Lectionary Commentaries for November 30, 2014
First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 13:24-37

Mark Allan Powell

Advent is a season of waiting, a time to be marked by urgent anticipation, by a longing for the fulfillment of what has been promised.

The Markan text appointed for Advent 1 encourages readers to look for Jesus to return. Some preachers may have an immediate averse reaction to this, troubled perhaps by “rapture-happy Christians” who evince a fascination with the end-times that they find problematic.

I counsel against sermons that belittle the piety of unsophisticated people. There is a time and place for sound biblical instruction on such matters, but preachers who do the 12-minute evaluation from the pulpit usually come off as sounding like intellectual elitists or cosmic party-poopers. In any case, the author of Mark’s Gospel seems less concerned with curtailing fanaticism than with challenging complacency.

The “second coming” should not be simply a doctrine to which we officially subscribe (mentioning it in the creeds); it should be a defining reality that impacts our faith and lives. Such impact may be more affective and emotional than cognitive and intellectual. So Mark relies on metaphor, imaginative imagery, and paradox.

In fact, the entire thirteenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel presents a stream of thought that offers inconsistent messages. One popular proposal holds that Mark stitched this chapter together from two “apocalyptic tracts” that originally sounded competing themes. Try this experiment: First, read Mark 13:1-2, 8, 14-22, 24-30. The text flows smoothly, warning Christians to prepare for an imminent apocalypse. Now, read Mark 13:3-7, 9-13, 21-23, 32-37. Again, the text flows smoothly, but it offers counsel of another sort: believers need to dig in, stay faithful, and prepare for the long haul.

The theory is that Mark had these two tracts in his possession and, rather than choose between them, decided to weave them together into the composite text we now possess. In any case (since that’s only a theory), the text we now have does alternate between these paradoxical messages, as though Jesus (or the evangelist) cannot make up his mind: is the end at hand, or not? The key verses that strikes many readers as a necessary conclusion are Mark 13:22-23: we needto live as though the end is at hand and we need to dig-in for the long haul because the eschatological timetable is known only to God.

In the portion of the chapter that serves as our pericope (Mark 13:24-37), the emphasis seems to be on balancing chronological uncertainty with an absolute assurance that the end will ultimately come, in a glorious way that all followers of Jesus should anticipate. The chronology runs like this 1) unprecedented suffering (verse 24; cf. vs. 19); 2) total darkness — the sun, the moon, and even the stars cease to give any light.; 3) the Son of Man comes with power and glory; 4) angels gather the chosen ones. The “generation” that experiences all these things (Mark 13:30) is simply the followers of Jesus who continue the movement he began: that movement will not be extinguished but will endure until all is accomplished.

Thus, hope does not disappoint; salvation does become reality. Mark’s Gospel does not struggle with the question of theodicy; we get no explanation as to why there is suffering, but we do get a promise: when all is said and done, we will have our happy ending — and it will never end. This triumph of hope, furthermore, will be truly cataclysmic: the world as we know it projects pessimistic outcomes, but that world belongs to God and it can be changed. It will be changed, and changed so radically that people will someday speak of a time when heaven and earth passed away (Mark 13:30-31).

Mark clearly wants this to be part of the faith that informs our daily lives.

In today’s church, many Christians seem to think, “Since the time of Jesus’ coming cannot be known, we need not think much about it.” Mark draws the opposite conclusion: since the timing is unknown, we should think about it all the time!

Modern Christians often think, “Since the time is unknown, it could be hundred, or thousands, or millions of years from now.” Mark draws a very different conclusion: since the timing is unknown, it could be today! Maybe this evening, or at midnight, or when dawn breaks.

But does anyone actually think that way? Does anyone go through every day, wondering at morning, noon, and night if now is the time that someone long gone might return?

Yes. People who are in love do that. And that may provide the best context for assessing the intended impact of Mark’s little apocalypse. Elsewhere, Mark’s Gospel likens the time of awaiting Jesus’ parousia to the phenomenon of a newlywed waiting for the return of a “bridegroom” who has been inexplicably “taken away” (Mark 2:20).

There is much to celebrate in this wonderful world, but the days in which we live are described in Mark as a time for fasting as well as feasting, as a time in which we will often be acutely aware of the absence of our Lord and Savior (Mark 2:20; cf. 14:7c).

