Lectionary Commentaries for November 28, 2010
First Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44

Ben Witherington

Matthew 24:36-44 is part of a much larger passage, usually called the Olivet discourse, which discusses both events that transpired in the first century A.D. and those which as of yet have not come to pass.

Matthew 26:36-44, an appropriate text for the first Sunday in Advent, clearly falls in the latter category being a discussion of the return of Christ and the events that will accompany that return. 

Matthew 26:36, which is the Matthean form of Mark 13:32, presents us with Jesus telling his disciples that neither angels, nor ordinary human beings, nor even he himself, know the timing of his Return or Second Coming. Only the Father knows such things. This should, of course, have put an end to theological weather forecasting about the timing of the second Advent, but alas, pious curiosity is always given to speculation. But there is a difference between having great expectations, trusting God’s word is true, and making calculations, or even prognostications, which involves the second order activity of human speculation. Jesus does not encourage the latter, whilst he certainly instills in his disciples the “Blessed Hope” that he will return one day to raise the quick and dead, as the creeds affirm.

Verses 37-38 draws an analogy suggesting that the days of Christ’s return will be rather like the days of Noah when the flood came. We may well ask, “How so?”  Jesus is not returning to send a vast flood upon the earth. What the analogy is meant to convey is in each case, judgment came in the form of an event which caught the unprepared by surprise. More to the point, remembering the story of Noah, there were a host of sinful humans taken away, swept away by the flood, while Noah’s family was “left behind,” safe and sound on board the ark. 

Likewise says Jesus, when he returns, many will be taken away in judgment, but some will be left behind. This analogy with the story of Noah makes perfectly clear that Jesus is not suggesting that those taken away are more fortunate than those “left behind.” To the contrary, those taken away are taken away from judgment, while those left behind are wiping their brows, thankful that they have survived “the Great and terrible Day of the Lord.”

There is no encouragement here for dispensational theologies about the rapture of the faithful, and the judgment of those left behind on the earth. To the contrary, the polarity of the saying “two will be in the field, one will be taken one left behind.” Two women will be grinding at the mill, one will be taken, one left behind is just the opposite of the dispensational reading of the text. The left behind are those blessed who have escaped the great judgment just as Noah’s family escaped the flood.

The prudential advice, based on the predictions in verses 36-41, then is that the faithful must stay vigilant and awake, knowing that Christ will return, though the timing remains unknown. The phrase “the day or hour,” or even just the phrase “the hour,” simply means the timing. It is not suggesting that the general time frame of Christ’s return can be known in advance, but that the specific day or hour is obscure.

Here, as is always the case, God reveals enough about the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not have to live and walk by faith day after day. We have assurance about the things hoped for, and conviction about the things not yet seen, but what we do not have is a timetable in the Scriptures, nor would that have been very helpful to the faithful anyway. The person who knows for sure he will die in two days may well do all sorts of things out of character because he has a firm deadline before him and throws caution to the wind. Likewise, even a Christian person who knows Christ will certainly not return in his lifetime may well be tempted to throw caution and his morals to the wind.

The analogy of Christ’s return being like a thief in the night is an important one, and we find it also used elsewhere (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 5:2). The imagery itself implies an arrival at an unexpected or surprising time, hence the exhortation to stay awake. As verse 44 says, he will come at an unexpected time.

In the days before cell phones (B.C. as I like to call them), my grandparents used to call us up and tell us they were coming for a visit. Since they sometimes stopped various places along the way, we were not sure when they would arrive. This meant we had to always be awake and ready. It was the certainty of the coming, not the timing which motivated this behavior of being ready at any moment. So it is as well in the exhortation in Matthew 24:36-44.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5

Anathea Portier-Young

Isaiah’s vision begins with “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (2:2).

We’ve already seen this mountain: “Fair Zion,” abandoned hut, city besieged, center of a land ravaged by war (1:6-8).

After this devastation follows a new word and new days (2:2). Zion will be established, made secure, firm, and lasting. It will also be lifted above every other height, visible throughout the world.

