Lectionary Commentaries for December 8, 2019
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent (Matthew 24:36-44) began the new liturgical year at the End (with a capital E), with the expectation of Jesus’ final coming to us.

Advent 2 and 3 move back (chronologically speaking) to the expectation of Jesus’ coming in ministry in connection with John the Baptist. The liturgical reverse chronology, however, should not be mistaken for moving away from Matthew’s eschatology.

The Gospel of Matthew is thoroughly eschatological from beginning to end. Writing around the year 80, Matthew wanted to reassert an eschatological expectation among his readers after some fifty years of waiting for Jesus to return without it occurring.

For Matthew, however, it is not that Jesus’ first coming was historical with his second coming being eschatological. No, the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection comprise an eschatological event that means the church is already living and always will live in the turning of the ages. John the Baptist helps Matthew’s readers see the eschatological nature of Jesus’ ministry.

John the Baptist himself is portrayed as an eschatological figure. Matthew’s details of his clothes, food, and locale signals to his ancient readers that he represents the return of Elijah, which was to occur before the coming of the messiah (Matthew 3:1, 4; see 11:14). John announces the advent of God’s reign using the exact language Jesus will use (verse 2; see also 4:17; 10:7), but John does not initiate the turning of the ages. In language Matthew and Luke (Luke 3:1-17) add to Mark’s version of this scene (Mark 1:2-8), John himself declares that he is but an inferior forerunner to the “one coming after” him (verses 7-12).

Even though the narration of Jesus’ ministry consistently begins with John the Baptist (for example, see Acts 1:5, 22; 13:24-25), the focus of the story is not on John. As John points to the one who comes after him, so should preachers on Advent 2 focus through John’s story to John’s description of the eschatological character of Jesus’ coming ministry.

For Matthew, then, the difference between John and Jesus is not their message, but the role they play in relation to that message. In his address to the Pharisees and Sadducees, John announces the coming judgment. Jesus, on the other hand, is the eschatological judgment. John baptizes with water (like cleansing in the form of washing the surface of something), but Jesus baptizes with fire (like purification in the form of refining or smelting metal to remove unwanted elements).

For Matthew, salvation and judgment are two poles of the same magnet. Many of us like to preach about justice but avoid any talk of divine judgment. If God decides between what is just and unjust, then God is judge. If God decides that we need to be saved from our sin and liberated from oppression, then God has judged our sinfulness and our situation as not according to God’s will. God’s mercy and love are meaningless if God cannot choose to see us and our situations in different ways. For Matthew, to meet and know Christ is to be judged and saved at the same time. The proper response is repentance. This theological claim and existential response will need to be central to an Advent sermon on this lection.

It is important to notice who comes out to be baptized by John. Matthew says it’s the people of Judea, all of Judea, and all of the region around the Jordan (Matthew 3:5-6). Matthew uses hyperbole to show the level of impact the birth pangs of the gospel are having at the center of Israel’s religious and political life. This also shows that Matthew is not anti-Jewish, even though it has often been interpreted this way. John accepts the repentance of and baptizes all these people. It is only the religious leaders with whom he takes issue. And although preachers often speak of such leaders as adversaries of Jesus who challenge and attack him in the Gospels, in Matthew they are not the ones to strike the first blow. John challenges them, not the other way around. This sets the stage for Jesus to do the same (for example, see Jesus’ similar use of “brood of vipers” and “good fruit” when addressing the Pharisees in Matthew 12:33-34).

This is not an easy text to preach. The difficulty is not in identifying what is emphasized in the text, but because what is emphasized is so clear. The problem is that what is emphasized is so hard to hear and to respond to appropriately. Three points of identification invite three different sermons in relation to eschatological advent of judgment/salvation and the invitation to repent. First, the easiest approach may be to ask our congregation to identify with the faceless crowds who come out to be baptized by John. By doing so, we call our hearers, as individuals, to prepare for the coming of Christ with repentance and confession of sins. In other words, we call them to change their lives and to be open to Christ changing their lives.

Second, if we ask the congregation to identify with the religious leaders, we must be willing to name honestly that we religious folks may be the ones most challenged by Jesus’ coming. We have domesticated the gospel into polite news for the middle class instead of being saved by confrontation with our judge. In a sense, this identification leads to the same kind of sermon as the first, but with a stronger call to reflect on the need for the church to repent, not just the individuals gathered into it.

Finally, we can also ask the congregation to identify with John himself, placing ourselves in the role of those who are to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, the arrival of the saving judge who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit. In this case, we call the church (and individuals within it) to take up a critical role toward the world, toward our particular society, and indeed, toward our church. We call the church to speak words of judgment and work radically for justice so that all might know God’s forgiving and providential care.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

As with all scripture, this oft-cited prophesy of messianic expectations has been used to paint a picture for Christ’s reign at times detached from the message of the text itself.

