Lectionary Commentaries for February 2, 2020
Presentation of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:22-40

Joy J. Moore

The idea of waiting on and witnessing to the intrusion of a faithful God interferes with our busy life as usual.1

Planning to preach on an obscure festival (Presentation of Our Lord) midway through winter requires intentionality by preachers to thread together the episodes usually heard proclaimed in the Christmas season with the subsequent arrival of peace on earth.

From the guest room to the house of God

One thread is the civil/sacred responsibility demonstrated by Mary and Joseph. The narrative takes time for both the municipal and the religious. Just as they traveled to their family’s community to fulfill the requirements of being counted in the census for the government, they traveled to their faith community to fulfill the requirements of presenting a newborn before God. Their experience of hospitality shapes their practices of godly devotion.

The two stories of Jesus in the Temple, not unlike the parallel accounting of the birth and ministry of John and Jesus enable Luke to provide context for the events about to be rehearsed. In a constant reversal of expectation, Luke first narrates the faithfulness of Jesus’ family and his orthodox upbringing. In just a few verses (representing a few years), Jesus’ temple presence will be noted as a disconnection from his earthly parents.

Some interpret the scene in verses 40-52 with in-front-of-the-text concerns about disobedient children and an arrogant boy Jesus. But entering the narrative here, in verse 22, we witness the religious observance of Mary and Joseph, who teach Jesus to be observant of the Law from the time of his birth. The perspective Luke presents in these practices of devotion provides context for the critique Jesus later lays against religious practices that undermine love of God and neighbor. 

Set against the hospitality extended to the couple when they arrived in Bethlehem, this visit to the temple serves as another witness to the presence of the peace of God. Having experienced welcome and reception by their community, Mary and Joseph obediently respond as the children of God who are as comfortable in the House of God as they have been made to feel in the guest room of their distant relatives. Throughout this narrative we learn the reciprocal nature of Jesus’ observance of the Law.

This background is significant to establish that Jesus does not abandon his parents teaching, but in fact fulfills all that is required of the Law. Scholars have given attention to the many criticisms Jesus lays against the empty traditions practiced by religious leaders and the empty rituals they hold in high regard. When Jesus, as an adult, evaluates the practices of the religious leaders, he assumes reciprocal expressions of love of neighbor and love of God.

The tension Jesus has with the Law is never that of an outsider, but as one who has faithfully observed the divine expectations. Practices of the law that subvert God’s command to love are unacceptable requirements, and Jesus repeatedly condemns those who attempt to flaunt their holiness before God without hospitality toward neighbor. Luke depicts a temple open to all that seek the presence of God, distinguishing between pausing to worship and honor God from practices that oppress and dishonor others.

O come all ye faithful 

Framed by the story of his observant upbringing, Luke presents two regulations — the purification of the mother and the dedication of the firstborn male child. Mary and Joseph are faithful to keep the religious rituals of Jewish Law, which requires that every male child be circumcised eight days after birth. When the time comes for the child to be brought to the Temple, again, the baby is presented. In this manner, Jesus, the firstborn male child, is bought back from God — who claimed possession of every firstborn in Israel during the Passover. In obedience, Jesus’ parents brought him to the temple to be presented, offering the prescribed sacrifice for his redemption (see Numbers 3:13 and Exodus 13:2).

We observe from their offering, the lowliness of Jesus family and their marginalized position in society. Indeed, hope seems most evident in places of extreme poverty when those with the least seem to continue to embrace the rituals of an abundant life.  But here Luke also portrays the one who redeems the world himself — the firstborn of Israel — as redeemed before God, serving as the new paschal lamb.

Another correlation throughout Luke’s account is the practice of partnering women and men as witnesses to the presence of God that leads to peace. Framed by Mary and Joseph’s obedience to God, Jesus is recognized and affirmed as God’s agent of redemption by eminently reliable persons. Simeon testifies to the faithfulness of God. The sight of the child, or the mere arrival of the promised one, stirs from within Simeon a song born of the peace in knowing God will indeed bring glory to the people, Israel, and provide “a light of revelation to the Gentiles.” The presence of the long-expected one granted sufficient peace, that the prophetic announcement of impending opposition and suffering could not diminish the joy Simeon experienced by the promise fulfilled.

Similarly, though Luke does not quote the words of Anna, he conveys their content as confirming the arrival of the one who sets the people free. She, not Simeon, is the prophet. Both have faithfully awaited the intrusion of a faithful God. Both now witness to the arrival of peace on earth. Our announcements of Christ’s birth into human history should render sufficient joy that the present circumstances cannot diminish the intrusive signs of God’s peace.

