Lectionary Commentaries for December 1, 2019
First Sunday of Advent (Year A)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

When Advent wreaths are given nice, little weekly themes, they risk domesticating the radical nature of the lectionary readings for the season.

Moreover, they often turn Advent into pre-Christmas. But the beginning of the liturgical year is anything but sweet, and it does much more than prefigure the Nativity. On the First Sunday in Advent, the church begins its new year celebration by focusing on the End (with a capital E) with the expectation of Jesus’ final coming to us.

Every year the gospel reading comes from one of the Synoptic eschatological discourses set in Jerusalem after Jesus has left the temple, predicted the temple’s destruction, and been asked by the disciples about when/how the prediction will be fulfilled. 

But Jesus does not just talk about the temple. He leapfrogs to talk about the end of the cosmos, the end of history … as we know it. With figurative, apocalyptic, and mythological imagery, the Evangelists present Jesus as interpreting the meaning of the Parousia. 

Matthew’s version of the eschatological discourse is a significant expansion of Mark 13. Most obvious is the fact that after the bulk of material taken from Mark (in Matthew 24:1-36) Matthew adds material with a particular eschatological interpretation. This material includes four eschatological parables—faithful servant, ten bridesmaids, talents, judgment of the nations (24:45-25:46). The foundation for those parables is laid in the gospel lection for Advent 1. The comparison of the Parousia to the story of the Great Deluge in Noah’s day is unique to Matthew and key to understanding the First Gospel’s particular eschatological vision. 

Scholars generally assume the author of the First Gospel wrote his narrative in the last quarter of the first century (circa 80) and that part of his agenda was to reassert an eschatological expectation among his readers after some fifty years of waiting for Jesus to return without it occurring. To be more precise, while the evangelist does likely want to reinforce a literal expectation of the return of the son of the human, his deeper concern is with shaping the lives of those in his church so that they practice an eschatological existence in the present.

For Matthew, it is not that Jesus’ first coming was historical and his second coming will be eschatological. No, the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection comprise an eschatological event that means the church is already living and always will live in the turning of the ages. The End has begun. Matthew strives to answer the question: how are we to live in-between “the already” of the salvation we have experienced in Christ and the “not yet” of that salvation not being fully consummated in the world? The key to Matthew’s answer lies in the comparison of the Parousia and the Flood when read in the wider context of what follows in the eschatological discourse.

The apocalyptic schemas which get the most attention in today’s culture are the sorts found in 2 Thessalonians and Revelation and popularized in contemporary writing like the Left Behind series. Essentially that schema asserts that when the rapture occurs, Jesus will take the faithful with him and the unfaithful (the damned) will be left behind. Matthew’s schema, however, is the complete reverse of this. As the Great Flood took away the unfaithful and left behind the faithful, so too will be the coming of the son of the human (Matthew 24:39). Two will be in a field. The unfaithful one will be taken away, and the faithful will remain. Two will be working in a mill: the unfaithful one will be taken away and the faithful one will be left behind. 

Matthew is thinking metaphorically here, not literally. He is not predicting what will actually happen at the Parousia. He is describing current eschatological existence using future eschatological imagery. Living faithfully in the already-not yet of Christian discipleship does not mean that we can rest on God’s grace. It means that God gives us all the more responsibility for doing God’s will on earth as it is done in heaven. The faithful ones left behind in the field and the mill now have added work.

Matthew makes this concept more explicit and unpacks it further in scenes of contrast that follow our lection.