Zion is Judah’s moral center, point of orientation, and locus of worship. It is a reminder that God has chosen this place and this people. God has promised it protection but will not hide it. Isaiah now proclaims total transparency and gift for all, with no hiding, cowering, or hoarding.

The nations will see Zion and stream like water (Hebrew naharu) toward the place of presence and worship. Water usually flows from a mountain. They will flow to it, moving toward the center.

There are two meanings of the verb naharu: “flow like a river,” and “shine in joyful radiance.” As they move toward the center, the nations will be in flux, transformed as they draw closer to God. In their transformation they will become fresh, sustained, and a source of life and growth for the earth. We also see their joy and light as they celebrate divine presence on earth and receive, reflect, and radiate the light of God.

They walk and they speak; both show their transformation. Walking is a metaphor for conduct and commitment to a moral path. In speaking to one another, they urge but do not coerce, seeking consensus across national difference.

“Let us go up,” they say to one another, “to this mountain, to the house of the God of … Jacob.”

Here our attention lands on the startlingly personal identification with Jacob, to whom God promised land, descendants, blessing, and protection, whom God promised to lead home (Genesis 28:13-15), and whose blessing for his children he declared “stronger than the blessings of the eternal mountains” (Genesis 49:26). Enemies, not children, come to the Holy Mountain and house of Jacob’s God.

Nations known for war will come now to this house and household of Jacob not to conquer or plunder, but to learn God’s ways. God’s teaching, torah, is new for them, and will soon replace the knowledge of war.

To make this possible, God will judge between the nations, deciding cases for the many and the mighty. Nations will bring to Jerusalem their desire and hunger, need and hurt, greed and grievance, and submit them to the authority of the One who is able to make peace, bridge division, and resolve conflict.

An important detail emerges here: the house of God is traditionally a place of mediation. But typically it is a place of mediation through worship, bridging the divide between people and God. In Isaiah’s vision it is still a site of mediation. But the mediator is not priest, prophet, judge, king, or worship; nor is it Israel, the chosen people. The mediator is God. The divide God bridges is between nations.

When God judges between them, they can no longer justify war. When Zion is lifted, the sword will be lifted no more (2:4). Nations will hammer their weapons into pieces.

The vision might stop there. It might stop with weapons shattered to bits, robbed of the power to destroy. But it doesn’t. The vision does not affirm destruction of any kind, nor does it reject power. It is a vision of transformed and transforming capacity. Like swords and spears, plowshares and pruning hooks are tools made with human craft from the minerals of the earth and the growth of trees. The ingenuity and skill that devised weapons of war also devised tools and technologies to cultivate rocky soil, to build terraces, and coax forth from the land the nourishment of olive, fig, grain, and grape. Isaiah sees in this same creativity the capacity to transform the machinery of warfare into a technology whose sole purpose is to sustain the life of families in God’s good land.

Now the focus shifts from nations to Jacob. “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” (Isaiah 2:5; cf. Psalm 43:3, 89:15). The call to Jacob echoes the call of the nations, but it holds a new word: light.

Light is life (Job 17:1; 18:5, 18; 33:28, 30), goodness (Job 30:26), joy (Psalm 97:11), revelation and truth (Job 12:22; Psalm 43:3). It is linked with justice and righteousness (Isaiah 59:9) and the promise of salvation (Isaiah 49:6) and healing (Isaiah 58:8).

Light is also what makes it possible to follow a path. We first hear light mentioned in connection with the people Israel during their slavery in Egypt: the plague of darkness prevents the Egyptians from seeing one another and from moving. They are frozen in place by their blindness. But “the Israelites had light where they lived” (Exodus 10:23), and with that light they were able to walk from slavery to freedom.

Light holds a similar significance in Isaiah. Elsewhere in Isaiah, God promises to “lead the blind by a road they do not know, by paths they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light” (42:16). Isaiah 60 announces that Jacob’s light has dawned: it is the glory of the Lord (60:1, 19).

