Lectionary Commentaries for November 29, 2015
First Sunday of Advent (Year C)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 21:25-36

Robert Hoch

How is it possible, a seminarian wondered, to reconcile Luke’s image of Jesus’ eschatological return “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27b) to the Christmassy reports of the infant Jesus, tender and mild, awaiting us at the end of the Advent season?

And, by the way, he continued, aren’t we supposed to be getting ready for Jesus’ birthday rather than his return?

Maybe what he wanted from the First Sunday of Advent was a lectionary version of a baby shower invite. Something like this, perhaps: Bow or Beau, soon you will know! Imagine Luke’s baby shower invitation through the lens of the eschatological discourse: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations” (Luke 21:25a).

Anyone for dark?

Consider the irony of a local hospital’s roadside advertisement for their labor unit. A picture shows a pregnancy test kit indicating “positive” and above this image, the hospital’s promise “We believe you should have a positive birth experience.”

I’ve never experienced labor (obviously), but I’ve watched, and watching birth can be traumatic, to say nothing of going through labor. Paradoxically, when labor swings into motion, bringing with it the beginnings of life, our own sense of control, i.e., life as we imagine it, begins to unravel.

We resist not only loss as such, but its signs. After our first daughter was born, I sent pictures to my parents. One picture showed their granddaughter slick with fresh-from-the-womb blood. My father complained: “Couldn’t you have cleaned her up first?”

Admittedly, a smart phone is a dangerous thing in the hands of an adrenalized parent, but my father’s criticism goes to something basic: we would wipe the human condition clean of the bloody stain of That Day.

Jesus’ discourse points to a profound loss of control: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the power of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).

As if that was not enough, Luke’s Jesus assures us that this will happen not only to a few, but for the whole world; what is more, that day is surely coming.

Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper points to Luke’s different formulations of the decisive day: “on that day” (10:12; 17:31); “in those days” (5:35; 21:23); and “the days are coming” (17:22; 21:6).1

Most people live as if “that day” will somehow miss them, that somehow their name won’t come up on the draft list, that the dire sentence of disease or ruin or confusion will be suspended indefinitely, at least for them.

All of us nurture this illusion. Maybe it’s a necessary one, to some extent. But Luke’s witness to the upheaval of the world underscores how that day may strike any of us and, indeed, will strike all of us.

“There have been many losses,” writes Janice Jean Springer, reflecting on the days following her diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Among these losses, she counts the erosion of her “self-image as a strong and vibrant woman … ” By contrast, the struggle to keep her balance, to not fall, seems unpleasantly familiar.

She has lost other things as well, but perhaps the most painful loss of all: “I’ve lost my illusions. I’ve lost the illusion that I am exempt from the losses and limits that besiege other people.”

She writes that each of us will be confronted by losses that make us wrestle with the question, “[How] can I be faithful in my new circumstances?”2

I wonder if that supplies a clue for reading Luke’s text: first, the text introduces a profound, cosmic experience of loss. This loss, Luke tells us, will be accompanied by signs, worrisome signals that all is not well.

Curiously, amid the rising tide of confusion, we are to look for a familiar face, one we will recognize: “They will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory’” (Luke 21:27). Instead of crumbling to the ground, Jesus suggests our eyes will be opened and we will meet not a stranger “but the one who has already appeared among us as the definitive revelation of God.”3

Then come verses 29-33, introducing the ordinary rhythms of nature. You know how it is with the seasons: as soon as you see the buds of new leaves on the trees, you understand that summer is near. The same for when you see these things, the Reign of God is near.

Everything you know will pass, but my words will not pass. So whatever happens, Jesus says, be on guard. Be alert. See the signs as my imminent return.

Springer’s spiritual director suggested that her experiences might actually be giving her life a “contemplative shape, a deeper monastic spirit.” What did she do? Looking at her daily schedule with a new set of eyes, she saw something that might resemble the monastic practice of praying the hours: “I inserted the Latin names of the hours of prayer into my daily routine of pills and naps and exercises. Now, each time I check the schedule I’m reminded that my day is permeated with prayer.”

She admits that some days it doesn’t work. Sometimes she would rather enjoy a Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream than “[learn] what this illness” has to teach her. But on most days, on the unfamiliar road, she is given glimpses of the God she knows, her hours filled with quiet recognitions of a God of love and grace, a companion who walks the road with her.4

Perhaps her experience is not unlike the way Christ walked with the disciples on their way to Emmaus, seemingly a stranger to their loss and yet, in ways that defy easy explanation, their closest companion (Luke 24:30-32).


