The Gospel readings for the four Sundays in Advent, Year A, follow the pattern for all three years (A, B, and C).
According to the over-all design of the three-year lectionary,1 the Gospel texts for the First Sunday are always apocalyptic, anticipating the Parousia, the second coming of Christ.
Readings for the Second and Third Sundays focus on the preaching and ministry of John the Baptist as the forerunner of the Messiah’s first coming. The Gospel readings assigned for the Fourth Sunday proclaim the annunciation of the Nativity. Consequently, over the four Sundays in Advent there is a shift from anticipating the dramatic, disruptive consummation of all things to the more tender tone of preparing for the Nativity.
The reading for the First Sunday in Advent, Year A, is set within the larger unit of Matthew 24:1-25:46 containing a lengthy discourse (the fifth in this gospel), in which Jesus speaks of last things. Just prior to the discourse, Jesus’ disciples asked him concerning “the sign of [his] coming and the end of the age” (24:3).
Jesus responds, warning them about imposters who proclaim either themselves or others as the Christ (24:5, 11, 23-26) and thereby lead many astray. He also speaks of the tribulations of the last time and the coming of the Son of man. He assures his disciples that his coming as the Son of man will be known to them because it will be announced by his angels, who will also gather the elect (24:31). It is important in the meantime that the disciples remain faithful to him (24:13), whose “words will not pass away” (24:35).
The part of the discourse assigned for the First Sunday in Advent begins abruptly and without warning. It takes up the question of timing. The point is made that no one — not even the angels nor the Son — knows the time of the coming of the Son of man; the only one who knows is God (24:36). For good measure, Jesus adds that the disciples, likewise, do not know (24:42). In fact, his coming will be at an hour they do not expect (24:44). Therefore they are to be ready at all times for his coming.
The passage thus speaks of Christology (Jesus is spoken of as Son of man and Lord), eschatology (the time of his coming as Son of man is indefinite), and discipleship (it is incumbent upon Jesus’ followers to be ready for his coming as Son of man at all times).
The passage consists of several parts:
1. A saying about the coming of the Son of man (24:36);
2. Three illustrative sayings (24:37-41);
3. An exhortation to watchfulness (24:42);
4. A fourth illustrative saying (sometimes called the parable of the nocturnal burglar, 24:43); and
5. An exhortation to readiness (24:44).
The first of the illustrative sayings (24:37-39) refers to the story of Noah in Genesis 6-7. It is important to notice that there is no moral judgment passed here upon the proverbial wickedness of the people in Noah’s day (in contrast to 2 Peter 2:5, where it is said that God “brought a flood on a world of the ungodly”). Their activities of “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” are normal; that’s what people do.
Rather, the story is used to illustrate the sudden and unexpected act of God. The people of Noah’s day were not prepared for it. The flood came and swept them away. So, too, the coming of the Son of man will take place as a divine action, and most people will be taken by surprise.
The other two sayings (24:40-41) portray men and women doing normal tasks (working in the field, grinding at the mill) at the time of the coming of the Son of man. The judgment upon them (“one will be taken and one will be left” in each instance) is not on the basis of their activities or apparent conduct — for both those taken and those left are doing the same things — but on the basis of the Son of man’s own judgment. He acts in sovereign freedom to judge. It is implied that those who are taken (saved) are those who have confessed Jesus as Son of man and have followed him (cf. 19:28 and the Q saying, 10:32-33).
The saying about the nocturnal burglar who breaks into a house (24:43) has to do with the theme of watchfulness. If the details are pressed, it would mean that, as the watchfulness of a homeowner prevents a burglar’s intrusion, so too the watchfulness of disciples forestalls the coming of the Son of man. But that would be a case of over-blown interpretation.
The point of comparison is that Jesus’ disciples are not to be like the homeowner (unaware, inattentive) who lets his house get broken into by a thief. The use of the comparison between the coming of the Lord and the incursion of a thief in the night appears elsewhere in the New Testament as well (1 Thessalonians 5:2-4; 2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 3:3; 16:15).
The future orientation of the First Sunday in Advent is prominent in all three lessons for the day. It would seem wise for the preacher to stick with that. It will give way soon enough to preparation for the first coming of Christ — first, the adult Jesus of whom the Baptist speaks, and then the baby born in Bethlehem.
