Lectionary Commentaries for December 14, 2014
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28

Mark Allan Powell

Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece is one of the most famous religious artworks of all time.

Even if you are not an aficionado of Renaissance/Reformation era art, you have probably seen this piece (and you can certainly find it on the Internet).

The center panel offers a tortured and gruesome portrayal of Jesus on the cross, suffering with an agony painful to behold. But immediately to the right, standing off to the side is John the Baptist, holding open a copy of the scriptures and pointing knowingly to the figure on the cross. At John’s feet is a small lamb.

Grunewald would not have been a good redaction critic. Like most people today, he got his Gospels mixed up. The portrait of Jesus comes straight from the Gospel of Mark, where the passion narrative emphasizes the terrible suffering of Jesus rather than the great victory his death accomplishes. But if Grunewald gives us a Markan Jesus, his figure of John the Baptist is Johannine all the way. In John’s Gospel, that’s what John the Baptist does: he points to Jesus.

In the Synoptic Gospels, John the Baptist is a prophet who has an important ministry in his own right. He calls people to repentance and eventually dies as a martyr for daring to confront petty earthly tyrants with the word of the Lord. But in John, for the most part, he just points people to Jesus.

The text for today tells us more about who John wasn’t than about who he was: he wasn’t the light; he wasn’t the Messiah; he wasn’t Elijah; he wasn’t the prophet.” Who, then, was he? He was a witness (John 1:7) and he was a voice (John 1:23), albeit a voice telling people to prepare for someone else, someone whose sandal thong John was unworthy to untie (John 1:28).

There are probably historical reasons for this subordination. Many of the commentaries discuss various versions of a theory that John’s significance had to be downplayed in some segments of the church because his followers had become competitors with the followers of Jesus. Thus, John himself is represented as directing his followers to Jesus and as declaring that “he must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

Whatever political struggles might have influenced the Fourth Gospel’s presentation of events, the account we have before us offers a different nuance than what we encountered in Mark. If your sermon last week focused on the content of John’s message, you might focus this week on the style. That is what seems most important to the writer of our Fourth Gospel: it is not just what he says about Jesus that is important, but how he says it.

John is a witness (martyría; John 1:7) who testifies (martyréo; John 1:7, 19) to the good news of Jesus Christ. Those two words are used more than forty-five times in John’s Gospel and are expressive of what many consider to be a central theme of the work. They have their origin in a legal context and, so, imply public testimony to something that one guarantees is absolutely true.

When a witness testifies to something, he or she stakes his or her life on it; a “false witness” commits perjury, a capital offense. This, of course, explains the origin of our English word martyr: a witness who suffers the ultimate consequence when his or her public testimony is deemed false. John is only the first of many to testify on behalf of Jesus in this Gospel (see, e.g., John 4:39; 5:36, 37, 39; 12:17; 15:26, 27).

Like the man whose name was John, the church is sent into today’s world as a witness. So, focusing specifically on the text for Advent 3, we may characterize this witness as public, certain, and humble.

These qualities are in tension with the spirit of our age. Most people today regard religion as a private matter and do not want to hear about someone else’s particular beliefs. Certainty is also shunned in these postmodern times; we are all victims of our own perspectives: who can ever know for sure whether anything is true or not?

Still, we are audacious enough to believe that the gospel is true, and that it must be proclaimed boldly — publicly and confidently.

The trick is to bear witness to this truth with humility. For John, that meant directing people away from himself and toward Jesus. Notice how people try not to let him do that. “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” (John 1:22).

That is one thing that has not changed. Talk about Jesus, and people will always want to change the subject; often they want us to talk about ourselves. And frequently that may be what we would prefer to talk about as well.

Don’t take that bait. Our testimony about Jesus is ultimately less significant than Jesus’ testimony about us. Sure, share your opinions and beliefs about Jesus with friends, neighbors, and strangers (if they’ll listen), but that’s all you’ve got, beliefs and opinions.

