Lectionary Commentaries for December 5, 2010
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12

Ben Witherington

John the Baptizer is a colorful prophetic figure who introduces the story of Jesus in all four Gospels.

He dresses like Elijah, and he sounds like Isaiah or Amos. In the Matthean account, as in Mark whom the First Evangelist is closely following, we are given no inkling that the two men might be related. It is interesting as well that in both the Matthean and Markan accounts John is introduced to us as the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3.

What is compelling about that text is it can be punctuated in two ways: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.'” Or should it read “The voice of one crying: ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord’?” The text of Isaiah suggests the latter reading so that it is in the wilderness where “the highway of our God” is to be paved. It would appear that this is how John the Baptizer, like the Qumran community which also had this text as a theme verse, understood it. John is in the chalk wilderness of Judea, near the Jordan and the Dead Sea, calling Jews to repentance lest the judgment, which begins with the household of God, fall on them forthwith. It is entirely possible John had been part of the community at the Dead Sea and then went out on his own to call Israel in general to repentance, connecting the call with a baptism in the Jordan.

Repentance, or metanoia, to use the Greek word, refers to far more than a simply being or saying one is sorry for past sins, far more than mere regret or remorse for such sins. It refers to a turning away from the past way of life and the inauguration of a new one, in this case initialized by an act of baptism.

One of the mistakes sometimes made in interpreting this text is assuming that the sort of baptism John called his fellow Jews to is to be equated with the baptism later practiced by Christians on all and sundry. The problem with this assumption is that John is calling for repentance of those who already believed in the Biblical God and in his Word— namely Jews, including the Jewish leadership, whereas Christian baptism is treated by Paul in Romans 6 as an initiation rite for those converting to Christ, a rather different matter (see Witherington Troubled Waters, Baylor 2005).

What is interesting about John’s call to repentance and baptism is that he seems to be offering a way for remission of sins without requiring going to Jerusalem and offering a sacrifice. If this is correct, it explains why the Jerusalem leadership would have been uneasy with John the prophet, and it may explain the adversarial attitude John had towards them in Matthew 3:7-10 where he calls them snake spawn!

Equally interesting is John’s affirmation that merely being a descendant of Abraham or even a pious person of faith in itself does not exempt that person from the coming judgment, if they do not change their ways. John foresees a judgment falling on Israel separating the wheat from the chaff, something Jesus also seems to have envisioned as well.

Preaching a text like this one at Christmas time may be challenging, but in fact the Advent season, when many will be in church who would not normally darken its door, it is an appropriate time to call people back to the Lord and to the amendment of their lives.

There is also the possibility of dealing with the theme of our being like John, and of asking the question, in what way are we preparing the way of the Lord, and making straight a path for our God in our own and other’s lives?

A further theme in this passage is the presentation of John’s humility, knowing there would be the One who comes after him whom he knows he is not even worthy of being the household servant of (the task of unlacing the sandals was left to the household slave). Notice, as well, the contrast between John’s baptism and that of Jesus’ in verse 11. So far as we know, Jesus never baptized anyone (see the clarification in John 4:1-2), though even his earliest disciples, perhaps especially those who had previously followed John, did. Jesus, according to John, would baptize people with the far more potent and life changing Holy Spirit.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10

Anathea Portier-Young

Isaiah preaches hope in a time of terror and justice in a time of oppression.

Isaiah 11:1-10 answers fear of Assyrian armies with fear of God. Assyria’s false wisdom–arts of plunder and destruction (10:13)–cedes to true wisdom, discernment, and counsel (11:2). Isaiah declares that Assyria’s tree will be cut down (10:17-18, 33-34), while a new tree will grow in Judah and bear fruit (11:1). Shoulders stooped under the yoke (10:27) will stand tall (11:10). Captivity will give way to rest, and shame to glory (11:10).

The visions of 11:1-10 are characterized by a remarkable dynamism that is at the same time the mark and guarantee of stability and peace. In the visions, the order of nature, political and social life, and the common life of humans and animals are organically linked and woven together.

The first vision begins with the metaphor of new growth, giving a trampled people gazing on a trampled land the power to imagine a different polity and a transformed world. The Hebrew word for “shoot” (11:1) can also mean “rod” or “scepter.” Wordplay here links the promise of new growth and life with that of a new ruler. The image of a branch from the roots of Jesse links future with past, with Judah’s history with God, a history of election and favor. It also links the stability of this chosen dynasty with chosen place, and promises that this land is still good; its soil still watered and fertile. The branch will flower and bear fruit: it will flourish in order to provide protection and nourishment for the people of Judah.

The next image promises rest, security, stability. The Spirit of the Lord, wind and breath, dynamic, ever-moving force of life, will rest and settle on this fruit-bearing branch (11:2). This animating Spirit confers on the ruler six qualities, each presented in pairs that culminate with fear of God: wisdom and discernment; counsel and might; knowledge and fear of the Lord. The pairs operate together and empower the ruler for the work of governance.

