Lectionary Commentaries for December 17, 2017
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28

Jan Schnell Rippentrop

Whereas in the synoptic gospels, John is portrayed as John the Baptist who precedes Jesus, in the fourth gospel, although John does baptize, “the Baptist” will never be a title you hear for the man, John. John has a very focused role — John witnesses to Jesus.

Picture John on the witness stand (yes, John’s gospel maintains a judicial dimension from beginning to end) being interrogated. The leader of the religious establishment sidles up to him and asks three times (the first time is implied), “Who are you?” John answers truthfully, but differently, each time. Trying to be clear about his identity, John answers in three ways:

  1. Clarifies who he is not (for example not the Christ, not Elijah…)
  2. References a Hebrew Bible text that discloses something of his vocation (“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”)
  3. Owns (the limitations of) his actions (“I baptize with water” and there is another immanently more worthy)

In order to witness to Jesus, John has to know who he is not, who he is, and what he does.

Can these same three methods help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?

  1. “I am not ___________________.
  2. This scripture will tell you something about what I do: ________________.
  3. If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: ________________________________________________________________.

Action

John’s identity is crucial to how he is able to bear witness and what his character witness means. However, in the end, this passage isn’t so much about John as it is about his testimony. Here are seven things we learn (from this pericope and the verses immediately following) about Jesus from John’s witness that a first-time hearer would not have known:

  • Jesus is the true light (In John’s gospel, light refers to Jesus’ [the Word’s] ability to create and maintain life)
  • Jesus is exalted (John is not worthy to untie his sandal)
  • Jesus is the Lamb of God (perhaps the Passover lamb, a symbol of God’s deliverance of the Israelites in the Exodus)
  • Jesus takes away the world’s sin (sin is singular — the world’s communal brokenness)
  • God’s Spirit is upon Jesus and remains with Jesus
  • Jesus will baptize people with the Holy Spirit
  • Jesus is the Son of God (meaning John recognizes that Jesus has a special relationship with God and a unique ability to reveal God)

This is a massive witness. Say they hadn’t already known those things about Jesus and yet they were the religious establishment, charged with knowing stuff about true light, sins, Son of God. Isn’t it predictable that those leaders, faced with embarrassment, would either want to cover up for their ignorance or would want to discredit this outlier witness, John?

John’s witness lends credibility to Jesus’ movement. Furthermore, in John’s gospel, witness is the beginning of faith — bearing witness to the Word, Jesus Christ is the foundation for the emergence of human faith in God. What are the qualities of a person whose witness you have believed? Can you, in this sermon, stir up these qualities in the assembly?

The assembly’s testimony

To echo the form and part of the function of today’s pericope, consider including testimony (one of the many forms of proclamation) within the sermon this Sunday.

Testimony is a true, first-person account of an experience. While it has come, over time, to carry additional connotations of emotionally-laden or persuasive rhetoric, it is, at its core, the practice of making a public statement about what you have seen, heard, and experienced for yourself. Testimony is a practice in which anyone in the assembly can participate. Any member of the assembly can discern where one’s personal story overlaps with a larger, communally held story.

When it takes place in the context of public worship, testimony functions as more than a personal story. It also reflects an awareness of the corporate identity which the one giving testimony shares with all the baptized. Harvard professor and community organizer Marshall Ganz says, “Stories not only teach us how to act — they inspire us to act. Stories communicate our values through the language of the heart, our emotions. And it is what we feel — our hopes, our cares, our obligations — not simply what we know, that can inspire us with the courage to act.”1 He offers the following framework for effective testimony:

Ganz’s Testimony Framework

Translation for Christian assembly

the story of self

what God has done with me/

how I have known God

the story of us

what God does with us/

how we have known God

the story of now

what God is up to now

John bore witness to Jesus. Who in your assembly has a story to tell of God’s accompaniment in their life and what that means? Are there groups in your assembly (confirmation, Men’s Bible breakfast, …) who might benefit themselves or their communities if you help them frame their story as testimony? Could John be right that faith grows from telling these stories?


Note

1. Marshall Ganz, “Telling Your Public Story.” http://www.welcomingrefugees.org/sites/default/files/documents/resources/Public%20Story%20Worksheet07Ganz.pdf, accessed 9.18.2017.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Corrine Carvalho

Who am “I”? That sounds like a philosophical question, but in the case of Isaiah 61, it is also a literary one.

