Lectionary Commentaries for November 29, 2009
First Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 21:25-36

David Lose

Advent is a season that messes with our sense of time.

While we typically live with a fairly linear view of time — one event coming after another — the church’s liturgical and lectionary calendar is cyclical — patterns of events repeating themselves. For this reason, the church year that begins in Advent puts in front of us passages about the end of history before moving in later weeks to prepare us for the coming of the Christ child and the dawn of a new age. While this may explain why we begin Advent with the second half of an apocalyptic address by Jesus, it hardly makes preaching these verses any easier. Attending to the intersection of the historical context of the passage and the cultural context of our hearers, however, may provide some guidance.

Historical Context

The message recorded by Luke greatly resembles the scene in Mark on which it is probably based (13:24-37). The subtle differences, however, offer a picture of the circumstances of the Christian community Luke is addressing. In particular, it is clear that Luke’s community is also wrestling with the question of time or, more accurately, timing. In particular, the question at hand is when the promised return of Jesus and consummation of history will occur. Whereas Mark seems to tie these events to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Luke — writing nearly two decades later — distances the promised end of history and the Temple’s destruction. Luke is, in fact, down right vague about when Jesus will return, refusing to offer any hint of a timetable. Instead, Luke asserts that, just as budding fig leaves unmistakably herald the advent of summer, so also will the signs of the coming kingdom be transparent to the Christian community. The emphasis therefore shifts from when these things will happen (21:7), to the proper disposition of the discipleship community (21:34ff.).

Christians should be alert, ready for the coming of the end. They should therefore not be caught up in either the excessive pleasures or worries of the day, but rather remain watchful. At the same time, Christians should be confident, eager for the events Jesus describes as they signal the approach of the deliverance of the Christian community. Indeed, the events Jesus describes will be most worrisome for the “world” and the “powers of heaven” (21:26). Interestingly, the word usually translated as “world” isn’t the more general kosmos but rather oikoumene, which conveys the more specific sense of the political and economic realm and sometimes signifies the Roman Empire. The coming of the Son of Man will therefore be threatening to the powers that be, but it will bring release from oppression for the followers of Christ.

Both 1) the distance Luke puts between the events of his day and the end of time, and 2) the emotional tenor of watchful confidence he calls for create space for the mission of the church. In early verses in this chapter (21:12-19), in fact, Luke seems to anticipate the later story of Acts that he will write as the events Jesus describes foreshadow many of the major episodes in the life of the early church as Luke depicts it. For this reason, whatever rumors Luke’s community may have heard about the coming end, and no matter what rumors may yet come, the Christian community is to remain steadfast in its ministry, trusting that Jesus will provide the necessary words and inspiration so that the discipleship community may witness to the gospel through word, deed, and prayer in any and all situations.

Present Context

Apocalyptic texts come across to most of our hearers as alien, strange, even off-putting. Truth be told, whatever worries we may occasionally harbor about nuclear or environment holocaust, most of us express little day-to-day concern about the end of the world and even less about Jesus’ second coming. In this respect, we may feel that we live at a great distance from Luke’s audience.

At the same time, we are as intimately acquainted as they were with the challenges presented by waiting for an event that seems late in coming. We may be waiting for an event on a national or global scale like economic recovery, an end to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, or concerted international action to reduce pollution. Or we may be waiting an event on a personal level like the results from a biopsy, a letter from an estranged child, or the safe return of a loved one from a tour of duty. Whatever the case, we know the challenge of waiting, the stress of waiting, the anxiety of waiting.

In this context, Luke offers us a perspective that, while it will not remove our waiting, it may affect its character. We live, according to Luke, between the two great poles of God’s intervention in the world: the coming of Christ in the flesh and his triumph over death – in this regard we should not forget that these verses serve as the hinge between Jesus’ teaching and his passion — and the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time and his triumph over all the powers of earth and heaven. This “in-between time,” though fraught with tension, is nevertheless also characterized by hope as both the beginning and the ending of the story of the Church — and therefore of our story — which has been secured by Christ. We are therefore free to struggle, to wait, to work, to witness — indeed to live and die — with hope because we know the end of the story.

From Moses to Martin Luther King, Jr., history is full of examples of those who, because they had been to the mountaintop, had peered into the promised land, and had heard and believed the promise of a better future, found the challenges of the present not only endurable, but hopeful. We, too, amid the very real setbacks, disappointments, or worries of this life, can “stand up and raise [our] heads” because we have heard Jesus’ promise that our “redemption draws near.”


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

On this first Sunday of Advent, one cannot read the prophecy of a “righteous Branch” springing up for David in anything but a messianic light.

