into a large efficient hospital for people to come into. Maybe we could think about it not so much as building a big hospital but rather how we can be formed as midwives going out into our homes, neighbourhoods and workplaces seeing where the Kingdom of God is conceived and how it can be brought to birth. Instead of the priesthood of all believers we could speak of the midwifery of all believers. No matter your age or condition; no matter your intelligence or social standing you can be granted eyes to see the new life that is coming into the world. I hope each one of you hear this as a word of great hope and purpose. What is the Christmas story other than an old woman well past her child-bearing years giving birth to John and the Baptist and then a young virgin with no means of pregnancy giving birth to Jesus? All are called and gifted.
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Many times we here the Bible say that Christ’s coming is near. Paul says that the time is near. Revelation says that the time is near. Even Jesus said that the time is near. Maybe we have misunderstood this thinking. We have wanted to plot the point of Jesus’s coming on a timeline. Maybe that is not want they meant by saying Jesus’s coming is near perhaps they were thinking of Moses who said this to the people,
Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.
It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.