Lectionary Commentaries for December 7, 2014
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:1-8

Mark Allan Powell

John the Baptist is best known as the forerunner of Jesus, the one who calls on people to prepare the way of the Lord’s coming.

In Series B, the Advent season devotes two consecutive Sundays to the ministry of John the Baptist, presenting back-to-back parallel texts from the Gospels of Mark and John.

The text for Advent 2 introduces us not only to the figure of John the Baptist but also to the Gospel of Mark, from which a majority of Gospel texts will be selected in the coming year. The first verse is probably intended as the title of the book. At this point in history, no one had ever written “a Gospel” before. Mark probably thought he was writing a biography, but when he chose to call his work “the good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ” he gave a name to a new genre of literature.

The book differs from biographies of other heroic individuals in that it does not simply claim to recount the inspiring tale of a noble man. Mark wants to tell us about the beginning of a new era, a time and place in which God has entered human history in an unprecedented way.

It is “the gospel era”: the kingdom of God has dawned. Mark wants us to know that God is ready and willing to rule our lives; he wants us to believe this and to act accordingly (Mark 1:14-15). This book (with which we shall spend so much time over the next year) is going to tell us how this gospel era began: it all started with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who announced the dawn of God’s rule and sealed the reality of that reign by establishing a covenant through his own blood (14:24).

But first — a preface. Yes, it begins with Jesus, but before Jesus there was John, and before John, there was Isaiah.

In Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist is basically an Old Testament figure. His clothing is based on descriptions of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8; in some sense, Mark believes that John is Elijah, who has returned just as Malachi said he would (Mark 9:9-13; cf. Malachi 4:5-6).

But the most important scripture for understanding John is Isaiah 40:1-11, which serves as the first lesson for today. The passage announces God’s intention to visit God’s people. God gives directions for the way to be prepared. By who? By the people God wants to visit? No, by God’s own servants. God does not say, “Tell the people to get ready and when they have done so, I will come to them.” God says, “Prepare the way! I am coming to my people (whether they are ready or not).”

Indeed the voice of God in the Isaiah text has the character of a wounded lover. God is desperate: “I will come to my people, and nothing will keep me from them. Mountains will be torn down, valleys will be filled in, rough places made smooth — whatever it takes!” It is hard not to think of the old Diana Ross song, “Ain’t no mountain high enough”.

So, Mark’s Gospel announces that this plan is, once again, about to be fulfilled. John the Baptist is one of God’s agents preparing the way for the Lord to come. He offers a baptism of repentance as a means of “getting ready.”

That baptism occurs in the Jordan River, famous in the Old Testament as the boundary marker for what came to be called “the Promised Land.” In the exodus story, God’s people wandered in the wilderness for forty years until at last they reached the Jordan River. When they entered these waters, they knew their wandering was over and that God’s promises were about to be fulfilled.

So the basic Advent theme sounded throughout this text is that the time of promise is drawing to a close and the time of fulfillment is drawing near. For Isaiah, the probable context was the end of exile for Israelites in Babylon. For John the Baptist, of course, it was the coming of Israel’s long-awaited Messiah.

The announcement is gracious, with only the dimmest echo of warning. Neither Isaiah, nor John, nor Mark intended to say, “God will come to those who are ready; those who are not, will be left out.” The accent is simply on God’s imminent, certain advent, though such an announcement obviously calls for response.

God is coming to us! This is fantastic news! So, what can we do to get ready? Confess your sins, John suggests. Get baptized. Repent. Later, Jesus will add, “and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15).

God will come and fulfill all of God’s promises whether or not we do any of these things — but knowing God is on the way, why wouldn’t we want to do them?

To take a somewhat silly analogy, children play a game called “Hide-and-Seek” in which everyone hides and tries not to get caught, but eventually, when the game goes as it should, everyone gets found. The game is interesting from a psychological point of view because “hiding” is not really very much fun. If you ask most children, “Do you want to sit somewhere all by yourself and keep very quiet for a long time?” you will not get many takers. What’s fun about “Hide-and-Seek” is not hiding, but getting found. Everybody likes to be found.

So, when Advent comes around every year, we are reminded that God is coming to find us. We have our ways of hiding. But on Advent 2, when John the Baptist shouts, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” it is as though God has just called, “Ready or not, here I come!” And we remember: this is the God who always finds us.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

Kristin J. Wendland

Verse 1, with its command to comfort the people of God, sets the tone not just for this passage but for the whole of Isaiah 40-66.