All the while, Luke keeps Jesus central through this scene. The child does not so much as whimper, and yet, all that is described centers on Jesus as a means to glorify God. The occasion of Mary’s purification becomes Jesus’ presentation. As important as it is to draw in our listeners to the scene of real persons enacting a very real moment, this theo-centric Christology challenges our proclamation to bring into focus the arrival of God’s peace demonstrated in the life of Jesus. With all the attention to persons and practices, Luke orients the narrative to the fulfillment of the promise that God indeed is with us.


  1. Commentary adapted from one first published on this site on Jan. 1, 2012.

First Reading

Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4

Jin H. Han

Malachi 3:1 introduces a figure whom God calls “my messenger.”1

His appellative makes a curious pun, for Malachi’s name in Hebrew literally means “my messenger.” Perhaps, the prophet has so apropos a name for what he is called to do that we are tempted to suspect Malachi may well have been his sobriquet. He is not the only messenger of the Lord; however, he is a paragon of what a messenger of God is supposed to do.

Through his ministry, God will restore the world to purity once again. To deliver the message, Malachi is going to live out the spirit of the famous courier’s creed brandished on the US Postal Service Building on Eighth Avenue, New York City, USA. The inscription, which can be traced as far back as to Herodotus, reads, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The prophet plays a critical role in the fulfillment of God’s plan.

God’s messenger will clear obstacles to the Lord’s coming (verse 1a). The prophet is commissioned to do that by the Lord of hosts (Yahweh Sabaoth, verse 1b; see also verses 5 and 6). Invoking the traditional regnal name of God, Malachi presents the divine visit as an exercise of the Sovereign Lord’s rule. An impactful event that will transform the world is about to be unfolded. The beginning of the passage highlights this expectation with a Hebrew particle (hineni; “See” in NRSV) — the presentative whose grammatical function is to call attention to what is about to be set forth.

The context of the passage provides a preview of the purpose of God’s announced coming. The immediately preceding verses (2:10-17) charge Judah with violating the covenant. The state of affairs has engendered horrid complaints about God’s perceived permissiveness or collapse of divine justice (verse 17). God is coming to rectify the corrupt state of the world (3:1-4).

The prophet underscores God’s pursuit of purification with a set of metaphors for cleansing, such as “a refiner’s fire,” “fullers’ soap,” and “a refiner and purifier of silver” (verses 2b and 3a). While these images suggest stringent reproof that is bound to involve pain, they also reveal the high value placed on that which is being purified. Like refined precious metals and well-washed fabric, the people will emerge radiant at the end (see also Job 23:10).

The prophet warns that God’s appearance will take them by surprise (see “suddenly” in Malachi 3:1). The prophet may hint at the dangerous possibility of the people being caught unprepared for the coming of the Lord. Yet no amount of preparation will enable one to anticipate adequately the impact of God’s appearance and the depth of the cleansing that it will implement.

The event is expected to be so serious that its process alarms the messenger himself. The prophet wonders, “But who can endure?” (verse 2a) The Hebrew verb used here for “endure” (mekalkel) is what grammarians call a reduplicated form, in which a part of the word is doubled (k and l in this case). Reduplication often signifies repeated action or sustained state. With the sound effect from the repeated consonants, Malachi invites audiences to imagine the challenge and struggle that will accompany the Lord’s coming. To endure the day, one will need endurance.

The plan of purification sets the reform of worship as its clear target. It is already made manifest in the location of God’s coming — the temple (verse 1a). The place of worship will be the starting point or the focus of purification, which will continue until the priests are able to present offerings in the way God requires (“in righteousness,” verse 3b).

The NRSV’s marginal note offers “right offerings to the Lord” as an alternative translation of the prepositional phrase in verse 3b, suggesting that the propriety of what is being offered is at issue. This focus on worship is in consonance with the main thrust of the prophetic book. Earlier in the book, the prophet says that the chastening will be directed to “the descendants of Levi,” that is, the priestly class, whose corruption is condemned in 1:6-14 and 2:1-9.

This purification of worship will be extended to the people of God (“Judah and Jerusalem,” 3:4a). The upshot of the reform will be worship that pleases God as it is supposed to do. The prophet points to the touchstone that will assess the fitness of reformed worship, which will be restored to the past before corruptions set in (“as in the days of old and as in former days”; 3:4b). There were other prophets who attested to such a time of innocence (see also Jeremiah 6:16; Hosea 2:15). Although the former pristine period is not further identified, the idea of such a time suggests that what is wrong today has not always been that way.

