The First Sunday of Advent (Year A), 1 December 2019
December 1, 2019 | by Ron Allen
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Turning toward Advent
Congregations often speak of Advent as a season of preparation for Christmas. But in the larger theological vista of the Christian Year, the preparation is not simply for celebrating Christmas on December 25 but is preparation for the second advent, that is the “coming of the apocalyptic redeemer on the clouds of heaven with great glory” (Matt 25:30), which leads to the final and complete manifestation of the Realm of God.
The Christian Year and the lectionary underscore this eschatological perspective in three ways. First, it assigns readings that point to the second coming as the previous Year C draws to a close (e.g. the question about the resurrection in Luke 20:27-38, and Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Luke 21:5-50). Second, it begins the new Year A with Matthew 24:36-44. This reading is an excellent introduction to both a main theme in Advent and to a main theme in the First Gospel: prepare for the second coming and the full and final manifestation of the Realm of God. Third, the Christian Year and the lectionary reinforce the end-time expectation on the Second and Third Sundays of Advent with the preaching of John the Baptist with its apocalyptic climax (Matt 3:1-12), and the claim that John is the re-visitation of Elijah shortly before the end (Matt 11:2-11 in conjunction with Mal 3:1; 4:5).
While the whole of the Gospel of Matthew aims to prepare listeners for the final Advent, Matthew 24:1-25:46 (Jesus’ final teaching discourse) intends to help listeners recognize that events taking place around the time of Matthew—the collapse of much of the world as they knew it—are signs that the last days are in view. This is especially clear in Matthew 24:1-28 where Matthew interprets several things that were happening in Matthew’s era as such indicators, such as the destruction of the temple by the Romans (Matt 24:1-2).
No One Knows the Day or the Hour
On the one hand, at the outset of the reading for today, the Matthean Jesus explicitly exhorts the community not to try to calculate the precise timing of the end, but to prepare for the great transformation by living in the present on the basis of the values and practices of the Realm of God. For sure, Matthew thinks that Jesus “is near, at the very gates,” (Matt 24:34). But, “about that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor [Jesus], but only [God]” (Matt 24:36). In 24:36, then, Matthew explains to the community that the delay does not mean that God has forgotten to return Jesus. God keeps the matter of timing entirely within God’s bosom. From this perspective, there is no point—as some Christian groups do today—in trying to calculate the timing of the great final transformation.
On the other hand, the rest of the passage urges the community to live in such a way as to be prepared for the second coming. As we noted above, this emphasis suggests that many in the congregation had become apathetic in life and witness. Perhaps the fact that Jesus had died and been raised about fifty years before but had still not returned contributed to a diminished sense of expectation.
While this caution is welcome to progressive Christians, it is still expressed within the assumption that an actual, material second coming will occur. We take that matter up in the hermeneutical reflection below.
The Time of Noah as a Paradigm for Understanding the Time of Matthew
In Matthew 24:37-39, Matthew uses the great flood in the time of Noah as a paradigm for interpreting the situation of Matthew’s community and time. Before the great flood of Noah’s time, people went about their everyday lives as they always had—”eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage”—without paying attention to the fact that they were quickly approaching the time of the flood. Consequently, most of the population was unprepared when the flood came unexpectedly.
Matthew sees the situation of his own epoch similarly, including the attitudes and behavior of people in the community. They are going about their everyday affairs without realizing that a time of reconfiguration even more powerful than that of the flood of Genesis 6-8 is at hand.
While Matthew does not specifically invoke the two parts of the great flood, the parts do correspond to the two waves of history associated with the return of Jesus. The first part is destruction. The flood destroyed every living thing. The end-time theology assumes the deconstruction of the present age. The second wave occurred after waters receded. Life began again with a fresh start. Similarly, beyond the deconstruction of the old age, God will manifest the Realm of God in its fullness.
One of the purposes of the First Gospel is to announce that the cosmic regeneration is at hand. Matthew seeks to alert the community so they can avoid the fate that the populous of Noah’s day.
