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‘I think the first person we are preaching to is ourselves’

Synod of the Covenant’s Equipping Preachers webinar focuses on ideas for Advent sermons

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Laura Nyhuis via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — If you think congregants are busy during Advent and Christmas, consider your preacher, who, as the Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick quipped on Wednesday, quoting a friend, must be, during the few hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, Billy Graham, Martha Stewart and Santa Claus rolled into one.

Hardwick, the interim executive of the Synod of the Covenant, offers a webinar on “Equipping Preachers” the first Wednesday of each month. He led Wednesday’s edition, and others have taken their turn at the microphone during previous webinars. Watch the most recent edition, “Exploring the Themes of Advent 2021,” here.

When he preaches during Advent, which this year begins Nov. 28, Hardwick said he feels “the burden of making it fresh somehow. These are stories people hear every year.” Some worshipers who attend services only on Christmas Eve and Easter may well go home thinking, “this pastor must talk about this all the time,” he said.

While many people think of Advent as a time of waiting for the arrival of Baby Jesus, it is more precisely “waiting for God to break into the world to make all things new and just,” Hardwick said. It can be described as moving from hope to joy, from darkness to light, from “yearning for deliverance to the manifestation of God’s coming in judgment and in life-giving solidarity with humanity,” he said.

“In order to preach this, it has to be true to ourselves,” one participant said. “It’s so much harder to preach when you don’t feel it.” Nineteen months into the pandemic, “we are tired and worn,” this preacher said. “I think the first person we are preaching to is ourselves.”

The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick is interim executive at the Synod of the Covenant. (Contributed photo)

Hardwick laid out both gospel and prophetic texts for each of the four Sundays in Advent, as well as for Christmas Eve. During Year C in the lectionary, Luke’s account is featured.

“People are looking for comfort this time of year, and in Luke there is an edge that is pretty harsh,” a participant said. “It shouldn’t be muted, but it’s a season to yearn for justice and for things to be made right while comforting people who have been through the wringer like all of us have this year.”

Hardwick said he’s not an “Advent fundamentalist,” one who insists that preachers stick to the lectionary texts. “It’s possible to preach more with Christmas themes during Advent,” he said. Preachers should “open your mouth and tell [worshipers] why you’re doing it this way.”

One boundary many preachers adhere to is not having Christmas hymns played or sung during each of the four Advent services. But it’s not a hard and fast rule. One church compromised by using Advent hymns during Advent but having a Christmas hymn sing-along for a few minutes each Sunday in Advent just before worship. Worshipers call out a page number and everyone sings a verse of the chosen hymn.

In addition, worship leaders can craft prayers and responses that echo Christmas themes as well as Advent themes, Hardwick said.

Hardwick had additional suggestions for preachers who don’t want to preach on lectionary passages during Advent:

  • Try the approach offered by the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Campbell in her 2019 Advent study book, “Christmas in the Four Gospel Homes.” In the book’s four sections, each gospel is reimagined as a house the church visits.
  • Cheryl Kirk-Duggan and Marilyn E. Thornton published “Mary Had a Baby,” an Advent Bible study based on African American spirituals.
  • Another approach is to explore Luke’s “preliminary message” in the first chapter of that gospel. “Just go through Luke 1,” Hardwick suggested, a chapter containing 80 verses. “It might take way some of the edge.”
  • Elizabeth Nicholson’s “Women of the Advent” sermon series explores these five extraordinary women, all part of Jesus’ genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, Ruth and Mary.
  • The Bible Project has produced brief films exploring Advent word studies, including shalom (peace), yakhal (hope), chara (joy) and agape (love). “They are centrist, they are on YouTube — and there are dozens of them,” Hardwick said.

Hardwick asked participants what they plan to try this Advent.

One said last year’s series paired names for the child found in Isaiah 9:6 — Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father and Prince of Peace — with selected New Testament texts.

Another has purchased the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney’s “A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church.” “It may be a little bold for me this year,” the participant said, “but it’s thought-provoking reading.”

Still another said her church has been blessed by the Presbyterian Women/Horizons 2021-22 Bible study, “What My Grandmothers Taught Me: Learning from the Women in Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus,” by Merryl Blair.

Hardwick closed the 90-minute webinar with prayer, thanking God “for Scriptures that tell us who you are. Help us point to your son Jesus Christ, that our people will understand him better and love him more. Make us an even more capable church.”

The Rev. Dr. Shauna Hannan, Homiletics Professor at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, will lead the Nov. 3 seminar from 10 a.m. through 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. The topic is “The People’s Sermon: Preaching as a Ministry of the Whole Congregation.” Learn more here.

The Dec. 1 webinar will be led by Dr. Tim Siemmons, Homiletics Professor at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, during the same 10 a.m. through 11:30 a.m. timeframe. The topic is “From/To: Preaching that Accords with Covenant and Commission.” Learn more here.

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