Lectionary Commentaries for December 2, 2018
First Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 21:25-36

Michal Beth Dinkler

Today’s lectionary passage is situated in a longer apocalyptic discourse in which Jesus warns of coming persecutions and foretells the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.

Jesus’ description of future cataclysmic events in Luke 21:5-36 (with Synoptic parallels in Mark 13 and Matthew 24-25) is riddled with symbolic themes and imagery from other Jewish apocalyptic texts. He describes his second coming, the parousia, for example, in terms reminiscent of the book of Daniel:

I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. (Daniel 7:13)

As elsewhere in apocalyptic literature, we find here references to the eschatological crises of persecution, famine and war, impending salvation and judgment, and exhortations to specific actions in the midst of suffering.

Judgment, terrors, cosmic signs of the end times. This might seem like a strange way to begin the season of Advent. After all, Advent is a time to prepare our hearts in joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth. How can this apocalyptic end-time prophecy of Jesus coming “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27) introduce Christians’ annual commemoration of Jesus coming as a helpless infant? Instead of armies of angels as we have in the birth narrative (2:13), we hear of Jerusalem surrounded by human armies bringing desolation (21:20). During Advent, we celebrate God-with-us — the Emmanuel who comes into the world. Why preface this with talk of “fear and foreboding of what is coming on the world” (21:26)?

Starting the season of Advent by reading Luke 21:25-36 brings multiple contrasts into view: The “signs” that will prefigure the risen Jesus (21:25), juxtaposed with the “sign” that is the infant Jesus himself (2:12). Power and glory on the one hand (21:27), humility and helplessness on the other (2:7). A warning that the “nations” will be “distressed” and “anxious” (21:26), set alongside a message of “good news of great joy for all the people” (2:10). As odd as it might seem to draw these contrasting images together, there is wisdom in it.

As renowned teacher and activist Parker Palmer writes in his excellent little book The Promise of Paradox, “The way we respond to contradiction is pivotal to our spiritual lives.” Paradox requires “both/and” instead of “either/or” thinking. One dictionary defines paradox as “a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.” The word paradox comes from the Greek para, “contrary to” and dokein, “to think, seem, appear.” Keeping space for paradox is difficult, especially in America today. The country is polarized, often reflecting either/or logic: “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”.

But the Gospel is full of paradox. In Luke, for example, the infant Jesus is more than a baby born in a manger. He’s also “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). Both infant and Savior. Jesus teaches “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it” (Luke 17:33). Both losing one’s life and keeping it. He says to his disciples, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division” (Luke 12:51), yet when he returns, he declares, “Peace to you!” (24:36). Both division and peace. On a theological level, Christians affirm paradox all the time: Jesus’ crucifixion led both to death and to new life. Jesus was both fully God and fully human. More is going on than meets the eye.

Returning to Luke 21, we find still more paradox in its apocalyptic language. Destruction, death, and betrayal are coming, but hope is there in the midst of it all (21:18-19). Earthly trials and tribulations are portrayed as temporary, and vindication for God’s chosen ones as imminent. Their redemption, Jesus teaches his disciples, “is near” (Luke 21:28). Both suffering and comfort.

Moreover, as Susan Garrett writes, “In the apocalyptic view, events transpiring on the earthly plane are merely the reflection or outworking of events happening on a higher, unseen plane.” In other words, the battle between good and evil plays out both on earth and in heaven. In Luke 21, Jesus reminds his followers that there is always more going on than meets the eye. There is more to reality than they might see at first glance. Not either/or, but both/and.

The fact that more is going on than meets the eye is precisely why we must “watch” (21:34) and “stay awake at all times” (21:36). Jesus calls his followers to be prepared and aware. He takes care, though, to point out that such preparedness does not mean we plan every detail ahead of time, as though we could control reality by preparing for every exigency. Jesus himself is the source of strength: “Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (21:14-15).

