Less than two weeks until the beginning of Advent. Thanksgiving is around the corner, you’ve had a busy fall in your ministry, and you’re trying not to panic over the Advent sermons series that you intended to plan last week or last month.
Need a little help finding inspiration for your last-minute planning? Here are some ideas to get you started! (These brainstorms were shared recently during a webinar, Preaching Advent Like You Planned It Months Ago, through the Center for Progressive Renewal.) Five ideas for sermon content below are paired with five ideas for creative approaches to the sermon; mix-and-match as needed for quick & creative Advent preaching!
CONTENT: Revised Common Lectionary, Gospels
The favorite question of a two-year-old is, in fact, a very useful question to send us deeper into faith. Especially when the texts & stories are so familiar to many in the pews, asking Why? can challenge and disrupt any quick breezing through these Gospel stories.
Advent 1 (Mark 13:24-37): “About that day or hour no one knows.” Why? Especially in the midst of uncertainty in our lives and our world, we prefer knowledge over mystery. Why must God be mysterious?
Advent 2 (Mark 1:1-8): “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Why? God is almighty, yes? God has the vision for God’s work, yes? Why does God need us to do part (or any) of the work?
Advent 3 (Luke 1:46b-66, one of two Gospel options this Sunday): “God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Why? Why does God favor the lowliest? Why does God promise to bring down the powerful and send the rich away empty? Why doesn’t God favor people in the same way that the world does?
Advent 4 (Luke 1:26-38, again one of two Gospel options): “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” Why? Why Mary? Why you? Why me? Are we so individually special that God makes use of us? Does God just say, “You’re in the right place at the right time for what I need”?
Christmas Eve/Day (Luke 2:1-20): “And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” The nativity story is just one big Why? isn’t it? Why this way? Why did God become flesh? Why were the shepherds the ones to receive the first birth announcement? Why the stable and the manger — did it really have to be this way, or could the Christ have entered the world another way?
CONTENT: Revised Common Lectionary, Psalms
One of my earliest sermons that really preached was written in loose poetic form at the encouragement of a mentor & friend. She’d seen some of my poetic prayers; “Why not preach that way?” she asked. Writing a sermon poetically does not require you to be deft with rhyming schemes or iambic pentameter, only that you be willing to let go of complete sentences and paragraphs and that you listen for the rhythm and emotion of words. Here are words that stand out to me for their rhythm and poignancy, which could be woven with repetition into your poetic sermons:
Advent 1 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19): “Restore us, O God; let your face shine!” The outset of Advent examines our need for a savior, a rescuer, one who will restore our lives from their calamity.
Advent 2 (Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13): “Let me hear.” The call not only for God to act but also for us to pay attention to God in mind, body and soul.
Advent 3 (Psalm 126): “Come home with joy.” The dream of God’s coming kindom, where laughter and joy and community and inclusion are abundant.
Advent 4 (Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26): “I have found you.” Like the blessing heard at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my beloved,” we place ourselves in this psalm and hear God’s joy over us.
Christmas Eve/Day (Psalm 96): “Give credit where credit is due.” There’s poetry in the psalm’s phrase, “Ascribe to the LORD,” but sometimes biblical language is so disconnected from our modern lives that an adaptation is useful. On Christmas Eve/Day, celebrate God’s work and give to God credit where credit is due!
CONTENT: Narrative Lectionary
Connect Advent to our senses to help the familiar come to life in fresh ways this season.
Advent 1 (Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:2-4, 3:17-19): SEE. “Why do you make me see trouble? See the vision. Write it so a runner may see and read it easily. Look at the proud, look at the fig tree, look at the field.”
Advent 2 (Esther 4:1-17): HEAR. Mordecai and all the Jews hear reports of the king’s decree, and in turn Queen Esther hears the news. By way of the queen’s servants sharing messages between them, Mordecai is able to bend Esther’s ear with advice and encourage her not to remain silent before the king.
Advent 3 (Isaiah 42:1-9): TOUCH. God’s servant will not damage the bruised reed when he touches it, nor outen the candle whose wick is barely burning; he will touch the earth gently just as God who stretched the heavens like taffy and spread out the earth like a blanket and takes the hands of those most in need is gentle and fair with all that God touches.