What a simple summons then, to walk in the Lord’s light, in divine glory, in the path of God’s instruction. But it is not easy. What trust does it demand of God’s people, to be led by teaching and walking on the path revealed by truth? What fear must they put aside to call one another to be transformed in the practices of obedience and justice? What kind of courage enables a people to summon each other toward a future when nations who once ravaged and subjugated their homeland would call each other to the same obedience and justice, even to the same land and house?

On the first Sunday of Advent, I would love to see a sermon that not only proclaims Isaiah’s summons to walk in the light but enacts it. What teaching will bridge the divisions? What words will give courage to a people afraid to trust? When you lift your voice from the pulpit, may you hammer to pieces the weapons of war, and prepare the way for the One who brings peace.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 122

Paul S. Berge

Psalm 122 is a perfect psalm for the beginning of a new church year on this First Sunday of Advent.

Identified as “A Song of Ascents,” this psalm describes the pilgrim throng entering “the house of the Lord.” As we begin a new church year we, too, herald the glad tidings and invitation to all people: “Let us go the house of the Lord” (verse 1).

The companion texts for this First Sunday of Advent likewise herald the invitation as we hear from the prophet Isaiah: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob” (Isaiah 2:2). Here on the mountain the message of peace is proclaimed and taught. Here the prophet heralds the word that calls for the beginning of a new era of swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and nations not waging warfare (Isaiah 2:3-4).

The watchword of Advent is a call to be alert. The apocalyptic watchword of the evangelist Matthew for this Sunday also remains our word for this Advent season. We, too, do not know the day or hour of the appearance of the Son of Man; he is the one who will come when we least expect: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matthew 24:44).

As we return to Psalm 122, we hear the call of the psalmist in context of these remarkable companion texts for the First Sunday of Advent. We hear this psalm in light of the assurance that our feet are also firmly placed in the ancient gates of Jerusalem, in the faith of the people then, and for us; we are invited to know the dwelling place of God’s presence (verse 2).

In the presence of the Lord’s sanctuary all the tribes of people are called “to give thanks to the name of the LORD” (verse 3-4). Here within these gates God’s judgment is established. In the temple of the Lord thanksgiving and judgment are inseparable. Judgment alone belongs to the God of all creation and of all people. For this the response of all people is to give thanks for God’s righteous rule and judgment, of God’s equity and justice for all the tribes of people and for the house of David. In this setting the psalmist proclaims God’s righteous judgment has been established (verse 5).

In this season of Advent we, too, are called into the sanctuary of the Lord. We also enter into the peace that only God provides. Here is peace only the Jesus supplies. Here is peace and security for relatives and friends, for all God’s people. Here is present that for which all people long in the benediction: “Peace be within you” (verse 8).

This is the word like that of the prophet Isaiah to be heard and heralded in a world of bloodshed and war, of swords and spears, a world that longs for plowshares and pruning hooks. This is the word from Paul that surpasses all our human understanding and longing, a word centered in prayer for all people, for supplication for special needs, for thanksgiving for the God who executes justice and mercy. This is the God to whom we draw near in confidence and the one in whom all our requests are made known.

Within Matthew’s gospel, God’s presence stands over and against the fear of the thief in the night, and is replaced by the glorious Advent of the Son of Man who comes in clouds with great power and might to vanquish all our foes and enemies, the last enemy to be conquered is death. Here the words from Paul, now to the church in Rome, ring clear. They are heard with assurance in that marvelous crescendo conclusion to Romans 8, which comes in answer to Paul’s rhetorical question: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31)

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37-39).

We enter the season of Advent in this assurance that the Son of Man who comes in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. The heralding call and claim of this Advent season is present as Psalm 122 brings us into the beginning of this new church year: “Let us go to the house of the Lord” (verse 1). In this word of invitation we, too, come to the house of the Lord expectantly waiting the one who is present and will come as Lord of all.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 13:11-14

Dirk G. Lange

The readings for the first and second Sundays in Advent are taken from the later chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

In these chapters, Paul is describing the characteristics of a Christian life. This is most appropriate as we enter what is classically a more penitential season, a season of inward reflection and preparation for an advent, a coming.