The saying in 24:43 about the nocturnal burglar can be dressed up in more modern imagery. People install timer lights, yard lights, and alarm systems to ward off possible intruders. Flying in an airliner on a clear evening over rural areas, but low enough to see the ground, one can see yard lights in farms and villages that are for security.
All seems beautiful and peaceful. These are signs of vigilance. So, to adhere to what is said in the text, believers in Christ will likewise be vigilant for the coming of Christ in his own good time — a time that cannot be predicted. Therefore it is appropriate, as the saying goes, to live each day as though it may be the last. We cannot postpone fulfilling our commitments to be the persons we aspire to be.
We may well wonder what that means. The other figurative sayings in 24:40-41 can offer insights. Ordinary secular duties continue. Being prepared for the coming of the Lord takes place in daily dying and rising, living out our baptism and faith in this world.
A problem with apocalyptic passages is that they frighten some Christians, or they are dismissed by others as dispensable for the Christian faith (one of those things that a person need not believe). But the message of Christ’s return is not meant to frighten us. It is to give us hope.
The Christ who is to come is the Christ who once lived among us on earth, and who is known in the gospel story as the friend and healer of those in need. Moreover, living in hope, expecting Christ’s return, is integral to the Christian faith, for by it we insist that there is more to the human story and God’s own story than that which has been experienced already.
The hope we have is not personal only, and it certainly is not simply private. It is a communal hope. The church is a community of hope and responsibility in the world. Far from deflating the Christian faith of worldly care, turning attention only to that which is beyond history, Christian hope in the future coming and reign of Christ can generate a commitment to the future and the public good of humanity in this world. The promises of God urge Christians to lean forward toward the future in its entirety.
—–1 The Revised Common Lectionary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992) 14.
The First Readings for Advent, Year A, provide particularly rich visual gifts.
On all four Sundays these readings come from the book of Isaiah, and each reading is filled with visual images that could shape our preaching. Even if you don’t follow the lectionary these texts from Isaiah are still worth considering.
You probably know that I borrowed this title from Isaiah 2 that begins: “The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” We don’t talk that way. We would say, “The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz heard…”
What does it mean to see a word? I doubt that this was an early reference to texting or tweeting! I encourage you to consider preaching on the Isaiah texts through the season of Advent. Help people see the words of Isaiah. Some may consider projecting visual images on the screen.
If you’ve sworn never to put a screen in the sanctuary, consider a bulletin cover with a picture of each Isaiah text. Or do what we often do for children’s sermons — set an object in the middle of the aisle or in front of the communion table or in the narthex. What’s this plow doing here? (Isaiah 2) Who left this stump in the narthex? (Isaiah 11) Is that supposed to be a blue river flowing up the center aisle? (Isaiah 35) Who put the baby crib in front of the altar? (Isaiah 7)
Several years ago I was part of a worship planning team for a Presbyterian musicians’ conference. The opening service focused on the text from Joshua 4 where twelve stones are carried from the Jordan and set up at Gilgal. When people arrived for that service twelve huge boulders were piled in front of the church doors. As the week went on, people added stones they found: two stones that looked like footprints, a stone painted with a rainbow, and a stone the children gave me, carved with the word “REMEMBER.” Images stay with people — we can help them see the words of Isaiah this Advent.
First Sunday of Advent Isaiah 2:1-5
“The word that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” In chapter 1 Isaiah graphically laid out what he had seen: violence, bribery, unfaithfulness, desolation, trampling on the poor. There are brief interruptions as God calls for repentance and offers glimpses of hope, but they are drowned out by these pictures of violence and rebellion.
Then Chapter 2 opens as though Isaiah is starting all over again — or God is. What Isaiah sees is not taking place now, but “in the days to come.” People of every nation will stream to Mt. Zion, including those who were enemies of Israel and Judah. God’s instruction will go forth from Jerusalem; God will judge between the nations. The people will be transformed by this teaching. Can you see it?
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,and their spears into pruning hooks;nation shall not lift up sword against nation,neither shall they learn war anymore.
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
Who can believe that? Isaiah’s words are carved into the wall across from the United Nations building. Who believes these words across the street in the General Assembly as they debate sanctions against Iran, as they wring their hands over 100,000 killed in Syria, and chastise the United States for inhumane treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo?
Like almost all the images we will see during this Advent season, Isaiah’s picture of swords turned to plowshares seems absurd. Maybe, Isaiah’s vision will be true in a far-off time, but for now, there’s nothing we can do but pray, “God of Peace, bring an end to the war in Syria. Lord, in your mercy, HEAR OUR PRAYER.”
