Lectionary Commentaries for December 18, 2011
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 1:26-38

Karoline Lewis

To Be Regarded…

The Annunciation to Mary is a remarkable text.

As I began to work on this commentary, my first memory of this story took me back to my high school days. For various and sundry reasons, this Lutheran girl, and a preacher’s kid, ended up in a Catholic high school. Thinking about this passage, I remembered being amazed and even surprised when I first attended an Annunciation Day mass at San Domenico School for Girls. I had some sense that as a Lutheran this was neither an event nor day that we acknowledged or celebrated. I was perplexed and considered the rationale for and reasons behind why our classes would start an hour late that day. But the primary image that came to my mind is being surrounded by girls, by my friends, and thinking, God has looked with favor on us. The feeling that I remember from that day in the midst of unfamiliar ritual and religiosity is that God had regarded me.

It is no small thing to be regarded, to be favored, especially when you are exceedingly aware that you should not be. A first pass at this text for the last Sunday of Advent brings these reactions, these feelings to the surface. One homiletical move on this text could very well be to create the sense of what it feels like to be noticed and regarded. Going into the week before Christmas, in the midst of everything that is the season (fill in the blanks here), what it would be like to experience, to know, that God favors you. I wonder how many of our people need to hear these words, now, not later, and not after Christmas. So much of the season is focused outside of oneself, the shopping, the gatherings, the giving. To hear that in the middle of all of what the Christmas season is that God favors you, well, that kind of claim really brings the incarnation home.

The Impossible Possibility of God

This story of Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is surrounded by the impossible. Elizabeth’s story brackets Mary’s. Just before the designated text for this Sunday is Elizabeth’s pain-filled yet wondrous words, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” This impossibility demands that we hear Mary’s story as equally incredulous. The angel’s confession that “nothing is impossible for God” finds its deepest meaning in that impossibility abounds, that a barren, elderly woman is pregnant, that a young teenage girl from a nothing town is favored. Once again, our set imaginations that might idealize the Christmas story are turned upside down. This just does not happen. Do we get that? One of the greatest challenges of preaching this story is somehow to create the movement from impossible to possible, to let God’s possibility ring new and true and whole when all we know in our world, in our lives, is impossibility.

Mary herself acknowledges the impossible possibility of God with her first response to Gabriel. She is perplexed and debated/considered/reasoned/consider different reasons. While the New Revised Standard Version translates the latter verb as “pondered” it is not the same Greek word as in 2:19. She debates, reasons about the angel’s greeting when the only thing Gabriel has said so far is, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary’s initial response to this encounter is worth significant pause. The angel has barely said a thing.

Why is Mary bewildered? To call attention to Mary’s response to the angel’s first words is to emphasize to what extent Mary cannot even believe this impossible possibility. Me? Who am I? Why am I favored? How can the Lord be with me? She knows her place. She knows who she is. And this should not be happening. She’s a she, a teenager, and from the wrong side of the tracks.  Gabriel then tells her the big news that she’s going to be pregnant with a son, but not just any son, the Son of the Most High, no less, from the lineage of David, with a never — to — end kingdom. OK. What? “How can this be?” Can we voice her disbelief with the kind of incredulity that must have been Mary’s? Or, do we perpetuate an obedient response, relegating Mary’s true astonishment to some sort of obligatory prophetic answer?

The Move to Christmas

Any sermon on this text worth its weight will somehow create, expand, and eventually resolve, to a certain extent, and as much as is theologically possible, the tension between “How can this be” and “Let it be with me according to you word.” It will move us from the absence of God (1:34), to the presence of God (1:35), to the fulfillment of the promises of God (1:36). To collapse “Here I am” too quickly into our idealistic notions of answering God’s call reduces Mary to simply a pawn in some sort of divine play and further marginalizes her.

Somehow, someway, a sermon on this text will negotiate the radical transformation in only three short verses, from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from to denial to discipleship. In a very real way, this is the appropriate transition from Advent to Christmas. Mary’s story moves us all from who we think we are to what God has called us to be, from observant believer to confessing apostle. Moreover, remarkably, impossibly, Mary’s story demands that we acknowledge the very transformation of God. It is no small journey to go from our comfortable perceptions of God to God in the manger, vulnerable, helpless, dependent. Yet, this is the promise of Christmas.


First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Elna K. Solvang

Royal hope and an undisturbed place

The opening chapters of 2 Samuel describe protracted and bloody conflict over kingship between David and Saul’s son Ishbaal, assisted by their respective armies.

Eventually Ishbaal is assassinated and David becomes king over the territories of both Judah and Israel. 

