Lectionary Commentaries for December 15, 2013
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11

Arland J. Hultgren

In the Gospel for the previous Sunday (Matthew 3:1-12), we heard the stirring words of John the Baptist at the Jordan River concerning the one who is to come.

The Messiah, he said, will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, and he will exercise judgment. In the fashion of a swashbuckler, his coming will be dramatic, to say the least.

But Jesus does not really fit the mold. He comes on the scene as one who proclaims the kingdom of God, calls upon people to trust in God, heals the sick, and befriends tax collectors and persons labeled “sinners.” It is little wonder that John, now sitting in prison with time to think, questions whether Jesus is the one to come or not. Jesus fits neither John`s expectations nor those of Jewish messianism in general. John’s question in 11:3 is therefore totally understandable: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The question of John and the response of Jesus in 11:2-6 are actually relayed by disciples of John the Baptist. (That John had disciples is attested not only here and in its parallel at Luke 7:18-23, but also in John 1:35; 3:25.) John is now not certain whether Jesus is the “coming one,” an expression which refers to the Messiah as the one to come (Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:9, Luke 19:38, John 12:13, Heb 10:37), based on Old Testament imagery (Psalm 118:26).

The reply of Jesus is to give neither a yes nor a no to the question. It is typical of the Synoptic Gospels that Jesus does not declare openly that he is the Messiah. He does not proclaim himself; he proclaims the kingdom of God. And look what is happening. The kingdom is breaking in upon the world. That which Isaiah envisioned in his prophetic oracles (26:19; 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1) is now taking place. Whoever perceives the connections and concludes that Jesus does the work of the coming one is blessed (11:6).

Following that declaration, the subject is changed. Jesus asks the crowds three questions about John (11:7-9). The point of the three questions is to drive home the fact that the people went out to see a prophet (11:9). Indeed, John is “more than a prophet” in that he had a superior role. He was to be the herald of the Messiah’s coming, preparing his way. He is the messenger
promised by the last of the prophets (Malachi 3:1 is quoted), even Elijah who is to come (11:14, alluding to Malachi 4:5). John is extolled as the greatest of human beings (11:11a).

Yet there are persons even greater (11:11b)! They are greater in the sense that, while John stood before the coming of the kingdom, the disciples of Jesus (even the least of them) stand within it. The response of Jesus to John’s question is to portray messiahship in a new way.

The prevailing view in both the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish sources was that the Messiah would be a powerful ruler, one whose reign would usher in a new era of peace. But that does not mean that Jesus creates a picture of the Messiah unrelated to the sources, for the words of 11:5 are straight out of the Scriptures of Israel.

They speak of the blessings of the messianic age, which include both healing and good news to the poor. One finds both connections and fractures in the Scriptures. God is not bound to his own best (or even canonical) witnesses in all details, and that is most evident in regard to the profile of the Messiah. Many people, not just John, found Jesus to be an enigma. Many do today. A sermon on this passage from Matthew’s Gospel could focus on the way that Jesus speaks of himself and about us, his disciples.

Particularly in 11:5 Jesus speaks of his mission in one of the clearest statements in the gospels about it: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (11:5).

These words speak of the Messiah in a striking way. Jesus did not come to gain earthly power. He came among the people to serve them, bringing life. Instead of casting away those persons who are at the margins of society — persons that many would want to send away and out of sight — it is precisely to those people that the Messiah came to restore and save.

We live in a world where people are often divided into two categories. They are either well to do, popular, well-connected, and valuable — or they are those who are down and out for one reason or another and are not valued.

But the Season of Advent intrudes into the history of the world and especially into the lives of Christians. The mood, the hymns, and the prayers of this season seek to open us up to new ways of thinking and acting.

It is a time of expectation. It is a time of waiting for the coming of the Savior into the world. And what happens when he comes? He comes among us in his Word and through the Spirit to stir us up to get involved in his ministry among those who are left out, on the margins of society, and who are in need.

Another verse of particular importance, and which speaks more directly about us, is 11:11 where Jesus declares that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John the Baptist].”

John did not live to see the ministry of Jesus unfold; he was executed by Herod during the time of Jesus’ ministry (14:1-12). But we — even we, as ordinary Christians, who are “the least in the kingdom” in comparison to the great saints of Scripture and history — have seen the ministry of Jesus come to its completion, followed by his death and resurrection and the birth of the church.

