Sermon Illustrations on Advent
Advent is God Coming to Us
Advent is a coming, not our coming to God, but his to us. We cannot come to God, he is beyond our reach; but he can come to us, for we are not beneath his mercy. Even in another life, as St. John sees it in his vision, we do not rise to God, but he descends to us, and dwells humanly among human creatures, in the glorious man, Jesus Christ.
And that will be his last coming; so we shall be his people, and he everlastingly our God, our God-with-us, our Emmanuel. He will so come, but he is come already, he comes always: in our fellow-Christian Christian (even in a child, says Christ), in his Word, invisibly in our souls, more visibly in this sacrament. Opening ourselves to him, we call him in: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; 0 come, Emmanuel.
Advent is Not Merely A Month Per Year
All our life we are in Advent, since we Christians are still waiting for the one yet to come. Then only will it be said that we were right. Before then, however, the world seems to be we were right. Before then, however, the world seems to be we were right. The world will laugh while you are crying, the Lord says.
We, too, are sitting in prison: in the prison of death, of unanswered questions, of our own weakness, of our own pitiful state, of misery and the tragedy of life. We will not get out alive. But daily we will want to send off messengers of our faith and of our prayer to the one who is yet to come to judge the living and the dead. These Advent-like messengers will always come back to us to report See, I am coming; blessed are those not turned off by me.
The Beginning is About the End
It is a strange thing. At the beginning of our preparation for Christmas, the gospel is about the end of the world. And yet, it is not surprising. For what is already contained in a small beginning is most easily recognized in its great ending. What is truly meant by the arrival of the Savior with his great “advent, what has already happened there, is best seen in the completion of this arrival, which we commonly and somewhat mistakenly call his “second advent.” In reality, it is the completion of his one advent that is still in progress.
This is why our church’s Advent is not a mere remembering of something that has gone by, but people’s entry in faith and hope and love into a development that started when God himself stepped into the history of his world and made this history his own.
Scripture reference: Luke 21:25-33
Burnout and A Loss of Meaning
Burnout is the disease of our age. Time magazine had an editorial way back in the 1980s about “the burnout of just about everybody.” I concluded that the metaphor of burnout was not quite right, particularly when applied to those of us in the church. Burnout is a term that is borrowed from rocketry, when a rocket rising from the earth runs out of fuel, “burns out,” and falls to the earth.
Burnout implies that our problem is a lack of energy. I have concluded that many people who think they are “burning out” do so, not from the lack of energy, but from a lack of meaning. We are tired and despondent. The French call it ennui; the Bible speaks of the “noonday demon,” depression. Advent is an appropriate season to ask, “Wherein will renewal and restoration be found for tired people like us?” The prophet Isaiah may be of some help here. “Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength” (Isa 40:31 NRSV).
Managing the Big Battalions of Life
A century ago, men were following with bated breath the march of Napoleon and waiting feverishly for news of the war. And all the while in their own homes, babies were being born. But who could think about babies? Everybody was thinking about battles. In one year, there stole into a world a host of heroes. Gladstone was born in Liverpool, England, and Tennyson at Somersby. Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Massachusetts.
The very same day of that same year, Charles Darwin made his debut at Shrewsbury. Abraham Lincoln drew his first breath in Old Kentucky, and music was enriched by the birth of Felix Mendelssohn in Hamburg. But nobody thought about babies. Everybody was thinking about battles.
Yet, which of the battles of 1809 mattered more than the babies that were born in 1809? We fancy that God can only manage His world through the big battalions of life, when all the while He is doing it through the beautiful babies that are being born into the world. When a wrong wants righting, or a truth wants preaching, or a continent wants opening, God sends a baby into the world to do it. And where do you find God on Christmas? In a manger. A baby was born at the heart of the Roman Empire, that when the Roman Empire would crumble and fall, that baby, who would become a man,
Frank W Boreham, Mountains in the Midst, 1909.