Over the past year around the world a large number of political leaders of a variety of stripes — dynastic, democratic, dictatorial, military, demagogues and demigods — have been challenged by their citizenry and in some cases removed from power. All defended the legitimacy of their reign and the benefits of their rule — some by imprisoning their opponents and shooting their detractors. 

Leadership change generates initial relief for those welcoming it, but there is also a measure of uncertainty for everyone. Regardless of the form of government, it remains to be seen whose voices will be heard in the new regime, what its goals will be and how it will maintain its position in power. 

2 Samuel 7 is closely connected to the story of David’s rise to kingship in Israel — including his complex relationships with King Saul, Saul’s son Jonathan and Saul’s daughter Michal, his time as a paid fighter for the Philistines, his military successes, his divine anointing to kingship by the prophet Samuel, the friends who would kill to put him in power, his attentiveness to the surviving male heir of Saul’s household, his conquest of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem and its designation as the new capital of the nation. Samuel and later Abigail both affirm that David is divinely designated as Israel’s king. But divine designation, as David assumes political control, does not eliminate uncertainty over whose voices will be heard, what goals will be pursued and how power will be maintained.

2 Samuel 7 is commonly regarded as the legitimization of David’s royal rule: God has determined David to be “prince over my people Israel” and “cut off all your enemies from before you.” Moreover, God has determined that David’s “throne shall be established forever.” There is no weighing of the past and no warnings about the future. The legitimacy of David’s reign is beyond question.

2 Samuel 7 does not question David’s legitimacy, but it does rebuff his royal intention, recall all his accomplishments as acts of divine beneficence, and recite God’s deeds and desires for Israel. The chief subject of 2 Samuel 7 is the LORD (David is the subject of only 3 verbs) and God’s actions are directed both toward David and toward Israel. The legitimacy that David draws from this passage is tied to a peaceful place for the people of Israel.

The passage begins with David’s observation that his royal residence (“a house of cedar”) is more elegant than the tent where the “ark of God” — the manifestation of God’s presence in the community — is located, and David’s intention (as stated by the LORD in verse 5) to build a “house” (i.e., a temple) for the LORD. Temple construction and remodeling are pious and appropriate royal undertakings. It is a logical project for a newly minted king in a newly established capital. Moreover, as Nathan observes, David has divine support: “for the LORD is with you” (verse 3; cf. 2 Samuel 5:10). The project, however, does not receive divine approval; in an oracle to Nathan the LORD questions David’s plan. 

Much of the scholarly discussion of God’s demurral focuses on why Solomon — not David — eventually builds the temple (see 1 Kings 5:2-5; 8:17-19).  In 2 Samuel 7 God’s objection focuses not on David but on a pattern of divine mobility. God has been “moving about” (lit. “walking back and forth”; verses 6, 7), accompanying Israel from the day God delivered them from Pharaoh’s regime. In tent and tabernacle God has moved with them, providing leaders to shepherd them. David has settled into his royal domain (verse 1) but God refuses a similar settlement (verse 7).  In rebuffing David’s proposal, it becomes clear that the future of David’s kingship is to be shaped by divine intentions, not Davidic. 

In the next section of the oracle to Nathan the mighty “LORD of hosts” recounts deeds of divine fidelity and care on behalf of “my servant David” (verses 8-9) and “my people Israel” (verses 10-11a). The defeat of David’s enemies and David’s rise from shepherd to “prince over my people Israel” are the LORD’s accomplishments, not David’s.

Moreover, David’s ascension to kingship is not an end; God will continue to prosper David (“I will make for you a great name.”). In the oracle, God’s fidelity and care for David flow into a description of what God will do “so that [God’s people] may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more.” God’s investment in David’s kingship is tied to God’s intentions for all Israel.  

The final section in the oracle returns to the language of “house” that opened the passage, but not the palace that David settled in and not the temple that David had intended to build. God promises to turn David’s kingship into a dynasty, an act of divine constancy in dealing with human complexity. God had warned the Israelites about human kingship (1 Samuel 8) and determined that Israel’s kings should be held to a different agenda. 

By establishing a royal dynasty in 2 Samuel 7 God makes a commitment to leadership continuity and accountability: “your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me.” In this new covenant God continues to act with fidelity and care for David. As before, it is God’s people who should benefit from the dynastic arrangement. 

Israel’s hope does not rest in a dynasty but there is hope that from the house of David will come forth trustworthy leadership, attentive to the voices of those in need, and in faithful service to God’s goals for Israel and the world.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

At the heart of Psalm 89 is the question of faithfulness.

