Lectionary Commentaries for December 3, 2017
First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 13:24-37

David Schnasa Jacobsen

Mark 13:24-37 represents the second half of the single longest speech by Jesus in the Gospel.

The significance of this must be noted. Toward the end of a sixteen-chapter narrative about Jesus, early first-century Jesus suddenly begins addressing his late first-century hearers, in the second-person and often in the imperative mood. This is why many commentators on Mark see this particular part of the Gospel as most closely corresponding to the situation for which the Gospel was written.

Jesus lived, was crucified, and was proclaimed resurrected in the first third of the first century. But the event of the Temple’s destruction, and the very long apocalyptic speech about it here in Mark 13, reflect the situation of the final third of that century. The so-called “little apocalypse” of Mark 13 is probably best understood as crisis literature, spoken in the voice of Jesus, but to a context forty years or so after the narrated events of the Gospel of Mark itself. Whatever the strange apocalyptic language of Mark 13:24-37 means, it must be understood as direct address and in relation to the reality of the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

The Temple crisis is important for Jesus’ apocalyptic speech in Mark. The destruction of the Temple represents a catastrophe of divine presence and continuity with the past. The Temple is a center of religious life, but also political and economic life, too. When we read apocalyptic texts generically, it is helpful to think of them as crisis literature.1 Something about a given moment calls into question the righteousness of God. Apocalypses reach deeply into the symbolic fund and mythic resources of a tradition in order to invoke divine transcendence in the face of such difficulty. While Mark 13:24-37 is not an apocalypse like Revelation or Daniel 7-12, it places apocalyptic forms and symbols in the context of Jesus’ direct speech to those experiencing catastrophe. For this reason, we benefit from comparing the apocalyptic type scenes and motifs in Mark 13 to similar texts in actual apocalypses from this same period.

Mark 13:24-27 launches us into an apocalyptic theophany, a type scene or form attested in apocalypses like 1 Enoch 1:8-9; 60:6; 90:19; T. Levi 4:1; 4 Ezra 7:36-38; 9:7-9; 13:9-13. In most cases the apocalyptic theophany contains (a) God’s coming/arrival, (b) cosmic disturbances, and (c) eschatological judgment and salvation. Mark’s version in 13:24-27 is unique on at least two counts.

First, the divine figure’s arrival (here, the Son of Man) is not the first part, but postponed after the cosmic disturbances. Second, Mark, for whatever reason, omits the two-sided scene at the end. There is not some standard apocalyptic judgment scene, just a gracious gathering of the elect from the four corners and the four winds. Mark’s Gospel seeks to refigure this apocalyptic type scene in light of this Temple concern so that its emphasis is not on the judgment of unrighteous, but a gratuitous gathering of the elect by the Son of Man riding in on Exodus-like clouds.2

Mark’s unusual Son of Man apocalyptic theophany is followed by a figural reversal on the fig tree, which is not new to Mark’s Gospel. In Mark 11:12-14 Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit right before his cleansing of the Temple. In Mark 13:28-31 the figure of the fig tree is rehabilitated — its leaves are a sign that summer, like the Son of Man, is near. In the final portion of the pericope, Mark’s Jesus gives the hearers (the direct address of “you” continues in imperative verbs of Mark 13:31-37), reason to continue a praxis of engaged watching. Just as servants keep at their tasks before the householder returns, so should Jesus’ followers in this moment of crisis sleep with one eye open (agrupneite = “field sleeping”) to the new thing God is doing.

The purpose of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Mark is not scary Nostradamus-like timetables or garish National Enquirer headlines, but a promising call to a praxis of wakefulness to keep on keepin’ on in the face of a “gathering” theophany. I personally like the way my colleague Martha Simmons puts it: “eschatology is where the sweet bye and bye meets the nasty here and now.”3 Mark’s Jesus gives an apocalyptic speech in the early 1st CE for a church needing a word in a late 1st CE crisis. And he speaks before his own cross and resurrection to encourage and empower in the face of Roman destruction and power.

As for us, contemporary hearers have themselves been traumatized enough of late. Though we live our lives in relative twenty-first-century comfort, some of us have known the oppressive trauma of race, gender, and class in North America. Many of us in the mainline church have been set on our heels as a once culturally ensconced church is becoming disestablished. All of us know the wrenching impact, albeit in different ways, of the post 9/11 security state that causes us to lurch from crisis to crisis and ever evolving forms of public violence. Jesus speaks to a church whose desire for justice, sense of identity and very future seem fragile and unfinished. We early twenty-first century Christians may just benefit, even in situations of relative or differentiated privilege, to overhear the kinds of promises that allowed them to live forward amid the fragments and ruins to watch for the new thing God is doing in Advent.