The Three Advents
It would generally be agreed that Advent celebrates three “advents.” This ‘version, from early Lutheran preaching, will serve as well as any:
Adventus redemptionis: the incarnate Christ “born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate”
Adventus sanctificationis: the presence of Christ in Word and sacrament
Adventus glorificamus: the coming in glory to be our judge on the last day
All of this is part of the Advent message.
The Time Between the Time
In a very real sense, the Christian community lives in Advent all the time. It can well be called the Time Between, because the people of God live in the time between the first coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and his second coming, in glory, to judge the living and the dead. In the Time Between, “our lives are hidden with Christ in God; when Christ who is our life appears, then we also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3-4). Advent contains within itself the crucial balance of the now and the not-yet that our faith requires….The disappointment, brokenness, suffering, and pain that characterize life in this present world is held in dynamic tension the church lives its life.
Which Advent Do We Prepare For?
Is Advent a preparatory fast in preparation for the liturgical commemoration of the historical birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, or is Advent a season unto itself. A sacrament of the end of time begun in the incarnation and still waiting on its final consummation at the close of the present age? Is the content of Advent’s proclamation centered in eschatological dread, judgment, and condemnation or eschatological hope, expectation, and promise?
Is Advent really the beginning of the annual cycle or does Advent bring the year to a conclusion? The fact is that each of these “either/ors” are really “both/ands.” And it is precisely because we cannot eliminate one or the other but must hold them in tension that we have inherited “a season under stress’’ [Richard Hoefler]…shaped by darkness and light, dread and hope, judgment and grace, second and first comings, terror and promise, end and beginning.
J. Neil Alexander, “A Sacred Time in Tension,” in Liturgy, vol. 13, no. 3.
Where Are You?
For all the wandering, this is the first question of the Old Testament—God coming to ask after you, “Where are you?” Where are you in your life? Where are you—from Me? To get where you want to go, the first question you always have to answer is Where am I? “Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what He gives. We hunger for something more, something other.”[
The only thing that will satisfy our hunger for more is to hunger for the One who comes down to Bethlehem, house of Bread, the One who comes after us and offers Himself as Bread for our starved souls.
And for all the wondering, this is the first question of the New Testament, when the wise men come asking, “Where is he?” (Matthew 2:2). We only find out where we are when we find out where He is. We only find ourselves . . . when we find Him. We lost ourselves at one tree. And only find ourselves at another. Wise men are only wise because they make their priority the seeking of Christ.
The Combination of Royalty & Stooping
It’s been a few decades since Diana, Princess of Wales passed away in that tragic car accident. At the time, I was a teenager, and really didn’t understand what the massive outpouring of grief shown on the news was all about. Clearly though, I could sense something different in the way people were reacting, even if perhaps the response was a bit unhealthy.
Recently, I’ve been reading through Fleming Rutledge’s book, Advent, which includes both an essay on the season and a series of sermons. In one sermon, given in 1999, Rutledge pinpoints, in some detail, what it was that made Princess Di the icon she was, and why it was that she was mourned in such spectacular fashion after her death. And in this story, is a segue into the more important story of the Christ child, who also manifests the same characteristics.
The star of Diana, Princess of Wales, has faded a bit in the year since the first anniversary of the funeral that was watched by two billion people.
…Among media people, there has been a lot of second-guessing about excessive coverage…The various talking heads spoke of her beauty, accessibility, modernity, vulnerability, compassion, and common touch—all correct so far as they went—but no one precisely identified the combination that made Diana exceptional.
Many famous people have engaged in charitable activities…None of these, however, were able to combine in one person what was given Diana to do. In the Princess of Wales, majesty stooped.
And this is where we come to that combination mentioned above. Rutledge notes that it is not simply because Diana stooped, that she was willing to comfort the sick, to bind the brokenhearted, but that she was able to do so…as royalty.
Many who saw the video of her Angolan visit would agree that Diana’s ability to communicate her concern for the wretched of the earth took the breath away. I read the testimony of an American physician who had accompanied her on hospital rounds where there were no cameras. He said she did not hesitate to caress and linger beside patients with disfigurements and symptoms that were distressing even to medical personnel. That capacity, the doctor emphasized, cannot be faked. When it is offered generously and unstintingly by a beautiful young woman who is the living embodiment of everyone’s image of a fairy princess, the impact is astonishing.