We are blessed and fortunate to be living on this side of Jesus’ resurrection and to be a part of his body, the church. We are not people adrift in the world with uncertainty about who we are, how we should live, or where we are going. We belong to his community of believers, dedicated to him, instructed by him, and carrying out his ministry. As his disciples, and with mutual support, we align ourselves with his ministry in our witness to the gospel and in our works of mercy and our care for the world.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10

Barbara Lundblad

This text shouldn’t be here.

Amid rumors of war and desolation, Isaiah 35 surprises us. A voice speaks without addressing anyone by name, without the particularity of time. This poem follows another poem filled with ecological destruction: “The streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch…Thorns shall grow over its strongholds, nettles and thistles in its fortresses.”

 

Then, without a break and without explanation, Isaiah 35 interrupts devastation and despair:

 

The wilderness and the dry

land shall be glad.

the desert shall rejoice and

blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom

abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and

singing…

 

How can we help people see this word?

 

Perhaps you can place a long blue cloth running down into the aisle from the communion table — a river in the sanctuary. Can you see people fishing in the Hudson River from the pier on 125th Street in Harlem?

 

Can you see the vacant lot in the Bronx once strewn with broken bottles and crack vials? Now it’s a community garden. Look at the rows of string beans and beets! Young kids and grandmothers are weeding together.

 

What can you see where you live — in nearby farms or city streets?

 

Some say this hopeful promise belongs to Second Isaiah. Others argue that it comes even later — sixth century BCE or later still — surely after the exile. This poem comes too early. Who moved it? Some things even our best scholarship cannot explain. The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes: “Put it here,” breathed the Spirit, “before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.” So, here it is: a word that couldn’t wait until it might make more sense.

 

Some people will hear the recitative from The Messiah in Isaiah’s promise of restoration for those with disabilities:“Then shall the eyes of the blind be open-ed and the ears of the deaf unstop-ped…” How do these promises sound to people who live with disabilities?

 

Perhaps you can create a Call to Worship or post-communion litany that offers a different vision:

 

Then the blind woman and her dog

shall process with the choir;

the deaf man who sees what we often miss

shall paint the text on the sanctuary walls;

the veteran in the wheelchair

shall break the bread of life,

and the homeless man who cannot speak

shall sign the hymns for everyone to see.

 

For many years Chuck Campbell taught preaching at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. He required students in one of his classes to lead worship and preach at the Open Door Shelter for homeless people in downtown Atlanta. One day he was leading worship in front of the shelter, amid the noise of rush-hour traffic. After the call to worship and a song, Chuck’s plans were interrupted. “I noticed one homeless man waving to me and pointing to himself. I was surprised when I saw him for the man can neither hear nor speak and is normally very reserved.

 

But there he was, eager to do something. He stepped into the middle of the circle, bowed his head in silence, and began to sign a hymn for us. It was beautiful, like a dance… In that moment our notions of ‘abled’ and ‘disabled’ were turned upside down. The rest of us had been shouting to be heard, but the noise was no problem for our friend…Our worship became a token of the resurrection in the midst of the powers of death, a glimpse of God’s beloved community.” Even Isaiah couldn’t have imagined the glory of that moment in downtown Atlanta as the hands of the speechless were singing for joy!1

 

Isaiah dares to speak a word out of place. A word that refused to wait until things improved. As Walter Bruggemann has reminded us, “Israel’s doxologies are characteristically against the data.” We see and hear the data every night on the news and every morning on the front page of the paper. Add to that the data of our own lives: waiting for the test results from the doctor, mourning the death of a loved one, wondering if we’ll make it through the next round of lay-offs. We know the data all too well and we long for a word out of place.

 

Who will speak a word out of place? Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund often speaks such a word. She refuses to wait until the time is right and everyone is on her side. After the latest defeat of a gun control measure, she wrote: “I woke up the morning after the Senate vote thinking about Sojourner Truth, one of my role models, a brilliant and indomitable slave woman who could neither read nor write but who was passionate about ending unjust slavery and second-class treatment of women. At the end of one of her antislavery talks in Ohio, a man came up to her and said, “Old woman, do you think that your talk about slavery does any good? Do you suppose people care what you say? Why, I don’t care any more for your talk than I do for the bite of a flea.” 