And that is a theologically sound way of reading this passage from Jeremiah. It is worth noting, however, the circumstances in which the prophecy was first spoken and heard.

Though it is likely that this particular section of Jeremiah’s prophecy is a later addition (33:14-26 is lacking in the Septuagint), in its current literary context, the promises are spoken to address a dire situation. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, are advancing on Jerusalem. The streets of Jerusalem will soon be filled with the corpses of her people (33:4-5), and the prophet Jeremiah himself is imprisoned by King Zedekiah (33:1).

The worst has not yet happened, but it is inevitable. Any reasonable person can see that the city is doomed. Jeremiah’s many prophecies of judgment–prophecies that have landed him in prison–are coming true. Yet now, in the midst of catastrophe, the prophet finally speaks words of promise! In the previous chapter, he has purchased a piece of land, a foolish thing to do in a country soon to be conquered by invading armies. Nevertheless, he has purchased the land as a pledge, as earnest of God’s redemption: “For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15). In the midst of impending doom, a sign of hope is enacted.

Similarly, in chapter 33, the prophet speaks of the coming restoration, the restoration of normal, everyday life. There will come a time in the land of Judah when “there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” (33:10-11).

And now, in this passage, Jeremiah speaks of the restoration not simply of daily life (as momentous as that is), but also of one of the chief signs of God’s favor, the restoration of the Davidic line. A righteous Branch will sprout from the line of David. A similar image is found in Isaiah 11:1–“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The image is one of hope and unexpected joy: new life springing up from what looks like a dead stump.

One of the chief tragedies of the Babylonian Exile, of course, was the end of the Davidic dynasty. For nearly four hundred years, descendants of David had occupied the throne of Judah, and God had promised that it would always be so (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89). But the Babylonians destroyed David’s city, burned Solomon’s temple, and took David’s heirs into exile. The promises of God seemed to have come to an end.

To a people devastated by loss, Jeremiah’s prophecy offered hope: “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (33:14). All might seem lost, but God still is faithful. The house of David might be cut down, but God is able to bring life out of death. A branch will sprout.

Historically, of course, the Davidic line did not return to the throne, so passages like this (and its parallel, Jeremiah 23:5-6), were in time interpreted to be speaking about the coming ideal ruler, the Messiah. That is certainly the reason this passage is one of the lectionary readings for the first Sunday in Advent. The descendant of David who will “execute justice and righteousness in the land” is the one for whom we wait in this Advent season. And his salvation encompasses not just Judah and Jerusalem, but the whole world.

Such is the word of promise and hope in this text. The preacher should also acknowledge, however, that like Jeremiah, he or she speaks these words in a time when many are experiencing great loss: loss of job, of security, of home. While there are no invading armies on the doorstep (at least not in the North American context), many parishioners will resonate with the fear and hopelessness of Jeremiah’s original audience. The preacher would do well to speak about that historical situation so that the words of promise and hope are heard in all their power.

A righteous Branch will spring up. It is a word of hope, but not naïve hope. Jeremiah is not someone who looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. Far from it! This is a prophet imprisoned by his own government because he keeps prophesying doom.

A righteous Branch will spring up. Maybe so, but that saving act of God is not readily apparent in Jeremiah’s or Judah’s current situation, dreading the imminent arrival of enemy armies.

A righteous Branch will spring up. This word of tenacious hope is spoken to counteract all of the life-sapping, despair-inducing evidence to the contrary. And that is its power.

The same proclamation is given today to us, inheritors of Jeremiah’s task. We are called to speak a word of hope and promise in a world often filled with fear and uncertainty, even despair. Especially in this season of Advent, we speak words of hope. In the midst of darkness, light is about to break in. In the midst of despair, hope erupts. After long waiting, a branch will sprout. The complete fulfillment of God’s promises has not yet happened, but it is coming. Such is Advent faith, and Advent hope.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

Jerome Creach

Psalm 25:1-10 appears three times in the Revised Common Lectionary:

in ordinary time (Proper 21), on the first Sunday of Lent, and on the first Sunday of Advent. This varied use of the psalm testifies to its sweeping content and broad application to the life of faith.

The psalm is an alphabetic acrostic. Each line begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the first with aleph (verse 1) and proceeding to taw (verse 21). The final verse stands outside this arrangement. It concludes the psalm with a petition to God on behalf of Israel. The acrostic form suggests the psalm is a literary product. It was likely composed as a broad and inclusive statement of faith. Therefore, it is understandable that the work fits numerous occasions in the church year.

