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The Preacher’s “Peace” at Advent

Sermon development during Advent can be difficult for most preachers.

Whether Advent observation is deep within a congregation’s genetic disposition, or the celebration of Advent takes some persuasion on the preacher’s part to get it included, the sermons don’t come easily.

In the context of the life of any congregation, though, most of the congregants are unaware of the struggle the preacher endures Sunday by Sunday, year by year – if they last so long – in the planning, preparation and delivering of sermons.

Part of the struggle and endurance is how to filter any critiques of the sermons. Too many preachers receive only a superficial “thank you” at the end of the service.

Every preacher has at least one congregant who feels called to straighten out the preacher on some point in the sermon.

Mondays are the down days emotionally for preachers. The inevitable rehearsal of the sermon or sermons from the day and feelings of not doing well creep and ramble through the preacher’s imagination.

Each sermon preparation time holds at some level those former critiques, thoughts and conversations.

During Advent, for instance, the preacher can ask, “How do I say something that is different from last year’s sermons?”

Which begs the question, what Scripture passages does the preacher use for the respective Advent Sundays, Peace Sunday, for instance?

Depending upon the biblical literacy level of a congregation and of the pastor, a broad repertoire is available, especially on Peace Sunday.

One cannot fail to notice the incarnation began with “Peace on Earth,” and among Jesus’ last words, “My peace I leave with you.”

The letters attributed to Paul each begin with “Grace and Peace” – terms appropriate for Gentiles and Jews, an appeal inclusive of all people to salvation.

Each of these appearances, along with the myriad of others of “peace” in Scripture find rootage in the Hebrew “shalom.”

The term holds broader and deeper meanings than just the lack of conflict, feelings of contentment and so forth.

Rather, it is the core of Hebrew character virtues drawing from the essence of God’s character.

When the Jews said, “Peace to you,” they meant, may you be well in all aspects, may your family be well, may all people be well, may it be well throughout the cosmos.

The loftiness and abstraction of the labels on each Advent Sunday – hope, peace, joy and love – can be a deterrent for the preacher, although some preachers find solace in keeping a sermon in abstract language.

The preacher learns quickly that over-spiritualization, allegory and contorted interpretation and application of Scripture draw more compliments. Living, applied Christology gets lost in the semantical jungle, though.

A proclamation for peace from the pulpits can be detrimental to the preacher’s standing.

Peace in our time – like the angels sang “Peace on earth, good will to all – from one angle is only a pipe dream.

Who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a level of incivility most people have not seen before?

Every nook and cranny of society – from local to global – and all relationships feel the points of what has to be called verbal and emotional incivility (abuse of personhood) imposed on one another.

Not uncommonly, any preacher who dares call for peace to be inserted into the social issues of the day hears from someone, “We don’t want any politics from the pulpit.”

The retort is a great misunderstanding of what politics is, but the preacher must find a way to say, “Peace,” without making partisan politics the driver of those sayings.

Ironically, those who want no “politics from the pulpit,” in my experience, are the same who are the most uncivil.

The incivility has gradually gotten normalized into society, providing a context so full of conflict, antipathy and suspicion that any preacher may easily fall into the pattern, “What’s the use. The challenge to articulate peace is too much.”

One must combat this either-or thinking, however.

Real life is a mix, a both-and context. The conflict, the warring, the party factions, the hateful words and actions draw headlines, but little reconciliation.

But, still, there are whispers, soft breezes, points of relief in the chaos – the movement of God – all about us.

The preacher’s task is to be able to deliver a sermon that identifies both peace and non-peace all around and persuades the congregants to choose peace so they become part of the whispers, breezes, relief, thus finding and acting out harmony even along with the dissonant, unharmonious sounds and behaviors in our world.

Editor’s note: This article is part of an Advent 2018 series focused on the traditional themes of hope, peace, joy and love. Reflections on joy will appear next week. The previous article in the series is:

Advent Hope: When All Appears Bleak, God’s Grace Abounds by Guy Sayles

Bill Tillman

Bill Tillman worked for over 40 years in Baptist denominational offices and theological education settings. Currently, he is the Coordinator for the Center for Congregational Ethics.