Lectionary Commentaries for December 11, 2011
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28

Karoline Lewis

An Identity Crisis?

If last week we met the camel hair wearing, locust and honey eating John the Baptist, this week we do a 180 degree turn and meet a whole different John.

The John of John’s Gospel is never called the Baptist. Rather, this is John the Witness. While he is described as doing some general baptizing here and there, a careful read of John’s story of Jesus’ baptism reveals that John does not baptize Jesus. His primary role is not as one who baptizes but one who testifies to the light coming into the world, a very human witness to a cosmic event. God is about ordering a new creation, a new presence of light in the world but it necessitates a fellow human to point to its presence, otherwise, human as we are, we might not see it. That human is John.

Smack dab in the middle of an out of this world, beyond time and space beginnings of the Gospel of John is John. Interrupting this cosmic birth story, John is first described as who he is not — he is not the light, but came as a witness to testify to the light. Nor is he “Elijah” from the Gospel of Mark. The jump to verses 19-28 in the lectionary passage has John himself answering the question of “Who are you?” with “I am not the Messiah, I am not Elijah.” The questioning of John’s identity leads to John’s adamant denial of what he is not.

But even in these obdurate negatives John identifies himself in, through, and by his relationship with Jesus. Whereas Jesus defines himself as “I AM,” John is clear to say, “I am not.” He is not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet. He is not the light that shines in the darkness. Yet, even in his resolute claims about who he is not, who he is and why he is here is defined by and inseparable from the presence of the Word made flesh in his midst. He knows nothing but to articulate his identity in connection to Jesus’ identity. Can we make similar claims about our purpose? Can we respond to “who are you?” with the same indivisibility with God and all that God wants us to be? Can we locate our identity as intimately with Jesus?

The John of the third Sunday of Advent is the John that points to Jesus and says, “Behold, did you see him? It’s the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” For John’s Gospel, sin is not our moral laxity or the various transgressions we have committed that we so easily count up on a daily basis. Sin is unbelief which has as its tragic consequence separation from God. It seems that the last thing that separated God from God’s creation was to know what it means to be us. What it feels like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, looks like. So, here comes Christmas.

Our Need for Light

This story of John the Witness also calls attention to a first and fundamental confession of the incarnation, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.” Before “the Word became flesh” is the claim that light shines where light should not be. What difference does it make to imagine that a first testimony of God becoming human is light in the darkness? This is extraordinarily hard for us to comprehend when light is taken for granted on a daily, minute by minute, basis. In his book, Christmas: A Candid History,1 Bruce David Forbes provides a helpful synopsis of the importance of light for early celebrations of Jesus’ birth. In the dead of winter, in the midst of darkest and the shortest days of the year, festivals of light were essential. John’s first declaration of the incarnation, that the light of the world is continually shining when darkness should prevail, speaks to a fundamental human need for light. Before there is the Word made flesh, there is the promise that in the midst of all of the darkness of humanity, now light will shine.

My family and I spent a week this past summer at Family Camp at Outlaw Ranch, one of the Lutheran Bible Camps in South Dakota. Taking in the sights in the beautiful Black Hills, one stop was Jewel Cave. The tour’s 723 steps, roughly forty flights of steps, take you deep within the cave. At the opportune time, the tour stops and then, you guessed it, the lights are turned out. Of course, this is not just to show you how dark it is. We all know that. Rather, it is a reminder of that oft-forgotten fact that without light, even the smallest speck of light, our eyes will never adjust to the darkness. We could be down in that cave five minutes, five hours, five years and still never see our hands in front of our faces. The smallest amount of light would eventually make our eyes adjust and be able to see.

Preparing the Way

What does it mean to testify to the light? Do we imagine ourselves as witnesses to the light as the first expression of God’s presence in the world? Do we think of ourselves as witnesses to the light which shines in the darkness? Into the bleakness of winter will soon come the light of the world. In this time of anticipation, perhaps we can imagine that our welcome for the Word made flesh might be where and how we can shine the light of God’s presence into the shadows of our human brokenness, bringing good news to the oppressed, binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and releasing those imprisoned to freedom.

John the Witness reminds us of the importance of pointing to even the tiniest light and saying “Look, behold, the Lamb of God!” In this season of Advent that is typically described as one of preparation, what does it mean to prepare? Maybe, preparation means simply adjusting our eyes to see light when there seems to be none. God calls us to be witnesses like John who point to Jesus and say “Look!” so that all might know God’s pastures of peace. Perhaps pointing and saying, “Look!” can be our preparing the way.


1Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Elna K. Solvang

Hope sprouts from the ruins

The passage begins with an announcement of divine presence and action.

While it is clear that the power and the commission are from the LORD, the “me” with whom God is present and whom God has anointed and sent is not identified. It is logical to assume it is the prophet’s voice and the prophet’s mission that is described.

The presence of God’s spirit and the work for which the “me” has been anointed, however, also draw to mind David’s anointing as king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:13), the promise of a king who would heal the divisions between Israel and Judah and rule with righteousness (Isaiah 11:2-5), the release and righteousness to be carried out by God’s “servant” (Isaiah 42: 1-9), and the LORD’s spirit in everlasting covenant with all Israel (Isaiah 59:21). By these associations, the opening announcement underscores God’s initiative in providing for and speaking to Israel in days past and in the present. 

The present needs that draw divine attention, as glimpsed through the commission, are daunting.  God’s anointed is sent to the oppressed, to the ones whose hearts are crushed, to the captives, the imprisoned and to all who mourn. Though unstated, in order to reach those persons, God’s anointed must, of necessity, confront the perpetrators and sources of oppression, marginalization, hopelessness and despair.

Moreover, the divine mandate is to reverse their circumstances and effect a transformation in their identity and activity. The anointed is to deliver good news to the oppressed, to wrap for healing the broken hearts, to declare liberty for the captives and an opening so the imprisoned may find release. The anointed cannot avoid vulnerability or rejection and, like others commissioned for divine service (e.g., Numbers 11:10-15; Judges 4:4-9; 1 Kings 19:1-18; Jeremiah 20:7-10), will face the temptation to be disheartened by resistance, hostilities and lack of progress.

The commission to “proclaim liberty” is language from the instructions for observing the Jubilee Year. During the Jubilee property and people held as payment for debt were returned to the families to which they originally belonged (Leviticus 25:10). The use of the Leviticus language in Isaiah 61 is a clear indication that the liberty proclaimed is intended to be made permanent in new social and economic relationships within the community.

Though the Jubilee was a rare event — to be observed every fiftieth year — God’s anointed is sent to announce that liberation now. God’s anointed is also “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” This is assurance that God has chosen to act with abundant “favor” and mercy towards Israel and to judge and defeat those who would harm her (cf. Isaiah 49:8). 

God instructs the anointed to pay particular attention to “those who mourn in Zion.” Isaiah 56-66 is considered to be from the post-exilic period of Israel’s history. The Persian king Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians and decreed after 539 BCE that the exiles should return to their homeland and rebuild their city and their temple. The mourning in Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) in Isaiah 61:3 is not the shock and horror of 587 BCE when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Babylonian army and the royal family, religious leaders and elite of the city were marched off to an uncertain future in Babylon.

The mourning in Isaiah 61 rises out of frustration and humiliation over the failure to rebuild the city and the temple to match its former glory and the failure to reconcile the economic disparities and the religious and political factions within the city. The reality of life in Jerusalem was nothing like the expectations for a restored Jerusalem and a righteous community as proclaimed by the prophets and as envisioned by the returnees (e.g., Isaiah 60).

The comfort God’s anointed is instructed to provide to the despairing in Jerusalem will, however, change the way the people see themselves, the way they are regarded by others and the ways they act. Instead of the ashes on their heads — a sign of humiliation and grief (e.g., 2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1) — they are given a festive headdress (NRSV “garland;” also in 61:10).

They are treated as honored guests and anointed with “the oil of gladness” (cf. Psalm 45:7). To replace their dull spirits they are given mantles of praise. They are to be treated as and they are to become other than the humiliated, fragmented, dispirited and exploitative people that they currently are. Then they will accomplish what is needed and what has been too difficult: rebuilding Jerusalem as a city where righteousness and justice flourish.

The urgency and enormity of the building task are underscored in the description of what the comforted mourners will raise up and repair: “the former devastations…the devastations of many generations.” Contemporary readers cannot see the devastation of ancient Jerusalem but can see “the devastations of many generations” in the world today: in the mud mountains of buried bodies, homes and livelihoods in Sendai, Japan; in the acres of empty apartments that once housed thousands of families in the Heygate complex in South London; in mile after mile of corrugated tin dwellings in Khayelitsha township, South Africa; in the splintered remains of homes, schools, businesses and churches in Joplin, Missouri; in the crumbled streets and buildings of Port au Prince, Haiti; in the flooded farmlands and residences of Minot, North Dakota; in the spaces that remain vacant in New Orleans where Hurricane Katrina wiped away people, structures and infrastructures. 

