Lectionary Commentaries for November 18, 2018
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 13:1-8

Samuel Cruz

As a young man I remember when this gospel lesson was the text used for certain Sunday sermons.

My church was a Latinx Pentecostal congregation with an attendance anywhere from 650-800 people. The music was always enthusiastic and inspiring. The expectation even before the first words were delivered were high and palpable. It seems to me that for some reason the congregation liked radical, drastic sounding, apocalyptic literature. My church was one among a growing number of churches with an appetite for apocalyptic biblical genre. In fact, at one-point apocalyptic talk became a multimillion-dollar industry in our country, with books such as that of Hal Lee Lindsey, “The Great Late Planet Earth,” selling millions of copies.

In my church this passage and others like it conjured fear, was used to call people to repentance, and even lead congregants to conversion. At the same time, this apocalyptic literature brought a sense of peace and security. Why would a passage that stirs such fear, also convey peace and security? I believe that the peace and security gleaned from this apocalyptic literature resulted from the assumption that there was something better in the future than the present hardship lived by so many in this working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York.

We must keep in mind that when Jesus was asked: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” and he answers, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” He had already said in the previous passages that this wondrous building had been built off the the sweat and exploitation of widows and the poor. It was for this reason that, although it looked magnificent and pure, it was truly putrescent inside. Therefore, the destruction of this magnificent edifice might be troubling for those who maintained their power and prestige in its survival, but not so for the common faithful widow. Interestingly, the disciples did not seem to internalize what Jesus had said about the widow and that temple as can be seen from their continued exaltation of it.

One of the challenges for us in the 21st century and living in one of the most affluent countries in the world, is that we cannot truly relate to what Jesus is saying. Jesus is suggesting that there is “sin” in our world and that a complete apocalyptic transformation is therefore required. The challenge for us is that “sin” has become a non-contextual spiritual construction with no relevance to our real lives. However, for Jesus “sin” is very contextual — it means oppression, exploitation, abuse of the widow, orphan, migrant, transgender people. Therefore, the system that has been built from evil must be destroyed and made anew.

This system might even include our churches and their institutions. Perhaps the fear that people experienced was not intended for all, as the destruction of buildings, cities and the society, would mostly affect the power brokers of the given society. This radical restructuring perhaps was meant to bring encouragement to the marginalized then and now and hope that the oppressive structures of society would be destroyed.

This might be the reason that many in my church went from feeling fearful to feeling hopeful and at peace. Let us remember that Jesus said things will be difficult: “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” For the marginalized the chaos is experienced both on a micro and macro level, as they are also burden by the chaos evident in our larger world, in addition to their individual local sinfully oppressive realities.

In the midst of this apparent chaos and destruction, Jesus brings words of hope: “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” It is easy to forget that the narrative does not end with gloom and doom. Although too often this narrative has been used to portray a hopeless and catastrophic situation, in reality, Jesus seems to be speaking about a hopeful and salvific future. We all know, and some have experienced, the physical pain that women endure while giving birth. However, after the most powerful forces of pain take place, birth is the result, and the new life is then celebrated.

Therefore, it seems that the apocalyptic words of Jesus were meant to bring a message of hope especially to the subjugated of his society and ours. The description and verbiage used to explain what was to occur in the future is not even hyperbolic in nature. The changes will be radical and disruptive to the status quo. The structures that will collapse might not be physical ones, they might be the stones and walls that have kept and continue to keep female, gay, lesbian, transgender, and differently abled individuals as well as people of color from fully realizing their ministerial potentials.

In our current era and political context, in which some are trying to reverse the apocalyptic progress that has already been made, the words of Jesus should bring comfort to the church and especially to those who have been kept marginalized.

First Reading

Commentary on Daniel 12:1-3

Roger Nam

First of all, congratulations on following the lectionary and taking the challenge to preach on some of the really difficult passages of Daniel.

The exciting narratives from the first half of the book of Daniel (1-6) have served as preaching favorites for all types of congregations, particularly younger ones. You have stories of lions, fire, and stories of resistance against “the man,” in the form of King Nebuchadnezzar. This is the material of Jerry Bruckheimer movies. In contrast, the second half of the book of Daniel (7-12) presents as much more difficult sermon material with the four apocalyptic visions. Apocalyptic genres can be exciting, but they bring significant challenges in preaching such cryptic texts.

