Lectionary Commentaries for December 21, 2014
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 1:26-38

Mark Allan Powell

The church has often had a difficult time knowing how to regard Mary.

In certain times and places, she has been exalted to a status approaching that of deity, such that some medieval theologians even began to speak of a Quaternity rather than a Trinity.

In sharp distinction to such excesses, Protestants have tended to ignore Mary’s role in the drama of salvation history. In America today, there are lots of Protestant churches named St. Andrew’s, St. Mark’s, and St. Stephens, but very few named St. Mary’s (though by any objective analysis, Mary plays a far more important role in biblical accounts than Andrew, Mark, or Stephen).

Still, Mary’s memory is cherished in certain ways, especially around Christmas time. Many have taken her to be a model of motherhood. Recently, she has been valued more generically as a woman. Indeed, she sometimes becomes a role model for feminist identification: Mary the Virgin has known no man; she is her own person, unexploited; her identity is not given to her by any male, but is her own, a gift from God.

Looking at the Bible, we see another image. The evangelist Luke does not exalt Mary as a goddess, or as a mother, or even as a woman. He thinks she has a more important role, as the ideal Christian. In the Third Gospel, Mary becomes the model for Christian discipleship, the person who all people, men and women alike should emulate, especially if they wish to follow her son.

This aspect of Mary is easily overlooked, perhaps because it is only found in Luke’s Gospel. In Mark, her most memorable appearance may be the account in which she and her other sons come to take Jesus home, thinking the boy has gone off his rocker (Mark 3:21, 31-35). She doesn’t fare too much better in Matthew (though now she is present at the empty tomb). John never mentions her by name and Paul makes no mention of her at all.

But in Luke, Mary is the most Christ-like human being in the story. Her words to the angel, cited in this week’s text, are a direct parallel to what Jesus later prays in the garden: “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38) = “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). In both cases, the ideal response to God is presented as a combination of humble trust and obedient service.

Taken as a whole, Luke 1:26-38 is similar to some Old Testament texts in which there is a divine annunciation of a special birth: of Ishmael in Genesis 16:7-13; of Isaac, in Genesis 17:1-21, and again in 18:1-15; of Samson in Judges 13:2-25. Such parallels might suggest the real focus is not on the person to whom the announcement is made but on the child who is to be born: he will be great; he will be called the Son of the Most High; he will be given the throne of David and will reign over the kingdom of Israel (Jacob) forever (Luke 1:32-33).

But numerous scholars have noted that the Luke story also follows the form of an Old Testament call narrative. All of the elements typical to that pattern may be found here: a greeting (1:28), a startled reaction (1:29), an exhortation not to fear (1:30), a divine commission (1:31-33), an objection (1:34), a reassurance (1:35), and the offer of a confirming sign (1:36-37). Similar patterns are found in the call narratives of Moses (Exodus 3:1-12) and Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-13). Mary’s final response, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38) may recall the words of Samuel (2 Samuel 3:4-9).

The latter parallel suggests what many readers seem to intuit: the focus of this pericope is actually more on Mary than it is on Jesus. Mary is being called to a prophetic task; bearing and raising Jesus is that task. Some scholars have even said that in this pericope, Luke presents Mary as a prophet and Jesus as her oracle.

Mary is identified here as the “favored one” (Luke 1:28) and as one who has “found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). Later, in the verses that follow this text, she will be described as “blessed” among women (Luke 1:42).

Luke wants to make sure we know why she is favored and blessed. Her kinswoman Elizabeth says, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord” (1:45). Notably, she is not blessed because she is going to be the physical mother of Jesus, but because she believed God’s word. So, whatever blessing accrues to Mary is one we all can share, if we emulate her. We cannot all be physical parents of Jesus, but we can believe God’s word will be fulfilled.

This may seem a bit pedantic, but it was sufficiently important to Luke that he brings it up again — and again. In Luke 8:21, Jesus tells a crowd of people, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” His earthly family is to be complimented for their faithfulness to him, but all people may be members of his family if they trust the word of God as his mother and brothers do (there is no indication in this Gospel that Jesus’ family did not believe in him).