1. David Hellholm, “The Problem of Apocalyptic Genre and the Apocalypse of John,” Semeia 36, 13-64.

2. Readers can find a more carefully elaborated version of this interpretation in my commentary, Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).

3. Martha Simmons, “Introduction,” in 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy, eds. M. Simmons and F. Thomas (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2001), x.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9

Corrine Carvalho

Isaiah 64:1-3 depicts God as the one who “tears open the heavens” and causes wildfire to sweep through brush.

We had enough of these images this past summer. The heavens opened over Houston, Florida, and the Caribbean, while fires raged from Oregon to southern California. The terrifying powers of natural disasters have reminded us of the fragility of human life. Like the ancient poet, we affirm that we are not in control.

Isaiah 64 arises from a very different historical context, however. The material in the final eleven chapters of the book seem to reflect challenges that the Israelites faced during the Persian period. Some Israelites displaced by Babylonian aggression had now returned to Jerusalem under Persian sponsorship. The Israelites who had not been displaced clashed with this immigrating group over questions of status, social standing, and, ultimately, political and religious authority.

Contemporary readers of this material should understand it in the context of overriding colonial power. Persia remained the real arbiter of power. This local tension reflects the way that colonization reconfigures group identity, not just in relation to the external colonizing power, but also in relation to each other. With the rebuilding of the temple, which families should serve as priests? Who has political authority? Did God reject the Davidic dynasty completely, or does the covenant with David remain in effect? Persian period texts reflect these tensions. The conflict is overtly addressed in Isaiah 63:16 just prior to this poem.

This context raises questions about the identification of different groups in this poem in chapter 64. The speaker asks God to demonstrate divine might to their enemies, but are those enemies external to Israel, or internal? The tenor of the poem changes in verse 5b, where the poet depicts disaster as punishment for the sins of the Israelites. This suggests that the poem as whole asks God to step in and resolve internal clashes over identity.

While this section of the poem ends with a testimony to how feeble humans are compared to God. “We are the clay, and you are our potter” (Isaiah 64:8), the reading closes with a plea that God’s anger subside. Verses 5-9, then, attribute disasters, natural or human-made, as punishments from God for sinful behavior. It is exactly at this juncture that the text becomes difficult for modern audiences to accept.

We might like to think we are far from this way of thinking, yet many of us would attribute our own contemporary natural disasters of storm and fire to our own ecological sins that have affected weather patterns. Have some of us also “prayed” for these disasters to convince those who do not believe in human-induced climate change? We may be more akin to the ancient audience than we think.

Reading this passage at the beginning of Advent reminds us that we are not in control and that our relationship with God needs healing. Our sin too often manifests in our attempts to keep God in a box that we can manage, taming God’s power, but the poem reminds us that God cannot be contained. And, thank goodness for that, because that means that God’s grace can also not be contained or circumscribed.

The poem ends in hope. The final verse re-affirms our identity as belonging to God, but it is the penultimate verse that catches the imagination. We are clay, God is the potter. We are just an inanimate lump with no purpose without God. God not only has the power to mold us (after all, this is a little thing), but actually wants to mold us. In fact, God wants to mold us in the divine image and likeness, a reality made clear when God molds the divine self on Christmas day as an impoverished, displaced infant. God becomes the clay.

Perhaps the rush to Christmas is the rush past the painful reality that makes the metaphor of Christmas spectacular. Luther and other Reformers understood this five hundred years ago. The recognition of how powerless we actually are frees us. It frees us for wonderment, gratitude, and the elation of a childhood Christmas morning when the world seemed magical.

At the beginning of Advent, then, this poem asks us to surrender. Stop fighting to be good or better. Stop worrying about being more righteous or enlightened. Stop thinking we alone can make Christmas special. Stop rushing past the hard lessons. After all, “We all fade like a leaf.” That is, until God claims us as sacred clay.


Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

James K. Mead

With this psalm selection and the other lectionary texts for the first Sunday in Advent, we leave Year A behind and step into the cycle of readings for Year B.

The various texts for this Sunday are completely consistent with a theme of waiting in hopeful expectation; but Psalm 80 urgently presses the matter in terms of God’s responsibility for the plight of Israel. Those who follow Working Preacher have been richly rewarded with several excellent treatments of this specific psalm lection.