Of course, Christian theology affirms the presence of Christ through Word and Sacrament, in the fellowship of other believers, and so forth (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). But Mark’s point remains: Christ is not with us as he once was, and he is not with us as he will be!

For many, life in this world is actually not very pleasant. But even those fortunate enough to have a life filled with joy and blessing should not be satisfied to the point of complacency. There is more! There is better!

The season of Advent invites us to wait impatiently for the consummation of hope, longing to know God as fully as we have been known; to see no longer through a dark pane, but face to face; to love as we have been loved; to experience Jesus Christ as he is, and in so doing, to become like him (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2).

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9

Kristin J. Wendland

This pericope is found in the part of Isaiah often known as Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66).

Likely dating to the early days after Persia took over Babylon, two things would have been happening in relationship to Jerusalem at this time (late 6th century BCE). First, those residents who had remained after Babylon destroyed Jerusalem would have received some new freedoms under the realm of Persia. Second, those who had been exiled to Babylon would have been given permission to return to their homeland. Perhaps the very first of those returning would have made the trip. While much of the Old Testament witness from this time period is full of hope and joy, anxiety lies just below the surface. News of a new beginning does not mean that everything happens at once or that the past pain is erased. Even in the midst of the joy there can be disappointment and disillusion. In Isaiah 64:1-9 (and the larger passage in which it is set, Isaiah 63:15-64:12), this is expressed in lament.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

The passage begins with a three-fold appeal: that God would tear open the heavens, that God would come down, and that the mountains would quake at the divine presence (vs. 1). The metaphors used to describe the coming of God — a pot of water boiling over and mountains shaking — are not terribly comforting (vs. 2). Boiling water scalds. It cannot be put back into the pot. Shaking mountains may crumble and reduce the environment to chaos. This is the type of power the people for God use to show those who oppose God — power that will make an impression.

God’s coming with such power would affect the people themselves, too. This appeal to God is based in what the people and their ancestors have already experienced of God. This plea for God to come down perhaps recalls God’s descent onto Mount Sinai when the mountain, covered in cloud, shook in the presence of God (Exodus 19:16-20). The people saw the cloud and trembled at the shaking mountain. Only Moses climbed the mountain to go near the divine presence. To face the LORD was too much for the rest of the people. When Moses returned down the mountain, he had with him the Ten Commandments and other divine instruction. The LORD’s coming had brought the people a precious gift that served to order their lives together. Despite the known danger of facing the LORD, or perhaps because of it, the people in Isaiah 64:1-9 call for God to come near. They are in need of divine help.

Do not remember our iniquity forever

In Verse 9 a second three-fold appeal to God is made: do not be exceedingly angry; do not remember iniquity forever; consider that we are your people. In the intervening verses, the people confess their transgression and waver as to whether or not they are solely responsible for it. In verse 6 they confess their iniquity, but in verses 5 and 7 (as well as in 63:17) they contend that their sin was at least partially caused by God looking away from them (particularly in the Greek text, as the Hebrew text is more circumspect).

In verse 9 there is less concern as to the source of their transgression. Rather their hope is that the LORD would now heal the breach between them. Their appeal is that they would once more be considered God’s own people.

All of us

When one reads this passage in Hebrew, one is struck by the repeated phrase “all of us” (kulanu). In the NRSV the phrase appears as “we all” (vs. 6a, 6b, 8, 9) but is less obvious than in Hebrew where the word hangs on somewhat awkwardly at the ends of the phrases. We are like one unclean — all of us (vs. 6a). We drooped like a leaf — all of us (vs. 6b). We are the work of your hand — all of us (vs.8). Consider, we are your people — all of us (vs. 9). This four-fold emphasis on the totality of the people — all of us — reminds us that we as humans are in this together and we — all of us — belong to God.

It is hard to know whether this statement in Isaiah truly includes all the world or only all the people of Israel. There are hints throughout Isaiah 40-66 that the whole world (that is, all the nations) might be in view (cf 42:1-9; 43:9; 55:1-5; 56:3-8), though there are other places where Israel takes precedence (cf 43:1-7; 44:1-5; 62:1-12). Even if only the people of Israel are included here, it is worth noting the communal nature of this statement. The people cry out in one voice for God to act on behalf of the people as a whole and on behalf of the individuals who make up that whole.