Transforming the “former devastations” will require more than a memory of the past and a promise to build. It will require that the people of Jerusalem adopt, like God, a love of justice and a hatred of “robbery and wrongdoing” (verse 8).

A new future is possible because God promises to be in “everlasting covenant with them” (verse 8) and because God has provided the appropriate work clothes: garments of salvation and robes of righteousness (verses 9-10). The city where hopelessness had taken root will, by God’s spirit and by God’s blessing, sprout righteousness and praise.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 126

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The theme of restoration that appeared in Psalms 80 and 85 during the first two weeks of Advent continues with Psalm 126.

In this psalm, however, the notion of reversal occupies a central place, inviting the reader to recognize that restoration by God does more than simply restore what was lost. The kind of divine restoration envisioned in this psalm means much more than compensation.

Instead, such restoration suggests a radical reversal of reality, both past and yet to come. And strikingly, scenes of celebration and joy accompany each reversal of reality. Attention to these movements in the text may prove fruitful in the journey through Advent.

The opening verse recalls what might have been considered the most significant reversal of reality in the mind of the community. The psalmist remembers the time “when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.” As in Psalm 85, the psalmist uses the phrase “restore the fortunes” to refer to the return from exile. Following the announcement of this great reversal, the psalmist recalls the effects it had upon the faithful:

“We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with shouts of joy.”

The mourning and grief that suppressed the singing of the songs of Zion while in a foreign land (cf. Psalm 137) has been radically reversed. Mourning has given way to laughter and joy. And like Joel 3, at the coming of God, the people will see a new day where all people will become dreamers.

The second reversal relates to the nations. In other psalms, the nations frequently mock and ridicule the people of God. For example, in Psalm 79, following the destruction of Jerusalem, the nations mockingly inquire, “Where is their God?” The implication, of course, is that the God of Israel is impotent at best and utterly disinterested at worst.  Such challenges by the nations are meant to suggest the apparent powerless of this God. 

Yet with the work of God comes a radical reversal. The psalmist suggests that the mouths that once ridiculed them at the beginning of the exile were the same mouths now uttering praise to Israel’s God. The same nations that believed God was impotent are the ones that confessed that “the Lord has done great things” for Israel.

This confession of the nations (verse 2a) became the confession of Israel as they too recognized the great work of God.  Not only did the community recognize this great work, as did the nations, they also celebrated the truth about this God who intervenes and works on their behalf. Such knowledge leads the people to great rejoicing (verse 3b). 

Similar to Psalm 85, the psalmist shifts from recounting the past and instead longs for a similar work of God in the world. While the precise historical circumstance of the psalmist cannot be known, most scholars suggest a post-exilic setting for the psalm. The joy and laughter that followed their return home from Babylon was now in the past. The community is left hoping that once again the Lord will do a “great thing for us.” 

Drawing from the language of verse 1, the psalmist pleads in verse 4 for God “to restore our fortunes.” Rather than explaining what that coming restoration would look like, the psalmist opts for a simile. God’s work to restore his people is compared to a dry wadi in the Negeb. For months on end, the wadi remains a wasteland where survival of any living thing remains in doubt.

But in a moment, as the sky opens up and the torrents of rain begin, the wadi turns from a life depriving site to a life sustaining source. That is what restoration looks like. That is what the community longs for — to know the great works of God and to relish in the full, life-giving power that will come with this reversal.

The final two verses in the psalm employ agricultural imagery, particularly that of sowing and reaping. Some have suggested that this imagery may have been adapted from agricultural rituals in the Ancient Near East related to the dying and rising of the gods. Given the largely agrarian nature of that society we should not be surprised that the metaphors employed are frequently agricultural. But the use of such imagery does not require a one to one correspondence to a presumed ancient ritual.

I would suggest that the psalmist adopted such imagery in an effort to reinforce the notion of restoration and reversal found throughout the psalm, but even further, such imagery introduces the idea that restoration may not be instantaneous. Those who sow, do so without guarantee, but in anticipation of what will come. The psalmist prays that what began in tears and weeping will end with shouts of joy and arms filled with proof of God’s great work in their midst.

Psalm 126 reminds us that “the Lord has done great things for us.” Even further, like the dreamers of old, we are called to live expectantly, fully convinced that the tears and weeping of our day will not have the last word. The God we serve is the God of restoration and reversal. 