Finally, look at Luke 11:28-29. Here, Jesus is teaching a crowd or people when a woman calls out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.” This is a colorful way of saying, “How blessed to be your mother.” This woman thinks it would be wonderful to be Jesus’ mother because Jesus is a great man and the worth of women is often determined by the quality of sons they produce. Jesus completely rejects this (sexist) ideology and declares, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!”

Jesus is saying, “My mother is blessed, but not because her womb bore me or because her breasts nursed me! She is blessed because of her devotion and faithfulness to the word of God.”

So Mary turns out to be not simply the mother of Jesus but an ideal role model for all followers of Jesus: a servant of God who embodies faith and faithfulness.

First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Michael J. Chan

Second Samuel 7:1-16 (cf. 1 Chronicles 17:1-14) is about the establishment of two houses: (1) the “house” (i.e., dynasty) of David, whose foundations are Yhwh’s promises and fidelity and (2) the “house” (i.e., temple) of Yhwh, which would eventually be built by David’s son, Solomon.

Houses, of course, bespeak permanence and presence. For Yhwh, this means that he will no longer dwell in a mobile “Tent and Tabernacle” (v. 6), but rather would be available to Israel in the form of a temple and its accompanying cultic functionaries.1 For David’s part, he is given a remarkable gift, an everlasting dynasty, to which he responds with an appropriately lavish display of worship (2 Samuel 7:18-29).

Yhwh’s speech to David (2 Samuel 7:4-17) recalls earlier acts of divine benevolence.

  • “From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt” (v. 6)
  • “I took you [David] from the pasture, from following the flock, to be ruler of My people Israel, and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut down all your enemies before you.” (vv. 8-9)

In these verses, Yhwh’s acts on behalf of David are linked to Israel’s ancient confession that Yhwh is a gracious God who acted mightily on behalf of Israel when it was in slavery. David’s story parallels Israel’s: Like Israel, David was lifted from smallness into greatness.

The powerful memories related in 2 Samuel 7:6, 8-9 are interwoven with an abundance of new promises. Even as past promises come into reality, new ones for a new day are given:

  • “I will give you [David] great renown like that of the greatest men on earth” (v. 9; cf. Genesis 12:2)
  • “I will establish a home for My people Israel and will plant them firm, so that they shall dwell secure and shall tremble no more. Evil men shall not oppress them any more as in the past” (v. 10)
  • “I will give you safety from all your enemies.” (v. 11)
  • “The LORD declares to you that He, the LORD, will establish a house for you” (v. 11)
  • “When your days are done and you lie with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own issue, and I will establish his kingship” (v. 12).
  • “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish his royal throne forever” (v. 13)
  • “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me. When he does wrong, I will chastise him with the rod of men and the affliction of mortals” (v. 14)
  • “but I will never withdraw My favor from him as I withdrew it from Saul, whom I removed to make room for you” (v. 15)
  • “Your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever” (v. 16)

Renown, security, an everlasting dynasty, children to perpetuate his name, unconditional favor, and an unshakeable throne. These are the profound and generous promises given to the House of David and to the Israelites over whom he rules. They are utterly unconditional, containing only a warning that, when one of David’s sons does wrong, Yhwh will discipline him at the hand of human agents (2 Samuel 7:14). The Davidic covenant leaves room for judgment, but that judgment is relativized by the scope of Yhwh’s promise. Individual sons of David may come under threat, but the dynasty itself, so the promise claims, never will.

And it is precisely this push and pull, ebb and flow between promise and judgment that marks much of the rest of Israel’s royal history (Samuel-Kings). The important promises given to David accompanied the southern kingdom of Judah throughout the monarchic period, which came to a disastrous end in 586 BCE (see 2 Kings 24-25). In the time leading up to that fateful year, Yhwh’s unconditional promises toward David functioned as a buffer against Yhwh’s judgment.2

By and large the history of the monarchy in the book of Kings is a history of disobedience to the first commandment. But embedded within the constant drumbeat of apostasy and judgment are the promises given to David and his dynasty. These promises qualify, buffer, restrain, and stave off Yhwh’s judgment, with varying results. One first sees the promises at work in this way in 1 Kings 11:12-13. The text claims that Solomon’s love for foreign women turned his heart away from Yhwh and toward other gods (1 Kings 11:1-10). Yhwh responds with judgment: “I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant” (1 Kings 11:11). But then, following quickly on the heels of this declaration of judgment, Yhwh’s commitments to David emerge as a qualifying force:

Yet for the sake of your father David I will not do it in your lifetime; I will tear it out of the hand of your son. I will not, however, tear away the entire kingdom; I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen. (1 Kings 11:12-13; cf. 32, 34-36, 39)

Not only would Solomon be spared from seeing the judgment, it would not result in a total loss: “I will give one tribe to your son, for the sake of my servant David.”

