Lectionary Commentaries for December 7, 2008
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:1-8

Paul S. Berge

To an observant reader, one notes that the first verse in the gospel of Mark does not contain a main verb: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).

The significance of this observation is to see that these words do not compose a sentence; they rather serve to express the title of the gospel of Mark. Whatever story, miracle, parable, exorcism, teaching or narrative event of Jesus is in the gospel of Mark, it is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. This beginning takes place in our hearing or reading of the gospel of Mark. The words of this gospel break into our lives with the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The good news begins with the witness of two prophetic texts from Malachi and Isaiah that announce a forerunner who will go before the coming of God’s Messiah. A messenger of God will go “ahead of you” (Malachi 3:1), one who will: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Isaiah 40:3). The faith in which God’s people have lived in Messianic hope serves as the inaugural word, bringing together the anticipation and fulfillment times of God’s salvation.

The messenger, witness, and forerunner of this time of fulfillment is John the baptizer. The Second Sunday of Advent in Year B focuses on the person of John. In our text from the gospel of Mark, we hear an extensive description of John’s identity. He lives in the wilderness near the river Jordan where Jesus is baptized. The baptism he offers is for his people from the Judean countryside as “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4).

John’s baptism is preparatory in anticipation for the coming of the Messiah. John even draws people from the city of Jerusalem, the city of religious leaders, who “were baptized by him (John) in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (1:5). John’s baptism of repentance and forgiveness is a call to the people of Judea and those in the city of Jerusalem to turn from their godless ways and receive the forgiveness that is present in God.

The description of John stretches our imagination. He is identified as a wilderness man: “John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey” (1:6). However, the primary intention of John was not to draw attention to himself, but to the one of whom he is the forerunner: “‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals'” (1:7). John’s role is that of a servant to the one he is called to serve.

The baptism of this one who is to come is radically different from that of John’s baptism: “‘I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit'” (1:8). This is the role that John plays out in a significant way, calling attention to the one who ushers in God’s kingdom. Jesus is the Messiah whose ministry is empowered by God’s Spirit.

The baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan is a baptism in which the manifestation of the Holy Spirit is evident: “And just as he was coming up out of the water, [Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1:10). The voice from heaven confirms who Jesus is: “And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased'” (1:11).

John fulfills the role of the one who is the forerunner, the one who is called to make known “the Messiah, the Son of God” (1:1), “the Lord” (1:3), the one who “will baptize with the Holy Spirit” (1:8), and the one who is “my (God’s) Son, the Beloved” (1:11). Within the opening verses of the gospel we are introduced to Jesus, and we see and hear for ourselves the one who is “the beginning of the good news” (1:1).

This is the one who has come, who is present, and who is to come again. We too are called to announce and make known God’s Son in this season of Advent. Like the witness of John, we too are witnesses to the one who incarnates “the beginning of the good news, the gospel” (1:1).

At the midpoint of the gospel, in the story of the transfiguration (9:2-13), we will again hear God’s voice from heaven announcing the role and mission of Jesus: “Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him” (9:7). As we move into the second half of the gospel of Mark, we are called to listen to the final teachings and deeds of Jesus, along with the witness present in “the Son of Man (who) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

At the end of the gospel in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, we will again see the identity of Jesus made known as “the Son of God” (1:1). Throughout the gospel, the unclean and demonic spirits know who Jesus is as he has engaged in battle with them and the powers of this world. As the heavens were “torn apart” (1:10) at Jesus’ baptism, the temple curtain is “torn in two from top to bottom” at Jesus’ death (15:38). At the cross of crucifixion, we hear for the first time in the gospel of Mark the identity of Jesus as the Son of God on the lips of a human witness in the words of the Roman centurion: “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39).

From “the beginning,” the evangelist Mark leads us through the pages of the gospel with the intention and goal of seeing Jesus Christ as the one who is the crucified and risen Lord. This is not only the beginning of the good news, the gospel, but in Jesus’ death and resurrection we have the fulfillment of all the aeons of time in Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist leads us in this Advent season to the one who is our Lord, whose birth we await and whose reign in eternity will never end. This is “the beginning of the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

Samuel Giere

With these opening words of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), the prophet offers a balm for the festering wounds of exile.

Against the prophetic backdrop of First Isaiah and the experiential backdrop of the people’s life in exile, the prophet’s message is that in spite of and in the midst of human misery the Lord continues to be the God who speaks and acts. The Lord’s power is both vastly unimaginable and revealed in care and tenderness.

