Lectionary Commentaries for December 4, 2016
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12

Ronald J. Allen

In traditional theological perspective, the main purposes of Advent are to prepare for remembering (and re-experiencing) the birth of Jesus at Christmas (the first Advent), and to prepare for the second coming of Jesus (the second Advent, or the Apocalypse) and the final and complete manifestation of the Realm of God (the “Realm of Heaven”).

While Christians today have differing viewpoints on when, how, or whether the second Advent will occur, virtually all Christians believe that God is dissatisfied with the world in its present state and seeks to increase love, peace, justice, dignity, freedom, and abundance.

In Advent, the church thinks afresh about how to join God in the movement towards a world that is more like the realm of heaven. I can think of no better Advent guide than John the Baptist, whose instructions for preparation are condensed into one word: “Repent!”

John in Matthew’s Gospel is an end-time prophet whose message is that the time has come to repent because the agent through whom God will affect the transformation from this age to the next is now revealed: Jesus. A principal difference between John and Jesus concerns the timing of the movement towards the realm. John sees the realm as future. Matthew portrays the realm as already partially manifest through Jesus, though becoming finally and fully manifest in the future (after the second coming). Repentance is the first step towards joining Jesus in the community moving towards the Realm (Matthew 3:1, 8, 11; 4:17).

The root meaning of “to repent” is “to turn” or to have a dramatic change of mind and direction. To repent is turn away from the values and practices of the old age (e.g., idolatry, violence, injustice, exploitation, slavery, and scarcity) and to turn towards the values and practices of the Realm of God (typified by the qualities mentioned above).

In this context, repentance includes feeling sorry for one’s personal sins, but it is much more. To repent is to take a clear-minded look at the ways in which one’s life colludes with the assumptions and behaviors of the old age, to turn away from such complicity, and to turn towards God and the attitudes and actions of the realm of heaven.

This text helps the congregation reflect on where values and practices of the old age come to expression in the local community or the larger world, and also where we see qualities and values of the new world.

The sermon can help name particular actions through which the congregation can disconnect from the old and can move toward the new. As a preacher I find it easier to name and criticize affinity for the old than to point to possibilities for aligning with the new. However, preachers should offer the promise of the Realm as vividly as preachers portray collusion with the old. Otherwise, listeners may be left discouraged by the way things are, and without a real sense that the present and future can be different.

John invites listeners to be immersed (baptized). Immersion is an occasion for confession of sin, that is, naming and renouncing collaboration with the old age (Matthew 3:6). Moreover, God uses water to initiate those who repent into a community awaiting the coming of the new age.

Where John immerses with water, Jesus will do so “with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:10). The reference to the Holy Spirit assures the community that the eschatological Spirit that fills Jesus at immersion (Matthew 3:13-17) will also fill the disciples (whom Matthew explicitly calls “the church” in Matthew 16:18; 18:15, 17, 21). The reference to “fire” is a vivid image for the apocalypse and especially for the last judgment.

From this point of view, the Second Sunday of Advent would be an excellent day for baptism. Baptism does not so much welcome baptisands into an institution (as we might think of the church) but into an alternative (or countercultural) community empowered by the Spirit for life and witness.

John offers listeners a choice. They can repent, and join the movement toward the Realm, or they can continue to collude with the old age and face eternal condemnation at the final judgment. Matthew frequently uses the vivid language of fire to speak of the consequences of not repenting (Matthew 3:10, 12; 5:22; 7:19; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8-9; 25:41). Many preachers are theologically uncomfortable with the idea that God condemns people to fire. While I do not think this image can be explained away at an exegetical level, a preacher does not have to accept this picture at the literal level today in order to underscore a deep point: When we do not cooperate with God’s purposes, we invite the consequences upon ourselves.

As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, Jesus reinforces the importance of making this choice, then goes a step farther. As eschatological rabbi as well as final eschatological prophet, Jesus instructs the community how to embody the qualities of the new world while still living in the period of transition between old and new. Repentance is just the first step.

In Matthew 3:7-10, the gospel writer makes a statement which itself requires repentance. Matthew accuses the “Pharisees and Sadducees” of being “vipers,” children of the snake of Genesis 3:1-8. The Pharisees and Sadducees seek to escape from the final judgment without repenting. They rely upon religious pedigree, being children of Sarah and Abraham (Matthew 3:9). For this, the Pharisees and Sadducees are already condemned (Matthew 3:10).