It is a mistake to preach solely on the stories of Daniel 1-6, while ignoring the visions of Daniel 7-12. The narratives of Daniel are meant to be read alongside the apocalyptic materials. Even the language suggests that that they need to be integrated, as in Daniel 1, Daniel 8-12 is in Hebrew, but Daniel 2-7 is in Aramaic. The stories all have to do with being faithful as a subject within a wider, oppressive empire. But these are complemented with the theological proclamation of a sovereign God, as underscored throughout the apocalyptic visions.

Daniel 12 launches the final scene of the four apocalyptic visions of Daniel. In the prior section, Daniel sees an angel who speaks of a “Prince of Persia” who will wage war and defeat many powers, and in the process defile the temple. A king from the North shall arise and wreak havoc on the land. Some will flee (Trans-Jordanian states), some will fall (Egypt), and some will follow this king (Libya, Ethiopia), but the king abruptly dies. As with any powerful monarch, this event is expected to bring a period of chaos in the wake of a sudden powershift.

At this point, Daniel 12:1-3 introduces a transition in both time and space. The opening phrase “In that time” signals a temporal shift from the present to a future eschaton. Within the passage, “that time” is paradoxically filled with both anguish and deliverance. Already, the book is set within the hegemony of Babylonian empire. This passage recognizes the particular severity of the moment, describing an upcoming time as “distressed,” (12:1), even more distressed than any other prior time since the primordial age. But the passage also indicates that the persecution is of limited time and will soon lead to a period of deliverance. These are not two different time periods, but rather the time of unprecedented anguish is also a time of salvation.

“That time” occurs within a new spatial framework. The introduction of the angelic character of Michael (Hebrew translation “Who is Like God?”) moves the setting from earthly to otherworldly realms. Michael is not merely introduced, but described as “The great ruler,” implying a level of superiority beyond the earthly rulers of previous chapters. Daniel 12:1 uses the word “arise/stand” twice: (1) Michael arises/stands; (2) He is the one who “arises/stands upon the children of his people.” The verb invokes a call to warfare in a spirit a parallel to military activities, both in historical narrative (for example 1 Samuel 17:3, 8, 51) and prophecy (see also Isaiah 50:8). This call to “rise” is long-awaited.

The paradox of anguish and delivery is manifest in two groups of people. Both groups share the following commonalities: (1) they were asleep; (2) they will awaken to a fate that will last for the ages. But aside from this, their fates are polar opposites. For one group, the awakening will lead to shame and death. But for another group, the address of “your people” specifies a small group within a collective identity as the hearers of this apocalyptic message. It is a qualified group of “all who are found written in the book.” Most will recognize the connection to the idea of a written document in Revelation, but it also bridges to earlier movements in the Old Testament that ascribe a growing awareness of textual authority. Why else would many passages, such as 1 Chronicles 1-9 or Numbers 1, dedicate so much space to a list of names? Inclusion in the written list is an emblem of power and protection.

The next verse describes the glories that await this group. The darkness of the preceding passages is overcome with a “brightness in the sky” and the “stars for the ages.” The passage proceeds with declarations that follow this imagery of magnificent light.

The thought of an afterlife is a pretty late development in Old Testament texts. The vast majority of passages dealing with death are much more concerned with the proper burial. But rather than obsess with the specific mechanics of an afterlife, I think the heart of the text is to provide hope. God is redemptive, even when it does not appear so in this life. The introduction of the afterlife in this passage is intended to provide relief for those under suffering, and for those who grapple with a perception of God as distant in the midst of chaos. Daniel 12:1-3 is a culmination of many challenging situations for the faithful, both in the narratives with Daniel in the foreign court, but also in the apocalyptic visions.

So rather than lead the congregation in a theological inquiry, which is important, I pray that beyond theological meditations you will develop a sermon to address realized pain and confusion in the congregation. A close reading of the passage may not mollify pain, but it can perhaps invite a wider, more divine understanding of the place of that pain. Although the passage perhaps intentionally leaves out many details on this awakening, the clear message promises complete and thorough relief to a distressed community. And this passage can invite the congregant to the peace of God in the midst of their own trials, where God seems so distant.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 1:4-20

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

The saga of the kings of Israel begins in an unlikely way with the story of Hannah, the second and barren wife of an ordinary man named Elkanah.

With the story of Hannah this week, we move from the time of the judges to the time of the monarchy in Israel. For the last two weeks, the alternate Old Testament readings told us the story of Ruth. That small domestic tale of faithfulness and love serves as a grace note during the turbulent and violent time of the judges.

This week, the story of Hannah does much the same thing. Along with the book of Ruth, it provides the narrative ground for the tale that follows, the tale of Samuel and David and Solomon and the rest of the kings of Israel.

