Lectionary Commentaries for December 10, 2017
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:1-8

David Schnasa Jacobsen

There is probably not a better text for the second Sunday of Advent than Gospel of Mark’s version of the John the Baptist story

It is not because Mark’s take on the story is necessarily better than the others, but because Mark’s way of telling it is so thoroughly apocalyptic in nature. Other gospels may want to start with hoary genealogies or charming birth narratives before they get to John by the Jordan, but not Mark. Mark’s Gospel jumps right into the Jordan with John once the purpose of his writing has been announced in verse 1: the gospel of Jesus Christ (Son of God) — that is, Advent-appropriate apocalyptic good news.

I realize that we may not normally think of the word gospel as apocalyptically charged, but Mark helps make it so. Joel Marcus points out that the word for gospel itself comes down, like a lot of the motifs in our Advent 2 pericope, from Second and Third Isaiah, which also includes “making a way,” the wilderness, and in Mark 1:9-11 the ripped open heaven of Isaiah 64:1 at Jesus’ baptism.1 Biblical scholar Eugene Boring points out, furthermore, that the word gospel in a Hellenistic context can mean good news “from the battlefield.”2 To be sure, the gospel in our pericope is not about the chirpiness of hallmark cards; it is rather good news from the place of struggle — for Mark struggled with Satan and the Roman Empire.

I like to point out that our Advent 2 text actually represents half of a Markan prologue that sets the scene for the narration of Jesus and his disciples that begins in earnest in 1:16. Before then, the “gospel” is equated with “Jesus Christ” in 1:1 and by the end of the prologue is called the “gospel of God,” that is, the good news of God’s reign in 1:14-15.3 Our pericope is thus the first half of the fifteen-verse set up for Mark’s forthcoming, gospel-focused narrative of Jesus. And as we know from Mark’s sixteen-chapter unfolding story of exorcisms, “binding the strongman,” demon-thwarting miracles, eschatological feedings, and the sun-darkened crucifixion in Mark 15:33 this Jesus narrative is one of apocalyptic struggle from beginning to end.

In light of this apocalyptic tone, it is helpful to note one other structural feature of Mark 1:1-15 that helps to shape our more limited Advent 2 pericope in 1:1-8. As Boring has noted, the story of John the Baptist and the story of Jesus have certain parallel features, even if John and Jesus are not parallel figures:4 both are in the wilderness (1:4/1:12) and both are in the proclaiming business (1:7-8/1:14-15). To my mind, this structural similarity sets up the unique anticipation and fulfillment of Jesus’ coming and roots it narratively in what can be called a kind of “situational irony.”

John announces that one is coming who is more powerful and that he (John) is not even worthy to untie his sandals. And yet, beyond our pericope, when Jesus “comes,” John the Baptist actually baptizes Jesus! The structural relationship with John is parallel, but apocalyptically reversed. Though Jesus is “stronger,” John’s unworthiness is taken up into the strange paradox that is the good news of Jesus Christ.

All of these things help make sense of the traditional exegetical issues that occupy interpreters of Mark 1:1-8. Although Mark announces that Isaiah is the source of the quote in 1:2, it is in fact a conflation of Isaiah 40, Exodus 23:20, and Malachi 3:1. John’s appearance, of course, is reminiscent of Hebrew Bible prophets and plays on ancient types, like Elijah. Still, the key to 1:1-8 remains the strange parallel yet asymmetrical relationship between John and Jesus. John expects a “stronger” one to come; his relationship to Jesus is subordinate because Jesus baptizes with Spirit. And yet in this apocalyptic narrative, anything goes. The unworthy one ends up doing the baptizing (1:9).

In fairness, however, the text actually ends with a feint: the Holy Spirit in verse 8 is not yet present, but promised. Yet even this foretaste squares with our apocalyptic Markan narrative. The Spirit is the coming sign of the new age, an eschatological harbinger, and will be the driving force behind the Messiah’s reign-of-God ministry. This promised Spirit is for prying open an otherwise closed present. So when the Messiah comes, his baptism will not be about preparation, but empowerment for ministry, for setting the disciples on the way.

