Lectionary Commentaries for December 12, 2010
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11

Ben Witherington

While in the Matthean lection for the second Sunday in Advent, we hear about John’s testimony to Jesus, in this lection for the third Sunday in Advent we hear about Jesus’ testimony to John (see verse 11).

Actually this lection should include Matthew 11:12-15 as well, which is the rest of Jesus’ testimony to John, and in terms of contextual exegesis, it is important that verse 11 be interpreted together with verse 12-15. There is heavy irony in this passage because while Jesus is praising John to the sky in this text (“the greatest man ever born of woman”), John is expressing doubts about who Jesus might be. The question is what had prompted the question–“are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” What John seems to have not yet understood is that Jesus did not come to meet our expectations as to what a messiah or savior ought to do and be, he came to meet our needs.

In the first place, Jesus did not come simply repeating John’s warning of looming judgment on God’s people; he came proclaiming the inbreaking Dominion and salvation of God, even for the least, the last, and the lost. In the second place, Jesus did not take up the mantle and lifestyle of an ascetical prophet, like John had done. Jesus ate and drank with sinners and tax collectors, and refused to take on himself the clothing and demeanor of one who was in mourning. In the third place, Jesus did not assume the roles of a Davidic warrior king or ruler. Indeed, he preached non-resistance, turning the other cheek, and self-sacrificial love. Furthermore, Jesus did not march on Jerusalem nor did he thunder condemnation on Caesar or his legions. Some, or all, of this must have been confusing to John, hence the question. John is not portrayed in this particular text, which comes from near the end of John’s life as a follower of Jesus, but rather one who himself has disciples, and has doubts about Jesus.

Jesus’ response to the question, found in Matthew 11:4-6, involves an affirmation that he was fulfilling a different set of Scriptures. For example, consider Isaiah 61:1-2. Jesus proclaims something unprecedented was happening–even the blind were receiving their sight, a miracle nowhere recorded in the Old Testament nor predicated of any previous Biblical prophet. Jesus points to his miracles and adds as well that the poor, through his preaching hear and experience Good News. So Jesus concludes by saying “blessed are those who take no offense at me.” Jesus would live out the messianic script playing by his own rules and fulfilling the Scriptures which motivated him and his ministry, not some preconceived notion of what a messiah must do and be.

Jesus’ testimony to John in verses 7-15 is remarkable and includes the following elements: 1) an affirmation that John is not merely a prophet, but the prophet foretold in Isaiah, who is the messenger who goes before and prepares the way for the Coming One. He is not merely the forerunner, he is the ground breaker and the preparer of the way; 2) yet, verse 11 indicates John is not yet in the Dominion of God, for Jesus says “yet the least in the Kingdom is greater than he”; 3) verses 7-8 are interesting because John is being contrasted with some royal figure in a palace, in fact probably Herod Antipas, the ruler who had taken him captive. John did not wear royal robes like Herod, and interestingly, the coins minted by Herod feature a reed blowing in the wind. 4) then in verses 13-15 Jesus suggests the line of the Old Testament prophets ends with or just before John, and that the times had been tumultuous since John came on the scene with the violent trying to take the Kingdom by force, or even doing violence against the Kingdom’s messengers–namely John and later Jesus.

The undercurrent of the entire text is the difference between people’s expectations, even John’s, and the reality of who Jesus was and the actual character of his ministry.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 35:1-10

Anathea Portier-Young

“They will rejoice.”

This is the first word of Isaiah’s vision in chapter 35, and it is the focus of the entire passage. The time of these opening verses is future, though exactly when is not specified. The place is named clearly and repeatedly: it is the wilderness. This detail is not incidental. It locates God’s promise within every human lack, every loneliness, and every desolation. It locates God’s promise within a complex history of slavery and redemption, failure and faith.