As a beginning preacher I loved this passage because it gave me an opportunity to blast away at members of the congregation who were similar to the Pharisees and Sadducees. Scholarship since those firebrand days concludes that Matthew caricatures the Pharisees and Sadducees as hypocrites and legalists in order to justify the growing distance between traditional synagogues and Matthew’s community. Matthew thus engages in old-age behavior (lying about others). Today’s congregation might prepare for Advent by repenting of our collusion with such misrepresentations of others.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10

Michael J. Chan

Isaiah 11 begins with the claim that new life will spring forth from an injured stump: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

It is difficult to say what historical event, if any, lies behind the image of the “stump.” Is this a reference to the exile, in which the Davidic monarchy certainly was cut down, the downfall of the proud Assyrian empire (Isaiah 10:33-34) or is it perhaps a reference to the young Josiah, whose father Amon was assassinated (2 Kings 21:19-26)?1

What seems likely is that this image would have been relevant at numerous points in Israel’s history. Whatever the case may be, the text imagines a new beginning for Judah’s monarchy. In this hopeful future Yhwh’s spirit will alight upon the ruler, resulting in justice for the poor and lowly of the land (verse 4) and a fundamental reordering of creation’s priorities (verses 6-9). Life emerges from death. This is the way of Israel’s God.

The concrete expression of this new future is a ruler on whom the spirit will rest (verse 2). Promise comes to Israel in the form of a person — a human king who embodies the best of Israel’s traditions: He is wise and understanding (verse 2), powerful and effective in war (verses 2, 4), able to judge for the benefit of the poor (verse 3-4), and obedient to God (verse 2, 5). This king rules the world in such a way that the poor are treated righteously, the meek are given a fair hearing, and the wicked are killed. So glorious is this reign that he is literally clothed in righteousness and faithfulness (verse 5).

The king’s righteous reign reorders creation in profound ways:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox (verses 6-7).

This vision of a reordered creation is remarkable: Predators dwell in harmony with their prey, carnivorous instincts are transformed, and the most vulnerable humans in society (children) are free to play with venomous snakes. Interspecies violence effectively comes to an end and harmony ensues.

Additional insights emerge when these texts are read against their broader ancient Near Eastern background. In the royal propaganda of the ancient near East, royal figures frequently encounter predatory animals, and especially lions. And so it is no surprise to find the royal child depicted as a shepherd among lions. What is surprising, however, is the way in which the young shepherd interacts with them. In general, kings would be depicted fighting and killing lions, not leading them or living among them.

The killing of lions demonstrated one’s worthiness to rule, and was a sign of divine favor. For example, in his bid to fight Goliath David demonstrates his royal credibility when he says to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Sam 17:34-37). The foreshadowing at work here is obvious: David was not only acting like a shepherd; he was acting like a king.

Unlike his ancient Near Eastern contemporaries, however, the Davidic ruler of Isaiah 11 does not hunt lions. Rather, he mysteriously remakes them. And he does so in a way that utterly eliminates predatory violence from the food chain. For Isaiah 11, these are the fruits of the just and righteous reign of David’s descendants. In the summary words of verse 10,

They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

Unsurprisingly, the center of this transformed creation is “my holy mountain,” known otherwise as “Zion,” where God’s temple resides. From Yhwh’s throne in Jerusalem, peace emanates outward, filling the world with knowledge of the Lord. On that day the “root of Jesse” (verse 10) will be like a standard for the nations of the earth, which will seek out Jacob. All nations will be drawn to the family of promise, whose God resides at Zion.

As Christians, it is hard not to see ourselves as those nations that long for the God of Israel, who we know in Jesus, the Jewish descendant of Jesse and David. But a close comparison of Jesus’ ministry with the “ministry” of the king in Isaiah 11 reveals some striking differences. Jesus certainly had a powerful earthly ministry, and he continues to minister graciously in the present through Word, sacrament, etc. But evil still flourishes, the poor and meek remain afflicted, predators continue to kill their prey, violence is still done on God’s holy mountain (verse 9), and the earth is far from being “full of the knowledge of the Lord” (verse 9). If Isaiah 11 were the criteria by which Jesus’ ministry was judged, then one would have to conclude that, on the whole, it falls far short. Christ’s victory remains a hidden victory, or even an unaccomplished one.