  • Jesus contrasts a slave who is faithful while the master is gone and is rewarded with more responsibility with the unfaithful slave who faces apocalyptic judgment of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 24:45-51). 
  • Jesus contrasts the ten wise bridesmaids who brought enough oil to accompany the groom with the foolish ones who were unprepared and are abandoned when the bridegroom arrives (25:1-13). 
  • Jesus contrasts slaves faithful in managing five and two talents being rewarded with double responsibility with the slave unfaithful in managing one talent who faces apocalyptic judgment of weeping and gnashing of teeth (25:14-30).
  • And finally Jesus contrasts the righteous who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned with the unrighteous who do not. Those who fail receive eternal punishment. And the righteous? They are left behind to inherit the reign of God … where there is more work to be done! (25:31-46)

To preach Matthew 24:36-44, preachers will have to present this unique view of Matthew’s slowly and deliberately. What little most of our congregations know about New Testament eschatology runs counter to Matthew’s schema. It is important, therefore, in the exegetical elements of the sermon to use the full context of Matthew’s eschatological discourse. 

Preachers, however, cannot stay in the ancient world. What does this eschatological view mean for today? Preachers need to paint a picture of what eschatological existence looks like today. To do this, preachers will also have to overcome the natural way some people will hear Matthew’s claim that eschatological existence means more responsibility. Some hearers’ first response will be to think of this added responsibility as a burden. 

For Matthew, however, it is a gift from God. Having already been transformed by the Christ-event, the church is invited to participate in the transformation of the world yet still in process! In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask that God’s reign come, that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In the eschatological discourse, Jesus gives us the opportunity to partner with God in answering that prayer. 

Want a picture of Matthew’s metaphorical vision of the Parousia, of true eschatological existence? Offer hearers a vision of the church at work in the not yet places of the world. Places where justice and equality have not yet been found. Places where hunger and thirst have not yet been alleviated. Places where school children die of senseless violence. Places where the planet is not yet being treated with respect. Show the church beginning to make a difference in places such as these and you will offer your hearers Matthew’s vision of what it looks like to be waiting expectantly for the coming of Christ in the Parousia.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

Isaiah prophesies to a word seen, rather than heard. Preacher, this week, and as many weeks as you spend in Isaiah this season, do your best to preach for the eye rather than the ear.

A word seen and the world seen anew

The prophet’s language is vivid and colorful, in fact, heart-breakingly so. Preachers following Isaiah’s path to Christmas best follow suit, imaging with your words a world of justice and righteousness that is tangible but not fully grasped. Preachers following Isaiah’s path must also use vivid language about the ways in which we tragically fall short of God’s dream for creation.

This is no ordinary seeing. The author’s choice of the verb haza elevates the seeing to spiritual height and depth—prophetic vision—rather than simply seeing physically (the Hebrew word being ra’a for this seeing). Isaiah beheld the word, and so saw the world in an extraordinary way.

The opening phrase “the vision of Isaiah” (the noun hazon from the Hebrew haza) is a bit unusual. More frequently, the headings and openings of prophetic books reads “the words” or “the word” according-to-such-and-such a prophet.1 But Isaiah is relaying a vision for Jerusalem/Zion in three stages: destruction and exile (first Isaiah), expectation of the new thing (second Isaiah), and a just reorganization of the new thing (third Isaiah).

Prophet on the inside

While the Book of Isaiah is critically curated content spanning generations of prophets who see themselves in the tradition of Isaiah, our text today is believed to be from the historical Isaiah, first Isaiah, son of Amoz, who lived during the reigns of King Uzziah to King Hezekiah in Judah (the second half of the eighth century through the beginning of the seventh century). His partner in life was a prophetess (Isaiah 8:3) and together they had several children.

Isaiah is a Jerusalem insider rather than the ragged prophet on the outskirts of town. He may even be a court prophet, not unlike the prophet Nathan was to King David.2 Like Nathan, Isaiah spoke as an “independent voice, criticizing as well as supporting the political and religious establishment in Jerusalem.”3

Judgment and hope

Our lections for Advent focus on hopeful visioning and edit out the judgement that runs alongside Isaiah’s dreams for Jerusalem/Zion. It is always tempting, especially in the joy of Christmas, to steer clear of judgy preaching. But I do wonder how effective our preaching toward a new way of life can be without naming the errors that will be our downfall as members of the kin-dom of God?