This psalm reads like the complaint of an individual person who calls on God for help and professes faith that God will answer. Psalms of this type dominate the Psalter. They have a recognizable form that is evident in Psalm 25 also: such psalms typically begin with complaint or petition (see verses 1-12); they usually include a description of trouble and suffering (verses 16, 19) as well as assurance that God will hear and answer the plea (verses 12, 13-15).

Although Psalm 25 has this form, it seems to have been written as a model prayer, based on the cries of individuals to God in earlier psalms. The fact that model prayers like this appear in the Psalter indicates how important it is regularly to recite words that call us to faith and dependence on God.

Psalm 25:1-10 expresses some of the most central and important theological themes in the Psalter (and in the Bible): dependence on God for protection from enemies (verses 1-2); requests for God to direct and teach (verses 4-5); confession of sin and cries for forgiveness (verses 6-10; cf. verses 11-12); and confidence in God’s abiding presence and faithfulness (verses 6, 10). References to “waiting” for God make this section of the psalm particularly appropriate for Advent (verses 3, 5; cf. verse 21). 

Psalm 25 begins with a reference that indicates dependence and humility. To lift the hands toward God was for ancient Israelites a posture of prayer and supplication. The expression “I lift my soul” is a metaphor for what the outstretched hands meant (verse 1). It indicates that the person is open to God’s grace, leadership, and direction. The outstretched soul does not depend on self, but on God.

The psalmist’s trust in God implied in verse 1 becomes explicit in verse 2 (“in you I trust”). Then the psalmist asks not to be “put to shame” (verse 2). This petition concerns the view of the psalmist in the community. As verse 3 makes clear, however, it is not a petty or purely personal plea. Rather, the psalmist asks God to set public opinion in order according to faithfulness to God. Verses 4-5 then show that the psalmist’s dependence on God is intended to lead to a right way of life. 

Verse 6 asks God to “remember” (NRSV “be mindful”) God’s faithfulness in the past. It asks specifically to recall “mercy” and “steadfast love.” “Steadfast love” here translates a form of the Hebrew word hesed, a particularly rich theological term that refers to God’s covenant faithfulness. The psalmist says God’s mercy and steadfast love are “from of old.” While the meaning of this reference is uncertain (it could simply refer to the dim and distant past; see Genesis 6:4), the psalmist may have in mind God’s goodness to Israel after the exodus from Egypt recorded in Exodus 34.

Just a few verses later verse 10 includes a cluster of terms, including hesed, that also recall this portion of Exodus: “steadfast love,” (Exodus 34:6), “faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6), and “covenant” (Exodus 34:10). Although verse 11 is not included in the lectionary reading, it is helpful to note that it too includes terms that seem to have Exodus 34 in mind (“pardon” in Exodus 34:9 and “guilt” in Exodus 34:7, 9). Exodus 34 tells how God forgave Israel for making the golden calf (the event itself is reported in Exodus 32). The golden calf episode was essentially the original sin for the people of Israel. Israel remembered above all that God was “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 34:6). The psalmist calls on that character in Psalm 25:6-10.

In verses 7-10, the psalmist asks God for forgiveness and guidance and affirms God’s gracious instruction. Thus, the psalmist appeals to God’s graciousness to the people of Israel for pardon from individual sin and guilt. Verse 7 uses the word “remember” two times (as in the opening of verse 6). The first occurrence asks God to “not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” The second instance asks God instead to “remember me” in accordance with God’s steadfast love. Verses 8-10 return to declarations about God and God’s instruction. But these verses characterize God’s instruction with the terms “steadfast love” and “faithfulness,” just as earlier verses called on such divine mercy when asking for forgiveness.  

Psalm 25:1-10 speaks to the church in Advent with themes of faith and dependence on God that are crucially important. As the believer anticipates God’s salvation, he or she displays the kind of dependence on God that characterizes the whole psalm and the whole Christian faith. Such waiting is not passive, however. The person who waits for the Lord must be attentive to what God will do. Prayer and reflection are the main expressions of this waiting. Such active waiting, in turn, naturally encourages kindness and compassion to others. Verse 9 says this directly: “He leads the humble in what is right.”  


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Michael Joseph Brown

Love epitomizes all social obligations.

This may be the “take away” lesson from today’s epistle reading. Still, the organization of the reading is somewhat odd because 3:9-13 has two parts and comes at a transition in the letter to the Thessalonians. The first part, 3:9-10, represents the closing of an earlier part of the letter (i.e., 2:17-3:10). The second part, 3:11-13, is a prayer that moves the hearers toward the topics addressed in the remainder of the correspondence.

