Lectionary Commentaries for December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12

Arland J. Hultgren

Following the genealogy (1:1-17) and a relatively long birth and infancy narrative (1:18-2:23), Matthew jumps ahead over the decades to the time of Jesus as an adult.

He introduces us first to John the Baptist (3:1-12).

Then there are the stories of the baptism of Jesus by John (3:13-17) and the Temptation in the Wilderness (4:1-11). All this, in some ways, is a prelude to the actual ministry of Jesus, which begins at 4:12.

Many connections are made between the events and persons in the opening scenes and the chapters that follow. Among them, a connection is made between John the Baptist and Jesus as the Messiah. The book of Malachi had closed with a messianic promise, in which God declares: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (4:5) — a day of judgment.

Since Elijah did not die upon the earth, but was taken into heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12), so he can be sent again. Matthew makes the connection between that promise and John the Baptist. For Matthew, John signifies the return of Elijah: “He is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14; cf. 17:12).

The Gospel for the Day begins by introducing John in the wilderness of Judea (3:1-6). Matthew took material from the Gospel of Mark (1:2-6), but he altered it somewhat. According to Mark 1:4, John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Apparently unsatisfied with mere narration and indirect discourse, Matthew places the preaching of John into direct discourse: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). By doing so, Matthew aligns the preaching of John with that of Jesus, for the wording is identical to what Jesus says at 4:17.

At 3:3 Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3, but not from the Hebrew text which has: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (as the NRSV renders the Hebrew). Quoting the wording of the Septuagint instead, Matthew (like Mark 1:3 and Luke 3:4) has “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness; ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

So John is the “one crying out in the wilderness,” and he is described in the likeness of Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). Going beyond what is written in Mark, Matthew says that not only the people of Judea and Jerusalem went out to hear John, but also people of “all the region along the Jordan” as well.

John’s baptism can most likely be understood in light of ancient Jewish proselyte baptism. When gentiles were received into membership in the Jewish community, they (both men and women) were baptized (males were also ritually circumcised), signifying a ritual cleansing, which was not otherwise required of Jews.

But according to John the Baptist, the people of Israel are no better off than gentiles; they are not prepared for the coming of the Messiah. John’s baptism was thus an occasion for Jewish people to repent, confess their sins, and thereby be prepared for the coming of the Messiah.

In 3:7-10 Matthew draws from Q material (cf. Luke 3:7-9), but he modifies it. Luke has amorphous “crowds” coming for baptism. Matthew is more specific, saying that it was “many Pharisees and Sadducees” who came (3:7). By making the change, Matthew brings the most pious of Israel on the scene. John addresses them as a “brood of vipers.” At 12:34 that image is used again of persons who “speak good things, when [they] are evil” (cf. also 23:33).

John exhorts his hearers to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The imagery of bearing fruit is frequent in this gospel, meaning to do good deeds (3:10; 7:16-20; 12:33; 13:33; cf. 21:43). Physical descent from Abraham does not count as sufficient readiness for the coming reign of God (3:9).

By saying that, John in effect discredits Israel’s election; he levels the playing field between Jews and gentiles. Then, using apocalyptic language, John declares that judgment is taking place “even now” (3:10), as though the final judgment is merely a certification of what takes place in his ministry already. People are confronted with the last opportunity to repent and bear good fruit.

In 3:11-12 (also based on Q material; cf. Luke 3:16-17) John turns away from preaching repentance to proclaiming the Messiah’s coming. He makes a contrast between his own ministry of baptism and that of the Messiah. His own baptism is symbolic of repentance, a dying and rising to new life. But the Messiah, he says, “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11).

The coming of the Spirit was anticipated with the arrival of the messianic age (cf. Joel 2:28-29; cf. also Isa 44:3). Fire was associated with the coming day of the Lord, a means by which God would purify his people (Amos 7:4; Mal 3:2). When the Messiah comes, the time of preparation will be over. It will be a day of judgment, and the act of judgment will be as swift and certain as winnowing, harvesting, gathering into barns, and burning what is to be discarded (3:12). The Messiah will come, judge, and create a purified community.