Preachers might be wise to think of this second Sunday of Advent as good news in the midst of the struggle. Sometimes our Advent talk ends up being a little moralistic when we read John the Baptist exclusively through the eyes of repentance and moral rectitude, as if the narrative were starting out from a point of equilibrium. With the good news of Jesus Christ, God has already entered the struggle. He is himself “gospel,” good news from the front, as it were. The words of Second Isaiah help us to perceive the voice that commands that we prepare a way in the desert/wilderness. But the way is not ours. The way is the Lord’s. And that’s good news for the struggle.


Notes

1. Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 139-40.

2. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (New Testament Library; Louisville: WJKP, 2006), 30.

3. David Schnasa Jacobsen, Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), 23-26.

4. Boring., Mark, 38.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

Corrine Carvalho

What an interesting array of metaphors in this pivotal text.

It combines images of comfort with declarations of sin, the fragility of grass on the steppe with the enduring power of the divine, and, my favorite juxtaposition, a warrior God who holds lambs tenderly against the divine chest. It is no wonder that biblical scholars would like to de-couple these images and attribute different verses to different authors. That dissection, however, misses the point.

This poem opens the second part of the book of Isaiah, which contains poems reflecting the impact of Persian expansion under Cyrus the Great on the peoples living in exile after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Cyrus, who is explicitly named three times in Isaiah 44-45, ruled more than 150 years after the historical Isaiah advised king Hezekiah during the Assyrian defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel. The oracles of condemnation in Isaiah 1-39 reflect this period of destruction, while the poems in chapter 40-55 are filled with hope and joy because Cyrus allowed the exiles to return home.

Isaiah 40:1-11 provides a joyful refrain that introduces this unexpected reversal of fortunes. To be sure, Persia maintained colonial control over the peoples in the ancient Near East, but people were allowed to live in their native lands as long as they remained loyal to the Persian government. Isaiah attributes this foreign policy to the workings of their God, Yahweh, who now chooses to change the status of the displaced Jews.

The poem opens with a messenger crying out the unexpected message. “Comfort! Comfort!” rings not as command but rather as joyful astonishment. The path home becomes a level highway at the sound of the messenger. This will be no forty years trudging through a desert. The return will be a pilgrimage along a well-kept thoroughfare.

The focus of the poem quickly turns to the god who delivers. God commands the querulous messenger to proclaim God’s entrance onto the scene in Isaiah 40:6-9. The contrasting images serve to highlight the chasm between Yahweh and the people. They have sinned, but God has stayed true. They are fragile, but God is powerful. The poem focuses on the declaration of the human condition: grass withers, flowers fall, a reality too well known by the ancient audience. Their own inter-generational experience of exile has demonstrated that God does not care whether they live or die. They are no more than blades of grass crushed by the warrior rushing to glory.

Ah, but no. Comfort. That’s what this poem is about. That divine warrior, with arm outstretched to slay an enemy, instead bends down and scoops the little lambs into the divine bosom. If only lambs could purr.

This poem is read in the second week of Advent in part because the gospel writers used it to convey what was in their time a similar instance of wholly unexpected, unearned and unprecedented divine compassion: the entrance of Jesus onto the world stage. The evangelists identify John the Baptist as the messenger, and Jesus as the one who comes with power and tenderness. In trying to describe the indescribable, they turned to this passage from Isaiah as a way to illustrate their experience.

What does startling comfort look like today? The poem does not promise that all suffering will cease. It does not deny or change the brokenness of the human condition. It suggests that some of us may be called to be messengers of a declaration, which others may find hard to fathom. But no matter where we locate ourselves in this poem, it ultimately reminds us that the unexpected can happen: God still sends comfort into our short and frail lives.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Diane Jacobson

Psalm 85 is a perfect psalm for this second Sunday of Advent.

The psalm is filled with promise in the midst of a time of waiting and uncertainty. The first two verses encourage us to remember what God has done for Israel and for us — looking favorably on the land, restoring fortunes, and centering, most particularly, on the forgiveness of sins. What better way to point forward to the beginning of Mark with its picture of John the Baptist “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).