Textual Horizons
While certainly not without words of hope, Isaiah (chapters 1-39) consistently confronts the people with their idolatry and consistent practice of putting their ultimate trust in that which is not the Lord, causing them to see the world inside−out and upside−down:

“Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!…for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 5:20-21, 24b)

Within the theological framework of Isaiah, this idolatry causes all sorts of pain and suffering, reaching its peak with the Day of the Lord, an eschatological moment when the Lord’s judgment will be all encompassing:

“On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth. They will be gathered together like prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished.” (Isaiah 24:21-22)

This is a picture is of an all-encompassing brokenness in heaven and on earth, and a rupture between God and God’s people and creation.

These words from earlier in Isaiah are not empty words, either. The expectations of the Lord’s judgment are matched by the experience of the now exiled people. With Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple in ruins behind them, the people were marched off to Babylon — displaced from their home, the Promised Land. As the psalmist cries out:

“By the waters of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion”. (Psalm 137:1)

Isaiah 40.1-11
Second Isaiah begins not on earth but in heaven. A general scholarly consensus is that the opening verses (vv.1-5) are an exchange within the heavenly court (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-23) — the “nerve center of the universe.”1  With the plural imperatives, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” the Lord exerts the Lord’s dominion over heaven and earth and all therein. The Lord’s dominion, however, is not rooted in the power of violence or destruction, but in comfort. With the tone of “speak tenderly” (v.2), the Lord announces to the heavenly courtiers the Lord’s divine disposition to the chosen people, and, in the distinctive fashion of Second Isaiah, ultimately to the whole world. The penalty of Jerusalem’s sins has now been paid.

Within this courtly setting, the voice of the Lord is overheard (vv.1-2), followed by another heavenly voice (vv.3-5), presumably of a heavenly messenger:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)

This unnamed heavenly voice calls for a radical transformation of earthly topography in prelude to a mind-blowing revelation of the glory of the Lord (cf. Exodus 24:16; Ezekiel 43:5) to all people. Not just Judah and Jerusalem, but all people ‘as one’ are to see it.

The concluding section of the pericope is the heavenly call of the prophet of Second Isaiah. “What shall I cry?” the prophet asks. In summary, the message of this prophet is a mix of impermanence and permanence, power and tenderness. The people are, ‘like grass,’ part of the created order, impermanent, not God. The word of the Lord, however, is permanent, steadfast, and powerful. Who has such a word? It is the Lord God with ultimate power over death and life revealed as a shepherd gathering the lambs closely, holding them gently. This is the Lord whom the prophet is called to proclaim: “Here is your God!” (v.9)

Preaching Horizons
The traditional Advent tie with this pericope is Isaiah 40:3ff., the prophet license for John the Baptizer (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4-6, John 1:23). Within the biblical and traditional fabric of the Church, this pericope prefigures the Baptizer’s heralding of Emmanuel. In many a sanctuary on this Second Sunday of Advent, the hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People,”2  will resonate in the hearts and voices of peoples gathered, mystically drawing together the saints far and near, past, present, and future. Such singing brings the unnamed voice from the heavenly court still to the present calling for radical transformation and the expectation of all as one seeing the glory of the Lord.

Both Calvin and Luther read this chapter as clear Gospel, with Calvin boldly asserting that “this passage comprehends the whole Gospel in a few words.”3 


1Paul D Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995), 18.
2Johann G. Olearius, 1653-1711, tr. Catherine Winkworth, 1829-1878.
3John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. III (trans. Wm. Pringle; 7 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948) 3:212.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Rolf Jacobson

The psalm assigned for last week (Advent 1) included a thrice-repeated refrain that included the petition, “Restore us, O God” (80:3, 7, 19).

This week’s psalm expands on the motif of restoration. In v. 1, the psalm recalls that God had “restored the fortunes of Jacob” in the past. In v. 4 it renews the plea, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation.” The epithet given to God is especially telling: “God of our salvation.” Philip Melancthon famously taught that to know Christ is to know Christ’s benefits, rather than his natures. That is, true knowledge of God is more than the granting of intellectual assent to ideas about God. True knowledge also includes having one’s being grasped by God’s promises and knowing that one’s life flows from God’s blessings. Psalm 85 and Melancthon sing in the same choir. For Psalm 85, to know God is to experience God’s saving acts, to know that we are caught up in the melody of God’s saving acts, and to know that the Lord is the “God of our salvation.”