As contemporary audiences of ancient texts we often overlook the role of the narrator’s voice and how it shapes our own relationship to the text.

The message in Isaiah 61 is clear enough: comfort and joy! In fact, I am singing “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” in my head as I write this. The passage from the book of Isaiah as it appears in the lectionary picks up on the language of comfort found in Isaiah 40 read last week. It expands the images of comfort, reward, and restoration. This week the lectionary conveniently leaves out 61:5-7 which addresses the question of identity and group formation prevalent in the last part of the book, and seen in the reading from Isaiah 64 during the first week of Advent. The omission of these verses here allow the reading to function as a build up to the hope of Christmas.

The first half of the reading connects the fate of the restoration of Judea to God’s glorious manifestation. The language of divine glory reflects Yahweh’s transcendence and power, which is why Isaiah 61:2 describes the restoration as divine vengeance. These first verses paint a picture of the transformation of urban landscapes and their inhabitants. The experience of the return is described as release from captivity (verse 1), while mourners exchange their garb for festal garlands (verse 3).

Who is the person who is speaking in this passage, however, and whom does this speaker address? In the context of the Advent liturgy, the contemporary Christian audience would probably assert that this is Christ, while “we” identify with the “we” of the addressed in the passage. Jesus brings US comfort and turns OUR mourning into joy. The corresponding gospel reading from John depicts Jesus claiming the role of a similar voice in the wilderness, quoting Isaiah 40:3. But is this either text’s only or even primary meaning?

In the second half of the reading in Isaiah 61:8-11, this first person speaker takes on other roles besides that of messenger. Here the speaker becomes an agent for justice. The audience for the speech disappears, and the focus turns to the exaltation of the vocal paragon of righteousness. The target audience in the final verse is no longer the restored community, but the foreign nations, that is outsiders.

While the Advent structure provides the contemporary audience with a secure location vis-à-vis the text, the text on its own does not. Is the speaker, the “I” of the poem, our avatar, or are we “they” whom the “I” addresses? At first glance, it might seem obvious. The speaker cannot be me, because I could not do the things that God commands the speaker to do. I cannot declare release from suffering or change mourning into joy. It is much easier to be “them,” part of the passive recipients of God’s blessings. My life is hard, I want to yell. I am mourning! I am imprisoned by poverty/poor health/addiction/anxiety. God must surely have finally heard my prayer and come to bring me my just reward!

The problem is, the message of the Bible is not always that easy. It rarely casts its audience as the righteous group. Throughout the prophetic texts related to the exile, such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the elite deserve divine vengeance for their lack of righteousness. If this poem is directed to this returning group of former elites, perhaps they are the ones who are called to serve the mourners, the captives, the oppressed.

This reading of the poem places the contemporary audience in a different conceptual location with respect to the text. Rather than hearing these words as exaltation of a deity who serves my needs, we should hear them as divine command to go out and bring healing to our broken world. Or, to put it in Advent language, we are called to be Christ to others.

The point of the Incarnation is not to distance Jesus from us, but rather the opposite. The Incarnation asks us to see ourselves as the image and likeness of God, to whom has been given the dominion of this world (Genesis 1:26). In that capacity, the image is a charge to act justly within this world of injustice, violence, prejudice, and oppression. We are not Christ’s image when we triumph as much as when we serve.

As an Advent text, Isaiah 61 is not just about the ability and desire of God to heal human wounds. It is a call to be the bodies through whom divine justice becomes a reality, not just within our own small communities, but to the whole world.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 126

James K. Mead

Psalm 126 has a rich lectionary tradition, used for worship during Lent, after Pentecost, and here on the third Sunday of Advent.

Given these multiple contexts, one will find many helpful commentaries at Working Preacher, each making distinctive contributions to our understanding of its message. To mention only a few of these: Mark Throntveit addresses matters of literary structure (5th Sunday in Lent, 2013); Rolf Jacobsen focuses on the theme of restoration and the surprising testimony of the nations (3rd Sunday of Advent, 2008); and James Howell explores ways that churches in an American context may appropriate its message (3rd Sunday of Advent, 2014).

