Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany
The word Advent transliterates the Latin adventus, which means “coming.” The season of Advent makes a double-edged theological point. Advent ties together the first and second comings of Jesus to stress that the redeeming work of God through Jesus that was manifest in the first advent (the birth) is not complete until the second advent (the return of Jesus). Advent is thus a time to prepare for both the first and second comings of Jesus.
Preachers may need to explain that the birth of Jesus only initiates the work of God taking place through Jesus. This is why several Gospel readings in the Revised Common Lectionary on the last Sundays of Ordinary Time focus on the second coming, as do the readings on the First Sunday of Advent, itself.* This raises the question for the preacher, “How do we prepare for this second coming?” The lectionary uses the figure of John the Baptist to represent the fundamental act of preparation: to repent from collusion with the values, practices, and powers of the idolatrous old age, and to turn toward the coming realm of God.
Only on the Fourth Sunday of Advent does the Christian year turn our attention to the birth of Jesus. The preacher could help the congregation recognize the birth of Jesus not as an end but as divine authorization of the ministry of Jesus, a work that climaxes only at the second coming.
The preacher following the Revised Common Lectionary may need to address a point at which some members of the church may be confused, as revealed in a parishioner’s remark, “I thought Advent is the season when we anticipate the birth of the infant Jesus. Why are we talking about the second coming and John the Baptist?” The lectionary preacher needs to help the congregation toward adequate visions of Advent. The non-lectionary preacher might focus on popular associations for the four Sundays of Advent: hope, peace, joy and love, or on Christian practices that prepare the congregation for the second and first comings, such as repentance, fasting, prayer, and neighbor-love.
Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the Sundays after Christmas give the preacher an opportunity to explore not only the meaning of the birth of Jesus but also larger issues of Christology.* On a Christological spectrum, meanings of Jesus vary from the high end, which sees the birth of Jesus as the incarnation of God become flesh, to the low end, which places minimal theological significance on the birth of Jesus.
The former emphasis calls for the preacher to unpack the significance of the incarnation for the church and world. The issue for this preacher and congregation is less how Jesus can be both fully human and fully divine and more why this development matters. What does it do for church and world?
The emphasis at the other end of the Christological spectrum gives the preacher an opportunity to help the congregation think about how the birth texts can contribute to their confidence that God authorizes the ministry of Jesus. The minister can also think with the congregation about the significance of the broader ministry of Jesus in such roles as rabbi, prophet, and wisdom teacher.
Regardless of the location of the preacher on the Christological spectrum, the preacher likely faces a problem that bleeds into the church from North American Christmas culture. Many households reduce Christmas to giving and receiving gifts in a warm family time. Without disrespecting such genuine but reduced associations, the preacher needs to help the congregation open the lens of its vision to see the birth of Jesus signaling God’s possibilities for renewal in a broken world.
Epiphany is not a season but a day that brings the Advent–Christmas–Epiphany cycle to a conclusion. The word epiphany transliterates a Greek word for “manifestation.” Epiphany occurs on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. When Epiphany takes place during the week, some churches observe a Sunday near January 6 as Epiphany Sunday.
Since the Revised Common Lectionary assigns the same Gospel reading for Epiphany in each of the three lectionary years (Matt. 2:1-12), the visit of the astrologers—gentiles whose presence in the text prefigures the gentile mission in Matthew—is the main focus of Epiphany Day. That text functions here as a theological symbol of the larger conviction that God’s blessing flows through Jesus to gentiles in a way similar to its flow through Israel.
The preacher may unreflectively imply that God’s love for gentiles was hidden until Jesus. To the contrary, according to the priestly theologians, the purpose of Israel’s life was to model the way of blessing for gentiles (for example, Gen. 12:1-3, Isa. 42:6). Strands of the end-time thinking that influenced the Gospels and Letters looked forward to a great reunion of Jewish and gentile peoples in the Realm. The ministry of Jesus, signaling nearness of the apocalypse, points to the coming of that reunion. Jesus’ followers can welcome gentiles into the eschatological community by repentance, baptism, and living in the ways of God.
*The Sunday honoring Christ the Cosmic Ruler (Proper 29, 34) immediately precedes the First Sunday of Advent. While the Gospel text for Year A is the final apocalyptic judgment (Matt. 25:31-46), the texts for Years B and C are from the trial and death of Jesus (John 18:33-37; Luke 23:33-43) and thus call attention to the fact that Jesus’ rule is not shallow triumphalism but comes from brutal confrontation with the rulers of the old age. While this makes an important theological point, parishioners often need an explanation for why we come to the climax of the Christian year—which has been building toward the second coming—and then read from the crucifixion.
*Christian theology after the Bible places much greater emphasis on the birth of Jesus than do the Gospels and Letters. Mark shows no interest in the birth. Paul does draw on the preexistence of Jesus and his descent from heaven but does not dwell on the birth or life of Jesus. Paul focuses instead on Jesus’ death, resurrection, and return. In both Matthew and Luke-Acts, the birth of Jesus is a very small part of the overall books. John gives the fullest theological significance to Jesus as the preexistent Word who becomes flesh. None of these writers—even John—fully articulates the doctrine of the incarnation that comes to expression in later Christian thinking.
excerpt from: Sermon Treks: Trailways to Creative Preaching by Ronald J. Allen Copyright©2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.