More particularly, the question centers on the faithfulness of God. As a royal psalm, the psalm celebrates and explores the relationship between God and David, his anointed one, and those that follow in his stead. The focus on David in Psalm 89 no doubt creates a reasonable link with the other readings assigned to the fourth Sunday of Advent. Second Samuel 7 recounts the giving of the covenant to David, while Luke 1:26-38 recalls Gabriel’s words to Mary that Jesus will assume the throne of his ancestor David.

This royal psalm can be broken down into four distinct sections. The first four verses introduce the theme of God’s faithfulness to David. The second section, verses 5-18 recount God’s power over creation. The third section, verses 19-26, refers directly to God’s ruler in Jerusalem. The remainder of the psalm laments the fall of Jerusalem and the shame that befell the king at the hands of the enemy.

The introductory section (verses 1-4) reminds the reader of the faithfulness of God in establishing this covenant. The psalmist promises to sing of the steadfast love, hesed, and faithfulness, ămûn of God. The pairing of these terms appears repeatedly throughout the psalm (verses 1; 2; 14b; 24; 33; 49), reinforcing the centrality of this theme. This work began by God is promised to be as “firm as the heavens” (verse 2), meant to extend to all generations (verse 4).

The following section, verses 5-18, does not appear in the Advent reading, but contributes much to the opening claims of the psalm. These verses answer the question, “Who is this God that swears such a covenant?” “By what authority can this God make such claims?” The scene is set within the divine council (verse 7), with the holy ones around him. A similar scene appears earlier in Psalm 82 (cf. Psalm 29). In both psalms, however, the intent is to affirm that the God of Israel is the God over all, the one who rulers the cosmos and all that are in it.

The affirmation of God as creator continues in the following two verses, with each using imagery associated with creation and chaos. Verse 9 notes that God rules over the raging sea (yām), stilling the tumultuous waters. This God stands over creation, possessing the power to hold back the churning, watery chaos that threatens the orderliness of all creation.

Verse 10 claims that God has crushed Rahab, a mythic chaos figure from other Ancient Near Eastern texts. In this creation tradition, the deity battles mightily against the chaos dragon. The defeat of Rahab does more than signal the overcoming of chaos; it is meant to affirm the cosmic rule of the warring deity (God). Victory in creation signals the absolute certainty of divine kingship. In affirming the cosmic kingship of God, the psalmist lauds,

The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours.
The world and all that is in it, you have founded them (Psalm 89:11).

The steadfast love and faithfulness of God are predicated in part upon this recognition. The psalmist explains in verses 14 that “righteousness and justice are the foundation” of God’s throne and that steadfast love and faithfulness go before God. As James Mays has explained, “Attributes that are usually spoken of in connection with the Lord’s way with Israel are portrayed as inherent in the Lord’s cosmic rule.

The divine righteousness and justice are manifest in the victory over chaos, and steadfast love and faithfulness in the trustworthy and reliable rule over chaos.”1 The opening claims in the psalm (verses 1-2) are rooted in this confession about God’ cosmic victory over the chaos, both then and now.

Verses 19-26, the second part of the lectionary reading, connect the kingship of David with the kingship of God. The kingship of this “chosen one” is clearly the work of God. Lest one think the rise of the Davidic dynasty rests solely with the political prowess of a shepherd boy from Judah, one is reminded by the psalmist that the founding of David’s kingship is the work of this Creator God who sits enthroned over the Divine Council.

It is God who anointed David with holy oil (verse 20). It is the arm of God that strengthened David (verse 21). It is God who will crush the foes of David and strike down those who hate him (verse 22). It is God who will place the right hand of David over the sea (yām) to still the chaos of the day (verse 25). So close will the divine King be to the human king that the latter will say to the former, “You are my Father” (verse 26a).

This familial relationship (father-son) is widely used in the Ancient Near East to depict metaphorically the relationship between human kings and gods. In this text, the claim stands at the conclusion of a series of promises made by God to the human king, ensuring the success of the human king because of the authority of the Divine King.

As is often noted, beginning with verse 38, “But now,” the psalm moves to a lament, questioning the steadfast love of God in light of the despair brought on presumably by the exile. Thus the psalmist holds in tension the claims made in verses 1-37 with the experiences rehearsed in verses 38-51. On the one hand, the people make their claim that God is indeed the Creator God, the one who has overcome chaos and established one like David to lead his people. The steadfast love of God and his faithfulness has accomplished this.

On the other hand, the community anguishes over a reality consumed by the water mire of chaos, a reality that appears to have stripped bare the promises of God. In the final verses, they call God to “remember,” and in remembering, they pray that the steadfast love and faithfulness of God will be made manifest again.