Malachi anticipates that the people will make crisscrossing responses to the coming of the Lord. The message that the prophet bears will inspire delight (Malachi 3:1a) as well as alarm (verse 2a). The intersection of hope and despair resonates today, more than ever. Malachi helps us imagine that the appearance of the Lord will take us by surprise — as all amazing grace does. Once again, God’s messenger prepares the heart of the people for the coming of the Lord, who will be soon in our midst.


  1. Commentary adapted from one first published on this site on Dec. 9, 2018.


Commentary on Psalm 84

J. Dwayne Howell

Psalm 84 is classified as a pilgrimage psalm, sung as praise by those who traveled to Jerusalem to worship.1

Such journeys were often beset with hardship as the traveler moved through the wilderness over great distances in order to reach Jerusalem. In verse 2 the psalmist speaks of the intense desire of these pilgrims: “my soul yearns, even faints … my heart and flesh cry out for the living God.” Creation even finds rest in the sanctuary:

                Even the sparrow finds a home,
                        and the swallow a nest for herself,
                        where she may lay her young,
            at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
                         my King and my God (Psalm 84:3).

Verses 4 and 5 tell of the blessedness (ashre) of those present in the sanctuary and those traveling toward that destination. Hope is found even in the wilderness that they traverse. The Valley of Baka, a wilderness covered by balsam trees, becomes an oasis for the pilgrims (verse 6).

The authors associated with Psalms 84 are the Korahites (sons of Korah). The Korahites are set aside for the service of the Lord in 1 Chronicles 9:19. They were placed in charge of the worship, or works of service, and keepers of the thresholds, doorkeepers of the sanctuary. This was a long held position in the sanctuary and can be dated to the time of the writing of the Book of Numbers (14:4-15). So they speak with experience about the blessedness of dwelling in the sanctuary: “Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise” (Psalm 84:4, New Interpreters Version). This is highlighted in Psalm 84:10:

Better is one day in your courts
 than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
 than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

Thus, the work of the Korahites centered on daily service to the Lord and opening the doors for others to join in the worship.

However, there is more behind the story of the Sons of Korah. In Numbers 16-17, Korah and others lead 250 men in a revolt against Moses and Aaron. The purpose of the revolt was to bring about a change in leadership. As the leaders of the opposition stood outside of their tents the ground opened up and consumed Korah and others. Only a few would survive. The few who survived found grace by being spared and being assigned to be servants in the sanctuary. This provides a poignant meaning to the praise of Psalm 84:10. They sing from experience of how it is better to be servants in the House of the Lord, rather to be in the tents of those who oppose the Lord.

When I was a seminary student I served as a custodian in a local church. For me it was a dream job. The old church was beautiful and full of history. For the most part I was on my own. I took pride in what I did and looked for what I could do extra in maintaining the church. For a time I was truly a “doorkeeper,” since it was my job to walk throughout the church and lock up each evening. Something changed with my attitude about the job along the way. Instead of preparing the church for others, I began trying to protect the church from others. I did not want others to come in and mess up the church. I actually tried to keep people from being the church, joining together to fellowship and worship.

The doorkeeper can serve in one of two roles: 1) As a greeter, welcoming others; 2) Or as a “bouncer,” keeping others from people from entering. To act as a bouncer disregards the purpose of the church, as if one says “I know better how to do church.” It also directly challenges God who has ultimate authority over the entrance.

As doorkeepers, we are simply here to prepare a place for others. When we see ourselves as greeters, we can share in the excitement for what is prepared for those who enter. Many journey throughout the week and seek a place to “be church.” Twice in verses 4 and 5 the writer calls those who journey to the sanctuary “happy” — blessed and at peace (asher) even in the difficulties that may surround them. The church provides anticipation for those who need hope in the midst of troubles, peace in the midst of chaos, and comfort in the midst of distress. It provides renewal as the Psalmist reminds us:

They go from strength to strength;
 the God of gods will be seen in Zion (Psalm 84:7).


  1. Commentary adapted from one first published on this site on Oct. 23, 2016.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 2:14-18

Jennifer Vija Pietz

Hebrews 2 paints a powerful picture of the significance of Jesus’ incarnation that highlights the reality of suffering on the journey of faithfulness to God.1

The passage is framed by reference to Jesus’ sufferings as a human being (Hebrews 2:10, 18). This image of Jesus is a striking shift from the descriptions of the divine, exalted Jesus that dominate Hebrews until 2:9, when the author clarifies that Jesus has been crowned with divine glory and honor precisely because he suffered death. This sets the stage for Hebrews 2:10-18, which shows how Jesus’ incarnation makes it possible for other human beings to share in divine glory.

