Lectionary Commentaries for November 27, 2011
First Sunday of Advent (Year B)
Commentary on Mark 13:24-37
Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9
Elna K. Solvang
A cry of misery. An appeal for mercy
These verses are part of a larger psalm of communal lament (Isaiah 63:7-64:12) that begins with a praise-filled account of God’s mighty acts of deliverance throughout Israel’s history.
God’s actions on behalf of Israel (“my people”; 63:8) are described as expressions of God’s steadfast love, mercy and compassion.
God’s “children” (63:8) rebel, however, prompting God to become “their enemy” (63:10) and the people to petition God to “turn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage” (63:17b) though they “have long been like those whom [God does] not rule, like those not called by [God’s] name” (63:19). It is a familiar pattern in the way Israel’s story is told by the prophets, but in the form of a communal lament (“we,” “us”) it is presented as the community’s perspective on their deeds and a voice for their needs.
Just who is this community? The lament is in the portion of the Book of Isaiah generally associated with a post-exilic Jerusalem context. The Persian king Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians (539 BCE) and established a decree that the exiles could return to their homeland. Threats, divisions, land battles and power struggles erupted between and among returnees, those who had remained in the land, and those who had settled there from other places after Jerusalem was conquered in 587 BCE.
The restoration of Jerusalem to past glory, that had been envisioned, was clearly not going to happen — at least not in the time and ways expected. While the voices of various historical factions might be identified within the lament, a collective voice emerges in the portion of the psalm that is the pericope selection. This community — whoever comprises it — ponders in lament form how God should respond to human guilt.
Isaiah 64:1-9 begins and ends with a request. The first request is that God would “tear open the heavens and come down…to make [God’s] name known to [God’s] adversaries” (64:1a, 2b). The offenders would experience the terror of God’s mountain-quaking, fiery presence (verses 1b, 2a).
Presumably this demonstration of divine power would convince the offenders to end their hostilities but the effect noted in the text is on the lamenting community: mention of God’s mountain-quaking power brings to mind God’s unexpected interventions on their behalf. How God should deal with the guilt of “others” gives way to how God has cared for them through “awesome deeds” (verse 3).
The pondering moves to praising God for being the only God in all the ages “who works for those who wait for him” (verse 4). Divine attention to and involvement in human wellbeing — individually and collectively — varied across the ancient Near Eastern religious traditions. This comparative statement is, of course, is a confessional claim not a scholarly one. Their praise honors a God turned toward humans, in relationship with them and working on their behalf. The persons who receive divine attention are described, not surprisingly, as those working righteousness (verse 5a NRSV: “who gladly do right”).
All is well and good for the righteous but how should God deal with the guilty? In verse 5b the lamenting community erupts in a confession that begins with an accusation. Like the spouse who “confesses” their cheating was due to their partner’s failure, the people attribute their sin and their transgression to God’s anger and withdrawal. The accusation draws upon two key premises: 1) that human right deeds derive from divine goodness, and 2) absent God, humans will sin. No mention is made of human agency.
The lamenters next describe how sin has covered them as a community, contaminated their deeds, taken their energy and become their driving force. This captivity to sin leads to a second confession and accusation: “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity” (verse 7). The failure to seek God is attributed to God’s hiding; seeking is futile because God has left the guilty to the consequences of their own trespasses.
Then the lamenters do what they said no one does: call upon God’s name and attempt to take hold of God. They appeal to “our Father” and “our potter.” They confess that they are all filthy and faded (verse 6) and they claim that they are all offspring and product of God’s creative activity (verse 8). On the basis of this latter connection, the lamenters make one more request: that God’s anger and memory of their guilt not last forever (verse 9).
Laments are not formal arguments. They can employ faulty reasoning and they are one-sided. The lamenters in Isaiah 64 never make the clear and contrite admission of culpability that they might be expected to offer in order to receive the divine consideration they request. Laments are poetic protests against pain and appeals for intervention.
In Isaiah 64:1-9 the pain is brought on by the consequences of the people’s iniquities, experienced most deeply as anger and alienation from God. Their appeal is for God’s intervention — to heal the alienation and to halt the damage of their sins. The people’s pain is clear. How God will respond is not.
Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.
In the conclusion to his excellent book, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor, William Brown explains that “the power of metaphor . . . lies in its ability (and manipulability) to inspire new theological vision.”1
The season of advent welcomes the faithful, even beckons the faithful to such a task: to cast a new, to cast again, a theological vision amidst a world swallowed up in the sounds and images of completing claims. Attention to the language found in the metaphorically rich Psalm 80 does more than simply provide imagistic language or poetic flair. Rather, attention to its language reveals that such images serve as rich fodder for theological reflection.