Wilderness (midbar) has many meanings for Israel. It is a place of flight and of freedom (Genesis 16, 21; Exodus 3, 13). It is populated by deadly animals (Deuteronomy 8:15). Water is scarce (Exodus 15, 17), and crops do not grow. It is dangerous (Exodus 14:3). It is wide (Deuteronomy 1:19). And it is easy to get lost (Num 32; Psalm 107:4). Wilderness is where God’s people learn to trust. In wilderness God carried them (Deut 1:31), fed them (Exodus 16), and gave them improbable water (Exodus 17). In wilderness God found God’s people, guarded and cared for them, and lifted them up (Deuteronomy 32).

Isaiah’s wilderness sings. “They will rejoice: wilderness and dry land. Desert will shout with joy and it will bloom like a crocus. It will bloom (really bloom!)! And it will shout with joy — joy and joyous song” (35:1-2a). The first verses of Isaiah’s vision are remarkably redundant — it is a poetic style the prophet sustains throughout the vision. The prophet declares the joy of an earth wrung dry — wilderness, dry land, desert — and then shows us the reason: a profusion of blooms, shoots of new growth budding toward fruit (cf. Isaiah 27:6). Earth’s joyful response swells into an echoing chorus, celebrating the gift of life. This dry earth will be given glory and splendor, visible manifestations of creaturely fruitfulness and abundance, even as God’s own glory and splendor, the visible manifestations of divine sovereign power, are revealed. And the God whose glory they will see, declares the prophet, is our God (35:2b).

The future time of the vision now shifts to the present tense. With this shift in tense comes also a shift in focus from earth to people, from dry land to weak and frightened bodies, from green growth to courage and strength. Isaiah has given a vision. Now Isaiah gives to the audience — to you, and to your congregation — a commission. The prophet shows us a pair of hands that have grown weak, soft and slack from disuse. They can hold nothing and no longer do the work they were made for. Make them strong. The prophet shows us a pair of knees that give way to staggering and stumbling. Who can walk like this? Make them firm (35:3). The prophet shows us people whose hearts and minds are racing, gripped by anxiety. Tell them, says Isaiah,”Be strong, do not fear.” And the prophet gives a reason, drawing attention now to the one source of strength and salvation. If you open your eyes and look, you will see that right here is your God (35:4a).

God is here. God will come. Isaiah offers assurance for present and for future. In the future, Isaiah asserts that God will act for the people to reverse oppression and deliver them. The prophet does not describe specific conditions of oppression, but speaks in general terms in a direct address to the audience: God “will come and save you” (35:4b).

God’s arrival brings something more. When God comes, “they will be opened, the eyes of the blind, and the ears of the deaf will be opened. Then a lame man will leap like the stag; a silent man’s tongue will shout. Because waters will break open in the wilderness, and streams in the desert” (35:5-6). God’s arrival transforms every inability into ability and every lack into miraculous abundance. God’s coming brings the capacity to see and hear to those whose senses are starving for light and sound. Nerves heal and grow and send and receive signals, atrophied muscles grow strong and limber. What are these capacities for? They are for celebration. They are for nothing but the gratuitous expression of joy in what God can do and what God has done. The man who could not walk will have strength in his legs to walk. But he won’t walk. He will jump. He will leap and bound like a fool for God. The man who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak will find himself able to talk. But he won’t talk. He will shout. He will sing. He will praise God at the top of his lungs.

Isaiah now shows us a wilderness running with water, using language that evokes themes of creation (cf. Psalm 74:15), redemption (cf. Exodus 14:21; Isaiah 48:21, 63:12), and provision (cf. Psalm 78:15-16). The water bubbles and gushes forth until every marker of desolation is transformed into an emblem of abundant life (35:7). Parched desert becomes marsh. But this flooded wetland is not home for God’s people. There is one more miracle still: the road home.

There, in the place that once was wilderness, once a place of wandering, will be a raised road. There will be no more wandering (35:8) and no more danger (35:9). The people God has redeemed and ransomed will walk on it, and they will turn, and they will come home (35:8-9). As they walk homeward, upon their head, like a canopy, a garland, or a crown, will be a joy not bounded by time. Rejoicing and gladness will meet them on the road. Sorrow and sighing will flee (35:10).