Scholars differ in how they understand the overall movement or argument of this prayer for help. The interpretation presented here understands the psalm as unfolding in four movements or stanzas:

  • The community thanks God for past deliverance (vv. 1-3)
  • The community calls for renewed deliverance (vv. 4-7)
  • The community prays for God’s word to be revealed (vv. 8-9)
  • The community receives the promise of God’s deliverance (vv. 10-13)

The psalm, then, is understood as a liturgy in which the community prays for God’s intervention and receives that promise from God.

As in most psalms, the type of “restoration” that the original pray-ers of this psalm hoped for has been obscured by the passage of time. Perhaps they hoped for return from exile (vv. 1b, 4-6). Perhaps they sought forgiveness for some national sin (v. 2). Perhaps a prophet had announced some national sin that they people had committed that this psalm was a prayer seeking forgiveness (vv. 7, 9). Perhaps the land was enduring a famine and hoped for a bountiful harvest (v. 12). The obscurity of the psalm on this point is actually a blessing, since it allows communities suffering from any manner of crises to pray this prayer.

There are two main theological themes woven into the psalm. On the one hand, there is the theme of our ongoing need for God’s intervention (vv. 4-8). We do not receive God just once–whether at baptism or at some conversion experience–we receive God again and again. We receive blessing, forgiveness, guidance, instruction, and Son–and we receive all of these throughout our lives. The purpose of remembering what God has done in the past–of knowing both God’s actions of “law” and of “gospel”–is to know what God can and will do again.

On the other hand, the psalm also develops the theme of God’s restoring acts–“Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice with you?” (v. 6; or, perhaps, the verse should be translated, “so that your people may rejoice in you.”) The psalm bears witness to the faith that God has acted in the past (vv. 1-3), but even more, it bears witness to the confession that God is present now and able to act now. It promises that the one who established a covenant with Israel will remain faithful in the future and will continue to deliver Israel (vv. 10-13).

The transition between the psalm’s third (vv. 8-9) and fourth (vv. 10-13) sections has been the cause of some debate. Some think of vv. 10-13 as an oracle delivered by a priest in response to a request to “hear what God the Lord will speak” (v. 8). If so, then the end of the psalm is a new development–in theory, the priest might have delivered a negative or condemning word for God, and thus the psalm could have ended a different way. Another view sees the psalm as a fixed liturgy, as the words “for he will speak peace to his people” suggest. No matter which historical reconstruction one follows, the theological point is the content of the promises with which the psalm ends.

In the psalm’s closing verses, God’s attributes of steadfast love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace are anthropomorphized as tangible forces that act at God’s behest and on the people’s behalf. The poem portrays these rather abstract qualities of God as concrete realities that embody “God’s benefits” for the people. Steadfast love and faithfulness meet. Righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs up from the ground like the first flower of spring. Righteousness looks down like the sun from the heavens. The psalm poetically promises that these abstract qualities of the Creator are, in fact, as real as the more obviously tangible material creations that surround us. Within creation, God’s love is really present and incarnate for us in God’s faithfulness, steadfast love, righteousness, and peace.

Where are these qualities more present and incarnate, than in the one who was born of a virgin in Bethlehem’s stall?


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a

L. Ann Jervis

The believers to whom Peter writes have, in his view, two interrelated problems: they doubt the coming of Christ and they are drawn to immoral living.

Peter wants to remind (1:12) those believers who “have obtained a faith of equal standing” (1:1) of what they have been given by belief. The focus and core of their belief is the righteousness of God and Christ. Conviction about God’s righteousness grants everything that is needed for believers to share in God’s righteousness. In fact, believers can expect to “become partakers of the divine nature” (1:4). They can expect to become like God and have life and godliness (1:3).

Conviction about God’s and Christ’s righteousness is not simply a collection of ideas about the character of God and Christ. Faith in God’s and Christ’s righteousness includes the belief that because God and Christ are righteous, all that is not righteous will be destroyed. The righteousness of God and Christ means that what is evil will not last. It cannot last. The righteousness of God and Christ means that all that opposes the pure goodness of God and Christ has a limited shelf life.

The premise upon which this letter is based is the righteousness of God and Christ is stronger than sin and wickedness. Further, sin and wickedness, unlike God and Christ, will come to an end.