The testimony of Jesus himself is more powerful. His words are the word of God; his actions, an incarnation of that word, putting us all on trial with public testimony. The light of God’s love and the darkest parts of humanity come together, and there need be no postmodern squabbling over what happens when darkness and light try to co-exist: the truth of what happens is public and certain.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Kristin J. Wendland

As has been the case for the past two weeks, the Old Testament reading for this Sunday comes from the latter chapters of the book of Isaiah.

Starkly different from chapters 1-39, which are filled with words of judgment and warning, chapters 40-66 are filled with words of promise and hope. The exiles banished to Babylon may return home to Jerusalem, and the rebuilding of the city may begin.

There are three main characters in this passage: The LORD, the prophet (“me”), and the people of Judah (“they). Meaning in this passage is wrapped up in the relationships among these three characters.

The LORD

The pericope opens by describing the spirit, or breath, of the LORD. One recalls the first chapter of Genesis in which the spirit, or breath, of God hovered over the waters at creation. These verses in the book of Isaiah are nothing less than a creation narrative. Out of the chaos of destruction and exile, the LORD will create something new.

Verse 8 further describes the character of the LORD. This one who will bring forth a new creation is also one who loves justice, who hates wrongdoing. This one will give recompense, that is, give compensation or promise something different, something better, than has been before: an eternal covenant.

Finally, verses 10-11 follow a typical form for a hymn of praise in which works of God are enumerated and then praised. The operative metaphor here is that of clothing, here representing an outward sign of inner emotion or outlook. The exchange of ashes and a mantle of faintness, outward signs of mourning, for a garland and a mantle of praise, signifies a change within Zion. Here, as in Psalm 132:16, the LORD provides the clothing. The garments provided are not those of war or suffering but of salvation and righteousness, joyous as on a wedding day. Their joy, a divine gift, shall show outwardly.

The servant-prophet

The pericope opens with the news that the spirit of the Lord GOD is upon “me.” This begs the question of just who “me” is. Chapter 61 has often been associated with Isaiah 49:1-11, one of the so-called “Servant Songs” in the book of Isaiah where the LORD answers the servant, that is Israel, in a time of favor (49:8; 61:2) and proclaims release to prisoners (49:9; 61:1). What the LORD did with and through the servant Israel in chapter 49, another servant-prophet is commissioned to carry out in chapter 61.

The tasks entrusted to the servant-prophet may be understood as commissions rather than commands. There is no imperative that the servant-prophet go out to do any of these things. Rather the Lord GOD anoints the servant-prophet. In the Old Testament it is overwhelmingly priests and kings who are anointed. The servant-prophet does need seem to be either (though in the intervening verses dropped by the lectionary, the people of Judah are called priests of the LORD, vs. 6) but is set aside for a particular role. He is empowered to speak and act in ways that bring hope, joy, freedom, and comfort to the people of Judah.

The actions of the LORD and the servant-prophet are bound up together. In the opening verses of the passage it is the Lord GOD who anoints the prophet with divine spirit so that the tasks are carried out. Likewise, in verse 11, the prophet rejoices in being clothed with divine garments of salvation and robe of righteousness.

The people of Judah

The final persona in the passage is the people of Judah, in particular those who have returned from exile. They too have a task. As with the prophet, the tasks given to the people are less command than they are promise and permission. The time of rebuilding has arrived. They need not live in the midst of what has been destroyed any more but may begin the challenging yet exciting work of restoration.

In verse 9 the offspring of the people of Judah are described as a sign for the world. One recalls Abraham being blessed for the sake of blessing others (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). Here this promise is extended to the whole as the people of Judah stand as signal to the world of God’s great deeds.

Building a future when destruction is all around

It is possible to read this pericope as a promise too good to be true, as a platitude or as a promise to be fulfilled only in the eschaton. It is a passage that can perhaps be read placidly by those for whom things are going well, but less so by those who do look around and see only destruction. None of us need look far to see that all is not well in the world.