Let us try to read with fresh eyes to see as Isaiah sees (see last week’s commentary for more on how Isaiah sees).

Go back to begin

Biblical scholars agree that the “choral speech” that is Isaiah 11 begins with YHWH’s action of “lopping off” branches in the previous chapter1:

Look, the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts,
    will lop the boughs with terrifying power;
the tallest trees will be cut down,
    and the lofty will be brought low.
He will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax,
    and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall (Isaiah 10:33-34).

Again, the new world order in Isaiah begins in destruction—the destruction of forces that do not make for justice and righteousness. In this particular situation, the branches refer to forces in northern Palestine being lopped off to reduce the power of the Assyrian Empire.

Stripping away our messianic expectations

Isaiah 11:1-5 describe the one who is to come after those forces are defeated to restore Israel. Isaiah is painting the picture of a positive reign, harkening back to King David, in the midst of a disappointing reign (the reign of King Ahaz). 

Isaiah 11: 3-5 describe how this person governs rightly by 1) fearing YHWH; 2) not making decisions hastily at the surface level of hearsay; and 3) making decisions based on what is just for those who suffer in the land. When the governor makes decisions based on these rules, the wicked will feel as though they have been struck by the governor’s decrees, their way of life put to death (verse 4). Clothed in righteousness and faithfulness, the anointed governor will obey directions from the Spirit and have the strength to carry out the plans to completion.

Nowhere in this passage is there language of “King.” Nor is there an image of the anointed ruling with some sort of military might (the decrees from the ruler’s mouth strike the land and slay the wicked, not a military fleet). Read again how this anointed and hoped for one reigns and for whom they make decisions. The tension between this image of God’s anointed ruler and the image contemporary preachers paint of God’s anointed ruler do not rest easy beside each other. Overhearing Isaiah causes us to strip away accumulated layers of false messianic expectations. This passage also may challenge caricatures of Jesus as Messiah erroneously constructed to support a timid Jesus who doesn’t get too political for our comfort zone.

Isaiah 11:6-10 vividly describe the impact of reinstating a ruler who is open to the Spirit of YHWH. The whole earth will be covered with knowledge of YHWH (rather than YHWH’s knowledge, which I think humans are incapable of claiming without slipping into grandiose harmful godlike fantasies). And once creation knows/remembers/receives the counsel of YHWH, there is unheard of security in the natural world, resulting in the humorous images Isaiah paints for us: babies handling snakes and bears passing up a steak dinner. The hyperbole is hyperbole because such a scene is too impossible to implement by our human might alone.

Sermon image

The United States Department of Justice established a permanent home in 1935. From 1938-1941, 61 murals funded by the Public Works Arts Project were completed in the Art Deco building. Each mural revealed artistic vision of what justice in this nation should/could look like. 

One of the most striking images emerged from the mind of Symeon Shimin, a Russian born immigrant to Brooklyn, New York. In 1938, Shimin was hired to paint a mural, and “Contemporary Justice and The Child” was born.2 It took four years to complete the mural, which can still be seen on the third floor of the Department of Justice building in Washington D.C. today.3

Through the eyes of an immigrant, we move from what is to what could be in the United States, left to right. On the left-hand side, Shimin depicts the brokenness of the nation. Dooming factories billowing smoke into the sky. The haunting eye contact from a mass of poor people in shades of gray. A pair of men asleep, contorted, in the shadows. All of these situations, and the systems that are designed to support them, are in the eyes of the artists where justice is absent. 

On the right-hand side are images of the activities that lead to the construction of a just land. Note the brown hands holding the tools for reconstruction in the America of the late 1930s, decades before African Americans even had the right to vote. And see women alongside men, laying blueprints out for a just land. See the scientists, male and female, white and brown, innovating a just future. And enjoy the playfulness in the top right corner in a green land with clean air.

Finally, in the center, a mother and her child.

And a child shall lead them

This week, perhaps we should let children image the story of shalom for us as we anticipate the Prince of Peace. Bring to your congregation their stories, old and new:

  • Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to desegregate the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.
  • Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who is speaking out about climate change and its impact on generations to come.
  • Muzoon Almellehan, a Syrian activist and refugee working out of the United Kingdom to keep Syrian girls in school.
  • Emma Gonzalez, survivor of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School and activist and advocate for gun control in the United States.

What children are speaking up in your context? And what is their message of peace?

And ask yourself, jaded as we are by the appearances of this world in the news and the hearsay of our situation on Twitter feeds, will you accept the counsel of the children at the center of it all so we can step into shalom at last?


Notes:

1 John D.W. Watts. “Isaiah 1-33” in World Bible Commentary, Volume 24 (Waco, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1985), 169.

