Lectionary Commentaries for December 11, 2016
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11

Ronald J. Allen

The question of John the Baptist to Jesus is one of the most important questions of Advent and of Christian theology more broadly.

“Are you the one who is come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3).

We need to qualify the question from the perspective of the first century. Not all Jewish communities were oriented to the end-times, and not all anticipated a messianic figure. One Jewish community (Qumran) seemed to envision two messianic figures. Moreover, end-time Jewish communities debated the nature, identity, and activity of God’s final end-time agent. John was not the only one asking, with wider reference, “Are you the one?”

The Gospel according to Matthew steps into the middle of this debate. According to Matthew, it is Jesus who is “the one.” Indeed, Jesus defines the realm of heaven for the disciples (the church).

Matthew 11:4-6 gives Matthew’s evidence that Jesus is the one. People who have been unable to see can now see. People who have been unable to walk can now walk. People afflicted with leprosy are now cleansed. People who could not hear can now hear. People who live in poverty can look forward to economic regeneration.

From the perspective of end-time thinkers, conditions such as the inability to see, walk, and hear are characteristic of the broken old age. In the realm of heaven, God will release individuals and systems from these curses so that all interactions and relationships take place according to God’s original purposes. Matthew interprets people regaining sight etc. as signs that God is already beginning to manifest, partially, the realm of heaven through the ministry of Jesus. After the resurrection, this ministry continues through the church.

Another purpose of Matthew 11:7-11 is to explain that John is not the one. The disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus may have debated one another as to which leader was “the one.” Matthew seeks to settle that question while pointing to an important role for John in the apocalyptic time line.

As part of Advent reflection, the sermon might ponder similarities in the world today. Different religious and social groups put forward different ways for envisioning ultimate purposes for human life. Not only that, but within the Christian world itself, different Christian groups put forward different interpretations of Jesus and of God’s aims. On what basis does a congregation make a choice as to which ones are more or less reliable? If the church opts for Matthew’s perspective, how does the church regard other possibilities?

Jesus wonders why the crowds went into the wilderness. Surely the crowd did not go to see a reed shaken by the wind or to see elite people, who profited from supporting the Roman empire, in soft robes and in royal palaces (Matt 11:7-8). Herod sometimes used the reed as a symbol.

Today’s reader may wonder why the crowd might have expected a reed and palaces in the wilderness. The answer is that Herod and others who conspired with the Roman Empire had symbols of their authority, and lush homes, along the Jordan River valley where John had been preaching and immersing.

Matthew portrays the crowd not going to the wilderness to align themselves with the power brokers of the old age, but going to see a prophet. In Matthew’s Gospel, John is not only a prophet but is the final prophet before the end. Indeed, John fulfills the role forecast by Malachi for Elijah to return from heaven to signal that the time of transition from the old to the new has come. (Matthew 11:9-10; Malachi 3:1; 4:5).

While not assigned to the reading for today, Matthew 11:12-15 adds an important pastoral voice to this discussion. John suffered violence as a result of his witness to the realm. Herod beheaded John (Matthew 14:1-12). Pilate murdered Jesus. According to Matthew, witnesses to the realm of heaven have suffered such violence from the time of John through the time of Matthew’s own community (Matthew 11:12). Matthew’s congregation was in tension with many contemporaries of that day, and, hence, would continue to experience violence in response to the community’s witness (Matthew 5:10-13).

Many preachers accept Matthew’s answer to John’s question, “Are you the one?” Such Advent preachers often speak of the already and not yet. The signs of the realm we see in the world today offer moments of renewal for the present while pointing to the future completion of the realm. Such signs give us the confidence to continue living in hope. Indeed, we can join God in bringing such signs to expression.

Yet, some Christians raise a searching question.  “If Jesus is the one, where is evidence that a great transformation is truly underway? The world appears to be pretty much the same as it was before Jesus with respect to idolatry, injustice, powerlessness, exploitation, scarcity, and violence. Why should we think things will get better? Why should we continue to be committed to Jesus and the church?”

I take the story of Jesus as re-affirming the confidence (already present in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings) that God never gives up on offering the world opportunities to become more like the realm of heaven.