Rolf Jacobson (2008) emphasized how the refrain (verses 3, 7, 19) serves as a literary and thematic key to the psalm, helping us feel the increasing intensity of addressing God: O God; O God of hosts; O Lord God of hosts. He also calls attention to the mixing of metaphors for God — shepherd and gardener — when the complete psalm is considered. Dennis Tucker (2011) interacted with the militaristic overtones in the psalm and addressed the Advent worship setting in which this selection is used. James Howell (2014) compared and contrasted Israel’s national lament with how our own nation might learn from this psalm. Seeing no reason to restate their insights, I would like to discuss three other aspects of Psalm 80 for the preacher and worship leader to consider: the psalm as part of the Asaph collection; the psalm’s sense of community in relation to the other lectionary readings; and the psalm’s use of a specific Hebrew phrase, literally rendered as “son of man.”

First, the superscription for Psalm 80 identifies it as belonging to Asaph, mentioned in 1 Chronicles as a Levitical worship leader appointed by David (1 Chronicles 6:39; 25:1-2). Acknowledging the legitimate questions raised about the historicity of psalm superscriptions, Psalm 80’s association with the Asaphite singers reminds us to ponder the canonical shaping of the Book of Psalms as a whole. The twelve psalms associated with Asaph (Psalms 50, 73-83) are a collection “likely of northern origin, reflect[ing] a strong interest in divine justice, Israel’s history from exodus to exile, and Zion.”1

While there are notes of thanksgiving in the collection (Psalms 75, 76), its predominant lament form bemoans Israel’s failures to keep covenant while also asking God why judgment has come upon his people. This combination of concerns helps us understand Psalm 80’s contribution to the collection, insofar as it seems to place the onus on God for letting trouble come upon the nation when no particular shortcoming of theirs is condemned. The Asaphite capacity for honest, gut-wrenching prayer works along a spectrum of situations. Psalm 80 happens to reflect a time when the nation’s troubles appeared to have no identifiable source except God’s inexplicable displeasure with them.

Second, with that background in mind, we can understand a little more of the community’s situation as they wrestle with God in Psalm 80. In the immediately preceding psalm, the Asaphites express their complaint (Psalm 79:1-5) before moving to petitions (Psalm 79:6-12). However, Psalm 80 contains this jarring opening of intense requests that God listen, act, and remedy their situation. Perhaps even more startling is the turn that takes place within one clause of verse 5. The sentence that begins, “You have fed them,” prepares us for a description of the sustenance they have received, but instead their solid and liquid diet is only tears. The community is trying to comprehend how their good shepherd can possibly be feeding tears to the flock. Such a circumstance is a reversal of the kind of compassion Jesus said we can expect from a good human parent or from God (Matthew 7:9-10).

Pastors looking for connections among the day’s lectionary readings will find significant intertextuality with the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 64. The similar rhetoric in that the prophetic oracle and Psalm 80 may not be proof of the latter’s historical setting, but it is suggestive of a shared theological outlook that can question God’s purposes while at the same time affirming God as the sole source of their deliverance. For its part, the New Testament selection (1 Corinthians 1:3-9) provides a completely different angle on prayer, with Paul thanking God’s for Corinth’s spiritual gifts prior to offering occasionally harsh critique of how that community used or abused those gifts.

Third, Psalm 80 provides an indirect connection to the “Son of Man” language used by Jesus in his apocalyptic discourse in this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 13:24-37). Many pastors and congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary also use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for preaching and worship. Its translation of Psalm 80:17 is, “But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” A more literal reading of the object of God’s action is, “the man (’iš) at your right hand . . . the son of man (ben-’adam) . . .” We could argue that the NRSV has good reasons for going with a more gender inclusive rendering of those phrases, and contemporary scholarship understands it so.2 Moreover, when considering God’s love for humankind in Psalm 8:4, the terms “human beings” (’enôš) and “mortals” (ben-’adam) are rightly used.

However, we could also say that the terms in Psalm 80 refer not to human beings in general but to the Israelite king. To choose the word, “one,” at least for “the son of man,” might obscure not only the royal allusions in this psalm’s perspective but also its links to the apocalyptic image found in Daniel 7:13-14 (where, the NRSV has “human being”), on which Jesus seems to be drawing. I am not here arguing for a prophetic function of Psalm 80:17; rather, I want contemporary readers to understand how ancient interpreters, such as St. Augustine, could move freely between literal and figurative meanings, naming “this son of man, Christ Jesus.”3 Given our task as Advent proclaimers, perhaps we could, too.


1. William P. Brown, “Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. ed. K . D. Sakenfeld (Nashville, Abingdon, 2009), 4:673.

2. Beth Tanner, “Psalm 80: God, Bring Us Back,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2014), 634; Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1990), 316.