Prior to chapter 40 the news spoken in God’s name is a difficult word of judgment. The people have rebelled against God. The people have lived at the expense of their neighbors, putting their own desires above the needs of others. These chapters, mostly from the 8th century, point forward to a time when Jerusalem would be destroyed. In 587 BCE Jerusalem fell to Babylon, and a portion of Jerusalem’s population went into exile.

From chapter 40 forward, this word of judgment is in the past. Jerusalem was destroyed, and a number of its citizens did go into exile. Now, circa 540 BCE, on the other side of this experience, a new word comes to the people of Judah — a word of comfort and hope for a new future. Three proclamations build on the imperative to comfort God’s people in verse 1, each expanding on what it means for the people of Jerusalem to receive comfort.

A highway in the desert

While not everyone living in Jerusalem went into exile, a good number of people did. This passage heralds their return. The most direct route between Babylon and Judea, through the Syrian Desert, is poetically described in verse 3 as a way in the wilderness and a highway in the desert. It is unlikely, however, that any exiles returning from Babylon would have actually made the dangerous trek through the waterless wilderness. Rather, they would have followed water sources, arcing through northern Syria and then back south to Jerusalem.

That such a route would have been so unlikely suggests that a travel log is not the point. Rather, the poetic description functions to recall another journey through an inhospitable wilderness. This news of a metaphoric highway in the desert heralds a second Exodus, an easier one with flat ground and trouble-free travel (verse 4). Once more YHWH’s people would follow their God out of captivity to a Promised Land. Anyone who had doubted God’s presence in and devotion to Judah would see this and know that God had not only spoken a redeeming word but also had the power to fulfill it.

The word of our God stands forever

In verse 6 the punctuation marks in the NRSV communicate a short conversation between two voices. An anonymous voice, some sort of divine attendant, issues a command to “Cry out!” A second voice, “I,” asks what is to be cried. Following this terse dialogue is commentary on the poor, unreliable constancy of the people, liable to droop like a flower in a field, and a final, triumphant claim that God is wholly other — constant, reliable, and able to stand forever (vs. 6b-8). Punctuation marks, however, are decisions made by translators and interpreters. A number of scholars have suggested that the dialogue continues beyond the two lines shown in the NRSV.1 In this view, the “I,” speaking as the prophet, continues to speak to the end of verse 7. The words are an objection to the command to cry out. Why prophesy to a people with the constancy of grass? The anonymous voice responds in verse 8 with the very hopeful news that the constancy of the people is less important than that of God.

When read in this way, the passage echoes the pattern of a prophetic call narrative (introductory word, commissioning, objection, assurance) much like Isaiah’s call in Isaiah 6. This is a new word for a new time but is in line with the prophecy of Isaiah the 6th century prophet.

The objections of the prophet are understandable. Would the word fall on willing ears? Likely not. Would the message given make a difference in a world full of fickle people? Hard to tell. These are questions of most witnesses to the word and action of God, prophets and preachers included. The response that the word of God is not about human constancy but about the enduring reliability of God comes as assurance to prophets in this passage and to witnesses throughout the centuries.

Do not fear, oh Jerusalem, herald of good tidings

At the end of this passage the city of Jerusalem, also identified as Zion, is personified. This is a common trope in Isaiah 40-66 (cf 51:17-20; 52:1-2, 7-10; 54:1-17; 62:1-12). However, the place in the Old Testament in which Zion is personified most consistently is in the first two chapters of the book of Lamentations. In Lamentations 1-2 Daughter Zion cries out against the destruction wrought her. She speaks words of accusation against her human enemies and even God. The refrain that comes again and again is, “There is no one to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:2, 9, 16, 17, 21). At the end of her speeches — and even the end of the book of Lamentations — Daughter Zion receives no response to her cry.

The response to Zion’s laments comes, rather, in other biblical books. The response comes in verses such as Isaiah 40:1 “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The response comes in verses such as Isaiah 40:9 in which the words for Jerusalem to speak are not those of lament but of good news. She is no longer told to wail but to raise her voice without fear. The message given is confident and hopeful, “Here is your God!” Here is a God who comes to feed the flock, to gather the lambs, to lead the mother sheep — to bring comfort. Here is God in whom one may have hope.


