The four Sundays of Advent

Dec 10, 2019 by

by Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

I’ve worshipped in Anglican churches which don’t use the lectionary, and those which do. While there are advantages in not being tied to a set list of readings, and particularly in preaching chronologically through a book, the lectionary also has great assets. It has a long tradition – many of the patterns of readings date back to the early church. Our godly forbears thought long and hard about the effect readings, and their themes, have on the hearer even before preaching. And of course they undergird the telling of the gospel story, as through the cycle of the church’s year the whole counsel of God can be explained (even the more challenging parts) without the danger of accusations of “the vicar being on his hobby horse” if he selects his favourite passages.

As I’m due to preach the next two Sundays in different churches, I thought it would be a good exercise not just to look at the set passages for each day, but to look at all four Gospel readings for the Advent season, from Matthew this year (Year A). Some of them are not obviously ‘Christmassy’ but they provide a profound, rich and often quite sombre background to the usual more joyful Carol Service readings, and are worth a look as a whole. Here are my brief notes:

First Sunday in Advent: Matthew 24:36-44

“Therefore keep watch, for the Son of Man will come at an hour when you don’t expect him” v42

Some comments:

The passage begins with Jesus warning about “that day”, referring to the final winding up of human history by God’s judgement.  It concludes a chapter where Jesus refers to various outpourings of judgement through history: the destruction of Jerusalem, the rise and fall of kingdoms, an increase of evil, the preaching of the gospel to all nations, the final visible appearance of Christ. The latter event will come suddenly with no warning. It will involve separation of the righteous and unrighteous.

Faithful Israelites before Christ waited expectantly with longing for Messiah’s coming, with worship, prayer and counter-cultural living. So should those who follow the Lord today. Advent, the special season for remembering Messiah’s first coming, leads us to remember the future second, cosmic revelation of Christ’s universal rule. This gives us a correct perspective on history in our own time of political upheaval. It reminds us that the gospel of God’s love in Christ only makes sense in context of God’s just judgement of the world. We need to be prepared and watchful, not with a false optimism about our world today, or despairing pessimism about the future.

Second Sunday in Advent: Matthew 3:1-12

“I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who…will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” v11.

Some comments:

The ministry of John the Baptist is introduced. He fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah: the one calling in the desert for preparation for the Lord’s coming. His message: repent, confess sins, be baptised. He warns of “coming wrath”, where safety is based on “fruit in keeping with repentance” not religion or status. He is just the messenger; the Messiah is coming.

As we remember the Christ who came into the world, the season reminds us again to prepare our hearts for the Lord’s coming into our lives today. Our necessary response is active – a conscious act of the will to repent, and passive; receiving a supernatural cleansing and infilling by the Holy Spirit.

Third Sunday in Advent: Matthew 11:2-11

“Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” v3.

Some comments:

John, used so mightily by God is preaching about the coming Messiah, was persecuted by the authorities, and in prison. His faithfulness has brought him up against the powers of the world. He seemed to doubt the identity of Jesus and wondered if someone else would come – maybe he expected to be rescued?

Jesus’ response is to point to his own ministry of healing, and gospel preaching to the poor, confirming his identity. Jesus honours John as the most important prophet and the greatest human being who ever lived, yet flawed, and so equal to the humblest believer in the non-hierarchical Kingdom of Heaven.

This passage is usually linked with Isaiah 35, a picture of flowers blooming in the desert, of a fearful and defeated people being rescued and vindicated, of celebration as the sick and disabled are healed, of a safe road for travellers to Zion.

Advent works best not for the complacent, but for God’s people struggling, facing godlessness around us and even persecution, frail in body and spirit, wondering whether God will come and rescue and change things for the better. We look at the baby in the manger, the first century preacher, the suffering man on a cross, and ask whether all our hopes can rest on him? Faith looks at the evidence and says ‘yes’.

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Matthew 1:18-25

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins”. v21.

Some comments:

Mary was pregnant, but a virgin. The reaction of disbelief and sneering condemnation from some around her would have been worse then than now. Her fiance Joseph, descended from David, would have faced censure as well. He planned to end the engagement quietly. An angel told him in a dream that the child was indeed conceived from the Holy Spirit, would be born, named ‘Jesus’, and would save people from their sins. Matthew refers to a strange prophecy in Isaiah 7: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son called Immanuel. Joseph married Mary but she remained a virgin until after she gave birth.

We’re so familiar with this story but its brevity encompasses some complex, mysterious gospel themes:

  • Jesus is conceived uniquely as a result of an intimate human-divine encounter, without sex. Luke’s account focusses more on Mary’s humble response.
  • Mary was a virgin and experienced the holy God in this way, yet suffered shame in her community.
  • Joseph also experiences God’s supernatural intervention – an angel in a dream – and was obedient to the heavenly instruction.
  • Jesus at his birth is given the titles “God saves” and “God with us”. This echoes the prophecy of Isaiah 9 where a human child descended from David is given the title “mighty God”.

Some application from the four readings:

The low-key but ever-compelling story we reflect on at this time is not like a Christmas pantomime. The main characters are not obvious human heroes or villains but a lonely prophet, a peasant girl and her carpenter fiance, a baby who grows into a preacher with a healing ministry. In a sense we are still in the story – the happy ending has not happened yet.

At a time when arguments rage about how much government spending, what international treaties and which celebrity politicians can ‘save’ us as a nation, the Advent readings remind us that the real issues are spiritual and moral: God is in charge but we have failed in our responsibilities to love him and one another. He will return in judgement; we need to humbly repent, receive his forgiveness, be filled with his Spirit and await his final coming. This season, how many churches will, like Joseph and Mary, take the tough road of obedience in the face of sneering, and like John the Baptist, risk persecution in explaining God’s amazing salvation in the context of sin and judgement, and resist the temptation just to link Christmas with a sentimentalised, secular version of ‘love’?

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