1 Alan Culpepper, “Luke” in The New Intepreter’s Bible, vol. 9 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 409.

2 Janice Jean Springer, “Illness as Hermitage” in Christian Century (16 September 2015), 10.

3 M. Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 266.

4 Springer, “Illness as Hermitge” in Christian Century, 10-11.

First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Anne Stewart

Advent is a season for feeling out of kilter.

It is a period of waiting in the darkness. It is a season in which we are caught between joyful expectation and the harsh realities of the present condition while we wait for the promise to be fulfilled. And the discipline of this season puts the church at odds with contemporary American culture, in which the holiday season consists of bright lights and celebrations and packages tied with neat bows. There is no room for darkness and little patience for prayerful expectation when holiday carols blare from every speaker and the neighborhood is glowing with displays of lights. Yet ironically, this experience of being out of sync with our surroundings may attune us more deeply to the nature of Advent. In Advent, we live in the unsettling tension between what is and what will be.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks to a community that is acutely aware of this tension. Jerusalem has been completely devastated in the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, and the inhabitants of Israel have been scattered from their homeland, living as conquered people in Babylonian captivity. For those living in exile, their way of life has been completely overturned. Their sense of security has been violated. They have no idea if they will live to see their home again. And this leads to theological questions: where is God in the midst of this? Why did such devastation happen? Is God present in exile? Will God allow them to return home again? What happened to the covenant with David? Is the grace of the covenant promises made long ago still operative for this generation and for their children?

The experience of exile is one of profound dissonance. This generation lives in the wide gap between the reality of what is and the promise of what will be. In fact, the hardship of the present reality must make the covenant promises seem far from reach. As the psalmist laments, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion … How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1, 4). Jeremiah offers a vision of a new reality: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah … In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety” (Jeremiah 33:14, 16a). We should not underestimate what a daring proclamation this is. In the face of devastation, with all evidence to the contrary, Jeremiah insists that God’s promises are certain.

The sign of this covenant promise is the righteous branch of David. The oracle, which is an expanded version of an oracle found earlier in the book (see Jeremiah 23:5-6), promises the restoration of the Davidic monarchy and the Levitical priesthood (see Jeremiah 33:17). The covenant with David that promises an eternal kingship and God’s perpetual love (see 2 Samuel 7:8-17) remains reliable. The following oracles seem to anticipate the people’s resistance. The reality of this promise seems hard to believe, given the present circumstances. Could God’s covenant with David be broken? No more than the sun would stop rising and setting: “Thus says the Lord: If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed time, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken” (Jeremiah 33:20-21). The Davidic covenant is as certain as the cycles of day and night; it is part of the regular workings of the cosmos.

Jeremiah’s oracle imagines an alternative reality: the restoration of Israel, the practice of justice and righteousness, and flourishing life in the land that God has promised. Yet the prophet does not simply cast utopian visions of life as it once was or as the people desire it to be. Empty promises are little comfort for homelessness, broken dreams, and tarnished memories.

Rather, this alternative reality is grounded in a claim about God’s faithfulness — it will be called “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:16). Bridging the chasm between the present reality and the promised future is only possible by an act of faith that God’s righteousness will triumph. Jeremiah suggests that confidence in God’s righteousness enables belief in a new reality.

In Advent, the church proclaims an alternative reality that grows out of confidence in God’s righteousness. The promise of God’s righteousness both convicts and makes new. Advent invites us to name the places in our lives and society that are at odds with the divine vision of justice and righteousness. There may be a wide gap between what is and what we wish were so. And yet the promise of Advent is that the Lord is our righteousness. This promise allows us to proclaim an alternative reality in which all things will be made new.


Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

Rolf Jacobson

At first blush, Psalm 25 may seem an odd song for Advent.

At this time of year, the songs of Advent and Christmas fill the airwaves and are heard constantly in malls, stores, and homes. But here is Psalm 25 — an ancient, acrostic song that pleads for honor in the face of enemies, of the sins of youth being forgotten, and humility in the face of God’s way — appointed for the First Sunday in Advent.

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust;
           do not let me be put to shame;
           do not let my enemies exult over me.
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
         let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

Maybe an odd choice at first glance, but an ancient psalm with an urgent word.1

Beth Tanner writes that the psalm “is not reacting to a single happening but is more of a reflection on the events that have shaped the life of the one praying.”1 That is, the psalm is not about a single moment in time or in life — but is about the totality of life lived with God.

