Lectionary Commentaries for November 30, 2008
First Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 13:24-37

Paul S. Berge

Mark 13:1-37 is set exactly in the middle of the passion narrative in the gospel of Mark.

The overall theme for these five chapters (11:1-15:47) could be entitled: Jesus reveals the temple of his body as the true and living presence of God. A sub-theme identifies the disciples’ inability and failure to watch with Jesus as the drama of his life comes to a close.

We will establish the context of the First Sunday of Advent text (13:24-37), and how our text is set within this final drama of the Son of Man, in three acts.

The first act of the drama of Jesus the Messiah begins in Mark 11:1-12:44. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the city of David and is acclaimed “the Son of David.” Jesus enters the temple precincts and moves in and out revealing the truth of God’s presence now incarnated in his teaching. The cursing of the fig tree (11:14), the parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7), and rejection of the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22) in 12:1-12, bring Jesus’ opponents to the fore. One by one they line up to test and challenge him: the Pharisees, Herodians, Sadducees and scribes. Jesus turns the tables on all of them with his teaching on the true identity of David’s Son (Psalm 110:1), and concludes his teaching, judging the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who demand honor and devour widow’s houses (12:38-44).

The second act focuses on the apocalyptic chapter, Mark 13:1-37. The audience that hears Jesus’ teaching has changed. Jesus, the rabbi, now teaches his disciples concerning the truth of God’s presence, not in a temple made of stone, but in his very body. The inner core, Peter, James, John and Andrew, question Jesus about the destruction of the temple. Jesus answers their question by drawing them into the drama and instructing them that this will not take place until the gospel is proclaimed to all nations. A desolating sacrifice in the temple and cosmic signs will signal the end and the coming of the Son of Man. Only the Father knows this day or hour.

The third act (Mark 14:1-15:47) unfolds the apocalyptic events of the Son of Man. Jesus:

  • eats a final Passover meal with his disciples, one of whom will betray him
  • prays to the Father in the garden
  • is betrayed by Judas and captured
  • is set on trial before the religious leaders at night
  • is denied by Peter
  • is brought before Pilate
  • is mocked and crowned a king
  • is struck and stripped
  • his teaching is falsified by the religious leaders
  • is reviled as the King of Israel
  • cries out to the Father as death draws near
  • is confessed as God’s Son by a centurion as the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom
  • is taken down from the cross and buried before sundown

The gospel text, Mark 13:24-37, inaugurates us into the Advent season on this first Sunday. The Advent season is played out in our culture as a time of many conflicting expectations. One is not expecting to hear a text like this when one is busy getting ready for Christmas. Shopping and parties for this mainly secular event have no place for an apocalyptic text with this kind of imagery.

People want to hear “Silver Bells” and anticipate that “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” not about the opening verses of our text: “But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (13:24-25). What chance does our text have, and what relevance to this Advent season?

The incredible promise within this text is that which expresses the very heart of why we teach and preach: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (13:31). Amidst the chaos of this time of year, we hear a promise that transcends the cultural focus of our time. The transitory frenzy of our preparation for this grand secular event and our politically correct “Happy Holidays” greeting offer nothing meaningful. This is where our word of the coming of the Messiah meets us.

Only the Father knows the time of the final the coming of the Son of Man. Because we know that God is the watchful one, we can see the emptiness of the signs of our secular culture. The call to watchfulness for the Messiah’s coming is the gift of this text for us. Just as someone leave leaves home and places someone on guard, so we are to be on the alert and keep awake for the master’s return.

The Advent of the Master returning home is indeed happening in this Advent time, and we are admonished three times “to keep alert/awake” (13:34, 35, 37). The sign for us within the community of faith is that Jesus has come, is present, and will come again.