These chapters deal with what we might call Paul’s ethic though it is an ethic that springs forth from the work of the Holy Spirit (and not a series of rules or codes). Perhaps, the word “holy” better describes these characteristics than “ethic” as “holy” can only come from God (a gift of the Holy Spirit) whereas an ethic is something we can create, devise, and work at.

The Ten Commandments are cited, but isn’t this an ethical code? Not really when one considers the manner in which Paul deals with them (no different, by the way, from the way Jesus did). These commandments are all summed up in the word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Obviously not a very simple summation for it is a much easier thing to keep a checklist (No, I haven’t killed anyone; No, I haven’t stolen; No, I haven’t committed adultery; Yes, I keep the Sabbath; etc.) than it is to love the neighbor as oneself.

What do we mean by love for oneself? It means that we always seek what is best for us. We seek what profits us, what is good and helpful for us. Now, here is the commandment: to seek the good of the neighbor, to love the neighbor so as to seek the profit, good and well-being of the neighbor. This endeavor goes beyond merely keeping a checklist or following a rule of conduct. It means engaging oneself for the neighbor and the neighbor’s best interest. And the neighbor (as we know from the parable of the Good Samaritan) isn’t the neighbor we chose (the person who looks like we look or, on the whole, isn’t too demanding). The neighbor is always the other person given to us, the one who crosses our path whether we like it or not, the one whom we might not usually associate with or even try to avoid! The neighbor is always an unexpected appearance in our midst, in the midst of our lives.

The neighbor, understood in this way, is Christ. And what are we waiting for? Where lies our hope? The return of Christ? The second coming? Christ’s advent? (Not getting “left behind”!?) Considering the summation of the law in terms of “love of neighbor,” coupled with the Gospel text for this First Sunday of Advent, we come to realize that perhaps the one whose return comes unexpectedly is precisely the neighbor who encounters us in the street. Perhaps Christ’s second coming is this continual return of Christ in and through the neighbor. Then our Advent preparations have little to do with preparing ourselves for a culturally defined Christmas celebration but rather truly for a celebration of Christ’s incarnation as body, in the body, as the body of my neighbor — God in the flesh.

It is time now that we awake from sleep, Paul admonishes. There are many ways we can understand sleep in this context. It can be the sleep of death, the death that characterizes a life without the Holy Spirit. But, Paul is addressing the Christian community in Rome. He is addressing baptized Christians, Christians who live in the Spirit. It would seem that this sleep is a spiritual sleep. The gift of the Holy Spirit has been received but it has fallen asleep. Simply because we are baptized, simply because we have this privilege, does not mean that we can take it easy.

Quite the contrary, now the work of the Holy Spirit begins, making us holy, molding us into conformity with Jesus Christ throughout life. Now, the real adventure begins! The Holy Spirit molds us through practices of the faith, like daily prayer, like confession, like the celebration of Holy Communion, like love of the neighbor — all of these, and many more, are the armors of light. In all of these activities, it is not “us” (you/me) doing something that makes me a better person but it is the Holy Spirit working in us, making us holy, conforming us (individually and as a community) to Jesus Christ. We are invited to wake up to this radical work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, a work that takes us to many unexpected places and many unexpected encounters.

All of this activity is framed, by Paul, as a baptismal activity. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is a call to remember our baptism. We are clothed in Jesus Christ. At our baptism, we were clothed in the robe of forgiveness.  It is this gift of forgiveness, this gift of God’s radical love that carries us beyond our own nights, through and beyond our own desires and flesh to live for the neighbor. The Christian life is a daily practice, a continual exercise, of our baptism until the day we die. Baptism is a continual beginning. It is, yes, a death, an ending but then it engages us in a wakefulness that continues our whole life long.

We live in hope, an active hope, where the unexpected advent is not something fearful but joyous because it is from God. The vision of Isaiah is no longer just a far-off dream (“they shall beat their weapons into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”) but is something realized already here, in this Christian community, as we “love” our neighbor.