3. Augustine, in Psalms 51-150, ed., Quentin Wesselschmidt, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 141.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Carla Works

Imagine that you spent a year and a half getting a church plant up and going. When you left to tend to other missions, the church was growing. Leaders were emerging, and the congregation was relatively healthy. All seemed well.

Then, a delegation from the young church arrives. The delegation brings word — a letter full of questions and unresolved issues, and the letter carries some distressing news. The church is fighting. The factions are visible. Some are in danger of going back to their former lives to serve their former gods and to resume life as they once knew it. Others are lording their so-called knowledge over those whom they deem weaker in the faith. Class divisions are visible — even at the Lord’s Table.

To make matters worse, you hear secret reports that involve church members visiting prostitutes and a man sleeping with his stepmom. Some are even questioning the resurrection — the very heart of the gospel! The problems are overwhelming and unrelenting. You cannot go visit now. But the delegation is awaiting your response. And respond you must. Volumes are writing themselves in your head of all the things you would like to say, but there are limits to what you can include in a letter — even a long one!

Where do you even begin? How are you supposed to address all these problems in one letter? How did things go so wrong?

Welcome to Paul’s world. The text for this week is the opening of the letter that is Paul’s response to a church in crisis. Contrary to how we title this letter, though, 1 Corinthians was not his first piece of written correspondence to this church. Paul refers to a previous letter, a letter containing instructions which they apparently misunderstood (1 Corinthians 5:9). Letter writing, for all its benefits, always runs a risk of misinterpretation. Paul must now correct that misunderstanding in this current letter as well as respond to what he knows about the church’s problems.

1 Corinthians is addressing a convergence of factors: the church’s official letter full of questions sent to Paul, which the apostle begins to address in 7:1 (“now concerning the matters about which you wrote”) and oral reports from Chloe’s people (1:11) about matters that the church decided not to share with Paul (like the class divisions at the Lord’s table or the lack of belief in the resurrection).

The beginning of the letter, a part which we might admittedly be tempted to skip, sets the tone and prepares the audience for what is to come. Paul follows a fairly standard format in the salutation: sender and recipient information (1 Corinthians 1:1-2), followed by a prayer wish (verse 3), and the thanksgiving (verse 4-9). The body of the letter begins in verse 10 with an appeal to unity.

Though the letter concerns Paul, Sosthenes (the co-sender), and the church at Corinth, the opening of the letter mentions another player in this drama: God. God is everywhere. Paul calls himself an apostle of Christ by the will of God (1 Corinthians 1:1). The letter addresses God’s church in Corinth, whom God has sanctified in Christ and called to be saints. Even the prayer wish stems from God’s ability to grant grace and peace (verse 3).

It is no surprise that the thanksgiving is also addressed to God for God’s work and God’s grace among them.

It is commonly noted that the thanksgiving section of Paul’s letters give a foretaste, an abbreviated table of contents, of what is to come. So, the audience might expect Paul to start mentioning them — or at least the letter that they sent to him. To be fair he does mention them. There are hints of some lording their knowledge over others, allusions to squabbles over spiritual gifts, and indications of the weakening of the fellowship over factions. But even these subtle references come in relationship to what God has done and will continue to do for them. The thanksgiving is a way to reframe the issues around the bigger picture.

Paul reminds them that whatever knowledge that they have or whatever abilities that they possess have been given to them by God (verse 5). God has even given them spiritual gifts to use for the edification of God’s church — a church that awaits God’s revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul grounds the whole letter in the work of God among them, and this God is faithful. God is the one who has called them together in this fellowship, and God will see them through.

Why begin a letter with a theology lesson? No doubt some in the church were probably hoping that Paul would just weigh in on the problems and take sides in contentious matters. Paul begins by reminding them of what they seem to have forgotten. Everything that they have and are comes from God. There would be no church without God. And whatever problems they are facing, the God who called them is powerful enough not only to help them find a way forward, but to strengthen them even as they await the revelation of Jesus.

In many ways the church today is similar to First Church Corinth. We are torn by many issues. Each side claims some knowledge from scripture to bolster its arguments all the while chiseling deeper into the chasm that divides us. Like the early church, God is at work — even in the midst of the chaos that we create. As we await the revelation of God’s Son during this Advent, we would do well to look for God’s work among us and to be reminded of the gifts that God has given us to strengthen the body rather than to tear it down. Like Corinth, we are called to be a church that remembers Christ’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). With this season of Advent, we proclaim with Paul, “Marana tha,” Our Lord, come! (1 Corinthians 16:22).