Lectionary Commentaries for December 14, 2008
Third Sunday of Advent (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28

Paul S. Berge

The Gospel readings for the Third Sunday of Advent in Years A, B, and C focus on the person of John.

This year, the focus is on John’s role as the primary witness to Jesus, the Messiah. The Gospel of Luke gives us greater insight into the relationship of John and Jesus, but we will wait with this focus until the text assigned for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:26-38.

The opening verses of the Gospel of John bear witness to the uniqueness of Jesus’ identity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This one was in the beginning with God” (1:1-2). Jesus is God; Jesus is the Word. These identities are inseparable, and John is the first human witness to this unique relationship of the Father and the Son.

When we meet John in this gospel, we immediately see it is not by happenstance that he will play out his role as the first one to identify Jesus as the Son of God: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (1:6). God has chosen John and commissioned his role as a witness to Jesus.

John’s witness transcends all of time as he bears witness to the light that has come into a darkened world: “He (John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (1:7-9). John’s role as witness and Jesus’ role as light are inseparable.

When asked about his identity, John replied that he was not the Messiah, or a prophet announcing the Messiah, or one such as Elijah, or the prophet, Moses (1:19-21). Rather, John identifies himself as the prophetic voice of one such as the figure of Isaiah whose role in the sixth century before Christ announced the return of God’s people from their years of captivity in Babylon: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'” (1:22-23, citing Isaiah 40:3).

John’s role is to make straight the way to the one who comes as the Messiah, and he does this through his identity in the role given him by God. He is simply the witness to the one whom God has sent.

The Gospel of John identifies John in a unique way and serves as a marvelous Advent text. Unlike the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Gospel of John identifies this person only as John, and does not attach his identity as “the baptist” with his person. Only in a very unique way do we hear about the baptism of John in his words: “I baptize with water” (1:26), and in reference to Jesus, John responds, “I myself did not know him, but I came baptizing with water for this reason that he might be revealed to Israel” (1:31).

John bears witness to the baptism event in this way: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him but the one who sent to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God” (1:32-34).

These verses are not included in the assigned text for this Sunday, but they are very important in filling out the portrait of John and his role in this gospel. What we begin to see is that the figure of John in the Gospel of John plays a unique role. John is not identified as the forerunner of the Messiah, which is his role in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In the Gospel of John, he is portrayed as the primary witness to Jesus as he looks back on his relationship to Jesus. John is the first person in this gospel to bear witness and confess that Jesus is “the Son of God” (1:34). This confession is heard from a human witness not until the very end of the Gospel of Mark when we hear the confession of the centurion standing at the foot of the cross as Jesus has breathed his last: “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mark 15:39).

The role of John continues to unfold in the Gospel of John in 3:22-30; 5:31-35; 10:40-42. In these ongoing texts, it is always clear that John’s role is one of the primary witness to Jesus. John is identified as “the friend of the bridegroom” who rejoices in the presence of the bridegroom and announces: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (3:29-30). Jesus identifies the role of John: “He was a burning and shining Lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light” (5:35). Finally, many who witnessed John’s ministry of witness to the Messiah offer their highest commendation of his God-given role: “John performed no sign, but everything he said about [Jesus] was true” (10:41). His role was now complete as the evangelist John offers the final witness to the role of John: “And many believed in him [across the Jordan]” (10:42).

On this Third Sunday of Advent in Year B, we have a unique opportunity to identify the role that all persons of faith are called to by God. Each one of us who has heard the words of this text have seen the importance of John’s witness to Jesus. Like John, God commissions us to bear witness to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the one who has come in the flesh, the one who is here with us, and the one who will come again in his reign as Lord of all.

In this, there is no greater witness to the truth of God’s work of salvation.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Samuel Giere

With the Nativity of Our Lord drawing nigh, ponder this pericope in concert with Jesus’ interpretation of his sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth.