As we move into the Christmas season, let us not get so myopic in single-mindedly over-preparing for Christmas that we forget God’s vision for the world — a vision that is God’s to control, a vision that is far broader and more expansive than either/or thinking can allow. What is at stake is not just another annual celebration or making Christmas memories with friends and family. What is at stake is the coming of the kingdom of heaven, which, Jesus reminds us, is both already and not yet here.


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Michael J. Chan

God’s word can find us anywhere — even in prison, as Jeremiah discovered: “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah a second time, while he was still confined in the court of the guard” (Jeremiah 33:1).

Prison is bad enough, but it gets even worse for Jeremiah, who is forced to serve his prison sentence in the middle of a foreign invasion. In addition to these horrifying external realties, Jeremiah also carries the burden of his message, that Judah’s situation is going to get worse before it gets better (Jeremiah 33:5-9).

The faithlessness of Judah’s leadership and its disregard for its societal responsibilities invited death and destruction into the city’s once mighty walls.  Jeremiah’s description is potent and terrifying:

The Chaldeans are coming in to fight and to fill them with the dead bodies of those whom I shall strike down in my anger and my wrath, for I have hidden my face from this city because of all their wickedness … In this place of which you say, “It is a waste without human beings or animals,” in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without inhabitants, human or animal (Jeremiah 33:5, 10).

Judah’s faithlessness courts a terrifying encounter with the Hidden God, whose anger undoes creation, human and non-human alike. The city devolves into a state of chaos, desolation, and lifelessness. The once bustling city of Jerusalem has been returned to a kind of pre-creational tohu wavohu (Genesis 1:2). In the words of Psalm 104, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (Psalm 104:29). To see the shining face of God is blessing and life (Numbers 6:24-26).

But the story doesn’t end here. Even while Yhwh roars in anger outside Jerusalem’s walls, he simultaneously offers the promise of a new future, from within the walls of Jerusalem in the person and words of Jeremiah:

I am going to bring it recovery and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them; they shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it … flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them, says the Lord … The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” For thus says the Lord: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to off (Jeremiah 33:7-9, 15-18).

Yhwh’s double-edged words works simultaneously, both killing and making alive.

God’s forgiveness creates a new future for Jerusalem. This new future will be one in which hidden promises are revealed, in which God’s shadowed face will come gloriously into view, and in which justice and righteousness will prevail in the land.

The new city of Jerusalem, moreover, will glimmer with the sheen of borrowed righteousness, as demonstrated by her new name, Yhwh tzidqeynu, “Yhwh is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:16).

Yhwh’s “righteousness” is manifest in two of Judah’s most important institutions, the priesthood and the throne, both of which took a Babylonian-style beating at the end of the 6th century. Once the targets of Jeremiah’s rage (Jeremiah 2:8, 26; 5:31; 6:13; 13:13), these institutions have also been healed and transformed into promise-bearing loci of political power.

Not surprisingly, special attention is given to the “righteous Branch,” a descendent of David who will sit on his predecessor’s throne. Yhwh’s promise to David — memorialized most fully in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 — is specifically named. Yhwh’s commitment to this promise is as firm and predictable as cosmic law: “If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed time, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken, so that he would not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with my ministers the Levites.” (Jeremiah 33:20-21).

In this remarkable text, the unfaithfulness of Judah’s leaders opens Jerusalem’s doors to the forces of death, destruction, and chaos. In a terrifying move, Yhwh hides his face and all that is good dies on the vine. But Yhwh’s hiddenness does not mean Yhwh’s silence. The living word preaches on in the person of Jeremiah who foresees the dawn of a “new day,” inaugurated by Yhwh’s decision to heal and forgive.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

Beth L. Tanner

Happy New Year!

The Christian church begins its year, just as the secular calendar is winding down. It reminds me that to be a Christian means to never mold myself to the rules and principalities of this world. It also reminds me that with every closing, there is a new beginning. So, on this December day, we begin the story of our faith again anew.