For many in this Advent season, restoration must be more than compensation. They are longing for reversal. They are waiting with expectation for tears to be changed into shouts of joy — and Advent reminds us that our waiting is not in vain. 


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Dirk G. Lange

Once again, on this Third Sunday of Advent, we have an appeal, now from Paul, to a community of faith about the way it is to live in the world.

As you know, these verses come from the oldest text in the New Testament, Paul’s first letter, and is addressed to a community he particularly loved. The immediate context of course is set in 1 Thessalonians 4 where Paul states that the return of the Lord is near. We know how both Paul and other Christian communities backtracked on that belief when the Lord did not come as quickly as expected! But perhaps that re-writing of Christian hope is unnecessary if we take seriously other admonitions (as the one from last week) that the Lord can come at any moment, unexpectedly. Then, every moment is truly living in that hope of Christ’s imminent arrival.

In the verses directly preceding our text, the structure of the community is addressed (respect and esteem in love towards leaders) as well as behavior (the leaders are in return to encourage, help, be patient, seek to do good). But now a more general appeal is made to the entire community, an appeal that is the foundation of all previous admonitions and counsel, an appeal that lies at the heart of every Christian life. The way of life together in this community that Paul proposes, stands in opposition to everything that believers experience in their relationship to the world.

We sometimes forget the radical nature of that appeal (do good to all, help the weak, do not repay evil for evil). In Paul’s first century context, the standard governing human relationships of course was different. It was about pay back, about maintaining and guarding one’s respect (not giving respect!). I believe we can safely say that it is very much the same today. Everyone is out for him or herself and lawyers offering litigation are among the best paid professionals! Paul’s appeal goes against the grain of this self-centered world, admonishing not only to a way of life in the community but in openness towards all. This way of life that characterizes Christian “waiting” breaks open the restrictions and restraints of human interaction focused upon the self. 

But there are other marks of this waiting as well. Paul could not state it more clearly, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Of course we are not being told to keep a law! This is not a command that must somehow be fulfilled. Rather, Paul is naming the work of the Spirit in the midst of the community, in the midst of life. It is the Spirit’s work that awakens and sustains rejoicing and prayer and thanksgiving. In other letters, Paul makes it clear that these things are fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22; Romans 8:15-16).

If we allow our Scripture readings for this Third Sunday of Advent to dialogue among themselves, we have ample indication of the source of this rejoicing, praying and thanksgiving. Psalm 126 speaks directly to it: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” When the Lord restored, when the Lord did this, when God acts, only when God acts, are we caught up in that action of rejoicing, praying and thanksgiving. Martin Luther writes about thanksgiving in particular as that “art of the Holy Spirit.” And of course prayer is never just the inclinations of the human heart but the Spirit working God’s Word through and in our existence, revealing our need and raising our cry, both of lament and praise.

It is this work, this art of the Holy Spirit that sanctifies each believer and the community entirely (verse 23). The believer or the company of believers can never keep themselves sound and blameless. Any such “keeping” is rooted in the Holy Spirit’s action. What does this mean? The imperatives rejoice, pray, give thanks are evangelical imperatives. Paul is naming the action of the Holy Spirit as it manifests itself in the life of the community and he calls on the community to acknowledge, name, live into these gifts.

These gifts are not simply moral obligations or disciplines intended to prepare the believer. No, they are already manifestations of God’s presence in the Spirit that consumes and transfigures spirit, soul and body. Yet, how often do we relegate prayer to “when we have time” and rejoicing to praise songs? How often do we eliminate thanksgiving all together as if it were merely our work rather than the Spirit’s? Do not quench the Spirit!

The believer, the community of faith, may be waiting for the imminent parousia but, at the same time, the waiting happens already in the Lord, waiting in the presence of God’s Spirit who is working and shaping the community into a gospel witness. The Spirit works in and out of the community, we do not know how. Yet the community is given these signs: a deep gospel joy, an incessant prayer in words and in silence, a thanksgiving that culminates in Christ’s own body and blood shared in the community.

Christ is faithful (verse 24). The believer and the community are constituted by that faithfulness. Christ will accomplish all this in the community through the Spirit. Christ, the one we are waiting for, is already in our midst and we do not know him (John 1:26). It is this faithful one who continually calls the community into this exercise of faith, an exercise that is not just individually accomplished but communally realized. “Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss.” Greet one another, male and female, with a kiss that breaks social and cultural norms. You are a community rooted in the Spirit. Live this sign of paradox.