Perhaps that is the prayer of those on journey during Advent. We confess this God is indeed the Creator God, who has set apart a Servant to lead his people. And yet our communities know the watery mire of chaos. So we join with the community in Psalm 89, asking God to remember and in remembering that the steadfast love and faithfulness of God will be made manifest in new ways once more.


Notes

  1. James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 285.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 16:25-27

Dirk G. Lange

The letter to the Romans begins and ends in unusual ways for Paul.

That the letter and the community held special significance for him is clear. In the opening chapter (in fact the opening verse!) we already have an extended greeting in which Paul is laying claim to and asserting his status as “a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1).

Then follows a long explanation of his mission and the gospel he wishes to preach in their midst. Now, at the end of the letter, after having preached that Gospel in letter form rather than in person, Paul reasserts his position and authority of “my gospel.” This conclusion runs from 15:33 through the designated verses for this Sunday. It contains a commendation, an extensive greeting list, two benedictions and the doxology.

For the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we read only the doxology. It appears as if Paul has taken a doxology that may have been known to the communities of faith he was familiar with, a doxology perhaps taken directly from their worship: “To God [to the only wise God], through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever! Amen!” As all classic doxologies, this blessing of God serves to frame everything that has gone before (admonitions, prayers, thanksgivings, etc.). The doxologies name the one who is the source of all blessing, of all good things, the source of the work of the gospel. Paul may use the personal possessive (my gospel) but it is clearly his only through Jesus Christ, through the One who reveals the mystery.

Another point however needs to be noted concerning this reference to “my gospel.” There were many gospels abounding in first century churches. Paul warns about them in almost all of his letters. Of course, not all of them served the proclamation of Jesus Christ. Many of them lead people into error, confusing the eternal God who revealed the mystery with gods of culture. Paul’s gospel however stands in the tradition of the prophetic writings. It is rooted in the promise found in the Old Testament and which is meant not only for the Jewish people but for all Gentiles, for all the nations.

These two references — to the eternal God and to the prophetic writings — establish the community of faith in a tradition that is defined by one greater than itself and in a history broader than their own. In other words, the community is never defined simply by its own parameters but by God whose promise extends over time and through the lives of many peoples. The local community is always, in some ways, a global community.

We read this doxology on the last Sunday of Advent. To what purpose? The lectionary has turned now, on this day, from an eschatological waiting to the more imminent announcement and arrival of the Christ Child. The Gospel of Luke relates the announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary and then together with Mary, we sing the reversals of the gospel in the Magnificat. We hear this annunciation as the revelation of the mystery that has been kept secret through the ages. We come to the moment, we might say, to the beginning of this revelation that brings together the hopes of the prophets, the longing of the law and the yearning of all humanity. The history of salvation begins to unfold before the community in full splendor and will finally be realized in a meal in which this mystery is given, literally distributed to the community.

The revelation of God’s mystery to all (Jews and Gentiles) is “to bring about the obedience of faith.” The obedience of faith is a central theme in Romans. With this notion of obedience, Paul is drawing all peoples into the covenant, into God’s own revelation of the secret. Just as Adam’s disobedience brought about condemnation and death to all humanity so the obedience of the second or last Adam, Jesus Christ, implies the obedience and steadfastness of all people. Christ’s obedience brings righteous and life (Romans 5:9-10).

We are not to read this “obedience of faith” as simply fulfilling the law, as if through Christ, humanity is now able to accomplish the Law of Moses without impediment. Paul has shown throughout the letter to the Romans that the tension of disobedience/obedience refers not to the Law of Moses (for then it would apply only to the Jews) but to the law that is deep within all of creation. The “obedience” here has a cosmic slant. The obedience of Christ does not just abolish/fulfill the Law of Moses, it instigated, and it initiates the new creation. The restoration prayed for in the psalms of the preceding Sundays of Advent is now completed. Adam (humanity) is restored through Jesus Christ. God’s intention in creation is made manifest: through this gift of faith, a new people witness to God’s intent of good-will, immeasurable mercy and eternal life towards all.

The gift of faith that comes to humanity through the obedience of Christ, the righteousness that is the constitutive element of the new people, the new creation cannot be confined to merely a forensic metaphor. It is not simply (though importantly!) the forgiveness of sins, the acquittal spoken. The obedience of faith given in Christ and now continually spoken and distributed in the community for all, this obedience signifies the life that all are called into a relationship in God and with all creation. The image of God has been restored and believers now live in that image, witnessing and inviting all into this covenantal relationship.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, as even the readings make a turn to Christ’s birth in a manger, Paul’s doxology in Romans sings a counter-motif. The obedience of faith gestures towards the cross. The expectation and yearning of Advent for reconciliation and a restored humanity begins, yes, at the manger but is fully accomplished at the cross and given in a meal.