Are we forced to conclude then that Jesus was a failed messiah? No, but we may have to concede that his ministry is fundamentally incomplete. A truly Jewish messiah could not leave the world as it is, with evil still on the throne and the poor still in the dust. Isaiah 11 reminds us that Christians, who still long for the messianic completion of creation (i.e., the Second Coming or Parousia), have a great deal in common with Jews, who have historically struggled to see Jesus’ ministry as messianic. At the end of the day, Isaiah 11 does allow us to celebrate Jesus’ ministry in the past and especially in the present, but the text also urges us to the place of intercession, where we long for creation’s promised destiny, as a place where peace, justice, and grace have the final word.


1 The latter suggestion has been made by Marvin Sweeney in his, Isaiah 1-39 (FOTL; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 204.


Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Paul S. Berge

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 is timely for the season of Advent. We come in these Advent Sundays to hear and experience the kingship of the Messiah, who has come, is present, and will come in power and glory as the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven.1

In Israel’s history the king represented the ruling presence of God among the people. The exalted reigns of the earliest kings, David and Solomon, provided a way to an understanding of kingship that was not without faults.

Psalm 72 carries the title “Of Solomon,” either attributing this psalm to the poetry of Solomon, or is expressive of the worship life of Israel, attributing to Solomon a king who rules in God’s favor: “Give the kings your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son” (verse 1).

This psalm is identified as one of the nine Royal Psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 110, 132) that sing praise to the king as God’s chosen representative on earth. They are prayers from Israel’s worship life for the king and his role as earthly ruler.

The Old Testament reading for this Sunday from Isaiah picks up on the theme of God’s kingship, identifying David’s father, Jesse, as the root or stump from whom comes the righteous branch of Israel’s kingship:

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, a branch shall grow out
of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom
and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge
and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He
shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear” (Isaiah 11:1- 3).

The Isaiah text has been interpreted within the church as Isaiah’s vision of the ideal king brought to fulfillment in Jesus’ reign of peace, righteousness, and justice (Isaiah 11:4-9). Psalm 72 carries out in detail these themes from Isaiah: “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice” (verse 2).

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29) establishes his reign and his claim on the walk of his followers: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus warns that righteousness is not in our accomplishments, but only in his reign is God’s kingdom of true righteousness present.

The four gospels express in countless ways in Jesus’ parables, teachings, miracles, and narrative stories the way in which Jesus as Messiah embodies the righteous rule of a king who deals justly and in justice:

“May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and hills, in
righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (verses 3-4).

The righteous rule of the Davidic king is reflected as a ruler over all, including nature, demon possession, and even death. Jesus is the one who calms the storm as he crosses the Sea of Galilee with his disciples (Mark 4:35-41), exorcises the demon-possessed man as they reach the Gentile shore (Mark 5:1-20), heals a woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:24b-34) while he is on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter, who in the delay of healing the woman, has since died, and Jesus raises her from death (Mark 5:21-24a, 35-43).

The prayer of the psalmist for the king is also the prayer we acknowledge to be true for the ministry of peace Jesus brings to this earth: “May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. . . . In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more” (verses 5 and 7). The apocalyptic signs of the coming of the Son of Man reflect these themes from the psalm of the Messiah’s coming:

“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
   and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
   and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds
with great power and glory” (Mark 13:24-26).

The closing verses from Psalm 72 serve as a beautiful benediction on the rule of the king and reflect the expectation the glory of Jesus’ kingly reign as we continue to exalt his messiahship in this season of Advent:

“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name for ever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen” (verses 18-19).

The epistle reading from Romans 15:4-13 for this Second Sunday of Advent concludes with Paul’s proclamation and hope for the messianic king as he cites from another prophetic word of Isaiah concerning the righteous king from Jesse’s stump:

“And again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one
who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope'” (Romans 15:12).

Paul is citing Isaiah 11:10 from our Old Testament reading for this Second Sunday of Advent. This brings us full circle to the closing verse of Psalm 72: “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended” (verse 20). In the pattern of Jesse’s son, David, and David’s son, Solomon, we see the way in which God’s kingly reign and rule is present in the one whom we herald as the messianic king, Jesus, the Son of Man who will come on the clouds of heaven in great power and might.

This is our Advent promise and proclamation.