But we need not “wait for another.” Indeed, we need not “wait” at all. The story of Jesus has proven to be a reliable guide to restoration. The sermon might help the congregation name how we can participate with God in restoration, and identify other communities that share similar hopes and seek common purpose.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10

Michael J. Chan

If I had to pair this text with one Advent song, it would be O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

The first verse is particularly relevant: “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here.”

Isaiah 35 is a powerful poetic word of comfort for the mourning Judahite exiles, who lost their temple, land, and sovereignty. Their suffering is manifested in “weak hands” (verse 3), “feeble knees” (verse 3), a “fearful heart” (verse 4), obscured vision (verse 5), hindered hearing (verse 5), broken bodies (verse 6), and silent tongues (verse 6). The literary “body” constructed in Isaiah 35 has been utterly overwhelmed by despair and weariness. Their capacities needed to move through this world have been diminished. The exiles feel God’s sorrow in their very bodies.

The good news is that the God of Jacob does not abandon God’s people to their despair. Their sorrow will come to an end, and on a day when the sick body will find new life in God:

the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain joy and gladness,
            and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (verse 10).

Silent tongues will be loosed to sing songs of joy and freedom. Formerly feeble knees will walk themselves to Zion. Fearful hearts will look to the future with faith, hope and courage, while sorrow and sighing will be on the run.

Up to this point, I have emphasized the text’s use of corporeal language, but the text actually begins with the non-human creation (verses 1-2). For Isaiah 35, salvation is imagined in creational terms. The general theme is that desolate, dry places will be transformed into paradise. Those who live in desert environs can appreciate the transformative power of water on the desert. Overnight, even a small amount of rain can change a dry desert into a vibrant landscape. But Isaiah’s poem moves far beyond the natural consequences of water on the desert. Creation itself will “be glad,” “rejoice,” and sing (verses 1-2). Creation’s praise joins human praise, in recognition of God’s marvelous work.

The text turns abruptly to members of the audience, giving them both a task and a sermon:

            Strengthen the weak hands
                        and make firm the feeble knees.
            Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
                        “Be strong, do not fear!
            Here is your God.
                        He will come with vengeance,
            with terrible recompense.
                        He will come and save you (verses 3-4).

Like so many other texts in Isaiah, and especially chapters 40-55, Isaiah 35 confronts fear with promise: “Here is your God … He will come with vengeance … He will come and save you.” In switching to the second person, the prophet leaves nothing to chance, making sure that his audience knows that this message is “for you.” The poem further concretizes the message by deputizes its audience, giving them a brief sermon for the weak-hearted, and asking them to amplify his message.

Salvation opens up the world in new and miraculous ways (verse 5). Formerly hostile environments are transformed into places that are not only habitable, but are also favorable for life. The “old” and “new” creation are contrasted in terms of hydration and desiccation: water in the wilderness, streams in the desert, pools from burning sand, etc. (verses 6-7). God’s work in the wilderness recalls Israel’s earlier wanderings from Egypt to Canaan. Then as now God promises to accompany Israel in the wilderness, and to ensure its passage from bondage to inheritance.

Given the exilic context, Isaiah 35 quite appropriately culminates in homecoming (verses 8-10).

The text doesn’t offer any details about the road’s precise location, and it doesn’t need to. What’s significant about this “Holy Way” is the fact that it finally leads to Zion and that it will be free of threats to human life. While one might be tempted to believe that a “Holy Way” must inevitably be a narrow way, lined with numerous pitfalls, ditches, and off-ramps, this is not the case in Isaiah 35. The path, in fact, is so wide and easily navigable that even a fool can walk it without fear of wandering astray (verse 8).

I urge preachers to highlight texts like Isaiah 35 during Advent. They offer a remarkable opportunity to remind congregations that, through faith in Christ, Israel’s story has become their story. Christians have been adopted into an epic narrative that is driven by promise, obedience, judgment, and redemption.

In the 6th century BCE, God promised a new, holy path for Israel that would lead them out of bondage in Babylon to a new future for Judah. Christian interpretations of exile and redemption will inevitably look different than they did for ancient Judah. Nevertheless, our days are also filled with God’s wrath and judgment (Psalm 90:7-12). We daily wander from obedience to God and into the open arms of sin, death, and devil. The confession we pray on Sunday is true every day of the week: “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” We daily need water in the wilderness to strengthen our weary knees and to renew our faltering faith.