Textual Horizons — Isaiah 61:1-4
As with the First Sunday of Advent, the Old Testament reading comes from Third Isaiah (chapters 56-66); the historical context for this pericope is the dashed hopes of the earliest returnees from the Babylonian Exile. All is not as the returnees have imagined and hoped it would be.

Coming on the heels of the beautiful poem of Isaiah 60, Isaiah 61 speaks of a human agent in this Old Testament evangelical proclamation. Somewhat similar to the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12), the pericope envisions a personal agent upon whom the spirit of the Lord rests, who is anointed, and who with the good news liberates.

The verbs, in particular the infinitives in vv.1-3, herald an against−the−grain message that threatens to turn the world upside−down.

Preaching Horizons
From a Christian perspective and within the interpretive history of the Church, it is nigh on impossible to ignore the messianic overtones of this passage. While not the Gospel reading for this Third Sunday of Advent, according to Luke’s telling Jesus reads a portion of this pericope from the Isaiah scroll about himself in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30). Perhaps an interpretive cue for contemporary preaching on this Isaiah pericope can be taken from this passage in Luke.

As you recall, Jesus attends Sabbath service in his home town of Nazareth. Upon standing to read, presumably the haftorah reading — the weekly portion read from the Prophets, Jesus finds this portion of Isaiah, reading it — as it is written — in the first person:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19/Isaiah 61:1-2a with some variation)

Following liturgical practice, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it by way on an attendant to its proper place, sits down, and preaches.  He begins, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21) What becomes quickly apparent is that Jesus’ interpretation of this portion of Isaiah in light of himself did not vex those gathered. Rather, he goes on to refer to two stories of old in which God’s favor fall upon those outside of Israel rather than on those inside (1 Kings 17:8-24; 2 Kings 5:1-14). It is precisely with Jesus’ interpretation of the transformational “good news” of Isaiah 61:1 being for those outside the fold that the crowds go bonkers and threaten to throw Jesus off a cliff.

The interpretive cue at the heart of Jesus’ preaching on this text is who are identified as recipients of Isaiah’s infinitives: “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion, to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” (61:1b-3)

It is far too easy to assume that it is us, that we are the ones addressed by the infinitives, that the ‘oppressed’ (NRSV) or ‘poor’ (NIV) is a spiritualized cloak of wretchedness that we all wear.  Luther and many others with him spiritualize the ‘poor’ as the spiritually corrupt.1

Far be it from this preacher to disparage such a line of interpretation. At the same time, and in line with Jesus’ own preaching of this text, assume that these words speak not only of the spiritual but of the physical realities and to the brokenness of the world, and that the recipients of these transformative infinitives are those outside the fold, the congregation, the denomination, and the Church.

Advent is a time of waiting with both a cruciform remembrance of the incarnation of the Divine Word and anticipation of the culmination of all of history in Christ’s eschatological advent. In this midst of this transformative waiting, imagine this text with the cues of Jesus’ preaching, vexing though it may be.

1The “afflicted” in LW 17.330f.


Commentary on Psalm 126

Rolf Jacobson

The theme of restoration that began with Psalm 80 in Advent 1, and Psalm 85 in Advent 2, is continued this week in Psalm 126.

In this psalm, the theological theme of restoration is knitted together with the theme of rejoicing. The product is one of the grandest, most eloquent lyrical prayers in the Psalter.

Psalm 126 is one of a collection of poems (Psalms 120-134) known as the “Songs of Ascents.” These most likely did not all originate from a single source or for some unified purpose, but were rather collected together for some common use While interpreters cannot be one-hundred percent sure, the best guess is that the psalms of ascents were collected together in order for the faithful to use when they made pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Although one should not press the metaphor, one can make an analogy between the ancient pilgrimages that Israelites made to Jerusalem and the modern preparations that Christians make during Advent for Christmas.