A sermon on this text may well pick up on the theme of judgment against presumed privileges. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees in this story, it is easy for Christians of today to become smug on the basis of their spiritual ancestries. Some people can trace their spiritual ancestry back several generations; for others, it may be less. But in any case, John’s words of 3:9 speak to every generation: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

In addition to the theme of judgment against presumed spiritual privileges, something should be said about John’s proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah, he says, will come to judge. It is necessary then that persons prepare for his coming. They cannot rely on their spiritual heritage but, rather, must repent and bear good fruits (3:8, 10).

The character and ways of persons, like trees and their fruits, ought to be consistent — and consistently good. The saying of Martin Luther is fitting here: “Good works do not make a [person] good, but a good [person] does good works.”

But the situation of the Christian today differs from that of John in an important respect. John anticipated the earthly ministry of Jesus. That ministry was concluded long ago. We live in the time after that ministry and after a series of events: the crucifixion, the resurrection, the command to baptize, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

As a consequence of these things, the risen Christ and the Spirit have created a purified and renewed humanity, to which all Christians belong. Those who cling to Christ in faith are purified, cleansed by grace. As persons who declare that Jesus is Lord, they have the gift of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3), which provides guidance for living as disciples.

There is both gift and task in the life of a Christian, for it is a life that is gifted by the Spirit and that consequently produces the good fruits of the kingdom of God. What these good fruits will be cannot be specified in advance of their appearance, but they will emerge from persons who are devoted to Christ and who exercise love for others. 

—–
Martin Luther, “A Treatise on Christian Liberty,” Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1943) 271; the word “person” is substituted for “man” in the text quoted.

 


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10

Barbara Lundblad

There are so many things to see in this text that we hardly know where to begin.

A shoot growing from the stump of Jesse, the gifts of the spirit, the peaceable kingdom where predators and their prey live side by side, and babies play unharmed near poisonous snakes. Woody Allen once gave his own interpretation of this vision: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. But the lamb won’t get much sleep!”

 

What could an IMAGE SERMON look like if we focused on just the first verse?

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse. . .” The stump is dead. God had said it would be so. Just before this chapter, God declares punishment on the people: “the tallest trees will be cut down and the lofty will be brought low.” The trees, the people — both will be clean cut off.

 

And yet, another word comes from the very same prophet: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse . . .” How can we help the congregation see this word of promise?

Move One: Equivalent Nature Image

 

Brainstorm for images of something growing where nothing should. I chose something people in our neighborhood had seen as construction began on a new police station. Manhattan is a mighty rock. Such rock does not give in easily. I watched as huge jackhammers crashed down on the rock making barely a dent, until cracks finally appeared on the surface.

 

This same rock runs through the park near our church — rocks that make a mockery of jackhammers. Yet, I have seen something else along the path: a tiny seedling pushing out into the sunlight. A tender shoot no bigger than my finger had broken through the rock without a jackhammer. There are, I know, scientific explanations why such a thing is possible, yet each time I saw it, that stubborn shoot appeared to me a miracle.

 

Move Two: Human Image

This move is set up by a story but seeing is crucial. There is a man on my street I’ve known for years. We often met in the morning at the newsstand. Then, his wife died — forty-two years together changed to loneliness. I watched him walking, his head bowed, his shoulders drooping lower each day. His whole body seemed in mourning, cut off from everyone.

 

I grew accustomed to saying, “Good morning” without any response. Until a week ago. I saw him coming and before I could get any words out, he tipped his hat, “Good morning, Reverend. Going for your paper?” He walked beside me, eager to talk. I could not know what brought the change that seemed so sudden. Perhaps, for him, it wasn’t sudden at all, but painfully slow. Like a seedling pushing through rock toward the sunlight. There must have been an explanation, yet he appeared to me, a miracle.

