Lectionary Commentaries for December 4, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:1-8

Karoline Lewis

Beginnings are important. They set the tone for what is to come. They clue us in on what to expect.

The Gospel text for the second Sunday of Advent gives us the beginning of Mark’s Gospel which is like no other. Consider the beginnings of each of the Gospels. Matthew: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Luke: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us…” John: “In the beginning…”. These are really different beginnings for very different theological reasons. How is Mark’s beginning different and what difference does this make?

Beginnings also make us consider endings and one cannot consider the beginning of Mark without thinking of its ending. “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid…” This unsatisfying ending had the scribes and scholars scrambling for alternate closings and theoretical explanations. Yet, the real ending of Mark is not really the ending at all. “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” “He is not here,” is perhaps the best “good news” of all. Not even a tomb can hold God, not even death.

The absence of a “Murder, She Wrote” ending is theologically necessary for a Gospel that begins outside of where God is supposed to be. There will be no tidy conclusion or tying up loose ends for this story of God. There is a radical disorientation in the beginning and the ending of this Gospel. The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end of any theological conclusions or certainties we might have held. It imagines that much of what happens in expectation is disappointment. We might ask ourselves to what extent a season of preparation demands a certain disoriented expectancy. Anything for which we wait, everything in which we hope rarely turns out to be what we imagined.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” are Mark’s first words out of the gate. Mark does not begin with the “story” of Jesus Christ or some sort of doctrinal claim that insists “this is what you need to know” about Jesus, but situates his story of Jesus in both the continuity and newness God. Behind the “good news” is the very Gospel of God. Behind Mark’s interpretation of what God is up to in Jesus is what God has been about all along — good news. Isaiah 40:9-11 and 52:7-10 provide the scriptural context for such a theological claim. Here is the sentinel who brings good news from the front. “The one who brings good news” is a present participle of euangelizō.

In the midst of devastation and despair, of hopelessness and certain destruction, the exiles hear the good news: God is here, God is victorious, your God reigns. Paul also works out this continuity and newness as he makes sense of Jesus. Both to the Romans and to the Thessalonians (Romans 1:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2) he positions his words, his mission, his argument, within the Gospel of God. Good news, Gospel, is at the heart of who God is. Mark calls his account of the life and death of Jesus the active, dynamic proclamation of God’s salvation. What God is up to now in Jesus is nothing other than to say, “Here is your God!” Our text from Isaiah reminds us that God has been about Gospel all along and that the good news is not only at the very heart of who God is but also is what God calls us to be.

What is the Good News of Great Joy?

As we anticipate these words from the angels in heaven, Mark asks us to view God’s good news in a different way. We find God’s good news not in Jerusalem but in the in the wilderness where the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to meet John the Baptist.  Mark’s funny dressed John is of course meant to recall Elijah the Tishbite (2 Kings 1:8), but the whole beginning of Mark is the fulfillment of one promise after another. In only eight verses, we not only hear the words of Isaiah spoken for a new day but also learn of a new purpose and presence for the Holy Spirit. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ reaches back to the promises of God and helps us imagine God-filled realities, both now and in our future life with God.

The opening of Mark’s Gospel reminds us of the decentering of God’s good news which is found on the edge…of everything. Goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be. We find ourselves not in the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem but outside of her city walls, in the margins, on the sidelines. The good news of God brings hope to those who find themselves in the peripheries of our world, but it also belongs there. God’s good news of grace announces God’s presence on the fringe, God’s love that goes beyond the boundaries of where we thought God was supposed to be, and God’s promise that there is no place on earth God will not go or be for us.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

Elna K. Solvang

The passage begins with an insistent double imperative: Comfort! Comfort!

The intimacy and compassion that are to infuse this comfort are underscored in the parallel command: Speak tenderly! (literally:”speak to the heart”). This poignant command not only names a deep human desire and need, it summons to mind multiple biblical examples of such tender ministrations. 

Elsewhere, Job’s friends offer comfort through a week of silent accompaniment (Job 2:11-13). Job’s extended family and neighbors give him gifts as an expression of their sympathy and comfort (Job 42:11). The foreign widow Ruth is comforted by the protection and access to water that the landowner Boaz provides (Ruth 2:13). Jacob’s sons and daughters attempt to be of comfort to Jacob during his many days of mourning for his son Joseph (Genesis 37:35). A rod and a staff provide protective comfort to one walking through the darkest valley (Psalm 23:4).

