I had the pleasure of preaching on the First Sunday in Advent in my home church, the Congregational Church of Middlebury (VT). The theme of the sermon was “Hope in the End Times.” What do biblical depictions of apocalypse have to do with Advent waiting, particularly in a moment like ours? Is there actually hope to be found in predictions of the world’s end? I believe there is, but not where you might think. The sermon begins at 30:30.
A sermon preached the third Sunday in Advent 2018
I’m going out on a limb here, I know, but I bet John the Baptist didn’t have many friends. I mean, c’mon, the guy doesn’t sound like a fun person to hang around with. Let’s start with the way that he greets the throngs of people who come out to see him: “You brood of vipers!” Now the term “brood of vipers” will be my first choice if ever I make good on my dream of forming a motorcycle club, but it’s not a very pleasant greeting for a crowd of people who have come to the outskirts of town seeking the Messiah, a Deliverer from God. And it doesn’t get any better from there. The theme of John’s proclamation is divine judgment and repentance, not hope and salvation. He sounds like he’s basically threatening them, with all the wielding axes and impaling forks and the burning of unquenchable fire. He tells the people that they’re basically replaceable—“I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.” And he’s not much more flattering to himself, telling the crowd, who thinks he may be the chosen one of God, “I’m nothing. I’m doing magic tricks here. The guy coming down the pike is so good, I couldn’t even take off his shoes.”
What’s in a name? When I was in seminary, my middle name understandably got a lot of attention. Professors and students alike at the Presbyterian school I attended got a kick out of a guy named James Calvin Davis in their midst, wondering aloud whether it was foreordained (get it?) that I would be called to ministry with a name like that. The reality is, at least on the surface, much different. I am proud to be named after both of my grandfathers, James Kermit McCullough and Calvin Davis. But the ironic part is that the man who gave me the name that tickles my fellow Presbyterians so much was, in many ways, the opposite of the sixteenth-century churchman—not so much pious and learned as a rough-around-the edges coal miner from which I get both my appreciation for blue-collar values and a legendary Davis temperament.
And yet that name of which I am proud has become more to me than just a testament to my grandfather. Without it, I am a generic placeholder; “James Davis” is one level up from “John Doe” on the scale of nondescript monikers. But with it, I am James Calvin Davis, professor and Reformed Christian theologian. James Calvin Davis has become an symbol of who I am, of what I consider myself to be.
This past Thanksgiving weekend graced those of us in the church with unusual leisure as compared to years past. Often enough, the Sunday after Thanksgiving is the first Sunday in Advent, so we no sooner carve the turkey and finish up the last football game than we turn our attention to purple candles and evergreens. Conspiring with the market and its Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays, the church calendar often hurries us through Thanksgiving so that we can embrace the coming Christmas season.
But not this year. This year we have an extra week between the Thanksgiving weekend and the beginning of Advent, which brings with it extra time to linger in the importance of this season of gratitude. We can savor Thanksgiving leftovers—literally and figuratively—just a little longer, before diving into the ironic frenzy that is Advent waiting.
What to do with the extra time? For me, the absence of Advent’s impatient breath over the shoulder of my Thanksgiving observance allowed me just a little more time to think about this holiday in its own right—the gratitude it encourages in us and from us, the significance of a moment of thanks in a world with so much not right, the origins and meanings of this quintessential American celebration.