 

Move Three: Communal Image

Another story sets up the third move to a communal image. We often decide too soon where things can’t grow. “Surely not there!” we say. The rock is too hard, the stump too dead. There are times when we assume whole groups of people cannot grow or thrive. Across from Manhattan, Jersey City clings to the river’s edge. My friend Ruth grew up there in the thirties. She said it wasn’t so bad being a black person in those years. If you were light enough and straightened your hair, you could get a good job with the telephone company.

 

That’s exactly what her mother did. Every Saturday afternoon as soon as the weather was warm, Ruth and her mother Mabel got all dressed up, fit for the finest party in town. But they didn’t even go out the door. They put two chairs out on the fire escape and left the window open wide with the radio tuned to “Saturday Afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera.” They sat for the rest of the afternoon, listening to the opera not from the first balcony but from the fire escape. Mabel knew most of the arias by heart and sang along with her favorites.

 

One day she overheard some white folks at the phone company say that black people just couldn’t understand opera. She would tell that story and laugh until the tears rolled down her cheeks. And she surely was pleased when Marian Anderson was invited to sing at the Lincoln Memorial. People didn’t expect much to grow in that part of Jersey City. But hope can be stubborn. You can try to keep people down, you can put all kinds of obstacles in their way, and yet, they push through the sidewalk. They break through the rock where jackhammers failed and sing in the sunlight for all in the streets below to hear.

 

Text Returns

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse…” Who could imagine anything growing as they sat on the stump of utter despair? I’ve sat there myself, perhaps you have, too. You may be there now — at that place where hope is cut off, where loss and despair have deadened your heart.

 

God’s Advent word comes to sit with us. This word will not ask us to get up and dance. The prophet’s vision is surprising, but small. The nation would never rise again. The shoot would not become a mighty cedar. The shoot that was growing would be different from what the people expected:

 

For he grew up before them like a young plant,

and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53: 2)

 

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse… fragile yet tenacious and stubborn. It would grow like a plant out of dry ground. It would push back the stone from the rock-hard tomb.

 

It will grow in the heart of a man cut off by sorrow until one morning he can look up again. It will grow in the hearts of people told over and over that they are nothing. The plant will grow. It will break through the places where jackhammers failed. It will sing on the fire escape and soar from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. [Remind people of the images they’ve seen as you move toward the end]

 

What if we believe this fragile sign is God’s beginning? Perhaps then we will tend the seedling in our hearts, the place where faith longs to break through the hardness of our disbelief. Do not wait for the tree to be full grown. God comes to us in this Advent time and invites us to move beyond counting the rings of the past. We may still want to sit on the stump for a while, and God will sit with us. But God will also keep nudging us: “Look! Look — there on the stump. Do you see that green shoot growing?”

 

O come, green shoot of Jesse, free

            Your people from despair and apathy;

                        Forge justice for the poor and the meek,

                        Grant safety for the young ones and the weak.

 

Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,

God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Henry Langknecht

Psalm 72 is an expansive, generic enthronement hymn that was likely a staple of coronations in ancient Israel/Judah.

In the verses omitted by the lectionary, there are mentions of Tarshish, Seba, and Sheba (the latter, perhaps giving rise to the epigraph, “Of Solomon”), but for the most part the psalm — certainly as it will be heard in Christian worship today — floats free of specific historical context.

In that way, the psalm serves a purpose similar to that of the “charges” that are part of our baptism, confirmation, or commissioning liturgies where the community rehearses what it believes are God’s mission priorities for the life and ministry of the person being set apart.

Verse 1 sets the tone and contains the only petitions voiced to God in the imperative (with emphasis added through the parallel structure): “Give the king your justice … [and] the king’s son your righteousness.” Saving justice is a trademark of God’s reign and must be embodied by God’s agent in the world.

The rest of the psalm is organized around a long series of petitions that being with, “May he …” The psalm asks that God grant the king — and the people, through the king’s reign — righteousness, justice, prosperity, protection (from oppressors), a name that endures, shalom (well-being), political dominion (through which all the world is blessed), and — as a spontaneous response to these missional priorities — the tribute and admiration of the nations.