We need to remind people that Isaiah was a realist. His pictures in Chapter 1 are as graphic as the evening news:
Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire…Benghazi
And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard,
like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city. Aleppo
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts. Congress
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them. The Sequester
Isaiah isn’t naïve. He is not a Pollyanna prophet. This vision of weapons of war turned into agricultural tools, images of death-dealing turned into food-producing is a promise for “the days to come.” But biblical visions in both testaments come to us from the future, longing to shape the days in which we are living.
What can we help people see?
During these weeks of Advent, we’re invited to sing the Isaiah texts to the familiar melody of “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” Each Sunday, a verse will be added until we sing all four stanzas on December 22, recalling image that have marked the Advent journey this year.
O come, O come, Immanuel
And bless each place your people dwell.
Melt ev’ry weapon crafted for war,
Bring peace upon the earth forever more.
Rejoice, rejoice! Take heart and do not fear,
God’s chosen one, Immanuel, draws near.
The psalm begins with an iconic, inspirational “poster verse” that in our day will likely be heard as referring to the Sunday morning worship high experienced by those who are feeling especially close to God, their communities, or both.
This gladness is faithful to the sense of the psalm and is something to be celebrated! But worship is only one aspect of the gladness to which the psalm refers. As the psalm speaks about all the glad happenings up there on the mountaintop, it aptly shifts connotations among worship, justice, homecoming, sanctuary (in the sense of safe refuge), and peace.
“I was glad …!” because burdens might be lifted, restitutions made, and justice finally done. Going up to Jerusalem was like getting a hearing before the Supreme Court of the United States; pilgrims might climb to the capital in order to have matters resolved that the outlying lower courts couldn’t handle.
“I was glad …!” because Jerusalem serves as a poetic icon of the unity of God’s people. Up there I am with people who know the stories that I know, revere the fathers and mothers I revere, worship the God I worship. This gladness might well resonate with the gladness of contemporary Christians going to “their church” on Sunday. We should keep in mind, though, that in terms of the political — and even religious — narratives of the twelve tribes, Jerusalem as a unifying symbol might not serve much beyond the tribes of Benjamin and Judah! But then it is also true that the poetic idea of congregational unity is often belied by the mistrust felt by (and toward?) those disaffected members of the community who might identify with the tribes of Dan and Asher in the far north.
“I was glad …!” because Jerusalem is a place of refuge, safety, and sanctuary. The image in verse two is potent: once our feet are touching the ground inside the gates, the fortified city protects us from our enemies. The safety here is likely only military; political or religious asylum is probably not connoted by this psalm — and would only be in the poetic sense anyway as Jerusalem was not one of the “cities of refuge.”
But I will admit that, because I am finishing this reflection as Major League Baseball moves into its playoffs, an off the wall (!) mission image popped into my head. In baseball, you are safe if your feet are touching a base. But a base runner’s mission is not to stay on base but to risk running, moving between places of refuge. As I say, “off the wall” rather than within the wall.
The last two verses of the psalm return to the first person singular of the opening verse and also dampen the celebratory tone of verses 2-6. Verses 7 and 8 are the psalmist’s response to the command in verse 6. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.”
The response could be heard as a bit cynical about the city’s judicial and political role (signified by the “thrones of the house of David”). The psalmist says, in effect, “Sure, I’ll pray for Jerusalem. But I’m not praying for Jerusalem’s political survival but rather for the sake of my people and God’s temple.”
As a response to the first lesson (Isaiah 2:1-5) Psalm 122 picks up the movement of “ascent toward Jerusalem” and also the language of judgment (a theme picked up in an oblique way in the Gospel reading). But the Psalm diminishes Isaiah’s vision a bit. In Isaiah all the nations ascend to “the mountain of the Lord’s house” in order to receive instructions for universal peace. In the Psalm, however, the ascent is made by only one nation and it is for its refuge and protection.
When I’m sitting in the pew on Advent 1, I’d like to hear a sermon that wrestles with these two visions of our relationship to the “place God has promised to be.” On the one hand, I love to celebrate being at home in worship with fellow Lutherans (especially when we bring out those less accessible Advent hymns!). But on the other hand, God has established the Church as a city on a hill in order to serve in God’s universal mission, to be a place where all the nations of the world learn peace. How do the “goods” of family, tribe, ethnic enclave, and class serve and fail to serve God’s broader mission?