For those who have followed the semi-continuous or alternate Old Testament readings this year, these texts at the end of the liturgical year represent a circling back to the beginning. This series of readings began after Pentecost with the call of Samuel in 1 Samuel 3. Then the readings spent a long time on King David, his triumphs and his sins, and finally they moved to Solomon, his son, and some of the books traditionally ascribed to Solomon (Song of Solomon and Proverbs). After some time in Esther and Job, we circle back now at the end of the liturgical year to Ruth and Hannah, whose seemingly-insignificant domestic tales provide the framework for understanding the stories of Samuel, David, and Solomon.

If you are preaching on this story of Hannah, I would urge you to follow the suggestion of the lectionary and replace the appointed psalm with the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. This song/psalm is part of the theological framing of the story. For that reason, I will focus in this commentary both on Hannah’s story and (briefly) on her song.

Hannah’s story
The story of Hannah begins, much as the story of Ruth does, with the mention of a man who will play a limited role in the tale that follows. Elkanah is notable for his love for Hannah but also for his inability to help her. When he does try to help, his words are ineffective: “Hannah, why do you weep?…Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8). One wonders whether it wouldn’t have been better to say, “Are you not more to me than ten sons?”

Of course, as anyone who has dealt with the profound pain of infertility knows, all words are insufficient. The preacher who preaches about Hannah (and the other barren women of the Bible) would do well to acknowledge that pain without trying to diminish it. Some women have experienced the miracle that Hannah and Sarah and Elizabeth experienced — children after long barrenness — but not all. There is a place in this story for lament.

The preacher might also note Hannah’s agency in this story. In a patriarchal society, where a woman’s worth is linked to her ability to have children, Hannah is particularly vulnerable. Though her husband loves her, she has no security for herself once he dies. Though her husband loves her, she is scorned and belittled by her husband’s other wife and likely by the society at large.

But her vulnerability and her social status do not hold Hannah back. “Hannah rose and presented herself before the LORD” (1 Samuel 1:9). Hannah takes matters into her own hands and comes boldly to the sanctuary to pray. In fact, she prays with such fervor that Eli the priest thinks that she’s gotten into the communion wine and he rebukes her. (Apparently, the practice was to pray aloud, so Hannah’s silent prayer, along with her tears, is a sign to Eli that something is amiss — 1:13).

This bold prayer, like the psalms of lament, is based on the assumption that God hears, that God cares, and that God will respond. Such an assumption may be something that we take for granted, we who grew up singing “Jesus Loves Me.” But it is worth noting that it is still a radical assumption — that the God who created the universe cares about me and my troubles (1 Samuel 1:11). Prayer, honest prayer, is a bold thing to do, but over and over again, Scripture testifies that the life of faith is grounded in such boldness. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7).

In response to Hannah’s prayer, Eli responds with this word of assurance: “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him” (1 Samuel 1:17). Elkanah’s words are insufficient. Eli’s first words are ignorant. This blessing, though, does what the earlier words could not — it assures Hannah of God’s faithfulness. And though nothing has changed about her outward circumstances, suddenly Hannah is comforted. As one of my students recently noted, Hannah — who could not in her sadness eat the double portion of food that her husband gave her (1:5, 8) — now goes home and eats and drinks, sad no longer (1:18).

This movement from sorrow to joy is the movement of the psalms of lament (see, for instance Psalm 22). Though nothing has changed in her outward circumstances, Hannah knows that God has heard her prayer, and that makes all the difference. Eli’s blessing is fulfilled by the birth of Hannah’s son Samuel, but the healing of her sorrow begins with the assurance that God has heard.

Hannah’s song
Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2 is a psalm of praise that finds echoes in the book of Psalms (Psalm 113) and in Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55). Hannah praises God for God’s care for the downtrodden, the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. In the song, the world’s expectations of “same old, same old” are upended and the world itself is turned upside down. The hungry are fed and the rich are made to work for their bread. The poor are lifted up and the powerful humbled.

What makes this song significant in its context is the way in which it looks both backward and forward. The mention of the barren woman who has borne seven children (1 Samuel 2:5) is, of course, germane to Hannah’s story. But it is also noteworthy that at the beginning of this book about flawed kings, the song ends by painting a picture of the faithful king.

Contrary to the world’s expectations, “not by might does one prevail” (1 Samuel 2:9), but by the power of God. God will give the people a king, but that king will succeed only insofar as he knows from where his authority comes: “The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10).