2 Symeon Shimin, 1902-1984. Contemporary Justice and Child, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee.

3 https://www.symeonshimin.com/biography


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Walter C. Bouzard

Psalm 72:1-17, a prayer of well-being for the king, was employed as a part of a royal coronation or on the anniversary of the king’s accession.

Verses 18 and 19 are not part of the psalm proper. Instead, they constitute a later doxology that marks the end of Book II of the Psalter.1 Verse 20 appears to be yet another editorial commentary by a post-exilic redactor.   

The king and the king’s son mentioned in Psalm 72:1 are the same individual. The Royal Zion theology that undergirded the Davidic dynastic monarchy included the notion that the king’s relationship to God was as intimate as that of a son to a father (see 2 Samuel 7:8-16, especially verse 14; Psalm 2:7).

Psalm 72:1 establishes the themes of much of what follows. The petitioner asks that God imbue the king with God’s own justice (mispateka, “your justice”) and righteousness (sidqteka, “your righteousness”). Yes, petitions for the king’s long life also appear in the psalm (verses 5-6, 16). That concern, however, pales in importance when compared to the urgency that this king—and thus his reign—reflect God’s own regency. In other words, the king is to rule with the self-same justice and righteousness as would God if God sat on the palace throne. 

In particular, Psalm 72:2 includes a petition that the king should judge “your people” with righteousness. The verb translated “May he judge” is din. The term suggests that the king might redress the wrong done to God’s people and thus obtain justice for them by means of a righteous judgment.2 The parallelism with verse 2b makes it clear that “your people” are Yahweh’s afflicted poor who stand in need of judgment:

May he judge your people with righteousness (besedeq),
                and your poor with justice (bemispat) 

The plea behind Psalm 72:2 reappears in verse 4. Once again, the anticipation is that the king might “defend” the cause of the poor, the needy, while eliminating their oppressor. The NRSV translation, while correct, disguises the presence of the verbal root of justice, spt. The NJB helpfully translates “he will judge,” thus clarifying the verb albeit missing the jussive force of the petition. 

The psalm is not done with the theme of the king’s just treatment of the oppressed. The king will be successful and victorious (Psalm 72:9-10) and foreign regents will do obeisance to this king (verses 10-11) precisely because of his compassionate care to the needy, the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed (verses 12-14).

Because of the king’s righteous judgment and justice, the creation will persist and flourish, as will his subjects (Psalm 72:5-6, 16). The unspoken threat, of course, is that injustice for the poor and needy lead to the success of the king’s opponents (see Jeremiah 5:15-17) and to even the undoing of creation (see Hosea 4:2-3).

For most nations, the power of regents—if they exist at all—is extraordinarily limited. At first blush, therefore, it may seem that this psalm is irrelevant in our contemporary context. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Those living in representative democracies such as the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, elect to office persons who will legislate on their behalf. This means that Christians have an opportunity and an obligation to elect representatives who will champion laws and policies that are consistent with faith and the values of the kingdom of God.

That last claim, of course, was the assertion of the so-called Moral Majority, a loud action group on the American political landscape during the 1980s. Therein, however, lies a cautionary tale. The Moral Majority’s agenda revolved around a narrowly defined understanding of what constitutes the Christian faith, e.g., opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and opposition to legal acceptance of LGBTQ people. The group’s leaders erroneously insisted that America was founded as a Christian nation and therefore Christians (again as they defined Christians!) ought to control the government.

Should the preacher take up this psalm, she ought to be clear that this prayer for the king—like our prayers for our elected representatives— has nothing to do with a petition for Christian hegemony. Instead, the psalm centers on the hope that God will bestow upon leaders a measure of God’s justice and righteousness. 

A leader’s integrity, of course, is weighed on the scale of justice and righteousness, especially with regard to the poor, the needy and the oppressed. Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners magazine writes, “the Bible insists that the best test of a nation’s righteousness is how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst.3 Wallis could easily point to Psalm 72 as evidence. The regent (and our leaders) are to exercise authority on behalf of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed in the stead of God. In other words, leaders ought to be elected based on whether or not they give signs of helping those marginalized people about whom God is manifestly and particularly concerned. 

In the psalm, the success of the king and the durability of his reign depend entirely upon his saving the lives of the needy (Psalm 72:11-15). The biblical witness is that no regent, no empire, and no nation will long persist if God is mocked by a lack of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed.

For Christians who pray weekly, if not daily, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” it is surely not too much to insist that our elected leaders extend God’s justice and righteousness to the needy on our behalf. 

Failure to do so, it seems, puts us in opposition to God.


Notes:

1 See similar expressions at the close of Book I (Psalm 41:13), Book III (Psalm 89:52), and Book IV (Psalm 106:48). Psalm 150—or the entire collection of doxological psalms contained in Psalms 146-150—mark the end of the Psalter’s Book V.