Judgment and vision go hand in hand. In order to say yes to the vision of Isaiah in our lection, the vision of death-dealing weapons being melted and reformed into life-giving agricultural tools, preachers will have to say no to guns in a climate that is hostile to such a breach of American liberties.

Preaching about guns and war during Christmas? We want to keep people in the pews this time of year, not send them away! We want to be comfortable and warmed by the Gospel, not burned by it!

I am not sure the scripture offers much wiggle room for timid and tepid preaching about our state of affairs. Perhaps a fitting song to be sung alongside the vivid longings of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” is “War is Over! (if you want it)” from John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

But do we, the Church, want an end to war and the things that make for war? Does our society want to stop profiting from the War Machine? Do we really have to go here so close to Christmas?

I think so, brave preacher. In order to say yes to the vision of this text and others to come in Advent, we will need to say no to something(s).

Sermon images

For each of my Isaiah commentaries, I will share an image that conjures sermonic depth for preacher and people. This week’s image is “Let us Beat Swords into Plowshares,” a sculpture in New York City’s United Nations north garden area. The sculpture was a gift from the Soviet Union by artist Yevgeny Vuchetich in 1959.4

The image of swords beaten into plowshares is powerful enough to be invoked in popular culture, from Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” to the finale of Les Misérables. Can we not only invoke the image of shalom in general, but provoke the imaging of Isaiah’s vision in our context today? It is happening after all. Take, for example, creative activist Pedro Reyes in Culiacán, Mexico. Culiacán is “the city with the highest rate of gun deaths in the nation.” In response, Reyes has collected 1,527 guns for the project Palas por Pistolas, melting these guns down into 1,527 shovel heads. But the project hasn’t stopped there. The 1,527 shovels are being used to plant 1,527 trees in the city.5 Matter used for death transformed into matter promoting life. It doesn’t get much more biblical than that.

As we move this Sunday from a celebration of Christ’s reality and return as the Ruler over all to the recalling of Christ’s first arrival as a vulnerable infant, we must name the tension: there is no chance for God to make things new without judgment upon the old things that make for destruction.6

So, embrace Advent this year before embracing Christmas. Embrace the agony of laboring for new life to be born in your life, the life of your congregation, and the life of the world.

 


Notes:

  1. John H. Hayes and Stuart A. Irvine. Isaiah: The 8th Century Prophet: His Times and His Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987), 67.

  2. Michael D. Coogan. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 333.

  3. Coogan, 333.

  4. Vuchetich, Evgeniy Viktorovich, 1908-1974. Let Us Beat Our Swords into Plowshares, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54228 [retrieved October 10, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com /photos/un_photo/3311538833/.

  5. Amanda Froelich, “Mexican artist melts 1,527 guns, makes shovels to plant trees,” pocho.com.
    http://www.pocho.com/chilango-artist-melts-1527-guns-makes-shovels-to-plant-trees/?fbclid=IwAR0HOASU423v6Aj39ao38XrLipvtRoV-FtKY8LsD5V33rCPMEz3ZkAhWN4E

  6. Walter Brueggemann. An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 161.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 122

Jason Byassee

Advent is a delightfully mixed message. It is a season of judgment: John the Baptist announces fire and then Jesus brings it.

And yet it is also a season of joy. Psalm 122 is then the perfect Advent psalm, for it is full of gladness (Psalm 122:1). It is a delight to come up into the city of David and to rejoice there. A sermon on this psalm should be full of delight. Even, or especially, with a hint of judgment (verse 5).

This psalm has often served as a textbook example for the medieval church’s four-fold approach to biblical interpretation. What is Jerusalem? It is, first and most obviously, a city in Palestine. It is also, allegorically speaking, the church (Galatians 4:26). It is also the faithful soul. And it is, finally, the city of God, coming down out of heaven from God (Revelation 21:2). Modern approaches to the bible make the odd assumption that texts have only one referent—the one in the author’s head when pen was first put to paper. The actual referent(s) of a text hinge more on questions like these: what does God mean in this passage? What does the gathered community need to hear from these words? How can the good news lodge in my soul and make it a roomier place for God and the neighbor? How do we realign our longings aright for the new creation God is birthing, right in the midst of the old?