The images in Psalm 80 fall out into one of three categories: images of God; images of the people of God; and images of the world. The images associated with the world around the psalmist suggest that the world is a hostile place, a place that could surely undo the people of God. The previous psalm is a communal lament agonizing over both the ruined city of Jerusalem and the defiled precincts of the temple (79:1-3), as well as the verbal assaults of the nations (79:10, 12).
While such graphic imagery is lacking in Psalm 80, the psalm nonetheless refers to a similar militaristic scene. Places once deemed sacrosanct have been razed to the ground (80:16) and identities once deemed secure have been shaken by the mocking derision of the enemy (80:6). So great is the anguish that the psalmist can only revert to imagery, to images of people drinking tears by the bowlful (80:5, New Revised Standard Version). As James Mays suggests, “Whatever the original historical setting, the psalm in its continued use belongs to the repertoire of the afflicted people of God on their way through the troubles of history.”2
Ministers may tend to shy away from the militaristic portrayal of the enemy, lest our own congregations attempt to create a modern historical circumstance from which to read this psalm. Yet as Mays notes, this psalm now belongs to our repertoire. Such psalms and even further, such imagery cannot be avoided because the very same imagery is part of the construal of the advent proclamation. In advent, we confess the world remains undone; the world remains a place that leaves people drinking tears by the bowlful and in need of the advent of God.
The imagery associated with the people of God is centered on two metaphors, the flock and the vineyard. The people of God are described as a flock whose shepherd is the “Shepherd of Israel” (verse 1), further connecting Psalm 80 with Psalm 79. The anguish of Psalm 79 concludes with the people confessing, “We are your people and the flock of your pasture” (79:13). While continuing the theme of a hostile world, Psalm 80 begins with a similar confession. There is no identity for the people of God apart from an identity rooted in relationship to God.
The dominant metaphor for the people of God in this psalm, however, actually appears outside the lectionary reading, but should be considered. In 80:8-13, the psalmist recounts Israel’s history in an extended allegory about a vine; a vine brought out of Egypt and planted by the God of Israel. The allegory suggests that the history of Israel is the work of God.
Her history is not born of a self-initiating, self-sustaining, spirit among the people of God, but solely at the initiation of the Shepherd of Israel. It is this confession that is held in juxtaposition with their current plight in verses 12-13. In those verses we are told, the vine planted has become the vine consumed. How shall a people respond to the Divine Gardner when faced with such an existence? How shall they speak of God and his work in the world?
The images of God appear in the opening verses. As mentioned above, God is referred to as the “Shepherd of Israel.” This image, however, is not a pastoral, romantic notion of shepherd, but a metaphor reinforcing the kingship of God. In the Ancient Near East, kings were often depicted as shepherds because of their divine mandate to protect and care for the people entrusted to them.
In addition, God is described as “enthroned upon the cherubim,” and as the “God of hosts” (verses 4, 7, 14, 17). Both descriptors allude to the ark – -the place on earth where God makes his presence manifest as he reigns from the heavens. Throughout the Old Testament, being enthroned upon the cherubim suggests that God is one who is mobile, coming to his people in time of need, but also as Divine Warrior, prepared to race across the heavens to redeem his people (Psalm 18).
And further, the image can refer to the great wings spread out across the ark, providing refuge, relief, and deliverance for the people of God (Deuteronomy 33:11-12). These images create a response to the lamenting in Psalm 80 (and 79). While the world appears undone, the community confessing God is not. The reign of God stands above the transient and evanescent, but no less real, powers of the world. But this Shepherd of Israel is not static, nor stayed, but instead, enthroned upon the cherubim, coming to the people called his own.
The three sets of images set forth the following claims: 1) the world is overwrought with chaos; 2) the people of God were created and are sustained by God; and 3) the covenant God of Israel remains firmly established as king over all. These claims lead to the thrice-repeated refrain “Restore us O God; let your face shine that we might be saved.”
In the first Sunday of Advent, our claims are surely the same: 1) the world remains undone by chaos; 2) we are the people of God who remain sustained by God alone; and 3) the God we confess remains king over all. And so on the first Sunday of Advent, we pray into that tension and we implore God to restore us, to come again so that we might be saved.
Our hope rests not in what we have done, nor can do, but in all that God is. And so we join Paul in confessing that “God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 1:9). And we join with the confessing church in a spirit of expectation.