1 This commentary was originally published on the site on December 5, 2010.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 15:4-13

J.R. Daniel Kirk

As was the case with Romans 13 last week, so also this week’s text from Romans 15 draws us into the double- or even triple-exposure of time that happens as the old year hands off to the new in the church calendar.

The beginning and the end come together as we enter the time of anticipation which will culminate with a backward-glancing celebration of the first arrival of the Messiah, and, one day, with the joyful reception of Christ at his second.

In between, we prepare. And, we strive to live as people of age-to-come. The conjunction of what God has done in the past, what God is doing among us now, and what God promises to do in the future come together to undergird the seminal Christian virtue of hope.

Scripture: Past, Present, and Future

Romans 15 is drawing to a close the lengthy argument of the letter that has unfolded since Romans 1:1. There we heard that scripture was the source of the promise about the coming Messiah. Here we learn why it is that Paul makes such a big deal out to scripture: “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4, NRSV).

Hope is the present state of anticipating a particular future of which we can be confident because of what scripture has said to us in the past. But more than that, we can be confident because what scripture said in the past has also already begun to come true. The gospel of God’s son, the pre-promised Messiah, has come (Romans 1:1-2).

Scripture is reliable because God is reliable. That’s why Paul shifts from applying “steadfastness and encouragement” to scripture in Romans 15:4 to calling God the source of “steadfastness and encouragement” in Romans 15:5.

In Advent, we can anticipate the still-awaited advent of Jesus with firm hope because God has already brought to pass the first-awaited advent of the Christ. We are not simply preparing to celebrate Christmas; we are preparing to be those who are ready when Christ returns according to the promise of God. This means being the people of hope.

Becoming a Mirror of Christ

Romans 15 shows us that it takes the whole community working together to show itself to be a reflection of Christ. What does a Jesus-like body of Christ look like here on earth?

It looks like people whom the world would separate into different tribes rejecting those boundaries, gathering under the same roof, and mixing the voices that the world would keep separate in songs of praise to God. We show that we live in harmony by singing in harmony.

And that can only be done when we are sitting in the same room.

In a recent episode of On Being, civil rights legend Ruby Sales commented that a crying need for theology, right now, is “to create a beloved, global community.” One of the tragedies of the history of Christianity has been the ways that we have occluded Paul’s breathtaking command, “Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you.”

We falter every time we redefine “welcome” such that people are only allowed halfway in the door (you can be here but you can’t join, you can join but you can’t lead, you can lead but you can’t preach). We falter every time we redefine “one another” such that it really only means people like us (“We’d love to have black people in here singing our white church songs!”) We falter every time we fail to extend our welcome of others on the same basis as Christ’s welcome of us: anytime we demand that another enact self-sacrificial love rather than loving sacrificially ourselves so that the formerly excluded can now be embraced (“Any gay person willing to act like a celibate straight white person is welcome here!”).

We are at a time in our country’s life in which tribalism is pulling us apart at the seams. Façades of unity are crumbling, revealing underlying contention and strife. This is so in national politics as much as it’s true in church culture and politics.

Romans 15 is telling us that the light of Advent will only fully shine on the world when the church becomes a people who better reflect the story of radical hospitality — the story of Jesus during his time on earth, the story of the Christ who has accepted all into the presence of God.

Hope in the Rejoicing Nations

Paul depicts a litany of biblical passages prophesying that the Gentiles must join their praises to the people of Israel (Rom 15:10-12). We must remember that the division between Jew and Gentile was established in scripture. It has deep theological significance and can claim direct divine origin. And yet, the manifestation of God’s gracious arrival is not the celebration of the Jews, but the celebration of the Jews and Gentiles together.

It is oftentimes easy to look at ourselves, our presence, our people, as enough. We have scripture, we are living out the story, we are hoping for the future. Yes, these are good markers. But “we” must never think that “we” are complete. There are more of us.

As this text interrogates us, it flips the script, telling us that we are now those who have been insiders for millennia. We are the ones who have the power to tell others that they are or are not welcome. But here is the paradox: the more we relegate the gospel to people like ourselves, the weaker grows our hope and the dimmer grows our Advent light.

Because it is only in the gospel surprise of the one who does not look like me, sitting next to me singing praises to God, that I know the scripture to be fulfilled, as Isaiah says, “There will come the root of Jesse (Romans 1:3), and he who arises to rule the Gentiles (Romans 1:4) in him will the Gentiles hope (Romans 1:5).” This is the picture of Advent we must paint by creating diverse communities of praise.