When God comes

The gospel reading assigned for Advent 1A includes the refrain to keep awake so that one will not miss the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 13:33). The reading from Isaiah assures us that God will be recognizable when God comes. For we have experienced God before. Through signs of power, but also as one who does not remember iniquity forever but turns to look with forgiveness — at all of us.


Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

James Howell

We do not know how to pray as a community, together, for the community.

Psalm 80 is a National Lament, and the very idea of the United States or really any other modern nation praying as a nation doesn’t make much sense, comprised as we are of people of different faiths, and of no faith at all. But even those of us with a shared faith: prayer has become individualistic, even though we surely realize our problems, and our hope, rest in a more corporate reality.

Psalm 80 envisions the northern kingdom of Israel in panic mode over the impending invasion of the Assyrian juggernaut. The fledgling kingdom doesn’t have a prayer — or all they have is a prayer.

What they pray is intriguing. God is asked to “give ear,” to “shine forth,” to “let your face shine.” The backdrop of their plea is they quite rightly sense they are out of sorts with God. They understandably, wrongly, and yet wisely assume that God is “angry with your people’s prayers.” We know God doesn’t get angry with prayers, although we do recall Jesus rather irreverently and rudely overturning tables and hollering at people who were praying — but not really, or at least not in sync with God’s heart. Oh, Jeremiah pretty much said the same thing not too long after Psalm 80 was composed.

The situation of the people is complicated. Yes, they have squandered their deep bond with God. But at the same time, they are the targets of derision. They feel like they are “the scorn of our neighbors.” Israel is mocked by the nations. For us, a more subtle interpretation is required, since the nation that mocks our faith today is … well, it’s our own nation!

Quite amazingly, the Psalm’s wording suggests that it is God — “You make us the scorn of our neighbors.” We cannot be sure how this plays out. It may well be that in our day, Christianity receives much scorn from an agnostic, atheistic, and even hostile culture. But it isn’t the case that the Church has been terribly holy and full of orthodox faith and charity. The Church that has become a caricature, even a mockery of what it should be, is the church that is mocked in our day, almost as if the true enemy isn’t external hostility to the faith, but we, ourselves. God, not in harmony with what we’re about, watches and grieves the playing out of anger against God’s own church, and no one understands and gets the cause and effect better than God almighty.

And yet it is God alone who can repair things, or “restore us,” as the Psalm repeats. The restoration asked for involves God’s face shining. The idea that God would at the very least not turn away the divine face from us, shuddering, or blushing, but would continue to look on us is itself hopeful. God continues to see us. Certainly the Israelites hoped for more, probably a military victory or two. But once the kingdom was crushed, and then 150 years later when the exile snuffed out any hope of national grandeur, the presence of God was all that was left — but then the wisest theologians then learned that was enough, and so might we.

We might chuckle a little at the naiveté of this national prayer. Save us! And “then we will never turn back from you.” Well, of course they will, God knows. They were and we are “prone to wander,” although the vow is genuinely passionate when made, and perhaps does yield a little bit of zeal once things have settled down. Memory is the pivot for this. Can we recall when times were tough, when we felt God-forsaken? And then once God is more evidently active, can that recollection fan whatever embers are still glowing of that fire of determination during the time of crisis?

The Psalm holds out great hope for the king at hand. We know in retrospect they were a gallery of rogues, each one a disappointment in some new but boring old way. Yet that hope for the king God could actually use would be the seed of the dream of the Messiah.

And finally, it’s hard not to resonate with the appeal to Joseph in Psalm 80. Joseph here means the tribes in the north. But we cannot help but recall those stunning narratives of Genesis 37-50, especially those profound moments when the brothers come face to face with their brother whom they had treated so callously. He doesn’t give them a second chance. He doesn’t even really forgive them. Instead, he declares that God took their evil and turned it into good. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20).