Jesus comes not just as a child in Bethlehem, but our text instructs us that Jesus comes to us through the four watches of the night that lead to Jesus’ death. Mark 13:35 instructs us to see within the passion narrative the fulfillment of the apocalyptic coming of the Messiah, the Son of Man. Jesus, comes to us “in the evening” (14:1-31), “or at midnight” (14:32-52), “or at cockcrow” (14:53-72), “or at dawn” (15:1-20). The apocalyptic sign of the cross is present in this Advent season. This is the true sign of God’s salvation and deliverance from the emptiness of our time.

Herein lies the connection of the coming of the Messiah born in Bethlehem and the outpouring of the Son of Man life in Jesus’ death and resurrection. The events of Jesus’ birth and death are inseparable; we cannot have one without the other. This is the story of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. This is the Advent message amidst the clutter of our time.

Hear the closing promise of Jesus, the Son of Man, in light of all that has been said in this marvelous Advent text: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (13:31). Likewise, the final word of our Advent text is a word of urgency and watchfulness: “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (13:37).


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9

Samuel Giere

This pericope is simultaneously rooted in the rich memories of God’s saving acts and mired in the muck of dashed expectations and the experience of God’s absence.

From this spot the prophet, speaking on behalf of the people, both admits the people’s rejections of God and calls on God to be present and act on behalf of God’s people. The pericope concludes with an affirmation of God’s relationship with God’s people using faithful images of father and potter (64:8).

Textual Horizons
Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66) reflects a moment in Israel’s history rife with the struggles of the earliest returnees to Jerusalem after the Babylonian Exile. After the decree of King Cyrus the Persian (538 BCE)1  that ended the Babylonian Exile, a number of the exiles returned to Judah and Jerusalem to rebuild the crumbled kingdom. When confronted with the difficulties of the return, there is a noticeable shift from the hopefulness of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) to a hope coupled with doubt and lament.

The immediate pericope is part of a larger psalm (63:7-64:12) in which the prophet poetically reminds God who God is. Situated in the uncertain midst of the return from the Exile, the prophet begins from a point of faith, “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord” (63:7), remembering God’s previous deliverance of Israel from Egypt (63:7-9). “Praiseworthy” are the Lord’s saving, merciful actions.

As if on a dime, the psalmist shifts from recollections of the Lord’s great deeds to befuddlement at the Lord’s apparent/perceived absence. “Where is the one who brought them up…?” (63:11) In contrast with God’s great deeds of the past, the Lord’s absence is palpable. The great expectations which fill Second Isaiah, written sometime near the end of the Exile painting a picture of favor and renewed blessing for Israel and through Israel the whole world, were experienced as empty (64:10-12). This extends to the point that the prophet laments what the Lord has done to Israel as to Pharaoh and Egypt: “Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you?” (63:17)2 

The sense of the Lord’s absence is quickly followed by reminders of God’s promised commitment to God’s people (63:15-19).

Isaiah 64.1-9
In the proper pericope for this Sunday, the prophet invokes the ancient image of the Lord as the cosmic, divine warrior who, according to Israel’s collective memory, has victoriously ‘come down’ to Israel’s aid (e.g. 2 Samuel 22, Psalm 18, Micah 1:2-4). With a tone of desperation, the prophet implores the Lord to act likewise in the prophet’s here and now, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (64:1).

What follows points to deep contradictions3  between the people’s belief in God’s faithfulness to “those who gladly do right” (64:5) and their profound experience of God’s absence. The story upon which their faith in the Lord sits suggests one thing, while their experience suggests something else−simultaneously.

There is even a hint on the part of the prophet that the Lord’s absence is responsible for Israel’s sins — “…because you hid yourself we transgressed,” taking a cue from the Greek (LXX) version of Isaiah as the Hebrew is not clear at this point.

The prophet places the burden of Israel’s situation squarely on Israel. All of Israel has become as one “unclean,” ritually impure (64:6, cf. Ezekiel 14:10-11), so much so that even their righteous deeds are as “a filthy cloth.” The prophet names the cold, hard reality of the people’s relation with God: “There is no one who calls on your name or attempts to take hold of you” (64:7). The covenantal relationship between God and God’s people is in danger of being completely severed. The space between the two is an unbridgeable chasm marked by suspicion of God’s absence and clear acknowledgement of the people’s defilement of this holy relationship.