The last word of the song in Hebrew, meshikho (“his anointed”) is literally “his messiah.” The song ends by pointing unmistakably towards God’s anointed, David, whose story will occupy the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel. More importantly, the song points towards the promise made to David and to his descendants that God would “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13), a promise that leads to the hope for a Messiah.

The story of Hannah, then, brings us full circle, back to the beginning of the story of the kings that has occupied our attention since Pentecost. But it also points us forward, to the celebration of Christ the King next week, and to Advent, when we will hear another young mother sing the song of Hannah:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant….
He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-48, 53-55)


Commentary on Psalm 16

Beth L. Tanner

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is yet to come” is a central passage in the Mark text for this week and it could serve as a parallel for Psalm 16.1

The psalm is one of trust in uncertain times. The opening verse asks for God’s protection and refuge. The pleas are not as urgent as a lament, fitting well with the Mark text where the world seems to be falling apart and there is fear in the air, but no immediate or specific threat.

My family and I play a game with the local and national news programming. We list all of the things we were told to be afraid of in a 30-minute span. Try it; the average is 6-8 per broadcast and it ranges from races of persons, to scary multi-national terror groups, to “the dangers of sunscreen.” It is my way of showing my children just how much of the media is designed to keep them fearful. It is an inoculation of sorts because clearly, fear sells. The author of the Gospel of Mark and this psalm knew that and both texts serve as an antidote to a culture selling fear. The theme of both texts is to trust in the Lord and to ignore those who say otherwise. It means to trust God in the face of an uncertain future.

The psalm is written in five stanzas of 2 verses each, making it symmetric in nature. The first and last stanzas are statements of trust, providing a circular movement. The psalm begins with an imperative plea to God to “keep or guard me for I take refuge in you.” At the end of the day, nothing can protect us from danger and uncertainty is difficult and anxiety producing, but no matter what or where, one can find refuge in God. The stanza then quickly moves further declaring not only God’s protection but “I have no good apart from you.” It is more than safety then, happiness and God is found only in God or the gifts God provides.

Psalms usually provide some type of contrast. Modern folk can find this distracting, but it is simply the shape of ancient poetry and so the second stanza (Psalm 16:3-4) is just that. It contrasts the “holy ones in the land” with “those who choose another god” and a promise not to follow the latter. Scholars have tried to decipher who these holy ones are but even without an exact definition, it is clear that this stanza directly relates to the concept of what is good from above. Good is found in God and not others and this is simply a reaffirmation of the first commandment. In a similar way, Deuteronomy 10:13 implores the people to keep the commandments, not for God’s sake, but because it is good for them to do so.

The next stanza returns to the good that God gives (Psalm 16:5-6). Here the psalm moves far beyond combating fear or going after other gods. There are two words in Hebrew that defy easy definition. The first is ‘asher often translated as “happy” and the other is tamim or “complete.” Yet this psalm serves as a good definition for both. The person who has the characteristics in this psalm is “complete” and because he/she is complete, he/she is happy and content. God has provided boundaries that are praised. God’s gifts of a portion and an inheritance are enough for the one praying and worthy of praise. We are to be content in God and the parameters placed on human existence.

This concept of contentment can be tricky to preach today because it is not about material or monetary value. A preacher must be careful not to imply that the broken systems of this world are justified and one should just be content in the face or racism, sexism, under employment, and injustice. No! The psalm is not speaking in defense of injustice, nor should we be content with broken systems, but we should be content with God and our relationship with God and our place in God’s kingdom. Indeed, it is this type of personal “completeness” that provides the strength and confidence to speak out against worldly powers. Despite what we are not by the world’s standards, God has given to us what we need and even our conscience is a gift for it keeps us in the ways of the Lord. The next stanza (verses 7-8) continues the confession declaring the greatness of the Lord for God’s teaching and God’s constant presence. The psalm blesses God for the gift of counsel and a conscience that is guided by God keeping us from the wrong paths in life.

The psalm ends with resounding praise of what is to come in the future and that future is secure in God’s hands. Here again the Gospel lesson and the psalm mesh together into a powerful message. For the Good News of God often becomes twisted into a “rapture theology” that teaches humans to get right with God or face eternal wrath. The end times from the Gospels is yet another thing we are to fear. The Gospel lesson and the psalm both state that future is in God’s hands. The second coming is not the terrible end to our world, but the glorious transformation of old broken systems into justice for all whom the Lord made. “In your presence is complete gladness and everlasting pleasure at your right hand.” The kingdoms of the world are violent and unjust places so trust should be placed in God’s right hand where our complete selves are to be found.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 15, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:11-14 [15-18] 19-25

Katherine A. Shaner

Most people who remember anything from Hebrews remember it as the book where the pithy saying about faith as the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen can be found, or for its idea of Jesus as the high priest who replaces sacrifices at the temple.

