The New Commonwealth of God

A PROFOUND SENSE of expectation launches a new year. As the season of Advent commences the Christian year, just weeks before the turn of the calendar year, familiar biblical stories invite us to begin again by glimpsing the coming reign of God. Weekly worshippers and annual attendees gather for the season premiere of the greatest story ever told. A promise. A vision. A hope. Great expectation.

The ancient prophet, psalm, gospel, and epistle together extend to the contemporary preacher words of unflinching hope that emerge fresh from the rubble of turmoil, trial, and tribulation of every God-seeking generation. Today’s words of hope must also descend like the savory aroma of a holiday meal, promising solace to the harmed, heartbroken, and hindered.

Familiarity with the Advent and Christmas narratives may leave us unaware of the radical expectation and potential impact that reciting these events can bring. These readings offer an arresting narrative of divine presence inaugurating an unprecedented commonwealth from among the divided nation. The vision makes no sense if it does not offer an alternative to the existing promises of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The narrative challenges us to understand that our celebration of the birth of Jesus is not shiny lights or a musical presentation. It anticipates the arrival of goodness signaling an end to corruption and gloom. This global holiday extends the drama narrated in Christian scripture as each generation must wrestle again with the contemporary relevance of the birth of Jesus.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

Do You See What I See?
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

“MANY PEOPLES shall come,” says Isaiah. The pronouncement circulates in a time of terror, injustice, and oppression. The pronouncement is the gathering of people from the north and from the south; from divided empires and fractured communities. In the yet-to-be-established future, all eyes will earnestly turn toward Mount Zion, which represents more than a plot of land in a certain geographical location. In that day, all nations will begin their pilgrimage to worship Israel’s God.

The psalmist affirms the longing of humanity to journey to the place where the power and presence of God is known to show up. Israel (like everybody else) must make her way to the house of God to be taught the ways of God. Beyond the pilgrimage remains a task. At the place of the thrones set up for judgment, the psalmist calls for the people to pray for prosperity and peace.

Paul’s letter to the Romans confirms the described destiny, perceiving that God—not the people—settles divisions among nations, brings an end to warfare, establishes peace. With this hope, the people of God become the answer to their own prayers, laying aside works of darkness and practicing peace.

Matthew’s gospel undermines the portrayal of what nonetheless has been elaborated into a dispensational end-time description. More than refraining from a specific date for his return, Jesus shifts the discussion in a way that settles for us his humanity. The humility of the incarnation includes not knowing all that God knows. Such uncertainty requires the ability to see with the vision of faith—hope in a divine promise. The question we are left with is not when will Christ return, but how shall we live under the influence of the Spirit? This passage continues the confident expectation of the coming of Christ.

[ December 8 ]
We Have This Hope
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

THESE READINGS DESCRIBE the work of a people expectant and confident of the king’s arrival. The prophet weaves a tapestry revealing the interdependence of all life—nature, politics, society, as well as the common existence of humans and animals—the sacred and secular merge as the place where unity signals that God is with us. Hospitality replaces hostility as the prey lies down with the predator. Isaiah’s text actually ends well, pointing not to the peace, but toward the one of whom the nations inquire. The standard is the transforming power of peace, rather than the oppressive control of conflict. All acts of justice are subject to the glorious reign of God.

Psalm 72 provides a prayer that describes the one who exercises the gifts of the Spirit. The focus turns away from anthropocentric humanism toward theocentric holiness. Unhampered by self-promotion, the ways of this leader represent the good and glory that originate in God alone. This prayer is not for a person, but for a performance: Wisdom to defend the cause of the poor, righteousness toward the needy, and might to crush the oppressor.

The epistle continues the awareness of the now-and-not-yet, inviting the next generation to hold to the hope that ushers in a new commonwealth. Christ brings hope not merely of individual salvation, but of the reconciliation of the world. The early church demonstrated an embrace of those who were previously refused entry. Those who stand before the Righteous One put on the righteousness that glorifies God.

The ministry of John the Baptist demonstrates that Advent presents an arresting narrative of divine presence inaugurating an unprecedented reign. The gospel writer presents a traditional prophet whose straightforward message exposes the tension created when a political interest group with a religious agenda aligns with the powerful ruling class.