An Unexpected Return
Christian interpreters in the premillennial movement expect a rapture as part of the timeline of the second coming. Different schools in premillennialism place the rapture in different places on the time line, but all schools presume that at a certain point in the chaos of the last days, believers will be elevated out of this world so they will not have to experience the intense suffering taking place in the world.
Premillenialists sometimes use the pictures of Matthew 24:40-41 in support of the doctrine of the rapture: two are in the field but one is raptured and the other left; two women are grinding when one is raptured, and one is left.
However, the doctrine of the rapture as articulated by premillennialists is not found in ancient literature in exactly the same way that Premillenialists articulate it. Moreover, the literary context of Matthew 24:36-44 (with its theme of being prepared for the surprising occurrence of the end) suggests that the two instances in Matthew 24:40-41 refer not to a rapture but to the unexpectedness of the return of Jesus. The two in the field and the two grinding are going about their everyday tasks with no expectation that Jesus will return. Then: pop. It happens.
Matthew 24:42-44 do not introduce new ideas but reinforce the unexpected timing of the second coming. The dominant image here is that of keeping awake, “for you do not know on what day [Jesus] is coming” (Matt 24:42).
The Gospel writer then offers an example. Had a house owner known that a thief was coming in the night, the owner would have stayed awake and prevented a break-in. (Matt 24:43). I wish Matthew had made this point by using an image that works on a positive invitation rather than a negative—focusing on what the community would really gain by staying awake rather than focusing on what the community would not lose by staying awake and preventing the burglary. I think a positive lure typically has more attraction than a negative one. Matthew is really promoting an assertive witness for the community rather than the defensive one implied in the householder staying awake.
The final verse in the reading simply reprises the main theme. “You must also be ready, for [Jesus] is coming at an unexpected hour.”
What does it Mean to Keep Awake? To be Ready?
On the one hand, given the end-time theology of Matthew, this passage is an ideal one with which to begin Year A with its focus on the First Gospel as the passage cuts to the heart of one of Matthew’s most important concerns: to urge the community to be ready for the second coming. On the other hand, without a fuller view of the gospel than the one afforded by this single passage, it is easy for preacher and congregation to get side-tracked by matters that are not as important to Matthew as some others.
To keep awake in Matthew’s larger vision is not to wait passively for the second coming but is to live eschatologically. At the end of the Gospel, the risen Jesus commissions the church to make disciples by immersing people and teaching them “to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus has taught them to recognize the Realm of God and put its values and practices into effect. They are to live as a community of the end-time in the present. They are to keep awake to opportunities to witness to the Realm in their relationships in the community and beyond.
Matthew underscores the theme of being ready in the parables that immediately follow. The community is to be faithful (Matt 24:45-51). The community is to live in such a way that its quality of life is a light to the world (Matt 25:1-13). The community is to multiply its talents, that is, its witness, even in the season of threat and chaos in which it was living (Matt 25:14-30). The community is to engage in the kinds of ministries invoked in Matthew 24:31-46: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, taking care of the sick, visiting the imprisoned. The hunger, thirst, being a stranger, nakedness, sickness, and imprisonment are all characteristic of life in the old, broken world. To be in the kind of solidarity the Matthean Jesus describes is to anticipate the new world with them in the midst of the broken present.
My colleague Frank Thomas has a helpful epigram on this point. “Live faithfully, and the end will take care of itself.”
As noted in passing above, the emphasis on being ready for the second coming, presumes a specific historical interruption, after which the present age vanishes, and a new age comes into being. Moreover, as noted when discussing the first force field above—end-time theology—I noted something obvious to the readers of this resource: many people today (I am among them) do not expect such a singular event. Of course, I cannot know what the future holds, but I would be most surprised should the second coming occur as described in Matthew 24:1-25:46.