 

“Perhaps not,” she answered, “but, the Lord willing, I’ll keep you scratching.” 

 

Then Marian goes on in her own words: “We must be determined and persistent fleas…Enough fleas biting strategically can make the biggest dog uncomfortable.  And if they flick some of us off but even more of us keep coming back with our calls, emails, visits, nonviolent direct action protests, and votes — we’ll win.2 

 

Who will speak a word out of place? A homeless deaf man in downtown Atlanta. An advocate for children who refuses to be silent. A prophet who couldn’t wait until the hopeful Part 2 of Isaiah 40-55. He spoke a word out of place. This is exactly the word many people are yearning to hear.

 

O come now, living water, pour your grace,

And bring new life to ev’ry withered place;

Speak comfort to each trembling heart:

“Be strong! Fear not, for I will ne’er depart.”

 

Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,

God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.

 

 

1 Charles L. Campbell, The Word before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 123-124.

 

2 Marian Wright Edelman, “We Must Never Give Up,” Child Watch Column, April 20, 2013.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 146:5-10

Hans Wiersma

Although the Psalm reading only offers the last six verses of this 10-verse psalm, a word about the psalm overall is in order.

This is a praise psalm. Indeed, they’re all praise psalms here at the end of the Psalter. Psalms 146-150 make up a sort of “praise collection” — with the Hebrew root halal (“praise”) appearing 40 times in the last five psalms. Each of those five psalms begins and ends with the Hebrew “Hallelu-Jah” — that is, with the exhortation to “Praise the Lord!”

Psalm 146 is, like the four psalms that follow, unrestrained in its exuberance. Generally speaking, praise psalms attend to the variety of reasons for such exuberance in the first place. Here in Psalm 146, the reasons are ample. Praise the Lord for creating sky, earth, and sea, and all that is in them and for keeping faith without ceasing (verse 6). Praise the Lord, too, for giving justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to the imprisoned, and sight to the blind, not to mention a few other items, such as protecting strangers and supporting widows and orphans (verses 7-8). There’s a lot of praiseworthiness here. Simply put, the psalm gives credit where credit is due.

The words of Isaiah 61:1-2 — words which proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor — are reflected in this section of Psalm 146. For this reason, scholars believe that Psalm 146 — like Isaiah 61 — derives from Israel’s post-exilic period. As if to underscore the psalm’s historical setting, the very next psalm begins by declaring, “Hallelujah … The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds” (147:2-3).

Unfortunately, attempts to connect Psalm 146 with ancient Israel’s return from Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C. will likely fall flat with your hearers. Instead, if you are preaching on the appointed Gospel, Matthew 11:2-11, your hearers may appreciate a word about Jesus’s words to the emissaries sent by John the Baptist. In the Gospel passage, the emissaries want to know if Jesus is the One they’ve been waiting for, the One John’s been preparing the Way for. Jesus responds: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-6). In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ reading of Isaiah 61 comes at the start of his ministry and his controversial claim before the members of his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:18-19). In both Matthew and Luke, the allusion to Isaiah 61 (and so also Psalm 146) signals that, in Christ, God is doing a new thing under an ancient rubric: healing the people and setting them free.

An Aside on the Magnificat

The lectionary offers the Magnificat (Luke 1:46b-55) as an optional psalm. The connection between God’s deeds praised here in Psalm 146 and God’s deeds praised by the teenaged Mary of Nazareth is easily discerned. But the Magnificat appears to notch things up a level. In the Magnificat, God is praised not only for lifting up the lowly and satisfying the hungry, but also for putting down the mighty and sending the rich away empty-handed. Meanwhile, Psalm 146:5-10 appears content to thank God for bringing the wicked “to ruin” regardless of socioeconomic rank.

So if you want to stick it to the 1 percent, go with the Magnificat. Keep in mind, however, that while you or your hearers may not be part of the top 1 percent in the U.S., most of you are part of that club, globally speaking. If you’re satisfied with praising God for improving the fortunes of the less fortunate and leaving it at that, Psalm 146:5-10 may be the better option.


Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:7-10

Valerie Nicolet-Anderson

The language in this passage might, at first, sound a bit foreign to contemporary Christians, especially those living in urban settings in North America or Europe. 