Hebrews 2:10 presents the key claim of the passage: that the sovereign, Creator God brings human beings to salvation through the suffering of the divine Son who became incarnate in Jesus. The idea that it is fitting for God to accomplish the divine purposes for the world by becoming a human being and suffering death (verse 14) would seem outrageous to some audiences, both ancient and modern. But it is at the heart of the Christian gospel, which is expressed in condensed form in this passage.

The word pioneer (archegos) used of Jesus in verse 10 is significant. It can refer both to someone in a preeminent position, such as a leader or ruler, and to a founder or originator of something. Both meanings apply to Jesus as the pioneer of human salvation, and they certainly overlap.

Verse 17 picks up on the first meaning by depicting Jesus as a merciful and faithful high priest (archiereus) who makes atonement for human sin, thus removing a major obstacle to people living in faithful relationship with God (see also verse 11).

Verses 14-15 reflect the second meaning of “pioneer” in that through his own death, Jesus disarms the power of death and thus becomes the “source” of human salvation (see also Hebrews 12:2). Jesus thereby removes another obstacle to people living in trusting relationship with God by liberating them from the bondage that fear of death brings (verse 15).

Both the removal of sin and the defeat of death are necessary to human salvation, which finds its fulfillment in entering eternally into God’s glorious presence (verse 10), as the exalted Jesus has already done.

These understandings of Jesus as pioneer of salvation make his incarnation necessary. A high priest must be human in order to truly represent the people, and only a real human being can die a human death that destroys the power of death (verse 14; see also verse 9). Jesus, the one who sanctifies, is a true brother to people who are being sanctified (verses 11-13). Even so, Jesus retains his unique status as Son (see also Hebrews 1:2) that makes his priestly activity and death decisive in bringing salvation (Hebrews 9:26; 10:11-14).

This points to another nuance of Jesus’ role as pioneer of our salvation and to the importance of his incarnation. By his earthly life of perfect obedience to the Father that opened salvation to others, Jesus serves as forerunner and example of what an unwavering life of faithfulness to God looks like. The entire book of Hebrews, in fact, presents an exhortation to persevere in faith on the long earthly journey toward experiencing the fullness of God’s salvation.

This brings us back to the theme of suffering and raises the question of why is it appropriate for God to make the pioneer of our salvation “perfect” or “complete” (teleioo) through suffering (Hebrews 2:10)?

Suffering is an inevitable part of human life, so it should be no surprise that as a real human being, Jesus suffered. But Hebrews 2:18 speaks of Jesus being “tested” or “tempted” (peirazo) by what he suffered, so that he can help other people who are being tested (see also verse 16). Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness as he was tempted by the devil comes to mind (for example, Luke 4:1-13), as does Jesus’ horrific death on the cross, which both his disciples and his hecklers tempted him to avoid (for example, Mark 8:31-33; 15:29-32).

In this context, we can understand suffering not as something glorious or redemptive in itself, but as something that is to be expected when one follows God and seeks to fulfill God’s purposes in a world that is hostile to God. It provides the opportunity to develop and affirm one’s trust in God.

Hebrews 3 and following uses the example of the Israelites who had been liberated from Egyptian bondage, only to lose faith/trust in God while wandering in the wilderness, as a warning to its audience not to do the same. The life of faith is often more like the desert than the mountaintop.

In the midst of suffering, fatigue, or feeling lost, Hebrews 2:10-18 exhorts us to cling to Jesus as the one who persevered in faith through unthinkable suffering and is sustaining us on the journey. Hebrews 5:8-9 affirms that Jesus’ obedience—even when it meant suffering—is what makes his death salvific and his life exemplary. Jesus is the “pioneer [archegos] and perfecter [teleiotes] of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) because his own faithfulness brought God’s redemptive purposes for humanity to fulfillment, even though people are still moving toward entering the fullness of salvation.

The idea that God achieves divine purposes through suffering can be taken in directions that are both theologically and pastorally problematic, so caution is in order when preaching on this topic. Although the Bible affirms that God works in suffering and trials, we should not presume to know exactly how God does this or try to draw clear causal connections between particular instances of suffering and God’s activity. The promise of Hebrews 2:10-18 is that the incarnate, crucified, and glorified Jesus is with us and can help us in everything that we go through, even when it makes no sense to us.


  1. Commentary adapted from one first posted on this site on Dec. 29, 2019.