Nevertheless, process conceptuality offers a way to honor some of the deep purposes of this text while not becoming captive to end-time conceptuality. One of the insights of end-time thinking is that the brokenness of the world is profound. It reaches into the deepest crevices of individual hearts, relationships, and communities (including the relationship of humankind and nature). Another insight is that God is not satisfied with the world as it is. God wants to multiply the experiences characteristic of the Realm of God. While God cannot singularly transform circumstances in the way presupposed by the end-time theologians, God is ever present, offering as many possibilities of love, peace, justice, mutuality, solidarity, forgiveness, healing, abundance, and peace as situations allow. Moreover, God never gives us.
In the strict sense, I do not usually speak of God “coming” in Advent. The language of “coming” implies that God may not be here. God may have yet to arrive. By contrast, I believe God is omnipresent.
The First Sunday of Advent provides the preacher with an opportunity to help the listening community think about what it most deeply believes to be true about God’s ultimate purposes. Regardless of whether the community thinks of God fulfilling God’s ultimate purposes through a second advent of the kind described in Matthew 24:36-44 or through ever-fresh invitations to join God in the movement towards the values of the Realm of God, preacher can help the congregation use Advent as a season to think afresh about the degree to which it is eschatologically awake in the Matthean sense, and to draw on resources that can intensify the eschatological life.
I often criticize the Revised Common Lectionary for assigning passages that do not really fit together to particular days. However, Romans 13:11-14 fits wonderfully with the main theme of Matthew 24:36-44 as interpreted above. The pericope from Romans presumes the imminent occurrence of the second coming, and the passage provides a Pauline perspective of how a community can “be ready” (to use a phrase from Matthew).
Indicative Precedes Imperative
Scholars have long spoken of the theological content of the letters as, broadly, having two main theological emphases indicative and imperative. The indicative—as the name implies—emphasizes what God has done, is doing, and will do. The imperative—again as the name implies—emphasizes what people do in response to what God does. The letters do not always break down into two simple blocks of material, one indicative and the other imperative; the materials sometimes intermingle.
Preachers often find the imperative much easier to preach than the indicative. It is easier to tell people what to do—how to live—than it is to interpret what God does and why. Indeed, when preaching in conversation with an imperative passage, ministers sometimes so lose sight of the indicative and so focus on the imperative that the sermon drifts into works-righteousness. “If you do these things, then God will accept you.”
With its stress on Advent, this season is an easy one for the preacher to lose sight of the indicative while zeroing in on what we need to do to prepare for both the liturgical remembrance of the first Advent (Christmas) and the anticipated occurrence of the Second Advent.
Wake from Sleep
Romans 13:11-14 is imperative that urges the community to “wake from sleep” in order to be prepared for the day of salvation.” When interpreting Romans this text, it is important to remember the indicative that lies beyond the imperatives of 13:11-14. That indicative is largely the same end-time theology that we described for Matthew above. Paul believed that the world in its present state is broken because it is under the dominion of sin. Sin for Paul is not just an attitude or behavior on the part of the human community but is a power that has the world in its group. The brokenness is so profound, and sin is so powerful that God must replace the present age with a new one. In fact, one of the apostle’s most epic descriptions of this coming transformation occurs just a few chapters earlier in Romans 8:18-25. As an act of grace, God is making this replacement through the ministry of Jesus Christ.
Of particular concern for Paul, especially in the Letter to the Romans: God is acting through Christ to make good the promises to the gentiles that God made through Sarai and Abram. In Genesis 12:1-3, God promises to use the ancestral couple as the means through which all human families would be blessed—which, of course, includes the blessing of gentiles.
It is an oversimplification to see Romans 1-11 as altogether “indicative” and Romans 12-15 as altogether “imperative,” but these large categories do help us recognize some main lines of thought in the two parts of Romans. In the latter Paul speaks in many direct imperative statements to help the community respond appropriately as God draws the present age to a close in anticipation of finally and fully giving expression to the cosmic world of the Realm of God.
Directed to Community and to Individual in Community
Early twenty-first century Eurocentric interpreters tend to hear to hear Paul’s commands directed to individuals. While individual response is certainly included, in the communal culture of antiquity these directives are also aimed at community. Paul seeks for the church to lives as an eschatological community—including Jews and gentiles living together in the present in mutual support as a prefiguration of the great, final eschatological community. The life of the community is to be a sign to the world.