As I consider this psalm as an Advent text, I am particularly struck by a sense of dissonance as we compare its tone and content to typical American understandings of the “Christmas season.” Our consumer-driven holiday has little space for “sowing in tears” or “going out weeping,” though it may delight when people “come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (or presents and packages, as the case may be). Still, if the church reclaims the Advent season in terms of waiting and hope, then the psalm’s distinctive combination of joy and sorrow goes a long way toward helping a congregation sort through the cultural trappings of Christmas. Here are two ways I believe Psalm 126 can speak to worshipers in these last couple of weeks prior to Christmas.

First, our difficulty in precisely identifying the literary form of Psalm 126 can work to our advantage when applying it to Advent. Scholars typically have categorized the psalm as a community lament, probably owing to the implied background of a famine;1 but others point out that “there is no actual lament to be found in the psalm.”2 Calling Psalm 126 “a prayer for help” avoids the confusion over the word “lament” and emphasizes the two petitions: “restore our fortunes” (verse 4) and “may those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy” (verse 5).3 But there are other features of the psalm that support Throntveit’s categorization of it as a “community psalm of trust or confidence.”4

The advantage of these varied descriptions is that they call attention to the psalm’s capacity to address the broad spectrum of material, psychological, and spiritual situations experienced by our hearers. Think of all the times we have heard someone say — or we ourselves have said — “I don’t know how I should feel during the holidays.” The mix of conflicting emotions and the memory of past blessings obscured by current crises can leave us feeling disconnected from our moorings. Psalm 126 speaks a word to parishioners, assuring them that someone understands how they feel and, more importantly, can offer them hope.

Second, the repeated emphasis on “restored fortunes” (verses 1, 4) also works to our advantage by calling attention to the wider biblical background of the image. Far from being a promise of material wealth that is unrelated to God’s purposes and claims, the concept in Psalm 126 actually challenges all unjust materialism. A brief explanation of the translational issues helps us get there.

The Hebrew terms behind this phrase (šûb šîbat sîyôn) were rendered by the King James Version as “turned again the captivity of Zion,” and similarly by the New International Version (1978) as “brought back the captives to Zion.” Understanding šîbat as deriving from the verb having to do with captivity (šbh), the emphasis of the KJV and NIV was on the people who returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity. Most English versions today (New Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and even the Today’s New International Version) follow a slight emendation of the Hebrew text that sees šîbat as deriving from šûb, hence something that is restored.

Here the focus is indeed on the material world and, in at least one context, the “restored fortune” may imply great wealth: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job” (Job 42:10). The ensuing description certainly includes possessions — “twice as much as he had before” — but even in Job’s case we cannot forget the devastation and loss that preceded this restoration. The relationship between suffering and restoration is actually the operative theme of this biblical phrase, not wealth for its own sake.

When we consider its other occurrences in the Old Testament, it becomes clear that “restored fortunes” is typically an image for what is restored to Israel after the exile. Deuteronomy 30:3, the first biblical use of this phrase, anchors this concept in relation to the exile: “Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you.” Three other psalms (14:7; 53:6; 85:1) and numerous prophetic texts, especially Jeremiah (30:3, 18; 31:23; 32:44; 33:7), share in this common hope.

“Restored fortunes” means that material needs are met in a way consistent with God’s covenant expectations. Keeping this fact in mind, preachers on this Sunday may wish to explore the intertextuality between Psalm 126 and the Old Testament lectionary passage, Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. This post-exilic oracle asks that God would “come down” (verse 1) to address both the threats from “adversaries” (verse 2) and the devastating conditions of Jerusalem (verse 10). The intervening verses not included in the selection (verses 5-7) places the blame on the fact that “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you” (verse 7).

Whereas Psalm 126 skirts around an admission of responsibility, Isaiah 61 incorporates that into the prayer for help. Together these texts maintain the indissoluble connection between justice and blessing. In these days of tweets punctuated by #blessed, our Advent worship is an occasion to remember the God who indeed restores us, but does so within a covenantal context where the “blessed” are motivated to share God’s gifts with those who are still waiting to receive them.


Notes

1. William Bellinger , Psalms: Reading and Studying the Book of Praises (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 51.