First, an actual city. You can go to Jerusalem right now, more easily than ever in human history. Walking around the old city one night, I noticed how tired my calves were. I was going up—literally—and uphill hurts! Pilgrims traipsed up and down and back up for days, and then roared with delight when they first glimpsed the city, when they came within the safety of its gates, when they entered the place where they could attain justice there like nowhere else. This psalm gives a literal directive like few psalms do: pray for Jerusalem. Right now. Stop what you’re doing and pray for its peace, for on its peace hangs the peace of the world. The specificity of Jerusalem demonstrates the biblical teaching of the scandal of particularity. Human notions of fairness, including many biblical ones, assume God shows no favorites. But the scandal of particularity says that God lives at One Temple Way in Jerusalem. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of the city “Here the trees, praise, the streets say grace, and my steps give thanks. The way of Jerusalem is a way of exaltation.”1

Jerusalem is also the church. Ancient Christians saw the church in the ascent of the gentiles up Mt Zion that Israel’s scripture prophesied would come at the end of the world (Isaiah 2:1-5). God’s deliverance of Israel would be so astounding even gentiles would notice and join in with the tribes going up for worship (Psalm 122:4). Delight is contagious. St. Augustine asked his hearers to “call to mind a scene familiar to you.” Folks assemble at a holy place and “incite one another,” so that we “catch fire with enthusiasm and all the separate flames unite.”2 The church is a people alight for God, merged into a single soul.

Soul talk has not fared overly well in modernity. We have been right to emphasize the bodily, the this-worldly, the corporality of Israel, Jesus, and church. And yet these passages have to mean something spiritually. Preachers know this—we can’t leave the cookies on the high shelf. We have to say why the stories matter for the lives of those gathered for good news. St. John Chrysostom did so when he pondered the fact that Israel wrote and then treasured this psalm from exile—that is, from a place where she was physically incapable of going up to Jerusalem. “This is the way God generally does things: when we do not appreciate the good things we have, God knocks them from our hands.”3 This is not the only spiritual interpretation of the psalm, of course, there are literally countless more. As a preacher you have to deliver one or more of them—your listeners are hungry, and you’re tasked to feed them (Luke 11:11-12).

Fourth and finally, the city God is bringing: Christians pray for it regularly in Jesus’ prayer. He had a hard time in his father David’s city. He went up regularly, as commanded here and elsewhere. His parents should have known he was not lost, but was teaching in its temple (Luke 2). Yet the city evokes his tears: it kills the prophets and would eventually kill him (Luke 13:31-35). Jerusalem is the navel of the world in Jewish imagination, the umbilical cord by which God feeds the cosmos. In this age that place of life has often been a place of death. Just have a look at the news. Prayer shaped by this psalm asks that the place meant for life, that we distort into a place of death, would become a site of resurrection. Let its walls be peace, its towers be security, its multiple generations be bound together, its good be ours and also the whole world’s. Prayer seeks to align our desire with God’s, first for Israel’s blessing and then for all the world’s.

Advent is a forward-looking time. Just as Christ came in fulfillment of God’s longstanding promises, so too he will come again and consummate those promises. The throbbing desire pulsing through these words of the ancient psalmist should pulse anew through our church’s life together as we await the babe in Bethlehem, the king coming on the clouds.


Notes:

1 Quoted in Stephen Breck Reid in Psalms for Preaching and Worship, ed. Van Harn and Strawn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 316-318.

2 Augustine Expositions on the Psalms vol. VI, trans. Maria Boulding, OSB (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2004), 14.

3 John Chrysostom Commentary on the Psalms Vol 2. Trans. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998), 147.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 13:11-14

Orrey McFarland

This short text from Romans is an appropriate reading for the first Sunday of Advent as it orients us to the full scope of our Advent hope.