The petitions could be in order of priority, but the effect of the psalm when read aloud is of an intensifying spiraling and overlapping of attributes. Verses 18 and 19 seem to have been added to the main body of the psalm; they are a benediction to God, a doxology that closes out Book II of Psalms.

Psalm 72 responds to the first lesson by echoing and supplementing Isaiah’s prophecy about the righteous messianic shoot from Jesse’s stump. The emphases are slightly different, but the gist is the same. The gospel reading then, might be read as a reality-checking foil to all that extoling. John the Baptist knows that justice and righteousness do not appear by magic or without cost; they involve winnowing, purifying, and comeuppance!

A key to preaching this psalm is identifying the entity in our world to which the word “king” should refer. We continue to pray for these attributes for the making of justice, righteousness, and peace; but who is, was, or will be the appropriate recipient: the historic rulers of Judah, Jesus, the church itself, or even contemporary rulers and governments? And then, by extension, the sermon should declare on whom the benefits of that righteous reign fall.

There could be some homiletic mileage in having “king” refer only to the biological “sons of Jesse” who ruled from Jerusalem in antiquity. The homiletical challenge here is relevance. Citizens of the United States of America have lived without royalty for over two centuries (though the metaphors of monarchy still intrigue us).

In the psalm’s historical context, the monarch enjoys a divinely ordained blood lineage. In our context, heroic assets and the “right to rule” are attained by or projected onto leaders in more secular ways. But still, today’s hearers can identify with the ancient singers of this psalm whose hopes for justice soar at the installation of each new leader, even as they lament the ways those same hopes were dashed or unfilled by the old one.

Is Jesus the “king” of Psalm72? I respect those preachers who resist looking for Jesus under every rock in Hebrew Scripture, but on the second Sunday of Advent when this psalm is read on the heels of Isaiah 11, most hearers in worship will understand “king” to refer to Jesus (thus tracking with New Testament writers and the bulk of the church’s history of interpretation!).

But if we decide that Psalm 72 is “about Jesus,” and we declare that, “yep, Jesus is the one who fulfills (or fills full) this messianic description,” then to whom, how, and when does the promised justice come? Inside the church, we find comfort in the internal-spiritual or eschatological venues of fulfillment.

But the compelling power of this psalm’s petitions lie in applying them to the real world of politics and economics. If we are unable to articulate how Jesus’s reign effects concrete change for the nations, we run the risk of making Jesus as distant and irrelevant to today as are Solomon or Hezekiah!

Saving justice is a trademark of God’s reign and must be embodied by God’s agent in the world. And John the Baptist knows that justice and righteousness do not appear by magic or without cost; they involve winnowing, purifying, and comeuppance.

What if rather than spiritualizing the petitions and sticking with the biblical default referent for “king” (whether Solomon or Jesus), we took the petitions at their real-world face value and ask God to deliver justice and righteousness to the world through a new, surprising referent, a tangible contemporary entity ordained into leadership by God: the church (the Body of Christ) or even our secular representative republic.

When I’m sitting in the pew on Advent 2, I’d like to hear a preacher wrestle with how to stretch this psalm (and even Isaiah’s vision) so that it becomes either a recollection for the church of its mission statement or a challenge to call our secular governments to faithfulness to a mission they might not even know they are a part of. Or both.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 15:4-13

Valerie Nicolet-Anderson

We are used to, especially in the Advent season, hearing about the coming Messiah and how his birth in a manger in Bethlehem signifies salvation for us, Christians. 

Centuries of Christianity have shaped this message for us and, as Christians, we feel like Christmas is an event that has deep and comforting personal significance.

In some ways of course, this is very true; the meaning of the arrival of the Messiah has changed and evolved over the years, and yet, the insight that Christ’s birth has some important personal meaning for Christians has taken predominance in Christian theology. With this passage in Romans, we hear a somewhat different interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The passage is framed by two references to hope (Romans 15:4-13). Hope is related to scripture and also to the promises made to the fathers. Fleshing out how hope relates to messianic expectations and to life in the community will be my main purpose.