At the point when the chasm appears too wide and too deep to be crossed, the psalm leaps into faithfulness with a simple “but now” (NRSV “Yet” — 64:8). When all hope seems lost and the chasm between God and God’s people seems to have drifted far too far apart, the prophet on behalf of the people makes a profession.

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” (64:8-9)

From the image of the Lord as the divine warrior who comes bursting out of the heavens that begins the pericope, the prophet brings the poem to a far different place. From a cosmic military-like interventionist, the Lord is envisioned as an artisan; a potter working, molding, fashioning in a continuing way this broken people.

Preaching Horizons
As the first biblical text sounding through much of the global Church this Advent, what has been called “the most powerful psalm of communal lamentation in the Bible”4 rings true with confluence of the real muck in which many today are mired and the illogical and unexpected profession of God’s relation with God’s people. In the midst of the muck that covers so much of life because of “our iniquities” (64:6), the temptation (rooted in our story as well) is to call upon the divine warrior. The prophet, on our behalf as well, turns and professes faith in our “Father” and “potter.”


1A version of which is found in Ezra 1.2-4.
2Paul D Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995), 239.
3Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, (WBC; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1998), 237.
4Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, (David M. G. Stalker, trans.; OTL; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 392.


Psalm

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

Rolf Jacobson

Psalm 80’s thrice-repeated refrain (vv. 3, 7, 19) is a clue both to the psalm’s liturgical origins and its driving theological concern.

The refrain indicates that the poem finds its origins as a corporate prayer, with the congregation or a choir intoning the refrain. [NOTE: For worshiping communities that sing the psalms responsively, please note that worship planners would be well advised to take pains to have the congregation sing the refrain. If one simply plows ahead in an every-other-verse fashion, the refrain might be found on the lips of the singer of “Part A” in vv. 3 and 7, but on the lips of “Part B” in v. 19. Ugh!] The petition in the psalm’s second verse, “Stir up your might, and come,” is the source for prayer of the day for the First Sunday in Advent: “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.”

In terms of the psalm’s overriding theological concern, the refrain shows that the psalm is a prayer for deliverance: “Restore us, O God!” The psalm is vague as to what crisis may have originally precipitated the plea. Perhaps it was the Babylonian exile or some other national humiliation. Or perhaps the psalm was composed to be performed annually as part of a national worship commemoration. This is not clear, but the surrounding doubt is actually a positive–it allows the prayer to be sung by any community undergoing crisis, or even by a thriving community on behalf of others who are suffering.

Three verbs dominate the refrain: Restore (Hebrew shub), shine (‘ur), save (yashab). The psalm exploits a dual meaning of the first word (shub). In the refrain, the word means “restore,” and is a plea that God would change the circumstances of the people. But in v. 14, the word means “turn,” or “repent” (cf. Psalm 90:13), and is a plea for God to change God’s will concerning the people’s situation. The poetic play on these two meanings of the word amounts to a faith assertion by the community–the solution to the people’s situation rests in the heart of God. The people cannot change their own circumstances, but God can–simply by willing that the situation be reversed.

Similarly, the plea that God “let your face shine” is plea for God’s favor to radiate on the people, like the sun bathes the earth in light. In the psalms, God’s disfavor is often pictured as God hiding God’s face, or turning away from the community. Most people of faith are familiar with the words of the benediction: “May God’s face shine on you” (cf. Numbers 6:25). The plea here is a prayer for the very thing that is promised in the benediction: God’s shining forth in deliverance and blessing.

One more aspect of the refrain is worth mentioning. The refrain builds in intensity each time it occurs, by adding to God’s name, moving from the more generic “God” to the more proper and personal “O Lord God of hosts”:

  • Restore us, O God… (v. 3)
  • Restore us, O God of hosts… (v. 7)
  • Restore us, O LORD God of hosts… (v. 19)

This building up of intensity has the effect of turning up the volume on and urgency of the people’s desperate cry for help.