Literary Context: Love Expresses the Purposes of Torah
In Romans 13:8-10, Paul takes a Jewish tack by noting that the life of the community centers in love for one another. Indeed, such behavior fulfills the Torah. (Rom 8:9, 10). In antiquity, it is worth remembering, love is less a cozy emotion and more a decision to act for the good of the other and especially of the community.
Paul cites three commandments that illustrate the life of life—avoiding adultery, murder, theft, and covetousness. These behaviors disrupt community life. People are less likely to be able to give themselves to one another in mutual support when these conditions come into common life. The apostle sums up the purpose of the Torah—and its many commandments—with the famous admonition to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Based on this admonition, I have heard many preachers emphasize the importance of persons loving themselves. That is an important psychological emphasis for today. But the command to “Love your neighbor as yourself” is probably better rendered “Love your neighbor as you love y our own kin.” The notion associated with “yourself” is less the individual self as we think of it in Eurocentric circles today and more “your immediate world,” that is, the people with whom one is most closely associated.
Love Your Neighbor Means Love Gentiles, and Vice Versa
In view of the reunion of Jews and gentiles through the church, Paul’s theological point is clear. By loving the neighbor in the way that Paul describes, gentiles enter into the spirit of Judaism. Jews can love gentiles in the same way that they love their own households. Gentiles, for their part, can love Jews in the same way that they love their own households.
The sermon could certainly explore the degree to which the congregation is an eschatological community of the kind that Paul prescribes. Do people who are as different today as Jews and gentiles come together in the community of the church today?
Given the rediscovery of the importance of honoring the integrity of Jewish identity that has taken place in theological circles since the Holocaust, today’s church would seek to convert Jewish people and bring them into the church. But the church could follow the spirit of Paul by seeking reconciling relationships with Jewish communities. As my colleague Clark Williamson notes, the synagogue and church can live in mutual respect and seek opportunities of mutual witness.
“You Know What Time It Is”
Paul then recalls (as he does frequently in his letters) one of the reasons for expressing this love actively in community at the present moment. “You know what time it is.” The last season of the present age is closing. “For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” The second coming, which will bring the final and complete era of salvation, is chronologically closer. “The night is far gone and the day [the return of Christ] is near.”
This theme has an indicative character: God is taking the initiative to end turn the ages from the old to the new. Consequently, the apostle offers instructions in what to do. These instructions have two levels. At one level, they put forward practical guidance with regard to particular activities. At another level, they represent patterns of behavior, ways of life, that go beyond these specific instances.
The apostle draws on a contrast, found frequently in end-time literature, between the dark and the light. These figures refer to the domains of power—the broken old age, “the works of darkness” and what is needed to witness to the new world while the transition is still underway, “the armor of light.”
While the language of darkness and light is vivid, it does come with a downside with respect to its social effects. Language that associates darkness with evil has the effect of causing many people to associate evil with people of dark skin. Something similar is true with respect to language of light. Many people tend to associate the good with people of lighter skin. The preacher should criticize this language in any era, but especially so in ours, when racism is become ever more public and savage.
How to Live in the Present for the Future; How to Live the Future in the Present
The community is “to live honorably as in the day.” To live honorably is to live according to the norms of the eschatological community, the community whose life is associated with the “day.” By contrast, those in darkness think and act in ways that violate community.
The two words “reveling” and “drunkenness” work together to refer to excessive partying of the kind associated with Dionysius which often ended with people in stupor. The problem is that, as a result of consuming too much alcohol, people in such states lose the capacity to recognize God’s purposes and to respond accordingly. I do not want to go too far down this road in this resource for preaching, but I want to register my increasing discontent with the degree to which North America is becoming an alcohol culture without almost no significant public attention to the ways in which alcohol destroys individuals, families, and communities. Indeed, despite many hesitations about the organization, I have become an honorary member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Those next two words also function together: “debauchery” and “licentiousness.” These words refer to inappropriate and excessive sexual relationships. God intends the sexual relationship to express covenant between the participants. When people have sex who are not in covenant, they are only using one another for immediate pleasure without regard for mutual commitment.