Consolation and care for the victims of calamity, for parents whose children have died, for persons without the means to sustain themselves and for persons vulnerable to physical threat and bodily harm are praiseworthy and beyond question. In the Bible, “oppressors” and “enemies” are typically those who fail to extend comfort or pity (Ecclesiastes 4:1; Psalm 69:20). 

What is striking at the start of Isaiah 40 is not that there are persons in need of comfort; it is that God commands that they be comforted. It is Jerusalem whom God says is to receive comfort. In the context of the Book of Isaiah, Jerusalem is hardly a sympathetic character. Chapter after chapter describes how the people of Jerusalem prospered through wickedness, oppression, lies and injustice, refusing to heed the prophets’ calls to repent, reform and be reconciled to God. 

In 587 BCE Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. The leaders and a significant part of the population were marched off to Babylon. The Jerusalem prophets made it unmistakably clear that the destruction of the city and the exile to Babylon were not due to Babylonian strength; they were a well-deserved punishment from God. 

Isaiah 40:1 declares now the time of punishment is at an end. Jerusalem’s “term” is completed and “her penalty is paid.” But why should she receive comfort? Persons who serve time for a crime do not typically receive comfort on the day of their release. They have been judged deserving of their penalty and now must prove their worthiness. 

Moreover, the likelihood of recidivism is high. The voice speaking in verses 6-8 acknowledges this likelihood for the people of Jerusalem too. Their steadfastness is fleeting; “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” This voice sees a future for the people of Jerusalem no different from their past.

The people of Jerusalem are not “deserving” of comfort according to the norms of retributive justice, but God insists — no, commands — that they be comforted. 

The first expression of comfort is the way they are to be identified: “my people,” says God (40:1). Though multiple chapters of Isaiah illuminate actions that are incompatible with God’s desires for human community and that end in punishment, God continues to identify as their God. God does not overlook or ignore those behaviors but all people should know that God has not abandoned Jerusalem. God intends that they will have a future together.

The second expression of comfort is the command to speak “tenderly to Jerusalem” (40:2). Compassion, not condemnation, should determine how Jerusalem is treated.

Third, is the clear declaration in verse 2 of release from debt to sins. The verse notes that Jerusalem “has served her term” but there is also an expression in the passive noting that “her penalty is paid.” The reference to “term” connects the exile to punishment, but the announcement of a penalty paid suggests divine grace in the release. It is the release from debt — not the efforts to satisfy the debt — that brings comfort.

Fourth, is the command to Jerusalem to announce good tidings to the cities of Judah (Isaiah 40:9). Jerusalem — the city judged, conquered and exiled — is to be involved in voicing comfort to others. 

Fifth, is the announcement of God’s coming to be with them. In Isaiah 40 the commands to “comfort” and to “speak tenderly” (verses 1-2) are immediately followed by the instruction to “Prepare the way of the LORD” (verse 3). The release from service is paired with the announcement of the LORD’s coming. The arrival will be one of divine splendor revealing “the glory of the LORD (verse 5).” 

The pathway is not through the cities and towns like a conquering warrior but through the desert and wilderness, where the settlement and survival of human and other living creatures is precarious. The location of this path is unstated. It could be imagined to be in the desert between the cities of Jerusalem and Babylon or it could recall the Exodus journey of deliverance through the wilderness of Sinai. Or it could be a metaphor for the desolation and despondency of the Jerusalemites in Babylon.

That the LORD’s coming is comfort, not withering judgment, is clear in the transformation of the wilderness and desert: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (verse 4). 

Sixth, and greatest, is the announcement of God’s involvement in creating a new future. Just as the conclusion of a prison term does not, by itself, result in a better tomorrow, the end of the Babylonian period does not ensure that what lies ahead will be any different for the exiles. But for their sake, God chooses to be involved in that future. The deepest comfort and greatest joy is the power of God at work in their midst, providing, protecting and guiding them with gentleness (verses 10-11).

True comfort, indeed.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The biblical texts for the second week of Advent are Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, and Mark 1:1-8.

The prophetic voice in Isaiah confidently claims an end to exile as the “Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him.” In Mark, the gospel writer opens by declaring the “beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” and perhaps that like John, we too are to be preparing the way for the Lord. The author of 2 Peter provides confident assurance of the coming of the Lord, despite what is perceived as a lengthy delay.

