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When Advent is a Plea

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: Dave is leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “From Text to Sermon: Staying Faithful in a Changed Landscape.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by Dave Davis

Advent and Christmas come around every year for the preacher whether you want them to or not! I can’t be the only preacher who finds planning for Advent preaching paralyzing some years. When lectionary preachers get bored with the lectionary, I bet it happens mostly in Advent. When topical preachers struggle to come up with the next series or month of texts for preaching, I bet it happens mostly in Advent. The liturgical themes of the four Sundays of Advent unfold with the familiarity of family tradition. The expected rhythm may tamp down the preacher’s imagination rather than inspire. So the temptation rises to opt for a cantata, a pageant, and lessons and carols, leaving one Sunday in Advent to preach!

candleBut it feels like there is nothing routine about Advent this year. The list of events that contribute to a growing darkness in the soul is all too real. The chaos of the world and the nation stokes a growing sense of wandering in the wilderness. Trying to preserve the peace and unity of the church these days can be like trying to keep a flickering candle lit through a stormy night. For those of us who rise to preach there has to be an urgency to our gospel proclamation of the very promise of God.

Bearing witness to the promise of God as the landscape shifts all around you. That sounds a bit like Advent. For still, a voice cries in the wilderness. And still, a people who walked in darkness have seen great light. And still. A star rises in the east. And still, you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And still, the true light which enlightens everyone, came into the world. And still, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall never overcome it. This year Advent is less of a season and more of a plea.

It is getting harder and harder to preach the gospel, especially in Advent. And it many of our lifetimes, it has never been more important to preach the gospel, especially in Advent. It is the paradox of the preaching office these days; the joy and the challenge, the privilege and the heartache. Maybe the first task for the preacher in an Advent season unlike any other is to experience God’s promise afresh and to pray for the light of life to come smack into all this darkness. Pray that God’s promise of that peaceable kingdom will ever more quickly come. Pray that Isaiah’s promise of a child leading them, and of a shoot that comes forth from the stump of Jesse, and of every valley being lifted up and every mountain made low, and of not hurting or destroying on all of God’s holy mountain, and of God about to do a new thing….that Isaiah’s promise would be fulfilled now. Pray for the Advent light to come.

Advent as a prayer. Advent as a plea. And the preacher crying out, praying for, clinging to the very light of God. Falling, just about helpless, certainly speechless into the promise of God. And then, and only then, daring once again to rise to speak.

Because God has spoken.

Come Lord, Jesus, quickly come.


David A. Davis has served as senior pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, since 2000. David earned his Ph.D. in homiletics from Princeton Theological Seminary, where he continues to teach as a visiting lecturer. Before arriving in Princeton, he served for fourteen years as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Blackwood, New Jersey. He is the author of two sermon collections, A Kingdom You Can Taste and Lord, Teach Us to Pray, and his recent sermons are published on the Nassau Church Sermon Journal. He tweets occasionally at @revdavedavis.

Asking Better Questions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by John Vest

Whenever I give a talk or lead a workshop on evangelism I begin with the same exercise. I give people a minute or less to write down a 2-3 sentence answer to this question: What is the gospel? This usually catches them off guard, but I don’t stop there. I go on to ask them to find a partner and read to each other what they wrote. After they squirm around in their seats and chat uncomfortably for a bit—and there are usually a handful of people who refuse to do this exercise altogether—I make a blunt statement: if this is hard for you, especially if you are a church leader, we have a problem.

john vest evangSophisticated, well-educated Presbyterians tend to think that the gospel is too complex to reduce to a mere two or three sentences. We’ll spend thirty minutes on caveats and qualifications before we dare say something simple and straightforward about what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. We’ll tweak our language and nitpick details. We’ll offer substitute motions to substitute motions before calling the question, before answering the question: what is the good news?

And when Presbyterians finally get around to answering this question, it often comes in the form of theological statements, sets of core beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, or confessions. This is the language we speak. But it might not be the language the world needs most right now.

Implicitly or explicitly, the faith question Presbyterians most ask each other is this: What do you believe? It’s the basic question behind our Sunday School learning outcomes, our lists of things we want children to know before confirmation. It’s the question we ask confirmands as they present statements of faith and publically profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. It’s the question in worship that prompts our recitation of the Apostles Creed or some other affirmation of faith. It’s what we ask candidates for ordination. It’s the reason that half of our constitution is a book of confessions.

But a better question is this: How do you know God is real?

In response, many people will say that we can’t really know God is real. There’s no way to prove it. We just have to believe. It’s why we call it faith.

I don’t think this is a satisfactory answer. Faith isn’t about believing an unbelievable story. It isn’t about believing something that can’t be proven. If that’s all it is, why choose one unbelievable story over any other unbelievable story? After all, every religion—and most non-religions—tell unbelievable stories.

Mature faith and transformative spirituality is rooted in experience. Evangelism is the art articulating that experience in compelling ways that just might resonate with other people.

To encourage this kind of faith-talk, we need to ask each other better questions than we are used to. Instead of “What do you believe?” or even “What is the gospel?” we need questions like these:

  • How have you experienced God’s presence in your life?
  • Where do you see God in the world?
  • What difference does following Jesus make in your life?

In the Unbinding the Gospel series, Martha Grace Reece notes that people who do evangelism well—regardless of theological orientation—have more complete, integrated, and faster answers to questions like these. Yet for many of us, these are difficult questions to answer. This is probably not the way were raised or trained to talk about faith.

Before we can ever say what evangelism is and how we ought to do it, before we develop strategic plans and programs, before we have any chance of successfully reaching out to new people, we need to learn—or relearn—how to talk about faith in meaningful ways with each other. We need to be evangelized by each other. We need to understand what’s at stake in the world and in our lives and how the gospel addresses these needs. We need to be able to articulate why Jesus matters.

This isn’t just head work. This isn’t simply a matter of getting our theology or our polity right. The gospel isn’t a doctrine to believe or an ethic to follow. It has to be more than that. It has to be a spiritual transformation grounded in experiences of the living God. Within our churches, this will require a significant culture change. Perhaps we might even be bold enough to call it an awakening—or a revival.


vest picJohn W. Vest is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. You can learn about his various ministry activities at johnvest.com and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. An enthusiastic pitmaster, John dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.