The last two words “quarreling” and “jealousy” likely also work together to speak about fractures, partisanship, and even polarization in the church in which the groups act to get and maintain their own power and self-interest without real regard for the benefit of the community.
Such old-age behavior is associated with “the flesh.” For this apostle, the flesh is not the human body in way that we often use the word. Rather, the flesh is the realm of the old age, where things take place to satisfy self-serving desires. Paul sometimes personifies “the flesh” as in 213:13 when he speaks as if flesh has its own “desires.”
Paul then exhorts the community to turn away from these behaviors. While the word “repent” does not appear in the text, that is the obvious meaning. Paul wants community members to turn away from the old age orientations indicated in these word-complexes, and, “Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The image of “putting on” is from the world of dress. In the same way that people choose how to dress, so they can choose how to live.
The emphasis on preparation in Advent is a natural bridge to the notion of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Advent is a season of thinking about what we wear in the way of values, practices, and broader life concerns. We may need to “take off” some garments and behaviors associated with sin, the flesh, and the old age. Advent is the perfect time to repent, and to put on values, practices, and broader life concerns of the Realm of God.
As is commonly recognized, the book of Isaiah has three main divisions that, broadly speaking, dates from three different periods. Isaiah 1-39 comes from circumstances around the Assyrian invasion and voices traditional prophetic eschatology which holds that God’s purposes will be fulfilled within history. God can do enough repair work on history to put things right. Isaiah 40-55 comes from the time of the Babylonian exile and largely -manifests prophetic eschatology but with seeds that soon become proto-end-time thinking. Isaiah 56-66 derives from the early years of the community’s life as a colony of Persia and articulates an eschatology that has gone beyond traditional prophetic thinking to proto-apocalyptic perspective that anticipates the fully developed end-time point of view of Matthew and Romans which holds that the situation of the present world is so serious that God must replace it.
Isaiah and Eschatology
All three sections of Isaiah make use of oracles of judgement and oracles of salvation. The former indicates the reasons for judgment and point to the punishment that is underway or coming. Oracles of salvation promise that God will restore the life of the community. Oracles of salvation are intended, among other things, to give the community the confidence to endure punishment and the strength to move towards restoration. Repentance is a means for moving from a situation of judgment to a situation of restoration, for the community can repent of the attitudes and actions that incurred judgment and, in so doing, turn towards the magnetic possibilities of the way to salvation.
Whereas both Matthew and Paul are end-time in their theological world views, Isaiah 2:1-5 comes from a part of the book of Isaiah that assumes traditional prophetic eschatology. The reading for today is from an oracle of salvation that imagines God’s ultimate purposes coming to fruition within the present age of history.
A preacher could develop a sermon on the doctrine of eschatology by noting the different types of eschatology represented by Isaiah 1-39 and by Matthew and Paul as the starting point for a sermon that considers the diversity of eschatological perspectives in the Bible and in the broader history of the church. The preacher could explore perspectives that seem to make the most sense for today’s church.
Although Isaiah 2:1-5 is a different kind of eschatology (prophetic) from the readings in Matthew and Romans (end-time perspective), the passage from Isaiah, also points to a climax of God’s purposes, at least from the standpoint of the many-sided Assyrian crisis. To oversimplify, when Israel and Aram were about to invade Judah (Isaiah’s country), Isaiah counseled the leaders of Judah to trust in God and to stay away from alliance with Assyria. The leaders embraced Assyria and became a vassal state. In only a few years, some of Assyria’s vassals sought to revolt against Assyria. Again, the prophet counseled Judah to trust in God and not in the alliance. In 705-701, Assyria inflicted significant damage on Judah, including a siege of Jerusalem, all of which Isaiah interpreted as God’s judgment on Judah. Yet, although Assyria besieged Jerusalem, the dominating empire did not destroy the city, which Isaiah saw as divine assurance that God would preserve the city.