A ruler mediates God’s care for creation, and holds power over life and death that mirrors God’s own. Just rule must therefore proceed from fear of God. That fear is paired with relational and covenantal knowledge of God. This knowledge of God is not the sole possession of the ruler. The ruler will strike the earth with the staff of his mouth. That is, he will reorder creation by speaking. The spirit of his lips–wise and righteous speech–brings death to a wicked one (11:4), but also fills the earth with knowledge of the Lord, until it is like the water of the ocean, creation’s great reservoir and beginning of life (11:9).

The six-fold spirit empowers the ruler for judgment. It is common for people to judge by what they see and make decisions based on what they hear. But Isaiah knows that eyes can be lifted up by pride (2:11). Ears can be deceived by lying speech (32:6-7). They can also be sealed shut (6:10; 29:10). These faculties prove unreliable. Instead, this ruler will judge the poor, lowly, and weak by righteousness. By uprightness he will decide for the meek and humble of the earth (11:4). His own body will be bound by righteousness and faithfulness; they will wrap, encircle, and support him at his very center (11:5).

The scene now shifts. We no longer look upon a tree but upon a pasture. And here, in the land of the lambs, a wolf now resides, a welcomed stranger in their midst (11:6). Imagine for a moment your congregation of lambs offering hospitality to the one-time predator. Or dare to imagine the roles reversed. How would you preach this vision? Mother bear and cow graze as their children stretch out together. Look past the charming image to perceive how reckless it is for the flocks and cattle to let their guard down while the lion, nearby, eats straw like an ox (11:7).

More reckless still: see the human children. A small boy shepherds the contented herd of lions, leopards, bears, and wolves, sheep, goats, and cows (11:6). An infant, still sucking at his mother’s breast, makes a game at the door of a snake’s den. A toddler, now weaned, stretches her hand over the hole in the ground where a viper has made its nest (11:8). None will do evil. None will destroy (11:9).

This is the mountain of God’s holiness. This is the promise, the glorious, abundant resting place where the root of Jesse stands. This is the vision of security. The shoot will grow tall and become a visible sign for the nations. Not a battle standard, but a standard of peace.

Preach the vision of peace. Preach the hope. Identify the fears, the armies, the trampled land and people. Teach a congregation to see and hear with more than eyes and ears. Then preach righteousness that fills the earth the way waters cover the ocean. Preach it for the nations, for the earth and its animals, and for the children who will lead and play. Preach it with a spirit of wisdom and discernment, in the conviction that God calls all the earth to knowledge, discernment, and worship.


Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Paul S. Berge

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 is timely for the season of Advent. We come in these Advent Sundays to hear and experience the kingship of the Messiah, who has come, is present, and will come in power and glory as the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven.

In Israel’s history the king represented the ruling presence of God among the people. The exalted reigns of the earliest kings, David and Solomon, provided a way to an understanding of kingship that was not without faults.

Psalm 72 carries the title “Of Solomon,” either attributing this psalm to the poetry of Solomon, or is expressive of the worship life of Israel, attributing to Solomon a king who rules in God’s favor: “Give the kings your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son” (verse 1).

This psalm is identified as one of the nine Royal Psalms (2, 18, 20, 21, 45, 72, 89, 110, 132) that sing praise to the king as God’s chosen representative on earth. They are prayers from Israel’s worship life for the king and his role as earthly ruler.

The Old Testament reading for this Sunday from Isaiah picks up on the theme of God’s kingship, identifying David’s father, Jesse, as the root or stump from whom comes the righteous branch of Israel’s kingship:

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, a branch shall grow out
of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom
and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge
and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He
shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide by what his ears hear” (Isaiah 11:1- 3).

The Isaiah text has been interpreted within the church as Isaiah’s vision of the ideal king brought to fulfillment in Jesus’ reign of peace, righteousness, and justice (Isaiah 11:4-9). Psalm 72 carries out in detail these themes from Isaiah: “May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice” (verse 2).

Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:29) establishes his reign and his claim on the walk of his followers: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). Jesus warns that righteousness is not in our accomplishments, but only in his reign is God’s kingdom of true righteousness present.

The four gospels express in countless ways in Jesus’ parables, teachings, miracles, and narrative stories the way in which Jesus as Messiah embodies the righteous rule of a king who deals justly and in justice:

“May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and hills, in
righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor” (verses 3-4).

The righteous rule of the Davidic king is reflected as a ruler over all, including nature, demon possession, and even death. Jesus is the one who calms the storm as he crosses the Sea of Galilee with his disciples (Mark 4:35-41), exorcises the demon-possessed man as they reach the Gentile shore (Mark 5:1-20), heals a woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5:24b-34) while he is on the way to heal Jairus’ daughter, who in the delay of healing the woman, has since died, and Jesus raises her from death (Mark 5:21-24a, 35-43).

The prayer of the psalmist for the king is also the prayer we acknowledge to be true for the ministry of peace Jesus brings to this earth: “May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. . . . In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more” (verses 5 and 7). The apocalyptic signs of the coming of the Son of Man reflect these themes from the psalm of the Messiah’s coming:

“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 in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds
with great power and glory” (Mark 13:24-26).

The closing verses from Psalm 72 serve as a beautiful benediction on the rule of the king and reflect the expectation the glory of Jesus’ kingly reign as we continue to exalt his messiahship in this season of Advent:

“Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name for ever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen” (verses 18-19).

