After someone close to me preached his first sermon, he was approached by a man who made the following comment: “I work hard all week. When I come to church, I want to get spiritually fed. Your sermon did not feed me.” The man’s statement was revealing: many people come to church simply to feel affirmed and bolstered for the week to come.
“Spiritual Feeding” vs. “Bread of Life”
I propose that there are two kinds of sermons: those that simply set people at ease, and those that challenge the body of Christ.
When midnight stuck this January first, I was in a different time zone. My New Year was spent with the nuns of Carmel de la Paix in Mazille, France. There were no imacs, iphones or television sets on which to watch the big ball drop in Times Square. But there was a lot of time. The seeming surplus of it meant that hours (literally) were offered freely, generously to silence in the chapel—simply sitting, being.
"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
Luke 1:46-56 KJV
And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm;
The first advent causes us to reflect upon Mary, the “humble servant” who helped bring to us the Savior of our world. Mary’s story gives us a greater awareness of Christ, who dared to take on flesh, to implant himself in the womb of humanity and to come down to earth not as the expected king, but as a baby. Mary’s life and circumstances only serve to point us to Jesus.
Advent is a season that Adventists should love—it is part of our name, after all! It is a season of four weeks preceding the celebration of the birth of Jesus; it prepares us to welcome him at his first advent, while also anticipating his second advent. The scripture readings used in churches of many denominations have this dual focus, as do the hymns. We hear the promises of the Old Testament, and the call of John the Baptist to prepare, and the angelic messages to Mary and to Joseph. Hymns urge “Sleepers, wake!” and “Prepare the royal highway, the King of kings is near!”
Pilgrimage is a nearly universal element of religion. Christians and Jews go to the Holy Land, or to other places associated with sacred events or individuals in history. Devotees of many religions go to sites associated with sacred geography—mountains or rivers or wells. Seventh-day Adventists go on pilgrimage, too, to those shrines we call, “Adventist Heritage sites,” and to sacred convocations such as camp-meetings and General Conference sessions.
Scattered throughout the pages of Scripture, there can be found any number of verses notable for their capacity to convey whole concepts in few words. John 11:35 is one that comes to mind. There, through the simple words “Jesus wept,” a whole scene is conveyed. In John 19:18 also, four short words encompass the most portentous events in all human history: “There they crucified him.” Finally, there are the words of Paul set in the latter half of his epistle to the Ephesians. In the earlier half, his words about God, salvation and grace soar to great heights.
Philip Sheldrake is one of the leading voices in academic spirituality today. His book Spirituality and History (London: SPCK, 1991) is a significant and probing analysis of how records of history, namely the history of spirituality, can be and have been shaped by the needs and interests of the world's powerful. The resulting distortions have silenced the stories of the powerless and those religious groups on the “losing side” of history, allowing important events and movements to be misunderstood or even forgotten by future generations.