Jerusalem as Place and as Symbol
Isaiah 2:1-5 affirms a special place for Jerusalem in the coming restoration and points to qualities of life in the restored community. In point of fact, Jerusalem was a rather modest physical location in Isaiah’s day. It had significance more because of its place in the mythology of Israel than because of its physical presence alone. However, according to Isaiah 2:2, the day will come Jerusalem itself is “established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills.” Its physical presence will itself become symbolic.
Given the different kinds of diversity that are typical of many North American areas, today’s reader may slide too quickly over Isaiah’s vision that “All the nations shall stream to it.” Social groups in the period of the first Isaiah were often quite insular, self-focused, and self-protective, with national groups (and many other kinds of groups) having their own gods and customs and often living in considerable hostility with neighbors, especially when they competed for property and other material resources, as well as for social influence and power. This passage is one of several in the Isaianic corpus that anticipates a day when such factionalism gives way to mutuality of purpose and support. Isaiah anticipates that Jerusalem will be the center of this restoration of community. In this context, Jerusalem is both a place and a representation of the covenantal values by which God aims for people to live together.
A Community that Teaches the Covenantal Ways of God
The preceding themes expand in the next verses. ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of [God] . . . that [God] may teach us [the divine] ways, and that we may walk in God’s paths.” Isaiah here highlights God’s role as Great Teacher. This quality is emphasized even further as the prophet notes that “instruction,” “the word of [God],” will go forth from Zion (Jerusalem) (Isa 2:3).
The “way” and “paths” that God teaches, of course, are the paths of living in covenant, whose values are similar to those that we articulated above in connection with the Realm of God—love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, mutual support, abundance for all, and peace.
This stress on teaching and instruction reminds today’s congregation of the central role of teaching in community. On one level, the community is to teach its own members the ways of God. Towards this end, I would like to see a rebirth of the teaching sermon. On another level, the life of the community is itself supposed to teach other communities the benefit of walking in the paths of God.
Whereas a human community often tries to relate to other communities so as to serve itself, in the renewed world, God will “judge between the nations” and arbitrate for many peoples,” that is, God will apportion resources and power in ways that are equitable among nations and other forms of community. Isaiah’s vision here is a world in which nationalism, isolationism, and tribalism have been superseded by real community.
Moving towards Community: “They Shall beat Their Swords into Plowshares”
The most famous part of the vision, and the inspiration for many notable works of art, including one on the Plaza of the United Nations, is Isaiah 2:4c-d: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares . . . neither shall they learn war anymore.” The passage pictures a transformed social world in which instruments use for violence—and particularly for violence in support of one’s own power—are unmade and remade as instruments that support life.
The nations do not just stream into Jerusalem. They beat their swords into plowshares and their speaks into pruning hooks so they can work together to generate the things that make life in community possible.
While this passage does not directly refer to repentance, in the larger theological system of Isaiah and the other prophets, the path from punishment to the nations streaming to Jerusalem and beating their swords into plowshares begins with repentance. As in the time of Matthew and Paul, repentance means turning away from idols and from values and practices that undermine covenantal community. Such practices include injustice and exploitation.
Advent is a season of preparation which includes preparation by repentance. In this vision, Isaiah is inviting people to take a radical step that is most appropriate for Advent as a way of preparing for the final manifestation of the Realm of God. Many people trust literally in the sword for protection. Beyond that, the sword can serve as a symbol of a mindset and a way of life. Isaiah points to another mode of human life that achieves more than the things we try to achieve and protect with massive defense spending, armed officers on the streets, and guns in our closets and on our besides. We can repent of that and move towards living together in community—in covenant, in accord with the values of the Realm of God—which leads to ways of life whose security comes not from threat and fear, but from mutual solidarity and mutual investment.
This psalm contains one of the most often-used and well- known passages of scripture in Psalm 122:1. In antiquity, people likely sang the Psalm as they made their way to one of the major festivals at the temple in Jerusalem. In this respect, it is also a text whose use in antiquity was very similar to its use today: as an indication that the time of worship in the temple or in the church building has come.