 Notes:

1 Christopher R. Seitz, “The Divine Council: Temporal Transition and New Prophecy in the Book of Isaiah,” Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (1990): 235; Brevard Childs, Isaiah: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 300.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

James Howell

Sometimes we get confused early in the season of Advent, thinking we have a holy obligation to keep all joy and glory on hold until late in December.

We get some John the Baptist-style scolding that we better celebrate (or not celebrate!) Advent properly, this dour season of repentance the surrounding culture doesn’t understand.

Was John the Baptist really a scolder? What was his tone anyhow? I imagine a bellowing, raspy street-style preacher. But perhaps his tone was gentle, loving; perhaps his eyes were lovely and his voice melodic. People, after all, were drawn to him. And as he is portrayed as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40, we are comforted to recall that the deep theme of Isaiah 40 iscomfort.

On this John the Baptist Sunday, the Psalm could not be more comforting, hopeful, alluring — or downright beautiful. Beauty is what we would expect if the Lord is dawning upon Creation. After bearing up under a kind of extended exile (as N.T. Wright has argued) for centuries past the exile proper, Israel comes to its moment of new life. Psalm 85, a national lament, provides the words — and more importantly, the images! — for a people weary of exile and looking “to behold the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). Their mood of repentance (shub) finally syncs with God’s returning/restoration (shebit) of the people. Finally there is forgiveness, which for them wasn’t just getting off the hook but also being healed, restored.

When the Lord comes, when this kingdom dawns, what will it look like? Only a poet could pique the imagination to envision its loveliness. Nothing flatfooted, no mere prose will do. Verses 10 and 11 probably should just be read, or sung, for to comment on them is to risk a mashing down of the wonder. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Israel’s greatest treasures were not things or buildings but words. Steadfast love, hesed, God’s and their own covenant loyalty, and faithfulness, ‘emet, a strong bond of commitment to God and each other. These two realities that are only real to those who understand and live into them, will “meet.” So we conceive of two beloved, catching each other’s eyes, walking briskly but not rushing, up close, full of joy.

And then it happens. Righteousness, zedek, the disposition and lifestyle of the holy people of God whose holiness really is nothing more than the gift of God’s mercy, and peace, shalom, the richness of a life with God that is calm, reconciling, and unfailingly hopeful: these two stalwarts among Israel’s most marvelous words do not just meet but “kiss.” A kiss: gentle, tender, not consummating things physically or clinging for dear life to the long-lost beloved, but just a kiss, a touch of the parts of us that speak words like hesed, ‘emet, zedek and shalom.

Who kisses, after all? The romantic people, yes — but parents kiss their children, and in wiser cultures, grownups kiss on greeting one another. The Bible after all urges us to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” Words fail us in explaining this kiss. But we can’t explain, but our lips are occupied in the kiss itself.

And so we can just settle in and be quiet before this Psalm, and before Israel’s hope and consolation. Psalm 85 contains that mysterious word “Selah.” “Selah” occurs 71 times in the Psalms. What does it mean? Scholars have labored over this for centuries. Clearly it is some sort of direction for what to do in worship, when the Psalms were sung or recited in the temple. But when “Selah” was declared, what was to be done? Some say it is derived from a root that means “to lift up” — and so perhaps it means to lift up your eyes, or to raise your voices and get louder. Others disagree, and claim it is from a different root that means “bend” — and so maybe “Selah” means to bow, or to kneel as an expression of humility. Yet other scholars argue that “Selah” marks a time to pause, for a little musical interlude from the orchestra, or simply for a time of silent meditation.

I find myself fond of the fact that we don’t really know. We never master the Bible, and I suspect God chuckles a bit when we’re befuddled. When we join that angelic host for worship in heaven, the leader will cry out, “Selah” — and we’ll see what the angels and saints do, and then we’ll get it, and do the “Selah” thing ourselves.

What we do know right now about “Selah,” this word we do not understand, is that it had something to do with people worshipping together. “Selah” was a cue, a direction, and we can safely assume the people gathered for worship did as they were told. At the proper time, they raised their heads, or bowed, or waited.

Worship is something we do together. We need some direction, to keep us organized, but also so we’ll worship in a way that is pleasing, not to me, but to God. There is an order to worship — which doesn’t mean it is merely rote, or boring, or lifeless. Quite enthusiastically we can follow the leader, who isn’t a performer but the one who gives us the cues for what we all do together for God. We need to be led; we need each other. The Psalms, even when a tad mystifying, teach us how to pray and worship God — together, and in good order.