Significantly, the emphasis of the psalm is not so much on personal sin as on corporate and national sin. Both ancient traditions and scholarly consensus invite us to think of this psalm as being sung in response to the return from the Babylonian exile when land indeed had been restored, national forgiveness had been experienced, and the people waited for God’s promises to be fulfilled. This being said, the proclamation of the psalm is not limited to that time alone as each new generation brings to this psalm its own deep sense of the sins of their own community or nation and the experience of forgiveness.

Verse 8 turns to a personal plea that God hear the prayer of the psalmist to speak peace (shalom) to his people, those who are faithful in their turning to God. Peace is the expected fruit of forgiveness. The response to this plea in verse 9 is a proclamation of salvation to those who “fear” the Lord, which echoes in parallel those in verse 8 who are faithful and turn to God in their hearts. That is, those who “fear” God are, ironically, not afraid. They are faithful and believe the promises of God.

One indication that Psalm 85 is post-exilic is that the promise is fulfilled when God’s “glory,” rather than God himself, dwells in the land. The new temple will now be the dwelling place of the “name” or the “glory” lest anyone imagine that its potential physical destruction could ever actually touch the living God dwelling in and rules from the heavens.

Verses 10-13 are filled with rich images which bring to life the promised salvation of verse 9. The principle image of this indwelling promise is God’s “path,” what William Brown calls the Via Dei.1 Once again the resonance with the other texts of the day is marked. Psalm 85’s path of God links us to the path proclaimed in the lesson from Isaiah 40 and then picked up by Mark. The “way of the Lord” is being prepared in the wilderness, the path is being made straight. Psalm 85 invites us metaphorically to walk along that path and to experience the realities which accompany God on the way. All along this path we find that love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace meet, kiss, spring up from below and look down from above.

Some years ago at a youth gathering in New Orleans, a group of us dedicated to biblical renewal in the church created a physical space where the young people could literally walk the “Road to Shalom.” The path was filled with road signs and stopping places where the reality of God’s “shalom” was illustrated by various passages of Scripture. At one point, the travelers arrived at “Promise Alley” where they were asked to hold up signs imprinted with the words: STEADFAST LOVE (hesed), FAITHFULNESS (‘emet), RIGHTEOUSNESS (sedeq), and PEACE (shalom).

We then read verse 10 of Psalm 85. We talked about how the promised shalom of verse 8 is, in verse 10, intimately linked to three big ideas: Shalom is first linked to God’s steadfast love. This is a love which, like agape, is rooted in God’s promise. Shalom is linked secondly to God’s faithfulness, God’s dependable presence and commitment. And shalom is linked finally and most intimately to righteousness.

After some discussion, we asked the participants holding their respective signs to have STEADFAST LOVE physically meet FAITHFULNESS and then have RIGHTEOUSNESS and PEACE actually kiss one another. Amid the handshakes, hugs, kisses, and giggles, the physical connections embodied the psalm and the pathway.

We might well have continued with verse 11 and 12 with their strong images of faithfulness and righteousness springing up from the ground and looking down from the sky. These images are also amazingly physical. Clearly part of what constitutes the promise, the “good” that the LORD gives, is actual increased produce, real food abundantly available for all. But more than this, or perhaps better, making this possible is the increased faithfulness and righteousness of both God and God’s people.

All of this leads us resolutely to the final verse in which we see the footprints of God’s path. God is walking on this path with righteousness leading the way. It is an incarnational moment inviting us to continue on our journey of Advent.


Notes

1. William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 42.


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a

John Frederick

Apocalyptic language is used in 2 Peter 3:8-15a to express the seriousness of Christian holiness and divine judgment.

For many Protestant believers, a category for a judgment according to works does not exist; we’re saved by faith after all! The concept of a judgment according to works is considered in much of pop evangelicalism to be a “Roman Catholic error.” While a judgment according to works is certainly not an error, it can be said to be both Roman and catholic, for one of the primary places that this catholic (that is “universally held”) doctrine is taught is in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 2:6-8 (“He will render to each one according to his works”).