1William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 214.
2James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 264.
Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Dirk G. Lange
It is perhaps not surprising that Paul, as he addresses the church in Corinth, speaks of the gift given, God’s grace shared, as “speech and knowledge of every kind” and wealth (i.e., being enriched in Christ Jesus).
Wealth — material and cultural — was a mark of pride for the Corinthians, a busy trade center between east and west and a cultural hub. But now, right from the outset of Paul’s letter, they become spiritual gifts, not possessions, but marks of waiting.
Christ’s testimony has been strengthened among them. We might wonder how, considering the critique Paul will shortly engage about the divisions and moral laxness found among the community of faith at Corinth. But Paul gives this assurance, echoed again in verse 9: “God is faithful.” Any strengthening of Christ’s testimony, any deepening of the gospel among the Corinthians, is due to God’s faithfulness, to the fact that they have been called by God into this communion. God is at work in the community. Paul states this clearly and very poignantly as he begins this letter of counsel and admonition.
This fellowship is Paul’s vision for the church at Corinth. It is also our vision as we begin preaching in a new liturgical year. Grace has been given to you. This grace is precisely being called into the fellowship of Christ, into this communion. This grace is never appropriated individually, just for oneself, but is always a communal appropriation, an insertion into community. Of course, this fellowship is a fellowship both in the joy and in the suffering of Christ and neighbor. But we learn about that later in the letter!
In these opening verses, Paul focuses on the grace that has been given and the gifts that express this grace. Grace and gifts, we might say, are not quite the same. The community is rooted in grace. Its very existence stems from this gracious favor in which God embraces the community. God’s good intent creates the community.
Then, in this community, the spiritual gifts are shared. They are “not lacking.” They are not yet perfect or complete but they are present and called to increase day by day. Of course many things battle against these spiritual gifts in the community, especially the tendency towards self-sufficiency, complacency, smugness; or even cultured speech and brilliant knowledge. All those things that turn a community in upon itself diminish these spiritual gifts.
The work of the spiritual gifts is begun in us, through this fellowship in Christ and with one another. As a work “begun,” these spiritual gifts implicate us in a waiting, a waiting for Christ to be revealed. Of course, we could interpret this waiting to mean waiting for the heaven to be torn open, for the sun to be darkened, for the mountains to quake and the stars to fall. But the waiting may be even more surprising than these too easily anticipated and naturally expected happenings.
The entire letter is focused on building the community into the testimony it has already received, strengthening the Gospel witness in its midst. The revelation of Jesus Christ that we are all waiting for in the Advent season, that we lift up and name as characteristic of Christian living in every season, is an unexpected revelation. It is not waiting for another birth in a manger and not necessarily waiting for a second coming into time.
This waiting may be characterized by patient waiting in the present time for Christ’s revelation as fellowship, as the communion of saints. In other words, the waiting is perhaps the praying and thanksgiving, the singing and the sharing that transforms our speech and knowledge, our words and expectations, into conformity with Jesus. The community of faith itself, the one we find ourselves in, is called to see Christ coming, Christ “adventing” in its very midst, in its very heart.
The community of faith as Christ-rooted, the call into this fellowship, the strengthening of the testimony, the spiritual gifts — these all parallel the fig tree in Mark’s Gospel for this first Sunday of Advent. As we watch the fig tree, as we see its ripening fruit, we can already taste the sweetness of summer and the rich fruit. So these gifts in the community of faith increase and give us a foretaste, more than a foretaste; they reveal to us the richness of Christ. This coming that we await is not a fearful coming. It is not a coming in vengeance and wrath but a sweet and tender coming that is already being nurtured in the community as it gathers around the font to hear forgiveness, around the book to hear of God’s mercy and at the table to taste that mercy and faithfulness.
Paul’s plea to the Corinthians in these verses (and throughout the letter) echoes the cry for restoration in Psalm 80. Lord, let your face shine. In community, as people brought together through God’s grace, gifted with many spiritual gifts, we wait for God’s face to shine, to be revealed in ever deeper and brighter layers within the community itself. This waiting is not passive. Speech and knowledge are transfigured. The way a community and its members relate and communicate reflects their rootedness in grace. The fellowship in Christ forms their speech and knowledge. They are shaped as a community in their waiting, a waiting that is itself the work of the Spirit.