The second idea, while prevalent in Christian interpretation of the book, leads to a kind of supersessionist understanding of Judaism in the first century that deeply underrepresents the ways that Christ-followers were part of, and intertwined within, Jewish communities apart from the Jerusalem temple. Especially if we consider the fact that the preacher is steeped in Platonic ideas of perfect forms and imperfect copies as well as ancient scripture, those contemplating how to proclaim this lection should be aware of the ways that we construct Jewish temple practices as an antithesis for true religious atonement found in Jesus.

Rather, this mashup of Platonic cosmology and quotations from scripture (Psalm 110; Jerimiah 31) reveals the perfect sanctuary and the perfect priest in Christ. The Platonic forms are noted in the priests who stand day after day (verse 11). While it is fair to assume this priest is the high priest of the Jerusalem temple, these actions also look like the function of sacrifice and priestly service throughout the Roman Empire and its subsidiaries. Notice that this copying of actions (verse 11) and the one-time perfected action (verse 12) draw on platonic ideas of shadows/copies and forms.

Such is the case throughout Hebrews; even in last week’s reading you note that the sanctuary made with human hands is a mere copy of the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:24). Last week’s reading argued that Christ’s sacrifice happens at the end of the age since it is folly to assume Christ “suffers again and again since the foundation of the world” (Hebrews 9:26). This week’s reading reiterates the one-time sacrifice and gives another reason for a lack of repetition: Christ’s sacrifice was offered in the perfected (read: Platonic form) sanctuary not made from human hands rather than in its imperfect copies (whether the Jerusalem temple or any other Greek or Roman temple).

The function of sacrifice — elimination of sin from the community — was also perfected. With this perfection, the preacher argues, we, too are perfected (verse 14). In other words, the preacher of Hebrews is working hard to convince her audience that each Christ-follower is holy, worthy, and invited to advocate for and be in God’s presence.

The second half of this pericope is the “so what” to the reality that sin is no more and to the preacher’s proclamation that we have been made a holy people. While Lutherans — and I suspect some other mainline folks as well — get a little nervous when perfection, the eradication of sin, and holiness of believers comes into the conversation, remember that the argument presented is a proclamation, an unveiling, of the good news about Christ’s work in God’s world that is not made with human hands — the preacher is not noting an eradication of sin in our experience or as a condition for faith in Christ. Christ has opened the possibility of these things as the great high priest (verses 19-21).

As the preacher reveals this culmination of what it means for us to stand in the presence of God, she offers some turns of phrase that should make us sit up a little straighter and listen with a little more curiosity. She exhorts her hearers to approach God with genuine (alethines) hearts in the full assurance (plerophoria) of faith (verse 22), with a strong hold on the confession (homologia) of our hope (verse 23), and with the willingness to irritate (paroxismos) each other into love and good deeds (verse 24). The Pauline formulation of faith, hope, and love as the fruits of the Spirit is no accident here, but the way these values are worked out in Hebrews challenges many of our usual assumptions.

Notice there is no sense of approaching God with humility, rather full assurance of faith of God’s work in preparing us for advocacy in the divine presence. In other words, the faith Jesus’s work in our lives produces — the faith God gives us — does not require any strength from us. In fact, the confession (homologia) of which the preacher speaks is not the kind of confession we often think of in our lives of faith — the confession we often expect people to make about their faith in order to demonstrate certainty of belief. Rather, confession in verse 23 is the confession of hope (elpis). Our hope is what we confess. Our faith is what God has done.

Verses 24-25 draw out a still more surprising idea: our work of love is the work of provocation, irritation, and even exasperation (paroxismos). The preacher says we should provoke one another to love and good works. How does one provoke love? How does one irritate someone into good works? We so often talk about love as something without irritation or exasperation, a stance toward the other that involves toleration, patience, and comfort. But the preacher notes that we should understand one another in the paroxismos of love — the irritation of love.

Instead of asserting a community built on sameness and good feeling, the preacher seems to note that provocation and exasperation is part of being a community. She exhorts us to build a kind of community gathering that relentlessly, even irritatingly, suggests that actions of love and deeds are not what create faith, but are rather the responsibility of the community which needs to gather because of their faith in the great high priest — a faith God gives. Regardless of the sameness or unity within church communities, the assurance of faith and the confession of hope creates love that can withstand and even work across difference.