In this passage, Paul puts into place a series of contrasts that are easily remembered and well-known in biblical literature: night versus day, darkness versus light, honor and virtue versus debauchery and licentiousness.
These pairs of opposites can easily be coined in terms of “us” versus “them,” encouraging one to find one’s proper place on the side of light, day, and virtue.
We might be tempted to think that we know exactly what Paul is discussing in this passage. Thus, we are quick to assume, with Luther for example, that Paul draws a contrast between the debauchery of Rome, ruled by heathens, and the virtue of Christians.1 Certainly, Paul did not shrink from criticizing pagan behavior and expected more restraint from his fellow Christ-believers. However, the passage deserves to be unpacked carefully, lest we simply appropriate it as comforting us in a conviction that Christians can adopt an attitude of superiority towards the world.
In Romans, Paul presents a narrative that recalls how his addressees became a community of Christ-believers. In chapters 1:18-8:39, he reminds his addressees of the manner in which God, through Christ, intervened in the world for them and reconciled them to God, in order to create a people of God composed of Jews first, but also of nations.
The community in Rome reflects this diversity and is a result of God’s action in the world through Christ. When Paul discusses sôteria (salvation) in Romans, he refers to the manner in which God has revealed God’s people as composed of Jews and Gentiles. It is particularly obvious in chapters 9-11, but it is present also in Paul’s summary of his gospel in 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
If salvation is understood in terms of God creating a people for God, then the implications of salvation become community-oriented and are concerned with the ways in which different nations can live together and give glory to God in their life together (Romans 15:5-6). Salvation needs to be realized socially.
In that framework, our passage is less about one’s personal, individual behavior and salvation (even though, of course, personal salvation is an aspect of one’s life in a community) and more about the relationships that various Christ-believers have with each other. These relationships are connected to the social setting of the community (13:13-14), and they are understood in terms of the new aeon that started with the death and resurrection of Christ (13:11).
These relationships are at the center of everything that Paul puts into place in his letter to the Romans, but they are articulated most concretely in chapters 12-15. Without these practical implications, the story that Paul has told in the previous chapters would have no true impact on the Christ-believers in Rome.
The ethical injunctions are introduced in chapter 12 with two verses presenting the guiding perspective for the entire ethical section. Paul writes: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Salvation needs to be actualized in the everyday behavior of the Christ-believers, a behavior that must reflect the standards of God and not those of the world. In chapter 13, this conformity to God’s standards is reflected in the call to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 13:14). This language echoes other formulations in Romans (6:3-5 and 8:17) and might have been connected to the ritual of baptism. This powerful metaphor expresses the change of self understanding experienced by the Christ-believers and the consequences of this change.
In chapter 13, Paul’s conviction that the Christ-believers now have the possibility to behave in ways that will express an attitude of “sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” is tied to being aware of the time in which his addressees live. For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection have inaugurated the new aeon, in which the old powers (death and sin), even though they have not disappeared, no longer rule over the Christ-believers.
In the new aeon, the Christ-believers’ master is God. Concretely for the life of the community, it indicates that one no longer lives by the standards of the world, whatever they are. In Ancient Rome, these standards were traditionally associated with debauchery and licentiousness, and so Paul is comfortable using these conventional measures of life in order to criticize them. However, he completes these rather standard ethical injunctions with a perspective immediately related to his conviction that the Christ-believers’ master is God.
In this regard, it is important to keep our section (Romans 13:11-14) connected to what comes directly before and directly after. What comes directly before (Romans 13:10) reminds us that this short passage is connected to an ethic of love, completely directed towards one’s neighbor. Similarly, what comes directly after (Romans 14:1) exhorts Paul’s addressees to welcome those they might be tempted to judge because of their weakness of faith.
Our passage should be understood as directly and closely connected to the entire exhortative section of the letter. In that manner, it is impossible to simply understand the section as an invitation to focus on one’s personal salvation to the neglect of those around us or to construct the world in terms of “us” versus “them.”
Indeed, the death and resurrection of Christ has drastically changed the context of our world. We are no longer in the hand of the powers of this world. But this newly gained freedom does not allow us to place ourselves above others. Rather, it is a call to remember that Christians need to live their lives in the world, but not according to the standards of the world. Be in the world, but not of the world.
1 Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans. Glosses and Scholia vol. 25 of Luther’s Works (H. C. Oswald ed., Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 481.