The occasion for the letter appears to be a response to Paul’s concern that the Thessalonians may have turned their backs on him, especially since they appear to have suffered some hardship after Paul preached the Gospel to them (see 1:6). In order to find out how the Thessalonians were faring, and to determine whether they still esteemed him as their founder, the apostle sent Timothy to Thessalonica. Timothy returns with a very positive report (possibly even a letter from the congregation), and Paul writes this letter to the church.1 

It was common in Paul’s day to thank the gods upon receipt of a letter. Here the thanksgiving is in the form of a rhetorical question, “How can we thank God enough for you . . . ?” Timothy’s report has gladdened Paul’s heart, reaffirmed the love of the Thessalonian congregation for him, and further stimulated his desire to visit them. Notice that Paul says that the Thessalonians were the ground for his comfort (3:7), but it is God whom the apostle thanks. The implication is that he could never thank God enough. In fact, the language here is deeply personal as Paul’s focus intensifies. For example, the pronoun “you” appears ten times in 3:6-10 (e.g., 3:7: “because of you,” “your faith;” 3:8: “if you stand fast;” 3:9: “for you,” “on your account”). This is underscored by what follows.

The language here becomes very intense. “Night and day we pray most earnestly,” he says, “to see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith” (3:10). The Greek verb deomenoi, translated in the NRSV as “we pray,” is a gentler and more elegant rendition of the term than its potentially cruder translation, “begging.” It is the same verb found in Romans 1:10 used in a similar context. It conveys a sense of personal need.

The intensity of Paul’s statement is further illustrated by the phrase “night and day” and the adverb “earnestly.” Paul’s invocation of prayer language — his petition — is to see the Thessalonians and to complete what is lacking in their faith. Timothy’s visit stabilized them in their faith (3:3). Now Paul wants to visit them to augment it. He indicates there is some deficiency present. The meaning of the apostle’s statement has been made difficult because the verbs katartizein (“to restore”) and hysterēma (“whatever is lacking”) are infrequent. Moreover, it is a somewhat challenging to determine how these verbs are related to the Thessalonians’ faith.

Faith here means one’s total response to God, something that can be deemed inadequate or deficient (e.g., Romans 14:1; 2 Corinthians 10:15). The term hysterēma was rarely used in ancient literature, and it is used only once outside of Paul’s letters (Luke 2:14). When it is found in Paul’s letters, it often has the sense of an inadequacy that can be corrected (e.g., 1 Corinthians 16:17; 2 Corinthians 9:12; 11:9; Philippians 2:30; Colossians 1:24).

Likewise, katartizein on its surface means to mend something, such as a net (e.g., Mark 1:19). Yet, Paul uses it here in a pastoral sense (as he does in Galatians 6:1). And so, the petitions for love and holiness in 3:12-13 and the fact that Paul pursues these topics in chapters four and five must be taken into consideration when we try to figure out what this deficiency might be. It could be that this pastoral letter was part of Paul’s attempt to correct “whatever is lacking in [their] faith.”

The second part of today’s reading is an extended prayer, although some scholars have called it a “benediction” and others a “prayer wish.” It may be useful to point out that this is the only place where Paul adds a prayer of this kind after a thanksgiving. Paul’s separation from the believers in Thessalonica and his desire to see them, which is the major thrust of 2:17-3:10, is repeated in 3:11. His interest in stabilizing the Thessalonians appears in 3:13. Likewise, the major topics of the remainder of the letter are already anticipated in the prayer. The holiness for which the apostle prays in 3:13 comes up again in 4:3-8. Love “for one another and for all” (3:12) is discussed in 4:9-12. The “coming of the Lord” is treated at some length in 4:13-5:10. And so, the prayer is both pastoral and paraenetic (i.e., instructive).

The two verbs pleonasai (“to increase”) and perisseuai (“to abound”) are synonyms and are used together here for the sake of emphasis (also in Romans 5:20; 2 Corinthians 4:15). Love is one of the triad of endowments — faith, love, hope — that appears in 1:3 and 5:8 as bookends to the major part of the letter. Immediately prior to today’s reading, Paul expresses his relief at Timothy’s report that the Thessalonians still love him (3:6).

What is interesting is that Paul holds up his own love as a standard for them to imitate. It is the model for their love for others. He had already reminded them of his love (2:8), but now the emphasis is on the communal dimension, “for one another and for all.” Thus, it is love, according to the apostle, that summarizes all social obligations (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:12-15). It is the cement that bonds the relations between members, as well as the larger society. Paul prays for a dramatic increase in their love with the goal of it contributing to their holiness.


1Note: The only use of the verb “preach the gospel” in this letter describes Timothy’s report on their faith.