Psalm 85, like the other texts, follows a similar theme, that of the coming of God. If one were only to consider the lectionary verses from Psalm 85, then one might be tempted to read Psalm 85 in the same vein as Isaiah 40, as an announcement of the forgiveness of sin and the promise of the in breaking of God. 

Yet, the intervening verses of Psalm 85 do more than simply shift the theological tenor of the text; they create space, critical and pastoral space, for the reader and hearer to inhabit in this second Sunday of Advent.

The psalm can be divided into three sections: verses 1-3, verses 4-7, and verses 8-13. Many commentators suggest that this psalm should be understood as a communal prayer for help, perhaps composed in the early post-exilic period. In the first three verses, the psalmist looks back with thanksgiving at Israel’s deliverance from exile. In verse 1b, the psalmist celebrates that God “restored the fortunes” (šûb šĕbît) of Jacob. In other exilic texts (Jeremiah 30:3; 31:23; Ezekiel 39:25), the same phrase refers to Israel’s return from exile.

In other psalms that track the wayward history of God’s people, the apostasy of the people is met with the long-suffering love of God (cf. Psalm 106). In this psalm, however, priestly language is used to communicate God’s redemptive movement towards his people. Although the English translations typically fail to capture the nuance, the Hebrew says, God “lifted up the iniquity” of his people and he “covered over” all their sins.

The implication is clear: the redemption of the people in the past was alone the benevolent work of their covenant God. Leviticus calls upon the priests to perform the work of kippur, “atonement,” the lifting up and covering over of sin. Psalm 85 reminds the people that it was God who did such work in the past on their behalf. And like Isaiah 40, such work led to the pardoning of sin.

This announcement of deliverance and forgiveness would make an excellent transition to verse 8 and the subsequent promise of God’s coming had it been written that way. Yet the intervening stanza (verses 4-7) suggests a much more complex world. Twice the word “again” appears. In verse 4a, the people cry out “Restore us again” and in 6a, they plead, “Will you not revive us again.”

Whatever deliverance they enjoyed in the coming of God celebrated in verses 1-3 now seems to be a distant past. The people once delivered stand now in need of deliverance again. The glorious future once promised by the writer of Isaiah 40-55 has come to naught, leaving the community to wrestle with what it means to be a restored people, yet a people in need of restoration…again. And so they plead that the God who has come before will be the God who comes yet again. 

The stanza (verses 4-7) opens and closes with the word “salvation.” In verse 4a, the people plead with God, “the God of our salvation.” And the stanza concludes with the request that God “grant us your salvation.” The psalmist has linked “our salvation” with “your salvation,” their deliverance with the deliverance that is God’s alone. This community that once tasted the favor of God (verse 1) but now finds itself in distress (verse 5), recognizes nonetheless that its restoration and redemption lies with God, the source of their salvation.

In some sense this community stands in a precarious place. With the sense of divine favor withdrawn, the community could have likewise withdrawn its confession. Yet their faith persists. It persists because the community knows that the God who turned away (šûb) his wrath (verse 3) is the only one who can restore/return (šûb) them to favor again (4a).

Following the plea for God to restore his people, an individual voice issues a word of assurance to the people. God will speak peace (šalom) to his people, to his saints. The NRSV follows the Septuagint in 8b and has “to those who turn to him in their hearts.” The Hebrew, however, has “but let them not return (šûb) to folly,” and should probably be preferred. Read this way, the speaker offers a stern word of warning: “The God who has turned to us and restored us with peace will not tolerate those who choose to return to folly.” Folly was the way of the past; the future will be altogether different with the coming of God.

This coming of God, however, is not some distant hope, but instead it is “near” (verse 9).  And with this coming of God, “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (verse 10). In this coming of God, the steadfast love of God and the faithfulness of God will be fully evident. In this coming of God, the world will be rightly ordered by God, leading to peace. In this coming of God, the world will be consumed by this newly configured arrangement, with the faithfulness of God springing up from the ground and the righteousness of God falling down from the heavens — the whole earth will be radically changed.

As mentioned above, Psalm 85 provides critical and pastoral space for the reader and hearer to inhabit in this second Sunday of Advent.  In some sense, our lives are located within verses 4-7. We know something of redemption and of this Redeeming God who has been faithful in the past. But were we honest, our lips would whisper, “Restore us again, O God of our salvation.” We need God to come again, we need Advent yet again, because we know that restoration and redemption lies with this God — the one who promises to speak peace into our midst. 