The psalm has two stanzas (vv. 1-3; 4-6). Similar to the way in which Psalm 85 begins, the first stanza of Psalm 126 recalls God’s past acts of restoration (v. 1) and the emotions of joy and celebration of laughter that accompanied those saving acts. The temporal clause with which the psalm begins, “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion,” most likely has in mind the return of the people to the land following the Babylonian exile. But within the broader biblical narrative, the phrase calls many divine restorations to mind:

  • the restoration of Sarah to Abraham
  • the restoration of Joseph to Jacob and his brothers
  • the restoration of the people to the land after the Exodus
  • the restoration of the ark to the people after the Philistines captured it
  • the birth of the Messiah; the restoration of Jesus to his parents
  • the resurrection

The phrase, “we were like those who dream,” conjures to the imagination both theological and emotional meaning. In terms of theological content, “those who dream” are prophets–those who receive visions from God (see Joel 2:28-29). The meaning, then, is that the divinely wrought restoration includes the re-opening of the lines of communication between God and people. In terms of the emotional content, “those who receive visions” often experience and express ecstatic joy–like David dancing beside ark as it was brought into Jerusalem. The picture, then, is of spontaneous and uncontainable joy: “our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

The first stanza also contains what I consider to be perhaps the most surprising testimony concerning God’s gracious deeds in the entire Old Testament. The nations–that is, the people who worship other gods and often threaten Israel (cf. Psalm 124:2)–praised God. The very people who, during the years in Babylon, looked upon God’s people and “were astonished at him−so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals−these very nations witnessed the restoration of the people to their land and to their God and they said, “The Lord has done great things for them!” Thinking ahead to the New Testament, one is reminded of the non-Israelite magi coming to worship the one who was born “King of the Jews,” or the Roman centurion who announced, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Even more surprising, the nations’ testimony to God’s deeds inspires Israel to respond with its own testimony, repeating the words of the nations verbatim: “The Lord has done great things for us” (v. 3). Often in the psalms, the enemies’ words are quoted as reason for God to punish them (see, for example, Psalm 10:12-14 or the ending of Psalm 137). Here, the words of the nations are quoted approvingly. Even more shockingly, the people of God then repeat the words of the nations. Why? Because God’s gracious and faithful acts of restoration are so self-evident, even the blind nations can see them. And because the blind nations see those acts, the often-even-more blind people of God can see them, too.

The second stanza develops the themes introduced in the first stanza and rephrases them in the form of renewed appeals for restoration (this is similar to the structure of Psalm 85, lacking only the set of promises with which Psalm 85 culminates). The people ask God restore them once again, in order that they may rejoice yet again.

The psalm paints bountiful images:

  • Dry river beds coursing with torrents of water
  • Farmers weeping as they plant because they did not expect a harvest
  • Those same farmers singing joyfully as they harvest, because creation has produced an unlooked-for bounty
  • Those same farmers bearing heavy sheaves of produce as they return home from the fields

These images may reflect a prayer for rescue from drought, but they also may simply be metaphors for a people in need of God’s restoring actions in many different crises–crises of spiritual drought, of national military defeat, of plague, etc.

It should be emphasized that the closing verses of the psalm are an appeal couched in the form of imaginative wishes: “May those who….” The Advent people who approach Christmas recall God’s restorative acts in the past. They recall the testimony of the nations to God’s deliverance. They recall their own joy. And they know that until the Son of God comes again, we will be in constant and everlasting need of God’s continued restoration.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

L. Ann Jervis

This passage connects being made completely holy (oloklēron) with the coming parousia of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Paul’s conviction is that “the God of peace” will keep the “spirit and soul and body” blameless during the cataclysmic return of Christ.

Earlier, Paul has described what the return will look like: “the Lord will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). At this climactic and dramatic moment, the dead who are ‘in Christ’ will rise (4:16) and then those who are alive will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (4:17).

In our passage, Paul assures his converts that during this revolutionary event they will be protected–they will be kept unharmed (tçrçtheiç; 5:23). The God of peace is the subject of the verb “kept”. God will protect the converts during the coming of Jesus Christ.