The context of this passage is important. The audience appears to be exiles who have recently returned to Jerusalem. The promise of newness comes to them as they look around their beloved city and see troubled relationships and power struggles with those who did not leave but continued to make their lives in Jerusalem. They see no signs of a rebuilt temple. This promise of freedom, comfort, restoration, and praise likely seemed far off — yet it was spoken. God was at work in their midst. God was at work through them. God, the servant-prophet, and the people are wrapped together in this passage even as the work of salvation, the fulfillment of this promise, would be fulfilled in fits and starts as God worked through the prophet and the people.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 126

James Howell

If you have studied Greek and Hebrew, you know that they differ in more than just the alphabet and which direction you read.

Greek requires you to learn a complex host of verbal moods and tenses. Hebrew is much simpler, lacking pluperfects, perfects, participles, all those “p” things that bring clarity to when and how something actually happened.

Hebrew is so simple we lose some clarity, and nowhere more so than in Psalm 126. Has the Lord already restored Zion’s fortunes? Were we like dreamers once upon a time? Or are we pleading with the Lord to restore those fortunes? Are we longing for the day when our mouths will be filled with laughter?

In a strange way, it is always both. The Hebrew outlook on time, and certainly on God’s involvement down here, is like that Greek character Janus, looking forward and backward. As the Psalm says “The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced” — but then is it better rendered “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad?” Yes. Back then God did things, God saved us, God acted definitively. That brought great joy: Miriam danced and sang with the people after the miraculous parting of the sea. But it brings great joy now, in worship, or just in the heart.

And it is that past that anchors us solidly enough to know what to expect of God in the future. Hope isn’t a wishing for a better tomorrow, and it isn’t a nostalgic longing for the return of the good old days. But if we understand God’s habits, God’s heart as shown in years gone by, we know what to look for, what to ask for, what realistically will come to be.

The Psalmist invites the people to be dreamers. But what can this mean? We have dreams at night, and Freud might analyze them and help us understand our anxieties that never go to sleep but dance in our heads all night long. We speak of a dream as a vision, as in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. in August 1963. That dream, incidentally, wasn’t some newfangled, recently hatched idea about what would be cool. King’s dream was old, bolted firmly in the past, America’s past, and even the Bible’s past.

But in the Bible, the “dream” isn’t our fondest hope or what rattles in our minds during sleep. Who dreamed? Joseph had a dream that his brothers would bow down to him. Pharaoh had dreams about sumptuous and then lean years. In the Bible, God reveals the future to the dreamer. It’s not fortune-telling, but a cracking open of the as yet unseen future so God’s people would know how to proceed, how to trust, how to live together in hope.

Complicated as the tenses might be, Psalm 126 is another National Lament, a huge corporate prayer of the people asking for dreaming, for a revelation of God’s good future. Because of the past, they can certainly imagine a stunningly glorious future, where the sad can’t stop laughing, where tears are dried and replaced with shouts of joy.

How intriguing: God doesn’t give the people a second chance, or how ever many opportunities to finally get things right. No, God gives them a dream, a visual pledge of what God will in fact do, period. And without pressing a poetic image into something literal, it is fascinating that the Psalm doesn’t say the tears will be exported to some distant place, and then joy will arrive. No, it is “those who sow tears will reap shouts of joy.” The tears become the joy. Somehow the joy grows out of the sorrow. The sadness is what births the laughter. It is hard not to think of Paul’s vision of eternal life as a seed falling into the ground and dying — and then the resurrected body springs up.

Or even Jesus’ primal parable about a sower. We hear his words about this extravagant sower who tosses seed just any old place. The weeds, rocks and path are trouble spots for the seed. If I think of my life as the sowing of some tears, I wonder: what kind of soil am I? Am I the kind of soil, the kind of person, who can laugh off adversity? Wrong question! It is the entire people of God who pray here, not just the chipper, optimistic, preternaturally buoyant people! God’s new life isn’t for the happily disposed. Because it isn’t a mood, after all. It is a reality. God’s restoration is political. It is a city, walls, buildings, with crops, people, rain, all the realities of life.