The psalm mixes two metaphors for God’s relationship with the people. Mr. Fox, my high school English professor, would not have approved of such mixing, but in this case the two dominant metaphors create a rich prayer for help. The first metaphor is of God as the “Shepherd of Israel” (a title known only here in the Old Testament) and the people as God’s “flock.” The use of this metaphor continues a theme introduced in Psalms 78 and 79. Psalm 78 described the Davidic kings as the shepherds of God’s sheep (v. 71). Psalm 79 prayed for God to tend “your people, the sheep of your pasture” (v. 13). Psalm 80 culminates this theme by calling God the Shepherd of Israel. This confession of faith cuts with both a positive and a negative edge. Positively, it asserts that God has the fidelity and integrity to guide Israel through the shadow of the valley of death. Negatively, it asserts that all the other forces trying to claim lordship of God’s people (whether emperors, kings, or even religious leaders) are not the true leaders of the people (because they lack both the fidelity and integrity of God).

The second metaphor this psalm employs for the relationship between God and people is the image of the vine and gardener. The metaphor is introduced in vv. 8-13, which the lectionary unfortunately cuts. (These verses should at least be reviewed by one preaching on this text, and the preacher may find it helpful to “restore” them.) Similar to Isaiah’s famous parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, Psalm 80 recalls God’s history of faithful love by making the analogy between that history and a gardener planting a vineyard. But while Isaiah wanted to spur the people repent, the psalmist sought to spur God to repent: “Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted” (vv. 14-15).

The rhetorical strategy in Isaiah 5 (or Micah 6) has the parental God saying to the rebellious children, “After all the faithful love that I have shown you, why are you rebelling against me?” Here, the rhetorical strategy has the suffering children saying to the parental God, “After all the faithful love that you have shown us, why are you allowing us to suffer?”

The psalm closes with the people vowing to continue to “call on your name.” This promise then leads to the last occurrence of the refrain, which as noted above, employs the most personal and intense form of God’s name in the psalm: “O LORD God of hosts.” God’s “name” is a shorthand formula for the relationship between God and God’s people. God gave the people the name so they could call upon him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, and so that they would bear God’s name in their mission to love, bless, and save the nations.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

L. Ann Jervis

As in most of his letters, Paul begins 1 Corinthians with an expression of thanksgiving.

Paul’s regular opening thanksgivings serve at least two purposes: here he signals the concerns he has for his addressees and seeks to influence their behavior and self-understanding.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul first gives thanks for the grace of God which was given in Christ Jesus. This says something very interesting about what Paul thinks of the Corinthian believers and perhaps about what he thinks they think of themselves. Paul focuses his and his readers’ attention first on God’s grace in Christ. Almost certainly this is because he thinks his converts have lost this focus. Whatever else Paul is grateful for (and whatever else he wants the Corinthians to be grateful for), the primary object of gratitude must be God. Every other reason for gratitude is rooted in the primary reason for gratitude — God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Paul also gives thanks for the speech and knowledge the Corinthians possess. Later in the letter, we learn that some in the Corinthian church had exceptional capacities for Spirit-inspired speech−prophecy and speaking in tongues−and some were receiving revelations (1 Corinthians 14:26-39). Paul here wants to emphasize their speech and knowledge are not their own achievement but a gift.

The Corinthians have, Paul says, been enriched in every way with all speech and knowledge. It is not their doing. Perhaps Paul gives thanks to God for the richness of the Corinthians’ experience of the Spirit as a way of introducing the directives he will later give. Paul will direct the Corinthians to recognize that speaking in tongues, prophecy, speaking knowledge and wisdom, and having revelation are meant for the common good (1 Corinthians 12:7). This is the case because any signs of the Spirit are signs not of the importance of the individuals who receive these manifestations but of the love of God. It is God who is the source of spiritual gifts, and it is God who is to be acknowledged and thanked continually.