Advent 4 (Matthew 1:18-25): DREAM. That sixth sense that we often neglect but which is so necessary for the unfolding of Advent visions! Joseph dreams of an angel who changes his mind about Mary and opens the eyes of Joseph’s heart to imagine the ways in which God is at work in his (and his family’s) life.
Christmas Eve/Day (Luke 2:1-20): SMELL. The musk of a barn and the crisp smell of hay. The ripe perfume of shepherds & shepherdesses who have been living outdoors with their flocks. The incense of heaven that descended with the angels’ chorus. The freshness of a newborn baby.
CONTENT: All Christmas — All Advent Long
APPROACH: The Nativity Story with Modern News
Go for it. Dive in to those Christmas carols in Advent. Don’t worry about the sanctuary’s Christmas trees being decorated too early. Encourage multiple creche displays around the church. The whole marketing world is already immersed in Christmas spirit/sales, so embrace the holiday’s premature arrival in order to actively shape its spiritual meaning … because, despite the holiday sales and Christmas lights and radio jingles, our world finds itself in a very Advent longing-for-a-savior spiritual space. We can sing of Christmas while preaching to Advent.
Advent 1 (John the Baptist, Joy to the World): The world is full of public theologians and prophets — some we like, many we don’t. How do we discern through all the spiritual noise to recognize God’s words and call to us?
Advent 2 (Zechariah & Elizabeth, In the Bleak Midwinter and O Come All Ye Faithful): There are stories we do not want to hear, stories that are muted when they need to be shared & shouted aloud. What are the un- and under-reported stories, such as the disappearances and murders of indigenous women in the US and Canada so often dismissed by police and media?
Advent 3 (Mary & Joseph, Away in a Manger and It Came upon the Midnight Clear): Modern families struggle for stability, some moving across states and across borders for economic prospects, some combining multiple generations under one roof, some fleeing persecution and violence. Do we aspire to be settled in faith & life, or do we unsettle ourselves alongside those who are transient and struggling?
Advent 4 (Shepherds & Angels, Angels We Have Heard on High and The First Noel): God sent an angelic birth announcement to shepherds, hardly the most glamorous group to receive such news. What are the stories of the church welcoming the world’s outcasts — welcoming the church’s own outcasts? What work still needs to be done?
Christmas Eve/Day (Baby Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child and Jesus Our Brother Strong and Good): Jesus is not the only infant over whom parents and relatives and strangers have cooed. Jesus is not the only young man whose parents wailed at the news of their child’s death. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, the list and the history are too long. How do we hold in tension the good news of one child’s birth while too many other children are dying?
CONTENT: All Christmas — All Advent Long
APPROACH: Secular Christmas Songs
Go one more step of daring: bring those jingly jangly secular Christmas songs into worship. Get your church’s kids to sing them loudly (adults too). And then preach on those carols, find the spiritual lessons in their lyrics, and have a little holiday fun!
Advent 1 (Frosty the Snowman): Frosty was particularly dressed and led the kids through a fun day in the snow. Compare & contrast with John the Baptist, also peculiarly dressed, determined to lead people toward God’s ways.
Advent 2 (Let It Snow! Let It Snow!): Oh, the weather outside is frightful! How do you respond to alarming news or scary situations? How do we respond to unwelcome circumstances as people of faith? How did Mary demonstrate trust in God in the face of unsettling news?
Advent 3 (Jingle Bells): Make a joyful noise much like Mary and Elizabeth, who shouted and sang and celebrated together as they shared the good news of their pregnancies with one another. Invite congregants to tell each other stories of celebratory family gatherings.
Advent 4 (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer): Rudolph, meet the shepherds. Shepherds, meet Rudolph. Both were outcast from their communities, until they suddenly were surprised by the favor of someone’s (Santa’s and the angels’, respectively) attention and call to purpose.
Christmas Eve/Day (Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town): Let’s talk about the ways we conflate our theology of God with our understandings of Santa, taking the time at Christmas to distinguish between Santa’s once-a-year presence and God’s year-round presence.
Advent blessings and peace in your final preparations, friends!