Isaiah 35 invites us to reflect on this Advent season not only as God’s coming in Christ, but also as our coming home. God comes. God is here. We leap and shout and sing. And together we walk home.


Commentary on Psalm 146:5-10

Paul S. Berge

Psalm 146 is the first of the five great Hallel (praise) Psalms (146-150) that conclude the book of Psalms.

All five psalms begin and conclude with the refrain, “Praise the LORD!” (verses 1a, 10b).  The words gather together themes worthy of praise to the God present in the Torah, the prophets, and the writings. The lectionary selection includes only verses 5-10, and unfortunately leaves off verses 1-4, which set the tone of praise in the psalm and lead into the verses that follow in our text.

The psalmist begins with the acclamation of praise to the Lord with all of one’s life. In the season of Advent we draw near to the way in which God has manifested salvation in the birth of the Messiah, and we too proclaim, “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD, O my soul” (verse 1). With the psalmist, we too live out our lives continually in the presence of the God who has given us the gift of life and salvation every day: “I will praise the LORD as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long” (verse 2).

The psalmist has oriented our praise to the God of all creation, calling us out of our enslavement to our earth-bound leaders, lives, and ways which are mortal, the end of which is only death:
“Do not put your trust in princes,
     in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to earth;
     on that day their plans perish” (verses 3-4).

We need to hear these introductory words of praise (verses 1-2) and words of false hope (verses 3-4) so that we can hear the marvelous proclamation of the psalmist who centers our lives in the one in whom is our hope and life:
“Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD their God” (verse 5).

In the companion text from Isaiah 35:1-10 for this Advent Sunday, the prophet likewise calls forth celebration, praise, and singing as he envisions the return of the people from captivity in Babylon (ca. 538-587 BCE). The wilderness through which they return will blossom forth as the glory of God is present with those who return. This is the God of strength for the infirm, giver of sight to the blind, and the one in whom joy and gladness break forth as “sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (verse 10).

The Magnificat of Mary (Luke 1:46b-55) is one of the gospel texts for this Advent Sunday. In the same way Mary proclaims praise to the God of salvation: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (verse 47). Mary’s psalm of praise continues to extol the God whose promise of salvation comes to fulfillment in the birth of the child in her womb.

As we return to our psalm for this Sunday we see and hear the majesty of these texts and psalms of praise and their relationship to that which God now brings to fulfillment in this season of Advent. This is the God —
“who made heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry” (verses 6-7a).

Mary’s Magnificat echoes the same refrains:
“His mercy is for those who fear him
     from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
     he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
     and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
     and sent the rich empty away” (verses 50-53).

Our God, who is the LORD of the psalmist and Mary, is the God of justice among all peoples as the psalmist proclaims:
“The LORD sets the prisoners free;
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
     the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
     he upholds the orphan and the widow,
     but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (verses 7b- 9).   

In the alternative gospel reading for this Sunday from Matthew 11:2-11, John the Baptist is in prison for his proclamation of the Messiah. He sends a question by his disciples to ask of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come or shall we wait for another?” (verse 3). Jesus’ response expands the words of the psalmist and Mary: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (verses 4-6).

The texts for the Third Sunday of Advent proclaim the Word with clarity in the one who has made the heaven and earth; the one who brings to fulfillment the promises to Jacob and all Israel; the one who executes justice and righteousness for all people; the one in whom we receive healing for all our infirmities; the one in whom is our hope for all generations; the one who will reign forever; and the one who is present in the promises of these words as we live into this season of the Advent of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

These are the messianic words of hope and life in the one, Jesus Christ. And so we conclude our words of proclamation and praise in the words of our psalm. God’s reign is eternal in the one who has conquered death and risen victorious that we might sing a new song now and for eternity:
“The LORD will reign forever,
     your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD!” (verse 10).

Second Reading

Commentary on James 5:7-10

Dirk G. Lange

Many scriptural texts can be read in isolation of their context and still provide some meaning.