This “total” view offers a happy point of contact with Advent. Because Advent, properly celebrated, isn’t just about “this Christmas” or just about “the first Christmas.” Advent is about the church’s faith that all of life — past, present, and future — is lived in the presence of God. Advent is about trusting the promise even while awaiting for the promise to be kept by God.

A Roman Catholic priest taught me that, “In Advent, the church celebrates Christ’s coming in history, mystery, and majesty.”

In history: We celebrate on God’s surprising historical entry into the world in the birth, life, and death of Jesus of Nazareth.

In mystery: We celebrate on the resurrected Christ’s mysterious presence “wherever two or three gather” in Christ’s name.

In majesty: We celebrate the promise that one-day Christ will come in majesty, wiping away every tear and emptying every grave.

Reflecting on the totality of life, rather than praying from just one moment of crisis or experience of joy, Psalm 25 celebrates the loving and faithful character of God by praying for God’s continued presence in life: “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!”

A comment on the structure of Psalm 25. Psalm 25 is one of the Psalter’s alphabetic acrostic poems. The first letter of each verse of the psalm begins with a succeeding letter of the alphabet (or the alef-bet, as it is called in Hebrew). This artificial structure may be what leads to the sense that the poem is not being prayed from any one moment of crisis, any one moment of joy, or any one experience of trust — but rather from a reflective perspective about all of life.

The Revised Common Lectionary oddly ends this week’s reading after v. 10, which is sort of like stopping a recitation of the alphabet after the letter m, or interrupting the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer after, “and forgive us our trespasses … ”

The choice to end the reading after v. 10 is even more odd, because as Clint McCann argues, verse 11 is the center of the psalm. McCann argues that “the psalmist intended to focus attention on the center of the psalm.” In particular, the center of the psalm is chiastically arranged around a central petition in v. 11:

  1. 8-10 Praise
  2. 11 Petition
  3. 12-15 Assurance

As McCann concludes, “the evidence does suggest that there are structural and stylistic regularities in Psalm 25 that focus attention on v. 11.”2

The choice to end this week’s reading at v. 10 can be defended, however, as necessary for the needs of Advent. By ending the psalm at v. 10, the lectionary in effect changes the psalm from a prayer for forgiveness (“for your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great”) into a song of praise: “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.

The main theological focus of Psalm 25:1-10 is the trustworthiness of God’s guidance, especially as made available through God’s teaching. Note the emphasis on teaching:

  • Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
  • Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
  • Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
  • He leads the humble in what is right,
  • He teaches the humble his way.

A second major focus of vv. 1-10 is on waiting for God’s help, especially for divine help that bestows honor on those whom the world has shamed:

            Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;

                        let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.

The term “wait” here translates the Hebrew word qawah, which means both to “wait” and to “hope.” The waiting described here isn’t just waiting, like one waits for a meeting to start. It means more to wait and hope, like the sort of waiting one does in a hospital waiting room while a loved one is undergoing surgery, or perhaps the sort of waiting one does while waiting for a verdict to be handed down, or again, perhaps the kind of waiting one does after one has put in an offer to buy a home.

And waiting and hoping for God’s promises to be kept. We are pulled into Advent by God’s promises: You are mine. You are loved. You have been reconciled. You are a new creation. We believe those things. And we wait for the fullness of those promises to be kept.


1 The Book of Psalms, with Nancy deClaissé-Walford and Rolf Jacobson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), 254.

2 “The Book of Psalms,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 14 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), p. 777.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Edward Pillar

At first reading three things leap out of this passage: thankfulness, love and relationship.

Our passage begin with the words, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel … ” The passage continues with references to love that is increasing and abounding. Then there is the earnest desire that Paul and the Thessalonians should all be reunited. In fact, if we were to isolate these five verses, it would be easy to think that both the experience of the Thessalonian Christians to whom this letter is written and the experience of Paul and Silas, abound with love and joy as some kind of natural phenomena. The popular — and very attractive — idea that the Christian life is inevitably filled with love and joy and thankfulness and peace is of course a misnomer. And yet there is no hiding the reality that in these verses love, thankfulness, joy, and relationship are not only evident but are central. So, perhaps the best way for us to begin to unravel and understand these verses is to first consider who these words are addressed to, second, what is the immediate context for such effusive references, and third to begin to consider how might they resonate with us in our everyday lives?