Shortly thereafter, the prophet Abijah encounters Jeroboam (the future ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel) and gives him this oracle:

See, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give you ten tribes. One tribe will remain his, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel (1 Kings 11:31-32).

Judgment is delayed or diminished because of promises previously made to David and his dynasty. Elsewhere in Kings, the promises to David function similarly to stave off or otherwise qualify divine judgment (see 1 Kings 15:4-5; 2 Kings 8:19). Yhwh’s judgment against David’s dynasty is neither total nor final, because Yhwh is faithful to David, whose house Yhwh has promised to maintain. Divine patience with the Davidic dynasty, then, is due in no small part to Yhwh’s commitment to the promises made in 2 Samuel 7.

The promises given to David in 2 Samuel 7 have a significant impact on Judah’s monarchy well beyond David’s own lifetime. Why these promises were ultimately unable to stave off the Babylonian onslaught of the early 6th century remains one of the most persistent theological problems in the Hebrew Bible. For Christians, the emergence of Christ — son of David — in the first century is a manifestation of Yhwh’s ongoing commitment to the dynasty of the son of Jesse.


1 All translations come from the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh translation.

2 This point was made powerfully in Gerhard von Rad, “The Deuteronomic Theology of History in Kings,” in From Genesis to Chronicles: Explorations in Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 154-66.

Alternate Psalm

Commentary on Luke 1:46b-55

Rolf Jacobson

Even if you do not preach on Mary’s Psalm, sing it this weekend during Sabbath worship.

[Find commentaries on Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, by W. Dennis Tucker Jr. (2011) and Rolf Jacobson (2008).]

Marys Psalm: A radical Advent carol

The so-called “Magnificat” (somehow that name is too tame) is a radical protest song. The kind of song that the enslaved Israelites might have sung in Egypt. The kind of song you might have heard on the lips of the exiled Judeans in Babylon. The kind of song that has been sung by countless people of faith through the ages in resistance, in defiance of empires, slavers, terrorists, invaders, and the like.

Hear, feel, savor Mary’s cry of resistance:

            [The Lord] has shown strength with his arm;
            has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
            Has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
            and lifted up the lowly;
            Has filled the hungry with good things,
            and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Mary’s Psalm sounded the initial, clear, trumpet call that the event of the Christ’s advent was to be a world-transforming, universe-shaking event.

One example. Professor Lois Malcolm, my colleague at Luther Seminary, grew up the child of missionaries in the Philippine Islands. Growing up among that nation’s poor, Professor Malcolm has reported that when they heard Mary’s Psalm, it was the first time that anyone had told them the good news that God cares about them — the poor, the oppressed.

Think about it. You’re poor. You wonder, “Why? Why are we poor?” “Maybe that is just the way things are,” you think. Or maybe you hear, “The kings and queens rule by ‘divine right’ — God wants them to be rich and powerful, and you to be poor.” Or maybe you hear, “The poor are poor because they did something bad in a previous life — they deserve to be poor in this life, and if they suffer their poverty bravely and gladly, they can be born into a better caste in the next life.” Or maybe you just think, “We are poor because we aren’t smart enough to be wealthy.”

Mary’s Psalm announces, “No, Christ has come to challenge the structures of sin, death, the devil, and oppression. Christ has come in the strength of the Lord to do what the Lord has always done: lift up the lowly, free the enslaved, feed the hungry, give justice to the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.”

A song in tune with the Lord’s songs throughout the ages

Mary’s song of resistance was not completely new. It was a song in harmony with the psalms that other faithful followers of the Lord had sung in past generations. Just three examples.

The once-enslaved Moses and Miriam sang this song of resistance when God delivered the oppressed from the house of bondage in Egypt:

[The Lord] has trumped gloriously;
     horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
     you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. (Exodus 15:1bc, 13)

The once-barren Hannah, afflicted by Peninnah her rival, sang this song of resistance and deliverance:

The bows of the mighty are broken,
     but the feeble gird on strength.