Those who believe in Jesus Christ are those who are ‘in Christ.’ Their lives are rooted in God through Christ. Paul reminds his converts of this when he gives thanks that they have been enriched ‘in him’ (1:5), that is, ‘in Christ’. The lives of the Corinthian believers are lived as gift in the rich sphere of Christ. Their quarrelling and self-satisfaction (1 Corinthians 1:10-12; 4:8) are a denial of the reality of their new lives.

Not only is Paul worried that the Corinthian believers have focused on themselves rather than on God when they experience manifestations of the Spirit, but he is also worried that they are deluded into thinking that what is now is all there is.

The Corinthian believers had exceptional spiritual experiences. Several lengthy passages later in 1 Corinthians give a window into a church community that was bursting with signs of God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 12 and 14). These experiences were so powerful that some of the Corinthian believers thought they now had been given the completion of what God offers in Christ. They felt they had no need to hope or wait for more. The touch of the Holy Spirit in their lives was so exciting and profound that they thought they had all God wanted to give them.

Paul thinks the opposite: to think that this life–even if it is marvelously imbued with a sense of God’s Spirit–is all God offers is dead wrong, because it misses the key to God’s grace in Christ Jesus. God in Christ gives life; life that never ends; life that lives after physical death. This is why Paul claims “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection of Christ insures that those who believe in Christ will also be raised. In other words, there is more, much more, than the life before physical death. As wonderful as this life may be, if it is filled with experiences of God’s Spirit, it is not all there is.

And so at the beginning of this letter Paul gives thanks that the Corinthian converts “are not lacking in any spiritual gift” as they “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, the function of the spiritual gifts they have−the purpose of their experiences of the Holy Spirit−is not in order to make this life enjoyable. It is for the purpose of being able to wait for what Paul calls ‘the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’ and to be able to arrive ‘blameless’ on that day.

What some of the Corinthian believers either denied or had forgotten was that their lives were to participate in the narrative of Christ. Once they were incorporated into Christ through faith, their lives were to follow the shape of Christ’s life. There are aspects of Christ’s life which of course are not to be imitated. However, Christ’s obedient faith, Christ’s suffering for the sake of others, Christ’s death and resurrection–these narrative episodes of Christ’s life are to be re-enacted by those who by faith live ‘in Christ’.

Some of the Corinthians thought that belief in Christ took them directly to the resurrection. Paul makes fun of this view. In chapter four of 1 Corinthians he derides this opinion: “Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings!” (4:8) Paul contrasts their view with his life and the lives of his fellow apostles–“we have become a spectacle for the world, to angels and to people. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless….” (1 Corinthians 4:9-11). Paul’s words sound almost spiteful. Perhaps such strong irony is the only way Paul thinks he can wake his converts out of their self-satisfaction and their delusion.

Paul wants the Corinthians to realize that they are not yet at the resurrection; they are waiting for it. They have their clocks set all wrong. This is the time of waiting for the end. This is the time of expectation. And during this time, it is essential to participate in the life of Christ which preceded the resurrection–in faithful obedience, in willingness to suffer for the sake of others, in dying to sin.

In this passage Paul assures the Corinthians not only that they must do these difficult things but that they are able to do these difficult things; they are able to wait, they are able to be obedient, to suffer, to die to sin. In Paul’s word, they are able to be ‘blameless’ because of the grace of God.

They, and we, have been given what is necessary in order to live purely as we wait for the end; as we wait for the resurrection. The Corinthians, and we, have been given every spiritual gift that is required. So we can wait, and wait well. What we wait for is ‘the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’, which Paul describes in Technicolor in a later chapter: at that day ‘all shall be made alive’ (15:22); and death will be destroyed (15:26). In that day “God may be everything to everyone” (15:28). The goal of waiting is not only to reach that day, but to reach it, as Paul says, ‘blameless’ (1:7).

Paul is convinced that God in Christ has given those ‘in Christ’ everything they need in order to wait well for ‘the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’.