2. LeAnn Snow Flesher, “Psalm 126” Interpretation 60 (2006):435.

3. Rolf Jacobson and Karl Jacobson, Invitation to the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 40.

4. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1602


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Carla Works

The reading for this Sunday comes at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.

In fact, since most scholars believe 1 Thessalonians to be the first Pauline letter, these verses could be the closing exhortations of the earliest writing in our New Testament.

How does Paul choose to end his first letter to the fledgling church at Thessalonica? The closing includes a series of easy to remember admonitions that, in reality, are hard to follow.

Upon first read, the short imperative phrases in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 sound like the instructions that I might rehearse for my kids before dropping them off at a friend’s house: “Always be respectful. Listen closely. Pick up after yourself. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Call me if you need anything. In fact, just call me period.” The list goes on. Most of the time those words are not even heard, because my children know them by heart. They have heard them repeatedly. (Doing them is another matter!). I suspect that many of us read Paul’s list of final exhortations in a similar way—barely listening.

Though Paul may have given similar verbal instructions while he was in Thessalonica, this is his first-time writing. We should not assume that the Thessalonians heard these admonitions in the same way that we hear Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice (“Wah wah wah wah wah Wah wah”). In fact, Paul seems to have gone out of his way to make the instructions more memorable to his first century audience.

Though in our English translations the verses sound like a disconnected string, in Greek a similar sound courses throughout the list to tie the string together aurally. Each imperative phrase contains a word beginning with a “p” sound (the Greek letter pi) as either the first or second word of the verse. Plus, while every verse contains a brief imperative, there is a natural break in the exhortations with the additional clause in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This break creates a division between verses 16-18 and verses 19-22. Upon closer examination it is clear that the two sections also hold together thematically.

Verses 16-18 contain the following admonitions: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things. These imperatives convey a human response toward God, recognition that God is the source of our joy and thanksgiving. While the exhortations to rejoice, pray, and give thanks are common in Paul’s letters, they take on new life when one considers that this church has been grieving over the death of some of its members. In chapters 4-5 Paul reminds them of the power of the gospel. This is a God who has conquered death and will not neglect the believers who have already died. God will raise them from the dead just as God raised Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The gospel provides the very basis for rejoicing and thanksgiving, even in the midst of grief.

Verses 19-22 contain further evidence of God’s work among them, particularly in the context of community worship. The work of the Spirit (verse 19) is made evident in the gift of prophesying (verse 20), which is itself supposed to be a word from the Lord. Nevertheless, not all who claim the gift of prophecy or practice it in the community may be speaking through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Paul admonishes the church to “test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (verses 21-22).

A few verses earlier Paul tells the believers to respect those who labor among them and have authority over them (1 Thessalonians 5:12). He has not left the church leaderless. He exhorts the congregation to esteem them, but he does not give these leaders the authority to say or teach whatever they wish. The congregation takes part in discerning the works and words of the Spirit. The charge to abstain from evil echoes verse 15’s admonition to seek the good for one another and not to repay evil for evil.

None of these admonitions result in a lazy or passive congregation. Paul ends the letter with action words that are God-centered. Rejoicing, praying, giving thanks, discerning, and testing—these activities leave no room for idleness (1 Thessalonians 5:14) nor do they allow the church to forget the source of their good news. Nonetheless, obeying these imperatives is only possible due to the power of the Spirit’s work among them.

The exhortations are followed by a final prayer for the congregation in verses 23-24 (compare to 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13). The prayer reminds the church that they are part of God’s work. God is the one who has called them and set them apart, and God has power to redeem all of them—body, soul, and spirit (verse 23). Here Paul makes a rare reference to a tripartite division of the body. Since Paul is inconsistent in talking about the body this way (see for example 1 Thessalonians 2:8), we should not place too much weight on this verse. Instead, Paul is using language that his congregation can understand. There is no aspect of one’s being that is beyond the realm of God’s grace and power. This God is faithful indeed.

The church today reads these final admonitions as we too await Christ’s return. Paul is insistent that Christ will come again (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Death, pain, suffering, and turmoil do not get the last word. We await a Savior who has conquered Death. This period of waiting, though, is not a time to twiddle our thumbs. We are called to be active. Pray and rejoice that God has not abandoned us to evil. Model what is good and peaceful. Allow God’s Spirit to shine in your midst for the God of peace is really at work among us.