Those who were full have hired themselves our for bread,
     but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich,
     be brings low, he also exalts. (1 Samuel 2:4-5, 7)

And one more song, this one from the anonymous psalmist who composed Psalm 146:

The Lord sets prisoners free;
     the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers;
     upholds the orphan and the widow. (146:7c-9b)

Throughout the ages, God’s people have faced oppression. And in the face of that oppression, God’s people have sung God’s songs of resistance.

But God’s people have also been oppressors. We have enslaved others — and each other. We have stolen from, oppressed, and slain others — and each other. And when we have done so, the oppressed, the enslaved, the persecuted have sung God’s songs of resistance against us.

So shall it ever be.

Singing resistance in Advent

So do two things as you plan for worship this Sabbath.

First, sing Mary’s Psalm of resistance. Don’t just read it, sing it.

You can chant it antiphonally. But pick an aggressive psalm tone.

You can sing the version known as “My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness,” set to a tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams (tune: Kingsfold; arr. Williams). See With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress, 1995). You can sing Grayson Warren Brown’s “My Soul Does Magnify the Lord” (tune: Gospel Magnificat).

You can find a version of “Evening Prayer” — almost all will include a version of Mary’s Psalm, which is the traditional canticle for evening prayer worship. Marty Haugen’s version in “Holden Evening Prayer” comes to mind, although the tune is rather tame.

You can find a metrical paraphrase and match it with a tune your congregation can sing.

Second, you can select those rare Advent songs and Christmas carols that follow in Mary’s tradition of resistance. A few come to mind. Most of the references to liberation and resistance in Christmas carols have been spiritualized. For example, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.”

But here are a couple.

“Hark, the Glad Sound” (Philip Doddridge):

He comes the pris’ners to release,
in Satan’s bondage held.
The gates of brass before him burst,
the iron fetters yield.
He comes the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure.

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear” (Edmund Sears):

And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow;
look now, for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing;
oh, rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:

            Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
            From ev’ry foe deliver them
            That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
            Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
            Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
            Shall come to you, O Israel!

And, if the Spirit leads you, preach on this song of resistance. Seek the Lord and inquire how it is that we have closed our ears to Mary’s radical song of resistance, even though there is so much oppression and evil in the world. We have turned Christmas into a cattle-lowing, no-crying-he-makes Jesus, Silent Night.

Christ came to stand against sin, death, and the power of the Devil. We can sugarcoat that reality now. But at least one Christmas carol would remind us of the ends to which the son of Mary was willing to go in order to cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplift the lowly:

            Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
            The cross he borne for me, for you;
            Hail, hail the word made flesh,
            The babe, the son of Mary!

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 16:25-27

Arland J. Hultgren

These three verses contain a doxology, and they bring the Letter to the Romans to a close. Or do they?

They are missing altogether in some Greek witnesses; alternatively, they appear at the end of chapter 14 in some Greek texts; and they appear after chapter 15 in others. (There are even more variations than these!) So many textual variations makes these verses highly suspect, causing one to question whether they were part of the version that came from the hand of Tertius, Paul’s amanuensis (Romans 16:22). Moreover, the verses contain phrases not found elsewhere in the undisputed letters of Paul; they are similar instead to phrases in deutero-Pauline letters, such as Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles. Suspicion increases even more when another matter is considered. Within these three verses there are 53 words in the Greek New Testament (28th edition of the Nestle text), forming one very long sentence. That too is unusual for Paul. The general verdict is that the verses are a post-Pauline interpolation. Nevertheless, they are a part of the canonical text as printed in modern language versions and are worthy of our attention and reflection.

The syntax of this long sentence is complex. The subject does not appear until the end, namely, the noun “glory.” If we rearrange the words, the main clause of the sentence is “Glory to the one who is able to strengthen you … ” The writer gives glory to God, based on theological assertions expressed within phrases and subordinate clauses within the sentence.