There are a host of other places in the New Testament in which the biblical author exhorts Christians (not pagans) — folks who are already following Jesus — to live a holy life lest they cease the ability to “inherit the kingdom of God” (for example Ephesians 5:5; Galatians 5:21). Thus, the biblical call to live a sanctified, holy life is a positively crucial truth with eternal consequences. We are not justified by faith with an option to sign up for the additional “holiness package.” Rather, we are justified by faith in order that we might have access to a transformative relationship with the holy God.

It helps to begin a study of this passage with a consideration of the importance of sanctification in the Christian life because holy, godly living — not eschatology — is the primary point of 2 Peter 3. In a Christian subculture that is seemingly obsessed with the idea of the “end times” and which has effectively turned the topic into a multi-million-dollar entertainment genre, it is helpful and healthy to issue the exegetical alarm. On the surface these verses may appear to give good reason to ready one’s rapture survival kit in anticipation of the apocalypse, but under the surface it becomes apparent that perhaps this hermeneutic must be left behind.

Apocalyptic was a popular Jewish literary genre in the Bible and in the Second Temple period. In apocalyptic literature, the language of cosmic destruction and cataclysmic disaster was used to express — not the end of the physical universe — but the imminent arrival of an event of great political and/or spiritual significance. Thus, Jesus in Matthew 24 uses the language of international wars, earthquakes, famines, and birth pains to prophesy about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Often those very verses have been used to cook up kooky, end-time teachings propagated by overzealous oddball televangelists peddling predictions of impending eschatological doom. The entire enterprise would be enough to make Kirk Cameron and Nicholas Cage roll in their future graves … that is, if they aren’t raptured first.

The text begins by putting the primary focus on the day of the judgment of the Lord. It is important to point out that the desire of God is clear, namely, that he wants all to reach repentance before the day of judgment. The frequent claim by some that in these verses “all” means “all kinds of people” is unlikely. We know, for example, from John’s Gospel that Jesus is the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Likewise, there are a number of other verses that clearly communicate that God desires the salvation of all people (see also 1 Timothy 2:3-4 “God … desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”; 1 Timothy 4:10 “God … is the Savior of all people, especially those who believe”).

In addressing this issue from the pulpit, however, care should be taken to not go beyond the tension and mystery of Scripture. At the end of the day, faithful interpreters from a variety traditions just cannot see eye to eye on these issues. And far too many sermons that should be about Jesus end up as theology lectures in which a divisive theological factoid peripherally related to Jesus replaces the preaching of Jesus. We are not called to preach Calvin or Arminius; we are called to preach Christ crucified and risen. In any case, these verses are focused on the themes of holiness and judgment, not the end of the world or atonement.

All of the cosmic language in the passage actually serves to highlight the themes of repentance, judgment, and holiness. Notice that the talk of the “heavens passing away with a roar,” and “the elements” burning and dissolving are for the purpose of discussing — not cosmology — but sanctification. When the elements are dissolved that which is revealed is not something biological or geological; it is something moral, namely “the works” that are done on the earth. Again in 2 Peter 3:11, the dissolving of the elements is specifically shown to function as a literary mechanism, a picture, that reveals something moral, that is, the type of people we are in regard to “holiness and godliness.”

Interestingly, rather than employing typical Jewish apocalyptic categories of melting mountains and falling stars, Peter takes up popular Stoic cosmological language that was widely known by Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world of the time. In Stoic thinking, the cyclical destruction of the world through fire (known as “the conflagration”), was indeed conceived of as a literal happening through which the world was destroyed and restarted in an endless cycle. Yet, in what proves to be a brilliant example of contextual communication, Peter uses this popular Stoic form of secular, Gentile cosmological language and inserts it into the Jewish genre of apocalyptic literature.

In doing so, he is not attempting to provide a cosmological map of the end times. After all, Peter is not a Stoic and certainly does not adhere to Stoic physics, theology, or cosmology! Rather, like the Apocalypse of John, the Gospels, and the Old Testament prophets Joel and Ezekiel, he is using contemporary, contextual cataclysmic language to talk about the reality and severity of judgment, and the necessary pursuit of holiness for Christians.