Barbara Lundblad's Tuesday lecture, "The Word Isaiah Saw: Anticipating Advent," served up practical tips on how to preach image sermons on the Isaiah lectionary readings this Advent.
Lundblad focused on the Revised Common Lectionary Year A readings from Isaiah for the four Sundays in Advent.
She explained that image sermons rely on taking a single image/metaphor and incorporating it into the worship space in a way that is appropriate for the preacher's context.
For some, that means bringing a tangible object into the worship space (a plough in the narthex, a stump near the altar). For others, it may mean incorporating artwork on the bulletin, onscreen via PowerPoint or during the children's sermon.
The more tangible, the better. "Who can see it?" Lundblad asked. Why? Because, she said, it's much easier to see despair than hope. Preaching the Isaiah texts through Advent is an exercise in making hope as tangible, as visible, as despair. Although the Scriptural witness emphasizes hearing the word, Isaiah in these passages offers ways to see the word.
Preaching Advent through Isaiah's Eyes
Advent 1: Turning weapons into ploughs (Isaiah 2)
- Liberian women (led by Leymah Gbowee, recounted in Gbowee's 2011 book, Mighty Be Our Powers) join together and create social pressure to end the civil war. Can you see the women lying on the side of the road, Muslim and Christian women, dressed in white, demanding peace?
- Cambodian farmers, at risk of being blown up in their lush green fields by landmines leftover from decades of war. As munitions are removed and destroyed, there is room for something new to grow again.
- City of Pittsburgh's program to trade goods for guns has yielded 11,000 fewer guns on the streets, in a nation where there are more than 300 million guns. Can you help people see what Isaiah saw?
Advent 2: A shoot shall come forth from the stump (Isaiah 11)
Lundblad detailed the steps for creating an image sermon around the theme of a shoot from the stump of Jesse.
Tips for creating an image sermon:
- Prepare the ground: Send an email ahead of time asking people to connect the Scripture reading with their lived experience. What have you seen?
- Start with an example from nature: Show growth that takes place in inhospitable surroundings or after a severe pruning. For example, seedling growing through cracks in impenetrable rock.
- Move to a human equivalent: Tell a story of an individual whose life has been cut down, but for whom life returns, in time, with new vitality. (Widower who has lost his wife of 42 years who eventually re-engages
- Extend from the individual to the community: Share about a community that has been devastated, and find ways that members of that community emerge with dignity intact. If it's a local example, even better.
- Connect the images with the listener's life: Can you see it? Where are the shoots coming forth from the stumps in your own life?
Advent 3: Water in the desert (Isaiah 35)
Lundblad pointed out that there are multiple images in this text -- best to select one image to focus on than to skate from one image to the next. In her case, she chose to focus on the waters breaking forth in the wilderness. The theme for the sermon is rehabilitating, recovering life where there once was desolation:
- Use a blue cloth to run from the communion table all the way down the center aisle and out of the worship space: It may require extra care and attention by the ushers so that people do not trip on the fabric. The effect is stunning, though -- a river running through the sanctuary.
- Penobscot River in Maine: Share the example of the Penobscot, a river whose dams have been removed in recent years and the resulting abundance of fish species that have returned to the river, including salmon.
- Abandoned lot in the Bronx turned into a garden: Teens worked to clean up a lot that had been trashed, then the community turned it into a lush garden space.
If we can't see tangible signs of hope, we will all give into despair, said Lundblad. Other possible images for this week -- focus on an accessible world, one in which people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities can be full participants in public life and in public spaces. (See Nancy Mairs' 1996 book, Waist-high in the world: A life among the nondisabled)
Advent 4: A virgin shall conceive and bear a son (Isaiah 7:10-16)
The guiding image for this week could be a baby crib in front of the altar. Lundblad encouraged preachers to be mindful that there are people for whom the image of waiting for a child is very difficult.
The image of preparing for a child in the days before its birth is powerfully tangible. What does it mean that God gives us the sign of a child? The Gospel of Matthew repeats the Isaiah text, showing us that the Bible is a living Word being carried forward across the generations.
Hymns are powerful image-bearers as well
Lundblad concluded by stating that hymns can shape our imagination of Scripture as much as images, and they can carry the images forward that are used in preaching. With deference to the O Antiphons, she proposed new words to the Advent hymn, O Come, O Come, Immanuel. The presentation ended with a singing of this revised version of the hymn:
O Come, O Come, Immanuel
O come, O come, Immanuel
And bless each place your people dwell.
Melt ev'ry weapon crafted for war,
bring peace upon the earth forever more.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God's chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.
O come, green shoot of Jesse, free
Your people from despair and apathy;
Forge justice for the poor and the meek,
Grant safety for the young ones and the weak. Refrain
O come now, living water, pour your grace,
And bring new life to ev'ry withered place;
Speak comfort to each trembling heart:
"Be strong! Fear not, for I will ne'er depart." Refrain
O come, dear child of Mary, come,
God's Word made flesh within our earthly home;
Love stir within the womb of night,
Revenge and hatred put to flight. Refrain
The above verses correspond to the Isaiah readings for Advent, Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary. Revised text by Barbara K. Lundblad. Free for use in congregations with attribution.
Links in this article provided by author, not by Barbara Lundblad.