The texts for this week each bring a different perspective to this New Year celebration. The Jeremiah text assures us a righteous branch will spring forth and execute justice and righteousness. Luke announces the “Son of Man” is coming and our redemption is near. The last two readings move from the one coming to the ones who will receive this Lord of Life. The epistle text offers encouragement and advice for daily life. The psalm speaks to God on behalf of one believer and provides a posture of receptiveness for the coming days.

Psalm 25 is an acrostic poem, so even if the lectionary focuses on the first ten verses, the psalm should be considered a seamless whole. The psalm covers several themes: beginning with petitions to God (verses 1-3), but quickly moving to requests for God to teach and forgive the one (verses 3-7), followed by declarative praise of God who teaches and forgives (verses 8-10), the remainder of the psalm focuses on forgiveness and salvation for the one (verses 11-21) and finally for Israel (verse 22).

Verse 1 begins with an affirmation of the relationship, “To you, I lift my soul, O God, in your I trust.” The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh which represents the whole self, not only the soul.  As Advent dawns, it is good to affirm the bedrock of our faith – “I lift myself to you, and in you, I place my trust.” The affirmation is short and immediately followed by the realities of the world –do not let me or my community, the ones who belong to you, be shamed. Or in other words, protect us from the malicious acts of others. This one is asking God for protection for the individual and the community against the slings and arrows of the malicious ones.

Who are the malicious ones? It is for every reader and community to assess this for themselves. Poetry allows for each one to name those persons and situations which cause suffering.

The next pleas to God implore the Lord to teach and lead the one in God’s path and truth, followed by equal pleas to “be mindful of your mercy” and “not remember the sins of my youth, or my transgressions.” This psalm places learning and forgiveness together, and we are to contemplate why. How are these concepts related to the request for protection from shame?

The “why” or juxtaposition of two or more concepts is a hallmark of Hebrew poetry. The psalms ask us to stretch our theological muscles. I am sure there are many answers, but I thought of the quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.” The psalm is a reflection on the life of a person and a community. It calls us to look to the past to see how God has provided both growth and forgiveness. It also calls on us to be honest about our past.

The arc of a life is long, and usually, the arc of a church or a denomination is much longer. Individuals and the church have had positions over that time which now, after God’s life lessons, must be named as sin. The church has often been in the position of asking God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of humans it has hurt or excluded. Part of Reformed Tradition is a belief that both persons and faith communities will sin, but “when they know better, they do better.” This psalm celebrates this growth in God’s grace and is also honest about the mistakes along the way.

The lection ends with declarative praise for the Lord who teaches humans God’s ways. The Good News is that we do not remain stuck in our sin because God does not abandon us but “instructs the sinners in the way.” The individual and the community have a future and an opportunity to “do better.”

The Jewish New Year begins with Yom Kippur a time when all persons ask for forgiveness from each other (the day before) and God. It is a time to reflect on his or her actions in the past year. The purpose of this reflection is to first repent and then to do better in the coming year. Psalm 25 presents us here on the first day of our Christian year with a similar reflection. We can begin the Christian year with a reflection on the past, not as a condemnation of our youth, but as a celebration of God’s faithfulness and God’s teaching throughout our lives. We can leave the old behind us and move forward into a New Year trusting God will guide us to “do better.”


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Carla Works

Paul’s Macedonian mission began with scandal and imprisonment, and his sojourn in Thessalonica did not prove any easier.

The letter of 1 Thessalonians, most likely the earliest letter of the Pauline epistles, is also the apostle’s first correspondence to the nascent church in the bustling capital city of the province. Paul came to Thessalonica after his jail stint in Philippi (Acts 16:19-34; see also 1 Thessalonians 2:2), and though some believed his message he also experienced opposition there (Acts 17:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:2).

In this letter, the apostle can hardly contain his joy — and perhaps even surprise — at the reception of the Thessalonian believers. This letter seeks to praise the Thessalonians for their faith and to encourage them to remain true even in the face of hardship (1 Thessalonians 2:14). Our text this week provides a glimpse at the earnest longing of the apostle to be with the church again and at his certainty that the God who called the Thessalonian believers is with them, even in the absence of the mission’s leaders.