Despite the letter’s chilling references to the punishments in store for the wicked (e.g., 2:4-6)–inspiration no doubt for Dante’s Inferno–Peter’s focus is not on the negative but on the positive. The good news is the righteousness of God and Christ will one day be all there is. One day there will be no evil. One day there will only be the divine nature. The divine nature has many aspects to it, but all of these are aspects of love (1:4-7). One day there will only be love.

In order for the righteousness of God and Christ to be all in all, what is now must come to an end. Peter is certain that the present heavens and the earth must be destroyed in order for the purity of the divine nature to fill creation. Peter is convinced that there will be a new creation–“new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (1:13).

The author recognizes that this idea is preposterous to some. He defends his views with the argument that God has done this before: the first creation was destroyed by water (3:5-6). Peter thinks that he knows how the present creation will be destroyed–it will be consumed by fire: “The heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works of that are upon it will be burned up” (3:10).

This is the only place in the New Testament where the day of the Lord is described in this manner. The New Testament writings agree, by and large, that a cataclysmic event is in the offing when God, with the agency of Christ, will set everything right. They disagree on whether there will be intelligible signs of the impending day (for instance, 1 Thessalonians [5:4], like 2 Peter, claims the day will come like a thief in the night, whereas 2 Thessalonians [2:1-4] argues that there will be a visible signal that the end is near). They also disagree on whether what is will be destroyed (2 Peter) or will ‘pass away’ (Revelation 21:1) or whether it will be renewed (e.g., Romans 8:18-23), perhaps in light of the revelation of the true and eternal heaven (Hebrews 9:24).

Peter is clearly of the opinion that what now exists is so badly tainted and stained that God will burn it with such an intensity that nothing will be left. In Peter’s view, all that is will be dissolved. The slate of creation will be wiped completely clean. This thought is not unique to Peter, although it is unique to the New Testament scriptures. Other Jewish and Greek thinkers of Peter’s day believed there would be a cosmic fire that would destroy all things (e.g., from Qumran, 1 QH iii.29-35; Stoic writers expected a cosmic conflagration).

Peter’s view on the means of getting to the good future does not need to be ours. It was certainly not the view of other early Christians who comprise our canon.

More fundamental than the mechanics of arriving at the day of the Lord is Peter’s certainty that what is will not last as it is, and his conviction that part of faith in the righteousness of God and Christ is expectation for the coming of Christ. The hope and promise of the ‘coming’, or, in Greek, of the parousia of Christ (1:16), is an essential and critical aspect of faith in the righteousness of God. The two go hand in hand.

Here Peter is in sync with other early believers whose views we see in the New Testament. The day of God, when God will judge the world and put an end to any opposition to righteousness, is the same as the coming of Christ. Christ’s coming is at once the judgment of God on unrighteousness (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46).

Peter is worried that his fellow believers are tempted to believe those he calls ‘scoffers’−people who ask, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (3:4).

We might sympathize with those believers. It seems nonsensical to live life waiting for everything to be put right by God. Moreover, it is difficult to understand why, if God is so concerned with ridding God’s world of sin and wickedness, God should wait so very long. It appears to make much more sense to think of the parousia as a fairytale and to believe that what is will go on forever.

Peter does not agree. He thinks it is dangerous and life-threatening to scoff at the coming day of God, at the parousia of Christ. God’s righteousness means that there will be a day of reckoning. Christ’s righteousness means he will participate in the cleansing judgment of God. The present status quo will end.

Peter’s proof for this is that it will not be the first time the world will have been destroyed (3:5); and that both his scriptures, our Old Testament and the inspired word of the apostles (3:2), have said it would be so. There is no doubt in Peter’s mind; and he takes it as essential to faith to believe this. Moreover, he warns his readers that doubt about the day of the Lord leads directly to what he calls “licentiousness” (2:2).

Peter muses about why God may be taking so long: “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (3:8). We are on human time which is different from God’s time. Peter also suggests that God is waiting because in fact God does not want to enact a judgment. God’s preferred option is that everyone would repent so that there would be nothing to judge (3:9).

Whatever we might make of Peter’s attempt to read the mind of God on this issue, his main point is that God will not let evil go on forever. There will be an end.

Life during the time of waiting for the end is to be lived in light of the good future. Since what is coming is a creation cleansed of sin–“new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwell” (3:13)–now is a time for believers to live what will be. Earlier in the letter, Peter gives a prescription for how to live for the future: “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with sisterly and brotherly kindness, and such kindness with love.” (1:5-7).

Peter sees an inextricable connection between expectation of the advent of Christ and purity of life.