This section opens with a reference to what has been written in the scriptures. Paul says “for whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” Christians in later centuries have sometimes understood this passage, and other similar statements by Paul, to indicate that the Christian church and the Christian religion had taken the place of the Jewish synagogue and the Jewish religion.

This interpretation has had devastating consequences for the relations of Jews and Christians, and it is not the position of Paul. “We” is not, at the time of Paul, the Christian church. Rather, it is the community of the Christ-believers, both Jews and nations that form the people of God. The rest of the passage clarifies how Paul thinks about the relationships between Jews and non-Jews.

In 15:8, Paul uses striking language to describe the mission of Christ. He indicates that Christ “has become a servant of the circumcised.” In a striking parallel, Paul describes himself as a servant or officiant of Christ to the nations (15:16). What Christ has come to accomplish for the Jews, Paul now parallels in his work with the nations, as an envoy of Christ.

There is not a sense that God’s actions in the world no longer concern the Jews. Rather, Romans seeks to establish that God does not neglect the chosen people. Those of the circumcision are part of God’s plan and are included in Christ’s activity. In that sense, Christ’s coming fulfills the promises made to the fathers (Romans 15:8), as well as allowing the participation of the nations to the glorification of the God of Israel.

The content of these promises is not expressed explicitly in 15:8. The following verses flesh out the content of these promises. The quoted scriptures present an eschatological vision found in some Jewish texts and are preoccupied with the manner in which, at the end of times, nations will worship the God of Israel with the people of Israel.

Paul’s challenge is to make this eschatological scenario a reality. Inside the communities he has founded (or with which he communicates, as is the case for the community in Rome), he hopes to actualize what has only been promised in scriptures and aims to create an environment where nations and God’s people can worship the God of Israel together, “with one voice” (Romans 15:6).

The last quote (Isaiah 11:10 LXX) indicates how the Messiah will rule over the Gentiles and how the Gentiles will be included in the hope given to God’s people by the God of Israel. This inclusion also means that the nations can now rejoice alongside God’s people (15:9 and 15:10).

For the community in Rome, this means concretely that the Christ-believers have to embody an ethics of hospitality towards each other (Romans 15:7). At the heart of the identity of the community, there needs to be an attitude of welcome and openness. In Romans 15:5, Paul’s wish for the community describes the content of this life in community marked by hospitality: it is about “thinking the same thing.”1

The purpose is unity of thought, but Paul adds that this unity of thought happens “among each other,” according to Christ Jesus.” The unity of thought does not mean that the diversity (“among each other”) disappears. However, the criterion of unity among diversity is Christ Jesus. If Christ remains the decisive factor for the community, then the community can reach unity through its diversity and thus glorify God (15:6). Glorification is important but has to be done as a community. In this context, the coming of the Messiah and the hope and promises associated with it, is about the future of the nations and their incorporation in the people of God, alongside Israel.

For the community in Rome, Paul’s words would have had very concrete implications. Historically, scholars think that the house churches in Rome were mixed communities comprised of Jews and nations. The exhortations Paul gives need to be translated in concrete behavior, and for the Roman house churches, this means in particular not thinking that the pagan members of the communities have more value than the Jewish members.

Unity according to Christ also means that differences are not erased. Members do not have to conform to one particular pattern of behavior, but they do have to realize that the essential and defining character of their identity is now Christ.

Our churches too are called to this hospitality. This hospitality is not a lukewarm sort of welcome that would translate in letting anyone come in as long as they adapt to what is considered the “strong” position in the church (Romans 15:1), conform to the customs of the established church, or follow the agenda established by the ones in charge inside the community.

Rather, the welcome Paul has in mind threatens the ones who offer it. It pushes them to the threshold of the community and forces them to accept those who come as they are, without seeking to first transform them so that they adapt to the dominant practice. The criterion is the ethos of Christ, and this criterion is one that does not seek to change those who come to Christ.


The translation of the NRSV “live in harmony” is a bit too removed from the literal meaning of the passage: to auto phronein en allêlois kata Christon Iêsoun”.