Some think this Psalm might be a prayer for blessing for the nation in the coming year. What would such a prayer look like for us? Singing “God bless America”? Or becoming those who dream, not of a powerful, bad news-free America, but a place of restorative justice, of mercy and hope for the hopeless, a place where sorrow isn’t shunned but embraced as the seedlings of new, glorious life. What are the words of that old hymn that agrarian folk probably resonated to better than we can? It may seem a little corny, but the plea is simple, practical, doable, and holy: “Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness … Waiting for the harvest … We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves … Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows, fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze; by and by the harvest, and the labor ended, we shall come rejoicing … Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; when our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Lucy Lind Hogan

“Rejoice always.”

The third Sunday in Advent has traditionally been known as Gaudete Sunday, taken from the opening of the Psalm appointed for the day so long ago. That Psalm began with the Latin command to rejoice. Today’s reading from the epistles also begins with the command to rejoice. In this reading, which is the conclusion of his first letter to the church in Thessalonica, Paul sends words of encouragement and support.

Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia and this letter has a friendly tone. Paul would seem to be pleased with the way that they are living their new lives as followers of The Way, as Christians. He opens his letter with the comforting reminder that “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3). I suspect all of us would be happy to receive this letter confirming who we are and recognizing that we are on the right path.

Paul goes on also to remind them that they are serving as excellent role models for “all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (1 Thessalonians 1:7). Yet even these people of strong faith are troubled with an important question. Recalling Jesus’ declaration of the end time and the comforting news that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30), they wonder what will happen to their loved ones who have died. The end time has not arrived, Christ has not returned, yet members of “this generation” are passing away. As they walk to the burials of their mothers and fathers, husbands and wives; standing before the graves of the faithful, they wonder if Jesus has forsaken them.

Continuing the themes introduced in the epistle readings for the First and Second Sundays of Advent, we once again return to the theme of the delay of the parousia. Will we, in fact, see the end time? Will we see Jesus return in great glory? In the fourth chapter of the letter Paul turns to their question. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). They seem to have been asking how could they rejoice in the Lord in the midst of their grieving? How could they continue to trust and believe that Jesus was “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25) when people were dying?

Paul declares to these worried and grieving faithful that those who have died will not be ignored or forgotten. In fact, he confirms that at the last day those who have already died will actually be the first to be raised by God, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Christ will return in glory. The dead shall be raised. We shall be raised to meet them. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged. There will be an end time and there will be a second coming, “encourage one another with theses words” (1 Thessalonians 4:18).

With the sound of the trumpet ringing in their ears and the vision of Christ returning to lead their loved ones home, Paul turns to words of exhortation and encouragement. If we are confident in the news that there will be a second coming, the question remains, how are we who are alive to live our lives in the light of that knowledge and certainty?

Gaudete, “Rejoice always.” The instructions in this, the conclusion of the letter, are very brief and very general. Furthermore, the verbs are all plural. Paul is not speaking to individuals as much as he is to the entire community in Thessalonica. They are all to rejoice. And when? Not at a particular time, nor only in good times, but always. They are to pray always. They are to give thanks not just for the good things that happen to them, but “in all circumstances.” Earlier in the letter Paul speaks of the suffering he has endured for Christ. And he notes that they too “suffered the same things” (1 Thessalonians 2:14). It was not easy to follow Christ. But Paul’s call is simple and direct, rejoice, pray, give thanks always and no matter what happens.

Paul also directs them to live lives grounded not only in the Spirit but also in the words of the prophets whose words have already been directing their lives. He does not point to any particular actions they have undertaken that would have quenched the Spirit. Likewise, he does not indicate exactly what they should test nor what evils they should avoid.

The ending of the reading serves as a wonderful benediction for all of us as our celebration of the first coming of Christ and a reminder to keep our eyes and our lives focused on the second coming. We will be kept holy, “sound and blameless” (1 Thessalonians 5:23) for that day, and it is not through our work alone, but by “The one who calls [us]” and who “is faithful” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).

This is truly a time to rejoice, pray, and give thanks for the great gift of God’s Word made flesh who came to dwell among us and who will surely come again. This message may be of great comfort to those who have recently lost a loved one and for whom the holiday festivities may be particularly difficult.