And since it’s Advent, let’s vote for the meaning, “Pause.” John the Baptist would gently ask us to do just this, to take some time during this frantic season simply to “be still and know that God is God,” to “be still and know,” “to be still,” or simply “to be.”


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a

Lucy Lind Hogan

“Are we there yet?” People will soon begin their holiday travels. In trains, planes, and automobiles countless children will ask this question as “over the river and through the woods” they go to visit family and friends.

“Are we there yet?” I suspect that I drove my parents crazy with that question, and I suspect I began to ask it only a block or two away from our home. Patience is never a virtue of youth. Apparently, as the author of this letter also discovered, neither was patience a virtue of many early Christians. I think I can understand why.

Each week they gathered to tell the stories of Jesus’ life, ministry, his death, resurrection, and his ascension, his return to the Father. They also reminded each other that the story was not over. They recalled what Jesus had told them, he would return. There will come a time Jesus told us, when “the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light … ” (Mark 13:24). All will be in turmoil and chaos and in that time they “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26).

Could there be any better news? They were not going to have to endure these challenging times much longer. Jesus had declared to his people “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30). Jesus would return and it would seem to be soon. His angels would soon come and “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:27). They would not be at the mercy of their enemies and oppressors much longer. They would be swept up into the glories of heaven and their troubles would soon be over. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

“Soon and very soon,” but how soon was soon? How long, really, were they going to have to wait for this wonderful day? That they did not know; Jesus did not tell them. In fact, he reminded them, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). So they waited and waited and waited. Like the holiday travelers they asked, “Are we there yet?”

As the anticipation for Christmas builds and all focus is on our celebration of Jesus’ first coming, what do we think about the second coming? Do we, in true Advent tradition, lift up both the first and second comings? Or, are we more like the community to whom the author of this second letter attributed to Peter wrote? Have we returned to our daily, albeit frantic, holiday lives deciding that the talk about Christ’s second coming, the “Day of the Lord” is, well, a fable at best or perhaps even a failure? We are content to sing about the “little town of Bethlehem” (Phillips Brooks) more than we are to believe, “Lo, he comes with clouds descending … God appears on earth to reign” (Charles Wesley).

We know little of this author other than the fact that he sought to place his writing firmly within the traditions of the church by attributing it to the rock upon whom the church was built, Peter. As the first century turned into the second century, perhaps written in the chaos that was Rome at that time, the community was in need of the hope and encouragement found in this letter.

One can almost hear the conversations and arguments that were going on during coffee hour. “Jesus isn’t really coming back you know.” “Do you really still believe that myth?” “Look around you at what is happening, at all of the violence. Do you see God doing anything? I don’t.” “When Jesus ascended, when he returned to the right hand of the Father, that was it. He is not coming back. I don’t care what he said.” “We have waited for seventy years and we could wait seventy times seven and he still won’t come.”

The author wants to convince his community that Jesus will return. He reminds them that God’s time is nothing like our time. They were thinking that seventy years was a long time. Not so, “with the Lord … a thousand years are like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). They shouldn’t, they can’t give up. We who sang of the good news of the Lord’s first coming have placed our lives in the loving hands of a God who “is not slow about his promise” (2 Peter 3:9). Our God keeps his promises and will return in great surprise. Using traditional apocalyptic language, Jesus will come like a thief in the night (2 Peter 3:10; cf. Luke 12:39). Make no mistake; this is neither a fable nor a failure. Jesus will come.

As they, as we, continue to ask the question, “are we there yet?” the author encourages his readers to live lives with the full recognition that the Lord will, indeed, come “with clouds descending.” But living during the “in between time” is not easy. They are to live lives of faithfulness and holiness. They are to live lives of hope in the new creation. They are to live lives of expectation and watchfulness. God will return and they are to be ready. In fact, they might live into that new creation, the new heaven and earth they will find right here and right now.

Like those who lived in the turn from the first to the second century, we also live in equally chaotic, violent times. We may wonder where God is; what is God up to? This Sunday is the 73rd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I suspect for the sailors who were caught up in that conflagration it felt as though the “heavens [were] set ablaze and dissolved … melt[ing] with fire” 2 Peter 3:12). It felt like the end time. We need to hear words of hope and encouragement. So, perhaps, as we live into Advent, the answer to our question, “are we there yet?” might just be yes. We are to sing hymns of God’s coming, of the new creation of love and justice, declaring with confidence that “the day of the Lord will come” (2 Peter 3:10).