As a way to get into this convoluted passage, one can give attention initially to what is said in Romans 16:25-26 (“the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed”). The term rendered as “mystery” in the NRSV (mysterion in Greek) can just as well be translated as “secret,” designating a “divine secret” that God has kept in the past until it is time for it to be revealed. The idea of a divine secret being withheld until the proper time is found in apocryphal writings (2 Esdras 14:5, etc.) and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. But it also shows up in Paul’s own writings (Romans 11:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7, 10).

Just what “the mystery” consists of is unclear. Is it Jesus Christ? Is it the inclusion of the Gentiles? And what does it mean to say that the mystery “is made known to all the Gentiles” “through the prophetic writings?” There are puzzles here to stump anyone.

Essentially, it appears that the reference to the prophetic writings means that what they envision — the coming of the Gentiles to faith in a future messianic age (e.g., Isaiah 2:2-4; 60:3; Micah 4:1-3, etc.) — is being fulfilled. As the gospel is proclaimed to the nations of the world (the Gentiles), the mystery is being made manifest. The time of the messianic hopes has been fulfilled through the coming of Jesus (i.e., his incarnation).

The “revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages” refers then to the present proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ for all people, including the Gentiles. Proclamation is the “unveiling” (which “revelation” means) of what has been a divine secret that has existed from eternity. The secret is “now disclosed.” The secret is out — through the proclamation of the gospel. (Those who use sermon titles might consider using the phrase “the secret is out.”)

The passage contains a number of additional words and phrases that can be pondered. The phrase “the proclamation of Jesus Christ” could mean either the preaching of the earthly Jesus or the proclamation concerning him, i.e., the Christian message. In context, it appears to mean the latter. The “prophetic writings” are of course the prophetic books of the Old Testament, but no specific texts are mentioned, which is not unusual, since Paul speaks of the prophets without specific references elsewhere (e.g., Romans 1:2). The phrase “according to the command of the eternal God” modifies the verb “disclosed” (more obvious in the Greek text than in English versions) as though the time of disclosure was ordered by God’s own decision. Finally, the phrase “obedience of faith” was used by Paul at Romans 1:5. In neither place is it likely to mean “obedience to the faith” (the Christian message), but “faith that consists of obedience.”

The text is assigned for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, just prior to the celebration of the Nativity. The other readings of the day will more than likely overshadow this brief text. The first reading narrates the promise of God to David that a royal dynasty will succeed him, and that his throne will last forever (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16). The Gospel for the Day is the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). In both cases a message, a divine secret, is transmitted to an individual having a role to play in what is to come. In each case the message is conveyed by means of spokespersons: a prophet (Nathan) in the first instance; by an angel (Gabriel) in the second. But the messages are not yet for the public; they are private and personal. The message becomes public only when the angels, shepherds, wise men, apostles, and finally the church announce and celebrate Jesus’ birth.

The passage from Romans relates to the other two passages quite directly, although subtly. The author declares that the mystery, the divine secret, has now been disclosed for all the world to hear. The coming of Christ into the world was in fulfillment of the divine purpose; furthermore, the proclamation of the gospel of his coming to all the nations was consistent with that purpose as well.

At first glance the message of this text can seem quite abstract for a sermon. But it can be proclaimed in more familiar terms. The text is a brief recital of salvation history. One can emphasize that in this passage we have a full sweep of the biblical drama in miniature. It speaks of the purposes of God. After the creation and the fall (both of which are presupposed), the purpose of God was to bring peace and reconciliation among the people of the world, and between God and them. God raised up the royal house of David and promised that David’s throne would last forever. The prophets anticipated a day when the people outside of Israel would also come to believe in God and seek to do God’s will. The ancient promise to David was renewed in the Annunciation to Mary. Furthermore, it was fulfilled when God sent his Son — the Son of David, born of Mary — to be the everlasting king, a king whose reign knows no end and no boundaries.

Closing out the season of Advent, we are at the threshold of our transition to the actual story of the birth of Christ in the Gospel of Luke, acclaimed and praised by the angels and witnessed by the shepherds. We’ll join the heavenly host as we celebrate the good news of Christmas. But the seasons of Advent and Christmas overlap, because the message of the latter cannot be contained. Still in Advent, we contemplate how God used human instruments, such as David, the prophets, and Mary, to disclose secrets concerning what is in store for humanity. But letting the Nativity brighten our horizon already, we know that the secret is out, and it will continue to be out, as the church makes it known to the world.