The problem with much of our Christology nowadays, it seems to me, is that we have concentrated so much on the stooping that we have lost sight of the royalty. More than half of the biblical message is thereby eliminated, for it is the combination that counts.
Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, 2018.
Doom and Deliverance: The Nature of Advent
In her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge tries to remind us of just how dire the circumstances were in which the scenes of Advent took place. While we often domesticate the season down to a nativity scene, this story is a a reminder again of our complete need of rescue from our God:
In 2017, Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, was suffering from a prolonged crisis as a result of civil war.
The government and all its agencies had ceased to operate. All services—medical care, sanitation, food supply, factories, airports, seaports, bridges—everything was collapsing. Parents were desperate as their children began to die of cholera, a disease that is easily treated in the developed world.
A man named Muhammad Nasir waited outside a primitive cholera clinic as his son Waleed hung by a thread. Even if he recovered, his father had no money to return home. Another poor man, Saleh al-Khawlani, had fled from bombing with his wife and six children from one side of Yemen to another. He said, “The war haunts us from all directions.” A third man, Yakoub al-Jayefi, a Yemeni soldier, had not been paid anything for eight months, and his six-year-old daughter was in dire condition from malnutrition. Waiting by her side in a clinic, he said, “We’re just waiting for doom or for a breakthrough from heaven.”
This is precisely the Advent situation: doom on one hand, deliverance on the other. The fact that the Yemeni are Muslims opens up a universal dimension to the description of a world poised on the brink of “a breakthrough from heaven.”
Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, 2018.
Evil and Incarnation: Jesus Enters the World
Several years ago near the start of Advent, I awoke to a television report of five people murdered in a fast-food restaurant, and later that same morning I opened my newspaper and read that two robbers had shot a four-year-old girl in the chest when her mother could not silence her crying. My wife and I shook our heads in despair, offered a prayer, and then went on our way to work.
I turned on my e-mail, and the first message told me that a dear friend’s brother had been found beaten to death in his office. This time I sobbed. The intensely personal nature of the e-mail message broke open my heart and released the full fury of grief and sadness that had been touched but not mobilized by the morning litany of terror in the news. The distance of the public news stories collapsed beneath the burden of my close friend’s agony.
That year I carried all of those brutal killings to the lections for Advent and Christmas, and the weight in my soul compelled me to see the incarnation of Christ in a new way: God in Christ is subjected to the evil and violence of this world. God becomes as vulnerable as the victims in the fast-food restaurant who were found with duct tape over their mouths, as vulnerable as the four-year-old child shot in the chest because she could not stop crying, as vulnerable as my friend’s brother beaten in his office. For a moment I stop at the terror of this thought. I pray:
O Logos, do not become flesh, do not be born of Mary, do not send the angels to the shepherds, do not lay the little child away in the manger. Call it off before it is too late, before you enter this brutal, bleeding world. Stay high and mighty and powerful. Train your troops of angels, train the whole company of heaven and send them swooping down to stop the violence, the terror, the evil.
Then in the silence of my heart I see as never before that incarnation means a refusal to keep a safe distance between heaven and earth, between eternal good and mortal evil. If we are to be godly people we will have to follow the pattern of the incarnation, risking all for love, refusing to keep our distance from the brutality of this world. God is as vulnerable as a child in a stable, as vulnerable as a child in a supermarket whose mother cannot stop her from crying in the presence of robbers. This may not be the all-powerful God we sometimes pray for, but it is the God who becomes flesh to redeem us.
John The Baptist: Advent in Character
The premier personage of Advent is John the Baptist. When he appears on the banks of the Jordan, the cover-ups come to their appointed end. Two thousand years before all the Watergates, Irangates, and other sordid “-gates,” John came proclaiming God’s imminent judgment on the venality of governments, the corruption of police departments, the greed of financiers, the selfishness of the rich, the self-righteousness of the religious establishment. In the end, he became one of los desaparecidos himself, executed without a trial in the dank dungeon of the local strongman, thus becoming truly the precursor of the One whose way he prepared, the One whose death at the hands of the political and religious ruling classes signified the final judgment of God on all the powers and principalities.