The psalmist reminds us continually that this is the work of God alone but the good news is that “his salvation is near.” And so we lean forward expectantly, awaiting the day when the earth is awash with steadfast love…faithfulness…righteousness…and peace. 


Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a

Dirk G. Lange

In this letter, the author (let’s call him Peter though we know it is not Peter of the Twelve) encourages the community into faithful living.

This text, like many of the Advent texts, invites us into a space of exploration: What does it means to wait, to live in hope, to live in faith (for isn’t living in faith always living in hope)? And asks: Does this waiting having any consequences for the community?

The waiting is obviously not defined as simply preparing for Christmas! Nor is it an anachronistic waiting (waiting for Jesus’ birth that has already taken place). These verses of 2 Peter 3 allow us to sit in God’s space and time. The community of faith is waiting for God’s judgment not in fear but with great desire. In fact, the community is constituted as a community of waiting, of yearning, in faithfulness. This hope characterizes the Christian community as witness to God’s mercy in the world.

The first verse already sets the stage for a reconfiguration of time and therefore waiting: “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day.” God’s time is not our time. However, God’s time does not remain separate or disconnected from our time. A gospel time-keeping marks the community of faith. The delay of God is not the occasion for cynicism (when will God come in judgment, so ask those who mock the community and it’s hope). God’s delay is the occasion of hope, of living in the knowledge and expectation of God’s generosity, God’s mercy towards all. God’s delay is gift. The community lives in a time marked not by self-justification but by faithfulness.

The text creates several tensions for the reader/listener. There is initially the “you” and the “all” in verse 9. The boundaries a community might want to create are blurred or even quite literally broken open. Those who are already in the promise, who have heard the Gospel, are continually invited into repentance. In other words, there is not an inside and an outside to this community, there is not simply the pure and the impure, there is not a clear divide between “us” and “them.” In the community itself there is always need for repentance. But the “all” could also refer to those who have not yet heard the Gospel. In this case, the community is called into patience and into embodying God’s own desire for all to hear the Gospel.

But there is another tension in the text, one that gets heightened when this text is read in juxtaposition to the other readings for the Second Sunday in Advent. On the one hand, Peter writes about the catastrophic ending: “the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.” On the other hand, even within the text itself this “coming of the Lord” is not something to be feared but welcomed for it brings with it a time where righteousness is at home.

We hear echoed the “Comfort! Comfort!” of Isaiah. We hear about the good shepherd who comes to feed the flock and the gather the lambs in his arms. The so-called second coming or even End Times is not something scary! It brings with it a time of comfort, of restoration, where “steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). Wrath is done away with. God comes to us in tenderness and gentleness.

How do we deal with the heavens being torn open and the earth consumed with fire? If we rely on the heavens and on the earth that we have created, then yes there is something fearful and disturbing in these end time predictions. These sayings become, so to speak, apocalyptic! But for those who have been baptized, for those who live in the promise, for those who have already died, this coming, even the turmoil of the appearance, is something gentle and sweet though probably always surprising as well. The point is that for the community living in hope, for the community marked by waiting, the second coming is not a fearful appearance, there is no need to flee from it (whether literally ignoring it or jokingly dismissing it or mockingly reconfiguring it into a projection of one’s own judgment on the world).

The community of believers in fact welcomes the unexpectedness of the arrival. In hope, the community already rejoices in the dynamic and the grace of surprise. Their waiting impacts their living. It is not an other-worldly waiting. It is not an imagined waiting. It is not a waiting that places God’s coming off in the future and keeps it unrelated from life. The waiting for the unexpected arrival changes the way the believer speaks and acts. “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…?” The waiting forms the community into a life of holiness and godliness. And it is this life, this waiting that actually hastens the return.

What could this mean? How does it hasten the return? This life of holiness and godliness, this life without spot or blemish (verse 14) is not the morally perfect life. It is rather to be defined as the joyful waiting for a new heaven and a new earth. This waiting is rooted in God’s patience, which is salvation (verse 15). And in that waiting, God unexpectedly arrives, arises, springs forth from the ground (Psalm 85), springs forth in the midst of the community. And then “all” for who God has been waiting (verse 9) sees God and come to repentance.