However, some texts, like these verses from James, benefit greatly from reading what precedes it (if not orally in the congregation then at least in the pastor’s sermon preparation). James is looking forward, to the future, with hope. But what is this hope? And what does this hope mean for the community of faith on the Third Sunday of Advent?

The past two Sundays, the community has heard the readings from the final chapters of Romans where Paul is developing what it means to live like a Christian, led and molded by the Holy Spirit. Is James now proposing that we simply “hope” for some future coming, eyes directed heavenward, as if we did not have to be concerned about this life? Definitely not! The key passage that eliminates a pie-in-the-sky hope (waiting for Jesus to return on the clouds of heaven and make everything “right”) is verse 9, “Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged.” Our hope may actually be judged! What type of hope is James writing about, what type of hope will pass the judgment?

If we look at the preceding verses (especially chapter 4:11 up to our pericope reading), we discover some surprising statements. (Note: these verses do not appear in the Revised Common Lectionary though they are read in the Roman lectionary and the older Episcopal lectionary). The hope that James describes is not looking upwards to some heavenly salvation nor is it looking inwards to some spiritual illumination but it is looking the other, our neighbor, directly in the face.

And this looking is done in a non-critical manner (we are not judges of the law, 4:11 — can this person be useful to me? Does he/she fit my definition of a human being, etc.). It is not done in self-interest: engaging activities simply for the sake of making money (4:13-15). These verses are like echoes of the Sermon on the Mount. We come to the realization that James is probably heavily influenced by both Jesus’ Sermon and by Paul’s interpretation. Why worry about tomorrow? (Matthew 6:34). The hope that is proposed is a hope that is grounded in the Lord and on what the Lord desires. The focus of this hope is not ourselves (whether we are gazing outwards or inwards) but the Lord and how the Lord wants us to live in this life.

This perspective is doubly underlined in the verses of chapter 5 that introduce our pericope. The objects of worldly hope are squarely condemned. But here, it is not a matter of judging from personal prerogative or prejudice. It is a matter of justice for those less fortunate, for the workers, the ones without privilege. Has the neighbor been “loved” as much as self?

Now, perhaps, we can understand better the “be patient… until the coming of the Lord.”  This patience is not a personal virtue for by nature we all want things to happen right now, for us, in the best possible way. Perhaps we can have patience when we know that we are working towards a personal goal. Yet the patience that James is proposing is the patience given by the Holy Spirit. It is patience that is deeply rooted in faith. It is working, laboring towards a goal when one is not always sure what the goal is, what it will look like, or even what it will mean for “me.” Whether you, the reader, are in the northern or southern hemisphere, whether the sun is blazing on your land in December or the land is resting in a winter’s sleep, we all know the incertitude of nature: the seed, the entire crop, is planted but will the rain come? Will the weather be right?

The example James uses is one familiar to each of us. Today’s Gospel though gives another, more pertinent example. John the Baptist is imprisoned. He does not know what is happening. He does not know his end. He preached repentance and like many prophets he was rejected. He now waits and in his waiting he wonders: is this Jesus the one? John the Baptist exemplifies this patience lived in faith, the patience of “not knowing.” It should also be noted that Jesus’ response (about the blind seeing, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed) clearly directs John’s hope in an earthly direction! John need not look for fireworks in the sky. The signs all have to do with the well-being of the other, the wholeness of creation and justice.

“Strengthen your hearts…”, James continues. This strengthening of the heart comes as the community lives and witnesses together. The patience in suffering is lived together as members of the community of faith watch over and care for one another. No words of slander, no grumbling, no back-stabbing, but always speaking and doing the good for the neighbor. In fact, it would seem that a characteristic of this patience is precisely a deep compassion and love towards the other as if James is writing, “slow down, seek first the kingdom of God, be attentive to one another, let all things happen in and for God, then all else will be given, God will grant all in God’s time.”

What is clear, of course, is the centrality of the Word of God. None of what James proposes here is possible through human strength, will or power. The patience and the hope are both grounded in faith, that gift of the Holy Spirit. Both have been given to the community, both however need to be nurtured, encouraged, formed. Isn’t this what James is attempting throughout his letter?