Every aspect of their persons will be protected by God during the parousia. Believers can expect that their spirits, souls and bodies will be without blame and remain blameless during the transformation that is coming with Christ’s return. This is the only time Paul refers to human beings as having three parts: spirit, soul and body. Typically Paul speaks of only two aspects to a human person: the spirit and the body (1 Corinthians 5:3,4). Perhaps he, in essence, covers all the bases here. His intention is to emphasize that at the parousia, every possible facet of believers will be pure because God will make it so.

The significance and intrinsic relatedness of the divinely insured blamelessness of believers and the coming of Christ is underlined by Paul: “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.” (5:24). There are two features to note about the relationship of God’s protection of the purity of believers and the coming of Christ. First, the stated importance of believers appearing blameless at that event reminds us of what we have heard in previous passages during Advent–that the parousia is at once the judgment of God. Consequently, here Paul is assuring his converts that they will be on the right side of God’s judgment when Christ returns. At the outset of the letter, Paul speaks of “the wrath to come” (1:10). In our passage, which is almost at the end of the letter, Paul speaks words of assurance–they will be delivered from that wrath because there will be nothing in their spirits or their souls or their bodies to which wrath can affix itself.

Second, the fundamental reason they escape the judgment is that God will make it so. At the beginning of the letter, Paul speaks of the Thessalonians believers as “beloved by God” and “chosen” (1:4). He closes the letter by declaring that their beloved-ness, their chosen-ness, will never end. They have nothing to fear. God, who loves them and has chosen them, is faithful. God will not let them down. They will go through the coming day of the Lord unscathed, for God is faithful and will keep every fiber of their beings blameless.

At the same time as Paul here focuses attention on God’s fundamental role in keeping believers pure, he also exhorts his converts to participate in their own holiness. While God will “sanctify you wholly” (5:23), at the same time believers are to do certain things in order to grow toward that holiness. There is a partnership between God and those ‘in Christ.’ God’s part of the bargain is God is faithful and will complete the job of sanctification–making believers completely holy.

The believers’ task is to direct their energies towards the holiness God offers and enables. This includes always rejoicing, praying constantly, giving thanks in all things, not suppressing the spirit, not despising prophesying, holding fast to what is good and abstaining from every form of evil.

Some of these directions are unsurprising, given that the purpose of this set of commands (most of the directions are in the imperative mood) is to clarify how believers can help in their own process of sanctification. The command to “hold fast to the good” (my translation; 5:21) and “keep away from every visible form (eidous) of evil” (my translation; 5:22) obviously directly relate to being holy.

Other directives are less obviously related to holiness, for instance rejoicing, continual prayer, and giving thanks in all circumstances. However, in the contours of Paul’s thought, these make perfect sense as a means to sanctity. Paul thinks of joy as a characteristic of Christ. At the opening of this letter, Paul speaks of the Lord receiving the word “in much affliction, with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1:6). Since joy is part of the character of Christ, Paul regularly speaks of working alongside his converts for the goal of their joy (2 Corinthians 1:24; Philippians 1:25). Rejoicing is a means to becoming like Christ, the one who is without sin.

Prayer and thanksgiving are closely related to joy and all are responses to and reflections of trust in God through Christ. For Paul, trust in God is manifest in joy, prayer and thanksgiving. The recipe he gives his converts in Philippi for having no anxiety–that is, to be full of trust in God–is to rejoice and let their requests be made known to God in prayer and thanksgiving. The peace of God, Paul says, will then keep them in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7).

Paul thinks that trust in God should be the fundamental stance of human beings. It is the mode of life exemplified by Christ and how those who are ‘in Christ’ are to live. This is why Paul re-names his converts ‘believers’. Their primary identity after conversion to faith in Christ is belief–trust. Paul claims that the source of wickedness is lack of trust in God (Romans 1:18-25).

Indications of trust in God, such as rejoicing always, praying constantly and giving thanks in all circumstances, are a means to holiness. Trust in God is critical and essential in order to achieve sanctity.

There is a partnership between God and believers in the growth of holiness in expectation of the return of Christ. Paul is certain that God will do God’s part, for God is faithful. He directs his converts about the part they are to play.