[ December 15 ]
A Torrent of Jubilation
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

AN ADVENT SERMON looks not only back to the birth of Jesus, but forward to the Messiah’s return. It is not national negotiations, fiscal frugality, or scientific sophistication that demonstrate the presence of God’s peace. The arrival of God interrupts the defeating melancholy that overwhelms lands ravaged by storm, individuals beset with disease, and creatures plagued by extinction. The prophet describes a blossoming desert and the end of drought; a wilderness that is no longer a treacherous journey, but a land of promise. Even the earth rejoices at the presence of God in the prophet’s announcement of a torrent of jubilation.

Psalm 146 describes the presence of God’s reign as an end to mass incarceration, tangible justice for the exploited, actual equity for the orphan and the widow. Describing the impending humiliation of the wicked, the psalmist exalts the downtrodden, the stranger among us, and the hungry.

But there is another element that we must not overlook. The epistle of James acknowledges the process by warning that hope must be patiently held until the day comes in fullness. A knowing farmer does not grumble during the two-to-three months between planting and harvesting. It is difficult, in a culture of instant gratification, to recover the patient suffering demonstrated in nonviolent campaigns. Here the familiarity with the question of John the Baptist might cause us to overlook the reality of his imprisonment and impending death. Greatness in the kingdom of God is not violent victory, but prophetic patience that causes a portion of the religious elite to open their imaginations to the arrival of one who will minister at the margins.

[ December 22 ]
Searching for a Sign
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

WE TOO EASILY stoke the controversy of the virgin birth mentioned in Isaiah, allowing our intellectual gymnastics to provide no less demonstrations of doubt than King Ahaz summoning Assyria while claiming not to test God. Ahaz puts his confidence in armies; we put our confidence in arguments. The prophet promises a sign that is so incredulous it requires faith in a God who takes the ordinary and does the miraculous. Time is of the essence, the words spoken for Ahaz tell us; the coming child has nothing to do with his throne being vacated. The baby is the sign of coming peace. There shall always be a sign. Thus if we are to be established, we must believe.

This communal prayer in Psalm 80 gives voice to the depth of expectation. In weeks past, the call for rejoicing fits the season. Now, last minute cares might allow worshippers to pause and confess that the waiting seems too long. A prayer of preparation for God’s coming restoration heightens the ability to hear the theological premise provided in the opening of the letter to the Romans. Salutations, like a Christmas card, frame a message as a personal sign of a relationship. This is a similar context for Joseph’s dream.

When set against the sign to King Ahaz and the letter to the church in Rome, the words from Matthew crowd out the assumption of hearing a familiar story retold. Joseph, like Ahaz, receives a sign encouraging him to trust. His invitation challenges him to maintain the relationship he has with Mary. Our invitation is similar: Maintain the relationship with the community of faith with which we have covenanted. Our lament has been heard, our confusion understood. This story is our story—one of hope in a hopeless situation. God is with us.

[ December 29 ]
An Invasion of Peace
Isaiah 63:7-9; Psalm 148; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23

THE WORDS OF the ancient prophet Isaiah record what is done—a recounting of the praiseworthy acts of the Lord. The words of preachers today call for a contemporary dramatization of what is recorded in Christian scripture. Rather than mere information, this is an enactment of what Isaiah records. This global holiday extends the drama narrated in Christian scripture. Joining the psalmist in praise, the presence and power of God is recognizable in all creation—the animals and vegetation, the weather and reconciled nations.

The Hebrews epistle is a challenge to endure. Our time of celebration signals the opportunity to begin again. To put our trust in the one for whom and through whom all things exist. Those who hold this trust form a community, a family, whose story has been tested—even to the point of death.

The gospel reminds us about earthly rulers who warrant the death of an entire generation through ethnic identification and sanctioned genocide. Words of warning to Joseph, like those of the prophet Isaiah before the exile, remind us to listen for divine instruction that contradicts bureaucratic ordinances. Words of promise came in times of turmoil, trial, and tribulation. Words of warning come at the moment of new birth and great expectation. God’s peace always intrudes upon corruption and gloom. The word that comes in a dream provides a floodgate of alternative possibilities.

The narrative challenges us to understand that our celebration of the birth of Jesus is not a 40-minute children’s pageant. It may be a life lived with compassion in an urban center or in a small town, but it is always a life that dramatizes the intrusive peace of God.

“Preaching the Word,” Sojourners’ online resource for sermon preparation and Bible study, is available at January 2014 lectionary reflections can be found here.

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