Commentary on Psalm 146:5-10

James Howell

Many Advent wreaths feature a pink candle for the Third Sunday of Advent — and it’s called “the Mary candle.”

The lectionary even offers her song, the Magnificat, as an alternative to the Psalm reading for the day. Here we’ll stick with the Psalm, and ponder it as one of the many songs Mary learned when she was growing up, that she knew by heart, that she sang to her son Jesus as he was growing up. If she sang when she visited Elizabeth, or at any other time, it is because she knew the Psalms. We might try to imagine what her voice sounded like. Maybe not a big powerful soprano with vibrato, but something quieter, crystal clear, and tender.

Singing praise is something of an act of defiance in a bitter, cynical, make-it-happen world. Praise is the antidote to despair, and praise transports us close to the heart of God and therefore changes where we are. Commenting on our Psalm 146, Walter Brueggemann wrote that “Singing is our vocation, our duty, and our delight. We name this staggering name — and the world becomes open again, especially for those on whom it had closed in such deathly ways — the prisoners, the blind, the sojourner, the widow, the orphan. The world is sung open.”

Verse 5 indicates that what gets opened up is, first of all, “happiness.” This seems too trivial, too self-centered, too glib. But God yearns for us to be happy, not in any transient, trivial sense, but more like joy, and sense of good delight that grows organically out of a life deeply rooted in God. The Hebrew word translated “happy” is ashre, which is the very first word of the entire Psalter. The prayers in the Psalms somehow are about us becoming happy, or as ashre is often translated, “blessed.” Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the same thought. “Happy/blessed are the poor in spirit.”

A few years ago, my daughter and I visited a mostly ruined medieval sanctuary at the Bolton Priory. We entered as sightseers, armed with cameras. But an attendant at the door handed us a card and asked us to pray for just five minutes. The card bears many lovely prayers, such as “Humbly and sorrowfully I crave thy forgiveness … for every weakening thought to which my mind has roamed … ” Weakening thoughts protrude and poison our minds.

Our Psalm is about keeping the mind focused on God — where there is life. The final petition of the Priory prayer card said “So let me, O Lord, be with Thee, and be happy.” They should edit out that comma. Happiness is to be with the Lord, and if you are with, close to, one with the Lord, then and only then are you happy.

Psalm 146’s mood of happiness has as its foundation that God helps. There is good cause to trust in God’s help because this God created everything, brought order out of chaos, light out of the darkness. We do not ponder the magnificence, order, magnitude and beauty of creation often enough or we would understand why and how God can and should be leaned upon for help. And as the Psalm opines, this God “keeps faith forever.” This trust is hope, and hope here should be distinguished from optimism, that sunny fantasy that everything will be better tomorrow.

Hope, as Christopher Lasch explained so well in The True and Only Heaven, is not the naïve thought that tomorrow will be better. Hope has braced itself, and is thus prepared to cope if tomorrow isn’t better. It may take some time. And hope doesn’t depend on you and me getting our act together and fixing things, like optimism does; no, hope depends on God, not us.

This God delivers “justice for the oppressed.” Surely many if not most of those who first sang this Psalm had themselves been sorely oppressed. God’s justice isn’t blind doling out of what’s fair. God loves; God is personally invested in the oppressed, the needy, the marginalized, being included, having enough, flourishing. This and this alone is the justice God brings.

Fascinating: this God gives food to the hungry. We know this, right? We say a blessing before the meal. But there is much more. How God gets food to the hungry is complex. God created a world that could be fruitful; people used their ingenuity and hard work to make food grow; someone harvested, someone packaged, someone put it on the shelf, someone purchased and then cooked the food. God uses a plethora of people to get the food to your plate when you are hungry.

So what does God use now to feed the hungry, and we now mean the desperately hungry, in our world? No use praying for God to float the food down on them. There is a long route with many hands involved — including ours. An old Haitian proverb says “God gives, but God doesn’t share” — the idea being that God has given us enough, so it’s up to us to divvy it up so everyone gets some.

And the way God gives food then is through the people. How do we give food? We could drop it off, or send it. But John Wesley commended that it is better to deliver aid than to send it. Sam Well’s marvelous A Nazareth Manifesto explains how so many of our fine mission endeavors actually cripple those in need. We are to befriend them, to be with them, to walk the journey together as beloved community. Surely this is God’s preferred way of providing food to God’s hungry children! If we figured this out, then the eyes of the blind truly would be opened!

Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:7-10

Dirk G. Lange

Many scriptural texts can be read in isolation of their context and still provide some meaning.1

However, some texts, like these verses from James, benefit greatly from reading what precedes it (if not orally in the congregation then at least in the pastor’s sermon preparation). James is looking forward, to the future, with hope. But what is this hope? And what does this hope mean for the community of faith on the Third Sunday of Advent?

The past two Sundays, the community has heard the readings from the final chapters of Romans where Paul is developing what it means to live like a Christian, led and molded by the Holy Spirit. Is James now proposing that we simply “hope” for some future coming, eyes directed heavenward, as if we did not have to be concerned about this life? Definitely not! The key passage that eliminates a pie-in-the-sky hope (waiting for Jesus to return on the clouds of heaven and make everything “right”) is verse 9, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.” Our hope may actually be judged! What type of hope is James writing about, what type of hope will pass the judgment?

If we look at the preceding verses (especially chapter 4:11 up to our pericope reading), we discover some surprising statements. (Note: these verses do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary though they are read in the Roman lectionary and the older Episcopal lectionary). The hope that James describes is not looking upwards to some heavenly salvation nor is it looking inwards to some spiritual illumination but it is looking the other, our neighbor, directly in the face.

And this looking is done in a non-critical manner (we are not judges of the law, 4:11 — can this person be useful to me? Does he/she fit my definition of a human being, etc.). It is not done in self-interest: engaging activities simply for the sake of making money (4:13-15). These verses are like echoes of the Sermon on the Mount. We come to the realization that James is probably heavily influenced by both Jesus’ Sermon and by Paul’s interpretation. Why worry about tomorrow? (Matthew 6:34). The hope that is proposed is a hope that is grounded in the Lord and on what the Lord desires. The focus of this hope is not ourselves (whether we are gazing outwards or inwards) but the Lord and how the Lord wants us to live in this life.

This perspective is doubly underlined in the verses of chapter 5 that introduce our pericope. The objects of worldly hope are squarely condemned. But here, it is not a matter of judging from personal prerogative or prejudice. It is a matter of justice for those less fortunate, for the workers, the ones without privilege. Has the neighbor been “loved” as much as self?

Now, perhaps, we can understand better the “be patient… until the coming of the Lord.”  This patience is not a personal virtue for by nature we all want things to happen right now, for us, in the best possible way. Perhaps we can have patience when we know that we are working towards a personal goal. Yet the patience that James is proposing is the patience given by the Holy Spirit. It is patience that is deeply rooted in faith. It is working, laboring towards a goal when one is not always sure what the goal is, what it will look like, or even what it will mean for “me.” Whether you, the reader, are in the northern or southern hemisphere, whether the sun is blazing on your land in December or the land is resting in a winter’s sleep, we all know the incertitude of nature: the seed, the entire crop, is planted but will the rain come? Will the weather be right?

The example James uses is one familiar to each of us. Today’s Gospel though gives another, more pertinent example. John the Baptist is imprisoned. He does not know what is happening. He does not know his end. He preached repentance and like many prophets he was rejected. He now waits and in his waiting he wonders: is this Jesus the one? John the Baptist exemplifies this patience lived in faith, the patience of “not knowing.” It should also be noted that Jesus’ response (about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed) clearly directs John’s hope in an earthly direction! John need not look for fireworks in the sky. The signs all have to do with the well-being of the other, the wholeness of creation and justice.

“Strengthen your hearts…”, James continues. This strengthening of the heart comes as the community lives and witnesses together. The patience in suffering is lived together as members of the community of faith watch over and care for one another. No words of slander, no grumbling, no back-stabbing, but always speaking and doing the good for the neighbor. In fact, it would seem that a characteristic of this patience is precisely a deep compassion and love towards the other as if James is writing, “slow down, seek first the kingdom of God, be attentive to one another, let all things happen in and for God, then all else will be given, God will grant all in God’s time.”

What is clear, of course, is the centrality of the Word of God. None of what James proposes here is possible through human strength, will or power. The patience and the hope are both grounded in faith, that gift of the Holy Spirit. Both have been given to the community, both however need to be nurtured, encouraged, formed. Isn’t this what James is attempting throughout his letter?


1 This commentary was originally published on December 12, 2010.