Since Romans 12:1, Paul has been describing what new life in the community is meant to look like. Here Paul works within an explicitly eschatological framework: because of the Christ-event, the old age is coming to an end, the new age has dawned, and believers are called to live in the light of that hope. The text is built on familiar antitheses—sleep/awake, night/day, darkness/light—that give vividness to the exhortation and feel appropriate for Advent. But an important feature of the text that is blunted by many English translations is the baptismal language that permeates it.

“You know what time it is”: Advent hope and readiness (Romans 13:11-12a)

Paul grounds the motivation for a different way of life in the fact that the Romans believers know that a new “time” (kairos) is here: the time begun in the sending of Christ that will culminate in his return. It is time, as the NRSV and many other translations render it, “to wake from sleep.” While this verb does have the sense of “waking up,” two important things are missed by this translation. First, the verb is passive: you are not simply waking yourself up, but are being woken up; there is another actor here. Second, Paul has already used this verb in reference to Christ’s resurrection and the hope believers have for their own resurrection because of their baptism into Christ. As Paul states, “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4; see also 6:9; 7:4). In this context, “sleep” envisions a kind of spiritual sluggishness from which one needs to be drawn out of (see also 1 Thessalonians 5:6-11) to walk in that newness of life. It is time, Paul says, to return to your baptism to know who you are: not one who walks in the old age, but one who has been claimed by God in Christ.

What is the reason for this exhortation? It is not fear, threats, or judgment: it is the very nearness of salvation, that Christ’s return is now closer than it has ever been. Time, of course, is not so straightforward for the Christian: the “night” (see also Romans 12:2; Galatians 1:4) while far gone, is still present; the day is dawning, but is not fully present. Sin and death have been defeated in Christ, but the old age has not yet been fully set aside. Those who belong to the new age—who share the destiny of Christ—will face temptations to return to the old age. Thus the call to persevere. The “day,” which refers to the new age that has dawned in Christ, is spoken of with the same verb that Jesus uses for the kingdom of God in the gospels: it has “drawn near.” In other words, it is here but not yet in its fullness.

“Let us walk … in the daytime”: The new baptismal life (Romans 13:12b-14)

Paul seems to be giving general encouragement to continue in faith (see also Romans 1:8) rather than addressing some particular moral issue plaguing the community. The works that Paul discourages are listed in three pairs: revelry and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. These were common vices; four of the six also show up in Galatians 5:19-21. While the first two pairs make sense as activities of “the night” or “darkness” (see also again 1 Thessalonians 5:4-7), the final pair might be pointing to the issue of division within the community that Paul will address in Romans 13:14-15. In being raised from the night, and fighting against the works of the darkness, believers are to “put on the armor of light.” The language of armor can be found both in the Old Testament (see also Isaiah 59:17) and elsewhere in Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:8).

Here again Paul is speaking in language that further grounds this passage in baptism: in Romans 6:13, Paul encourages believers not to “present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” The word here for “instruments” is the same as “armor” in our text. Paul is calling for these Roman Christians to take up the weapon, armor, instruments of the new life given in Christ. As such, Christians are to “live honorably,” exhibiting a way of life defined by the day. Christians await the day even as in Christ by faith they walk in that new light.

In the final verse, Paul again speaks to the new life in the terms of baptism: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” This verse is a close parallel to Galatians 3:27 (the same verb is used in both places): “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” To put on the “armor of light” is to put on Christ; to put on Christ is to be baptized into his death and resurrection (see also Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10). Paul is calling for these believers to remember their baptismal life—that their sins have been forgiven, their old selves drowned in the death of Christ (see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). In the new life of Christ’s resurrection, given now in the Spirit (see also Romans 8:1-17), there is no “provision for the flesh” such that the person can cave back into the old age. In faith one takes hold of Christ such that there is no space for the flesh, for the flesh has been defeated and sin forgiven.

All of Paul’s exhortations in this text flow from the Gospel: You belong to Christ and the day. You are of the light. “Our salvation is nearer,” and you know the time.