Paul invites the community, from these very opening lines, into a vision of waiting, into a vision of actively waiting for Christ to shape them into a merciful fellowship. This community continually remembers God in their ways. Or, to draw on Isaiah’s metaphor from the first reading, the community is like clay that the potter takes and molds so that it may be blameless on the day of the Lord. That is God doing, God’s calling, not ours.
Where Are We?
The Gospel text for the first Sunday in Advent is certainly not anticipated and most likely not welcome.
What are we doing in the middle of Mark’s “Little Apocalypse” at the beginning of Advent? Advent and apocalyptic? How much more can a preacher take? A helpful entry point into this challenging text might begin with the literary context. At the beginning of chapter 13, the disciples are enamored by the scale and beauty of the Jerusalem temple and have a “Little Red Riding Hood” moment, exclaiming, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” (13:1). Jesus’ response is to teach about the temple’s coming destruction (13:2).
A “desolating sacrilege” will profane the temple along with many tribulations, including false messiahs and false prophets (13:14-23). It is no accident that these words about the temple occur just before the Passion Narrative (14:1-15:47). The theological inference is that the temple will no longer be the location of God. We would do well to ask what difference this makes for Mark’s theology, a theology that first and foremost asks, where do we find God? The answer, of course, is not in the glorious temple but on the cross. Not in the city proper but outside the city walls. Not in the center of power and authority but in the wilderness. Mark’s primary theological question makes a good Advent question. Where will we look for God this Advent season?
Be Careful What You Look For
At the same time, where you find God might depend on what you are looking for. Jesus warns his disciples to be watchful for those who would look to false Messiahs and false prophets who are capable of the same works as he (13:21-22). This is not unlike the description of the second beast in Revelation 13, who is also able to perform signs, to do “messiah-like” things.
Therein lay the problem. That which is false, which is evil, that could lead us astray, can all too often have an appearance of what is good. Going into the last chapters of the story, the disciples need a reality check, and so do we. “Be alert” (13:23), “keep awake” (13:37) is more than stating God’s time is not our time. It is to be watchful, discerning, especially when chaos abounds and know what you are looking for. While we could easily digress into some sort of “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” here, there’s more at stake. It points to the reality of the incarnation. If God becomes human, it becomes all too easy to make God like us; to look for God in human ways and human forms; to hold God to our standards. “Keep alert” for all the ways we could now think that we might finally “get” God.
A little apocalyptic is more than appropriate for Mark’s theological irony. At the heart of apocalyptic literature is encouragement and hope. To some extent, this is Jesus at his pastoral best. That which looks like devastation and defeat will be God’s victory. Out of the theological turmoil and confusion surrounding the destruction of the temple will be a new presence of God. Out of the suffering and death of their Messiah will be new life. God’s new way of being in the world will turn a cross into resurrection and a baby in a manger into salvation for the world.
Where Do We Find God?
Beginning Year B and the year of Mark necessitates reminding ourselves of the theological premise that grounds Mark’s story of Jesus. The link between the baptism of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus with “torn apart” frames this Gospel. The verb schizō, used only in 1:10 to describe what has happened to the heavens at Jesus’ baptism and then in 15:38 for the temple curtain is no tame “opening.” Anything that can be simply “opened” can be easily shut again and we would never know it happened. Lest we think that God can be let out for a little while but when we’ve had enough put back behind closed doors, Mark’s Gospel rips that image apart. That which separates us from God, either the heavens or the holy of holies, has been torn asunder and can never go back to the way it was before. Bookending this Gospel is the conviction that there is no keeping God at a distance anymore. God is not and will not be where we expect to find God.
There is a certain realness in this Gospel text to begin the Advent season. It cuts through any sentimentality and romanticism about Christmas and reminds us that incarnation is risky business. The darkening of the sun, the dimming of the moon’s light, and the stars falling from heaven means the end of the world as we have known it. That death will be no more because God will die is something to anticipate during Advent. This is not to be a downer just when Bing really kicks into high gear with “White Christmas.” It’s to speak the truth, about ourselves and our unrealistic expectations; about God and how God exceeds them.
Into the flowers of the fields that perish, the grass that withers away, the passing power of kings and nations, here is our God. The incredible event, for which we wait, of course, is our God who has chosen to enter into all that decays, into all that will die, and to know it with us. We find God in everything it means to be human, even in death. No longer will God remain in the heavens or behind a curtain high up on a hill. God becomes us to bring life to that which would surely die and to bring a new heaven and a new earth to the moments when the sufferings and despair of our earthly life is more than we can bear. Advent gives us the time and space once again to believe in and live out this reality.