Intro: The Thessalonian Disciples

This letter is addressed to the small community of Christ-followers who live in Thessalonica. Luke outlines the story of Paul and Silas’ mission to Thessalonica, which led to the Thessalonians’ conversion to Christ, in his account in Acts 17. A quick glance there makes clear that even from the beginning things were not easy, and to be frank, we shouldn’t imagine that it would ever be easy. The broader population is often all too easily threatened when small groups begin to re-evaluate their allegiance to the ruling powers and transfer their commitment over to a new Lord, even Jesus Christ (Acts 17:7). Stability and the status quo are reassuring norms for most societies, even if injustice and inequality are sometimes the price we have to pay.

But Paul has also earlier identified the Thessalonians’ response to hearing the good news about Jesus. In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 Paul speaks of how the Thessalonians “turned to God from idols, to serve the living and true God and to wait for his son from the heavens, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” The Thessalonians themselves have turned away from idols and aligned themselves with a new Lord. The radicalism of this move should not be underestimated. Idols permeated every level of city life: home, work, family, religion, economics, politics. Nothing was excluded from attentiveness and devotion to the gods. The Thessalonians’ radical move will possibly have separated them out from everything that would ordinarily be considered normal, creating pressures and even stresses in the home, marketplace, and the workplace. For a newly converted Thessalonian, the gathered community of disciples was their new home, family, and support network. Relationships mattered more now than ever as they sought to work out together what it meant to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Additionally, we should note that the Thessalonians’ are continuing to relate well to Paul and Silas (1 Thessalonians 3:6), and this is in spite of the shame that would no doubt be associated with Paul and Silas’ suffering.

This reaction by the broader population against those Thessalonians who have begun to follow Jesus is a key aspect in the context of our verses. If we sneak a peek at the verses that are prior to our passage we note there that Paul refers to persecution and suffering on three occasions in just eight verses. It is clear that Paul and Silas are suffering persecution (1 Thessalonians 3:7), but also that the Thessalonians themselves are in the midst of persecution for their faith (3:3). The Thessalonian believers have begun to follow a new King, and are seeking to adopt a set of values and an ethos rooted in Jesus. Consequently, they have begun to turn away from and reject some of the norms of their immediate society. So, how might this all begin to resonate with us?

First, we are reminded here of the joy of knowing that we are loved when life is tough.

The joy and thankfulness that is expressed in 1 Thessalonians 3:9 comes across to us as sheer delight and even with a hint of relief. The reason for this is twofold: First, because in spite of everything that is set against the fledgling Thessalonian community they are continuing in their faith. But second, I think that Paul and Silas’ exuberant thankfulness relates to the fact that the Thessalonians have maintained their commitment to relationship with Paul and Silas. They have not disowned Paul and Silas. The Thessalonians are suffering; Paul and Silas are suffering. Nothing would be easier than to call the whole thing off and to desert each other. But this is not what has happened. They continue to love, and support, and encourage one another. Relationships matter, and particularly when life is tough — which it most often is — relationships matter. To know that you are loved, prayed for and supported in the midst of suffering is a wonderful and joyous experience.

Second, that the key to Christian discipleship is love.

That love is central to Thessalonians is evident throughout the letter (1 Thessalonians 1:3), but Paul and Silas’ prayer here is that “the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). This apprentice Christian community have rooted themselves and their relationships in love. And it is love that will ensure their survival in the midst of suffering persecution. Paul elsewhere made that radical claim that without love we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2), and the Apostle John is emphatic is his assertion that love, rooted in the life and example of the Lord Jesus, is to be demonstrated in practical ways amongst the community (1 John 3:16-17). Indeed, Jesus himself, made clear that the only thing that mattered is to love God, and to love one’s neighbour as you loved yourself (Luke 10:27-28). To be rooted in love and to practice love ensures not just the survival of faith in the midst of difficulty, but the growth and increase of faith.

Third, there is the prayer that the Thessalonians may be strengthened in holiness (1 Thessalonians 3:13).

In some ways holiness is similar to love. Both are expressions of the reality of God. God is love and those who encountered God speak of his holiness. To live a holy life is to live as a living and breathing expression of the love, life, and reality of God. This reality has already been seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, to live in holiness is not to make life any easier. The trials and persecutions experienced by the Thessalonians will not subside once they intensify their imitation of the life, love, and reality of the Lord Jesus. But rather, Paul turns the Thessalonians attention to a higher and more glorious goal, that of the coming of the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 3:13).