As 122:2 indicates, the people are standing in the city. Evidently, the liturgical occasion is about to begin. In comparison to the way in which many people come to worship today with a kind of business-as-usual attitude, it is noteworthy that the psalmic community is energized about coming to Jerusalem. What might today’s congregation do to try to nurture this kind of anticipation and energy?
A preacher might ask, “What, about Advent, makes us particularly glad to be coming together in the house of God?”
In Psalm 122:3-5, the singer invokes the sense of common life should mark the people gathered for worship. The community, like the city, should be “bound firmly together.” In the context of covenantal Israel, this unity is one of pursuing the kind of common life defined by covenant. The essence of life in covenantal community is living together in such ways that everyone is secure and has access to resources that enable all to be fully participating in mutual support.
Psalm 122:6-9 contains four petitions in behalf of the city. The first is the oft intoned, “Pray for the peace (shalom) of Jerusalem.” The others intone similar sentiments in connection with specific constituencies related to the city—those who love it, those who dwell in its walls and towers, and relatives and friends. In Psalm 122:9, the author makes a pledge. “For the sake of the house . . . I will seek your good.”
On one level, of course, these petitions and the pledge can pertain to the actual city of Jerusalem today. It is divided—and people are divided about it—in painfully partisan ways. Preachers could think with the congregation about possibilities for authentic shalom for Jerusalem and for the communities that live around it, especially Israelis and Palestinians and their relationship. This is a very complicated topic because of the complicated dynamics in regard to Judaism as a religion, Israel as a state, the lingering effects of the Holocaust, powerful but often unrecognized anti-Semitism, unresolved issues from time of the original war of Jewish independence through the war of 1967 and the more recent issues around settlements, and Gaza, just for starters. If Advent points towards possibilities for love, justice, mutuality, abundance and peace, how might Advent help the Christian community think about Jerusalem, Israel, and the Palestinians?
At another level, the preacher might think of Jerusalem less as a physical place and more as a symbol of community and of God’s hopes for community. Such a move goes beyond exegesis, of course, but every denomination and Christian movement, indeed, many religions and many groups beyond religion have their own Jerusalem.
As I write in the fall of 2019, I am struck the power latent in Psalm 122:9. In so many sectors of political life at every level (international, national, state, and city), and in so many other sectors of life, we act first for our own benefit. The result is a human community that is like so many hard clay billiard balls knocking against one another and then careening off in our own directions in search of power. In this fractious environment, here is a commitment the preacher might invite from the Advent congregation. “I will seek your good,” that is, “I will seek the good that serves genuine community.”
Ron Allen taught preaching and Gospels and Letters at Christian Theological Seminary from 1982 to 2019. Prior to that, he and his spouse, the Reverend Linda McKiernan-Allen, were co-ministers of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Grand Island, Nebraska. He loves leading Bible studies in congregations.
He has published more than 40 books, most recently: I Will Tell You the Mystery: A Commentary on Preaching from the Book of Revelation (2019). Three of his books are widely used in small group studies in congregations: A Faith of Your Own: Naming What You Really Believe, Reading the New Testament for the First Time, and The Life of Jesus for Today. He was an editor for the pioneering Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Commentary on the Lectionary, which comments on every reading in the lectionary and introduces 22 new Holy Days for Justice (e.g. , Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Peace in the Home, Yom haShoa, Gifts of Sexuality and Gender, Sojourner Truth Day). With O. Wesley Allen, Jr., he urges thinking of preaching as conversation, as in Allen and Allen, The Sermon Without End: A Conversational Approach to Preaching.
Allen and his spouse have five young adult children: Canaan, Genesis, Moriah, Barek, and Sabbath, as well as five grandchildren. He and his family spent summers teaching in Zambia and Jamaica. He has also traveled in Israel, India, South Korea, Belize, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Aruba, Canada, the countries surrounding the Baltic, as well as Mexico, Spain, the Canary Islands, Uruguay, Argentina, Greece, Italy, Croatia, and Antarctica.