“There are cover-ups of all sorts. There are families that will not acknowledge the alcoholism that is destroying them. There are people who are making their loved ones miserable but will not go to a therapist. There are secretaries who cover up for bosses, business partners who cover up for each other, colonels for generals, bishops for clergy, parents for children. Advent is the season of the uncovering: “Bear fruit that befits repentance. . . . Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees”! This is the right time to root out the cover-ups in our own lives, as we wait with bated breath for the lights to come on and the announcement of the angel that God is not against us but for us.
Anticipation Lifts the Heart
Anticipation lifts the heart. Desire is created to be fulfilled – perhaps not all at once, more likely in slow stages. Isaiah uttered his prophetic words about the renewal of the natural Creation into a wilderness of spiritual barrenness and thirst. For him, and for many other Old Testament seers, the vacuum of dry indifference into which he spoke was not yet a place of fulfillment.
Yet the promise of God through this human mouthpiece (and the word “promise” always holds a kind of certainty) was verdant with hope, a kind of greenness and glory. A softening of hard-heartedness, a lively expectation, would herald the coming of Messiah. And once again, in this season of Advent, the same promise for the same Anointed One is coming closer.
A Force of Love and Logic
The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it. Actually, maybe even far-fetched to start with, but the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in straw and poverty is genius, and brings me to my knees, literally. To me, as a poet, I am just in awe of that. It makes some sort of poetic sense. It’s the thing that makes me a believer, though it didn’t dawn on me for many years.
The Music Must Always Play
As Europe plunged ever deeper into a second world war, the British poet W.H. Auden composed a poem (“September 1, 1939”) that peels back our human tendency to cover up all fear and uncertainty with sentimentality. But, as Fleming Rutledge notes, “the poet knows better:”
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play.
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
Ultimately, a flourishing life can only be lived when we face our fears head on, to allow our “fort”-like defenses down. The season of Advent calls us to peel back these layers, to see the situation, that is, our utter need of a savior, for the truth of what it is.
Source Material from “W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939,” in The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden (New York: Random House, 1945), 57.” Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Eermdans, 2018.
The Shadow or the Person
Here’s an Advent illustration for kids — and those of us who used to be kids and remember what it was like. Suppose you and your mom get separated in the grocery store, and you start to get scared and panic and don’t know which way to go, and you run to the end of an aisle, and just before you start to cry, you see a shadow on the floor at the end of the aisle that looks just like your mom. It makes you really happy and you feel hope. But which is better? The happiness of seeing the shadow, or having your mom step around the corner and it’s really her?
That’s the way it is when Jesus comes to be our High Priest. That’s what Christmas is. Christmas is the replacement of shadows with the real thing.”
John Piper, Devotional “Our High Priest Is the Son of God Perfect Forever”
A Season Pregnant with Purpose
God takes 40 weeks to create a human life in the incubator of a mother’s body. As the tendons are woven around the joints and the lungs find strength to eventually breathe air, the parents wait with anticipation to meet their new child: choosing a name, stocking up on supplies, and reading about what to expect in those first sleepless months of parenthood.
It is a grace from God that their journey takes the better part of a year. So, too, grace is in Advent, a season pregnant with the purpose of intentional delay. More than 2,000 years after the historic event of Jesus’s birth, we live in a world where Christ already lived. But we still wait until all things will be fully redeemed and made new. The world is not as it should be. Not yet.
We wait in the shadows for God’s full redemption and perfect light that are promised. Advent is a small, annual remembrance of our greater waiting for the complete fulfillment of Christ’s life on earth: that the world might be redeemed. In this season, as we wait for Christmas, we also wait with an even greater hope for the earth.
Tsh Oxenreider, Shadow & Light: A Journey into Advent, Harvest House, 2020.