What is striking about the text, and the letter as a whole, is the apostle’s confidence and praise of God’s work and presence. This is not mere rhetorical flourish. It is a calculated reminder of the power of the living and true God. The city of Thessalonica was certainly not bereft of deities.

Built on a hill, the slopes of the city extended down to the port. On a clear day from nearly any point in the old city one could see Mount Olympus towering over the horizon across the sea. Mount Olympus, the highest of the Greek mountains, was the legendary home of the Olympian gods and particularly Zeus, who is considered the All-Father. Furthermore, images of Roman power were everywhere, as represented by the adoption of Roma among the rest of Thessalonica’s ancient deities.

The city esteemed the emperor with honors usually reserved for the Olympian gods. From its coinage to its geographical situation, there were reminders of the divine everywhere. It is of little wonder why Paul would praise these believers for turning away from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

With these daily reminders of ancient deities and Roman power, it is also easy to see why Paul might be worried about the welfare of the new church. If the account in Acts is correct, Paul was forced to flee Thessalonica by night to seek refuge in Beroea (Acts 17:10). The author of Acts records that some of the Jews caused an uproar in the city and accused Paul and all those affiliated with him of turning the world upside down, teaching against the decrees of Caesar, and proclaiming another king, Jesus (Acts 17:7).

These are serious charges indeed for a provincial capital. Surely any who followed his teaching would not be immune to the hardships Paul faced. After his own hasty departure from the city, the apostle wondered what had become of this beloved community of a few Jews, God-fearing Gentiles, and “leading women” who were receptive to the message of a crucified and resurrected Jewish messiah (Acts 17:2-4).

According to 1 Thessalonians, Paul has deployed Timothy to check on the believers. In the passage immediately preceding this week’s text, the apostle recounts the good news that he has received from Timothy, who has reported the strength of the Thessalonians’ faith and love (1 Thessalonians 3:6). Against all odds, the church had remained faithful. The believers had withstood the pressures facing them by the city officials, by the Jews (Acts 17:1-9, 13), and by the practices of their former faith (1 Thessalonians 1:9).

This is the context for Paul’s outburst of joy and thanksgiving in 1 Thessalonians 3:9. He was forced to flee the city in the midst of an uproar, and he has worried about the believers ever since. He has longed for them like a parent longs for a child (1 Thessalonians 2:7-20). He has prayed for them night and day (1 Thessalonians 3:10; see also 1:3). He has carried the burden of wondering whether they are safe, wondering whether they are being persecuted, wondering whether they are still meeting together at all.

He must have been convinced that the faith that they displayed was sincere, and that faith would either carry them through or be their public downfall. Had he had more time with them, perhaps, he could have helped them grow more in their faith, but his time there was short (1 Thessalonians 3:9). Finally, with the arrival of Timothy, news has come.

God has protected them. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead — the real God of life — has refused to leave them. This God does not dwell in a tall mountain far away, but among them. It is noteworthy that twice in our brief passage Paul refers to God as the Father (1 Thessalonians 3:11, 13; cf. 1:1). God — not Zeus or Caesar — is the real Father of them all. God has sent the Lord Jesus. God has directed the path of Paul. God is the key actor. This God works among them through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul prays that they will continue to love one another and all people (1 Thessalonians 3:12). They are to bear witness to love in a city that has shown them hate. 

Finally, Paul reminds them that Christ will return (1 Thessalonians 3:13). Without this return, there is no good news, and their faith has been for naught. Christ will return and claim those who are his — whether they are dead or alive (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Christ will return and bring real peace (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

God has not abandoned the Thessalonians at the foothills of Mount Olympus, nor has this God abandoned the created order. Christ’s return signals God’s ultimate victory. And so, the Thessalonians, like all believers, live in hope — with certainty of this return and, in the meanwhile, the mission to “abound in love to one another and to all people.”