The epistle reading from Romans 15:4-13 for this Second Sunday of Advent concludes with Paul’s proclamation and hope for the messianic king as he cites from another prophetic word of Isaiah concerning the righteous king from Jesse’s stump:

“And again Isaiah says, ‘The root of Jesse shall come, the one
who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope'” (Romans 15:12).

Paul is citing Isaiah 11:10 from our Old Testament reading for this Second Sunday of Advent. This brings us full circle to the closing verse of Psalm 72: “The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended” (verse 20). In the pattern of Jesse’s son, David, and David’s son, Solomon, we see the way in which God’s kingly reign and rule is present in the one whom we herald as the messianic king, Jesus, the Son of Man who will come on the clouds of heaven in great power and might.

This is our Advent promise and proclamation.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 15:4-13

Dirk G. Lange

The vision of the coming Kingdom is broad, wide, deep, and generous.

On this Second Sunday of Advent, the text from Romans encourages us to move deeper into the vision outlined on the First Sunday. The unexpected return, the unexpected advent of the neighbor, is not something that should throw a wrench into our daily routine but is something to be joyfully welcomed as part of the baptismal journey we have engaged.

In this passage, near the end of Romans, Paul begins by actually writing about Scripture and its purpose. This purpose is surprising in itself, given our present-day debates on the nature of Scripture! Paul doesn’t write that it provides us with a moral code or a detailed recipe for a prosperous and good life. No, Scripture’s primary goal is to create hope in us. But, we must still ask, what type of hope?

Perhaps it is simply for a better, more prosperous life. Unfortunately, a too-narrow (that is self-centered) interpretation of hope is not permitted here (or most anywhere in Scripture!). The hope created by Scripture is distinctly communal. The hope that the Holy Spirit creates within me is not simply for my personal good. It is a hope that is shared with others. It is a hope in which I am a part with many others. In fact, it is the communal nature of this hope that makes it so joyful!

The communal nature of this hope is immediately witnessed in the following verses. The God of Scripture, the God therefore of this steadfastness and encouragement (note the parallels between verses 4 and 5), the God of these gifts grants us hope as “we live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ.” The harmony that characterizes this hope echoes the verses from Romans 13 (see the readings for last week, the First Sunday of Advent).

Loving the neighbor as yourself, seeking that which is in the best interest of the neighbor, living in this matrix of the Holy Spirit has, as a fruit of the Spirit, this harmony with one another, in accordance with Jesus Christ. It is not a harmony that we have created through self-defined interests — that belongs to the harmony any organization in the world can create (from the rotary club to the golf club to the hockey association). The harmony “in accordance with Jesus Christ” is the harmony given through the Holy Spirit. A harmony that comes from welcoming the unexpected, dying, and being raised daily to new life, to new beginnings.

“Welcome one another,” Paul continues! This welcome, this radical greeting, is the welcome offered to the one who does not look like myself, who is not a member of my “immediate” family. Perhaps this one dresses differently, celebrates different traditions, looks different, perhaps this one is even sick or without a home or in serious difficulty. No matter how ‘difference’ is defined, this one is like a Gentile (to expand the use of a Scriptural term Paul employs).

Paul is here pushing the boundaries of the community. Yes, Christ came to one particular place, was born into one particular race and a unique religious tradition, but it is precisely this particularity on God’s part that allows God to be paradoxically present in all people, in all cultures, in all flesh. The incarnation is about the infinite becoming fully embodied in the finite and yet never restricted by that finite. Christ’s coming into the world, into the house of David, is God’s coming into all of humanity, for all humanity.

This coming, the advent of Christ, can never be claimed as a privilege by one group. Rather, everyone is invited, those who are inside and those who are not, into song! I believe this is one of the most surprising twists of this reading. The goal but also the witness of living together in harmony, of welcoming one another, is communal song! The praises of God are sung in a community that welcomes one another, lives in harmony in accordance to Christ, and this song of praise is a witness to God’s glory and God’s intent for all people.

Psalm 72, appointed for this Sunday, picks up on this theme. The psalmist prays for the king of justice, for the righteous one to come, whose kingdom will bring justice to all, who is like life-giving showers, covering the earth and whose peace will abound until the end of time. Again, the vision and hope is broad, communal and all-encompassing.

As the community is invited into this praise so it is invited into this radical welcome. Christ has become the “servant” (verse 8) of one community but only to make this community’s praise a praise that opens up windows and doors. Christ assumes or takes upon himself the life of one community (in Paul’s case, the community of the circumcised) in order that the promises given to the patriarchs, the promises given to all (like stars in the heaven) might be fulfilled. We might say that the vocation of this circumcised community is precisely to now be a servant to all people.

We have here a version of Luther’s happy exchange: Christ takes upon himself everything that separates us from God and in return gives us all Christ’s benefits. This exchange is continually happening, this exchange is event, is truth in our lives, as we welcome the neighbor and as we are welcomed, as we live in harmony with one another in accordance with Jesus Christ. And because this is a liberating, hopefully and happy exchange, we sing praises to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and all people witness God’s glory.