In these contexts, we know little of the patience of the farmer who “waits for the precious crop from the earth” (James 5:7). We are more used to being, as the Black Eyed Peas sing, the “Now Generation.” Things have to come to us, and they have to come fast.

Similarly, for part of Christianity at least, the coming of the Lord, the parousia, is not at the center of preoccupations. Concerning an attitude of waiting patiently for the return of the Lord, some Christians prefer to adopt what can be termed a “present eschatology.” Basing themselves on New Testament witnesses such as Paul or John, they believe that the kingdom of God has already come and that it is our responsibility to enact it here and now, taking care of the underprivileged and of the earth, striving to create a more just and more peaceful society. If we encounter this section of James and find it a bit out of touch with our reality, how can we still hear this passage?

Historically, the content of the passage can be clarified in light of the events that shaped the early consciousness of the nascent Jesus movement. As the gospels and Paul also show, first century Hellenistic Judaism testifies to a strong apocalyptic consciousness. There were several messianic movements, and the followers of Jesus participated in these general messianic expectations.

At the same time, especially around and after the first Jewish war (66-70 CE), the Christ-believers encountered suspicion both from the Roman authorities and the Greek population established in towns around the Roman empire. As a result, a call to strength and endurance would not be surprising. It was almost an expected feature in Christ-believers correspondence. In that context, the prophets who James quotes as examples (James 5:10) are good models: despite the potential opposition of authorities, the prophets were called to transmit the word of God and to exhibit perserverance and strength in the face of persecutions.

Interestingly though, when James presents a concrete example of a biblical figure symbolizing endurance, he does not turn to the prophets but to Job (James 5:11). With this reference, we might be able to see how this text introduces questions that are at the heart of our understanding of life and of God. In that sense, even if we may no longer relate to the language used in James, we are able to understand the deep questions that underlie the language of the passage.

Ultimately, this passage is about our understanding of God’s relationship to our world. When it asks for endurance, patience, and perseverance from its addressees, it answers a question that continues to preoccupy human beings, namely, why do innocent and just people suffer? Or, to put it differently, can one expect justice in this world? In theological language, this question touches on theodicy and God’s justice.

Job presents one possible answer to that question, an answer that was compelling enough to the author of James that he used it as a foundation for his exhortations. In Job, we encounter a certain vision of God and his relationship to the world. The story of Job is well-known, and as James indicates, its principal character, Job, displays almost superhuman endurance and faithfulness. Job is a wealthy man who looses all of his possessions but remains faithful to God and eventually receives everything back. His faithfulness is based upon the conviction that God is ultimately just and that since he, Job, is innocent, at the end, God will reward him.

In order to bring this about, however, Job does not wait in silence. Rather, Job requests a hearing from God, convinced that God will agree with his position: “I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn that he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge” (Job 23:4-7).1

Job believes he can not only talk about God, but that he can also talk to God.The result, however, is a bit disorienting. In fact, God does not give heed to Job at all. Rather, God buries Job under questions, mostly rhetorical, and shows Job his proper place.In the end, Job realizes that “God’s ways are not his ways and that he has no business questioning God’s motives or methods.”4

In this conclusion, Job comes close to an understanding central to another Wisdom book, Qoheleth. In both cases, God is depicted as distant, with purposes and motives human beings cannot fathom. However, as Kaltner and McKenzie write, “Job, though, doesn’t think of God as some aloof, mysterious presence, but as a dialogue partner who responds to human needs and requests. … Job knows something Qoheleth doesn’t: God hears and pays attention.”5

In the light of the story of Job, we return to the passage of James with perhaps a bit more wisdom. Using a language that might sound distant and removed, James asks his addressees to consider God as in charge, as paying attention. In the same ways as some things remained a mystery for the world of the first century and were expressed in the mythical language of the parousia and the final judgment, some things remain a mystery to us, and we might sometime be in need of a mythological language that could remind us that we do not have all the answers and that, sometimes, we even need to be reminded of how to ask questions, about life and about God.


As quoted in John Kaltner and Steven L. Mc Kenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible (Winona: Anselm Academic, 2012), 148.

See Kaltner and McKenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible, 148.

Kaltner and McKenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible, 148 count almost sixty questions in the four chapters that constitute God’s answer to Job.

Kaltner and McKenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible, 149.

Kaltner and McKenzie, The Backdoor Introduction to the Bible, 149.