2 The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, v. I, 220.

3 Jim Wallis. Who Speaks for God? (New York: Delacourt, 1996), 42.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 15:4-13

Orrey McFarland

The second of three consecutive readings from Romans is designated for the second Sunday of Advent.

This passage is the climax of the broader argument of Romans 14-15 about the division in the community between the “strong” and the “weak” that Paul is trying to overcome. What defines the community that has trusted in the promise fulfilled in Christ’s first coming and eagerly awaits his second coming?

Paul’s answer, and his prayer for the community, is harmony and hope. As Paul explains, the past—both Christ’s work and scripture—gives shape to and encouragement for the community’s present harmony, which orients all in hope towards God’s future.

Instruction from the past: Scripture and the Christ-event (Romans 15:4, 7-12)

From the beginning of the letter Paul has argued that the Gospel is for both Jews and Greeks (Romans 1:14-17). This argument has been anchored throughout the letter in his reading of scripture. So we have here a climax both to Paul’s argument and to his way of arguing. Paul makes it clear in Romans 15:4 that the past (“whatever was written in former days”) was meant for this very present time (“written for our instruction”), in order to give hope.

Paul speaks of the “steadfastness” and “encouragement” of scripture just as he speaks of the same of God in Romans 15:5. Scripture—God’s own word—speaks from the past to give instruction for the present. Thus, in Romans 15:9-12 Paul gives four Old Testament quotations that speak to the present division within the church.

These four quotations are linked together by a catchword—“Gentiles”—and similar theme. It is important to note that Paul’s quotations align with the Greek text of the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text (which is why the verses will look different in an English Bible). The verses from Romans 15 correspond like this:

  • Verse 9 = 2 Samuel 22:50 or Psalm 18:49 (LXX Psalm 17:50; the verses are almost identical in Greek)
  • Verse 10 = Deuteronomy 32:43
  • Verse 11 = Psalm 117:1 (LXX Psalm 116:1)
  • Verse 12 = Isaiah 11:10

For Paul, these texts looked forward to a time when the Gentiles would join Israel in the praise of God—and this eschatological hope has been fulfilled now in Christ. This is, in sum, what Paul is driving at in Romans15:8-9a: that Christ has fulfilled the promises God gave to Israel—thus showing God to be truthful in his promising—and that those promises given to the patriarchs were meant also for the blessing of the Gentiles (see also Genesis 12:1).

Hope and unity in the present and for the future (Romans 25:5-7, 13)

Because Christ has welcomed both Jews and Gentiles—in fulfillment of God’s ancient promises—the Roman Christians are to welcome one another as Jews and Gentiles. The strong are to bear with the weak (Romans 15:1), for Christ himself died “for the weak” (Romans 5:6; here, all humans without distinction).

This is an important part of Paul’s overall argument for unity and harmony in a community that has been split between the “strong” and the “weak” (all of Romans 14-15 up to this point). The Christ-event—Christ’s death and resurrection for the salvation of Jews and Gentiles—reveals the nature of God’s grace: it is a gift given without consideration of worldly worth or status. The divisions that exist within the community are overwhelmed by the grace of God for all people—that grace is the foundation for the life of the community, which does not erase social difference and ethnic distinction but embraces the other.

The Roman Christians are to live in a God-given harmony “in accordance with Christ Jesus” (Romans 15:5) and so “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6). This phrase “with one voice”—one word in Greek—has resonant echoes in Scripture (see Exodus 19:8; Acts 1:14; 2:46; 4:24) and speaks to the kind of unity of praise Paul envisions for the community.

Paul’s exhortation here that Christians—Jew and Gentile, strong and weak—are to welcome one another concludes the argument he began in Romans 14:1: “Welcome those who are weak in faith.” This welcoming, however, is not a bald ethical exhortation but is grounded in the work of Christ. The way God has worked in Christ to welcome and to reconcile sinners to himself reveals the way Christians are to welcome one another. Paul thus brings the strong/weak discussion to an end and affirms the unity of Jew and Gentile in the Gospel.

It is notable that this text is framed by two prayer wishes in Romans 15:5-6 and 13. For Paul, scripture is for us—to instruct, to give hope, as God works through the Word to create and strengthen faith that unites us to Christ and so also to our sisters and brothers in Christ, however different from us they may be. This purpose of this unity is the glorifying of God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 6).

The fulfillment of God’s promises which alone secures this unity is the cause for the hope that God gives through the Holy Spirit, that God will continue to be faithful to his promises; God’s past faithfulness gives reason to be full of “joy and peace in believing” that there truly is good reason for confidence in this “God of hope” (Romans 15:13).

Paul is urging the Roman Christians to find the unity that belongs to them in the Gospel: he urges, but ultimately he knows that whatever unity, hope, or peace that exists in the community depends on God’s work and graciousness, as indeed the community’s existence itself is grounded in the grace of God given in Jesus—the fulfillment of God’s promises.