Such was the hope for the nation of Israel. Such is the hope for every nation, every people, every community, all of us. This is the yearning of Advent, for the coming of this Lord, the one who gathers up all our good and mistakes and misdeeds and misdirected dreams and weaves them together into God’s good purpose.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Lucy Lind Hogan

“Dear Family and Friends, Christmas is upon us once more. We hope that you are well. Let us tell you ALL of the things that our family has done this year.”

I suspect that the postman will deliver a few Christmas letters this holiday season. They may include family photos of the family dressed in appropriate Christmas red and green attire. But more likely than not, the letter will go on and on in minute detail about each and everything that each and every member of the family did over the previous twelve months. My husband has a rule — if the letter covers both sides of the page in 12-point font, he won’t read it.

Paul, on the other hand, was a master writer of letters. Evidence? Almost two thousand years later we still read his letters and they still speak to us. Paul was quite clear that, in addition to being a superior Jew (Galatians 1:14), he was also a citizen of Rome (Acts 22:28). As a Roman citizen Paul would have spent much of his early years in grammar school where he learned the art of letter writing. The epistle chosen for this first Sunday in Advent is the opening of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Corinth. While we entitle this Paul’s first letter, it clearly was not. In chapter five he reminds the members of the community of an earlier letter he wrote concerning sexually immoral persons (1 Corinthians 5:9).

In the first two verses that are not read, the opening salutation, we are told to whom and who writes the letter. (I suspect Paul’s teacher would be very proud.) He writes, “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God … To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:1-2). Paul then begins the next portion of the letter, the portion appointed for today. This portion of a letter was known as captatio benevolentatiae, capturing good will. In other words, Paul opens his letter by softening up his readers. Although, in this introduction he praises his friends in Christ and recognizes the gifts God has given them, an important part of the letter is to stress to them that they are not using those gifts wisely. So what does this “capture” highlight and what does this have to do with Advent and a gospel text that has nothing to do with new babies, stars, and shepherds?

Paul opens his captatio with what was a standard greeting in his letters, “Grace to you and peace from God … (1 Corinthians 1:3).” In this opening he reminds his audience what binds them together. He writes to them out of their common relationship in the Father and in Jesus Christ. What’s more, he offers them grace and peace, not of his own, but of God. All that he will say to them will be grounded in this, God’s grace and peace. Paul then sets out to flatter and cajole by letting them know that he is always thinking of them and further, that he is always giving thanks for this community. Why, because of all of the grace that God has already given them.

God’s grace is amazing. They have been given knowledge of Christ Jesus and they have been given the gift of speech so that they will be able to proclaim and give testimony of that knowledge. Later in this letter Paul will explore the correct understandings of this knowledge and speech. There is knowledge that comes as a gift from God, knowledge that will build up the community and draws others to Christ. And there is human knowledge. Human knowledge “puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1) and will, in the end, mean that “weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed” (1 Corinthians 8:11). Likewise, they have been given the gift of speech, but Paul also wants them to understand that they must use that gift for “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation.” (1 Corinthians 14:3). They must speak in a way that people can understand for if “you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is being said” (1 Corinthians 14:9)? Clearly there were members of the church in Corinth who were puffed up and unintelligible.

Paul then helps the community understand why they have been given these gifts. Yes, it is to help them in the living out of their faith in the here and now. But more importantly, they have been given these gifts to help them for the long journey that lies ahead; the journey that will lead them to “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It would seem that the church in Corinth had forgotten that Christ would come again, that they were living in the in between time. They would seem to be so focused on what God had already done in Jesus they were no longer waiting or living in anticipation of “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Corinthians 1:8). They have not arrived at the end of their journey, they have forgotten the “not yet”. If they are not always clear about how to live their life in Christ, they should not be surprised. There is still more to be revealed.

Paul also reminds them that, as they wait in this time of trial and uncertainty, God’s gifts will keep them strong. God will be with them every step of the way, for God has been, is, and always will be faithful.

Like the community in Corinth, we too need to be reminded that we continue to live in the time in between. We will soon celebrate the birth of the Word made flesh. We will celebrate God’s gracious gift of Jesus. But we must remember to look not only back, but forward as well. What God is doing is not over and done. There are still more truths to be revealed. And we, too, have been given spiritual gifts that will strengthen us for the journey ahead. This is, indeed, a wonderful “Advent” letter.