Lectionary Commentaries for December 2, 2012
First Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 21:25-36

Karl Jacobson

Charles Dickens is said to have said, “Train up a fig tree in the way it should go, and when you are old sit under the shade of it.”

This phrase has been adopted by greenhouses, landscapers, and environmental movements; it has been employed as an exhortation to patience1, to prudence and planning, and even used as motivation for job interviews.
 
I cannot say just what Dickens had in mind, but for the biblically literate it may be clear that Dickens is borrowing from (and riffing on) the book of Proverbs: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 KJV). What, then, is the commonality (if there is any) between the raising of children and fig trees?

Answers may abound.  I have never planted a fig tree and am still trying to figure out children.  But one thing, at least, seems certain: training a child or a fig tree will be a labor of love, with the emphasis falling equally (one hopes!) on “labor” and “love.”

The Parable of the Fig Tree and the Coming of the Son of Man
At the center of the reading from Luke for this week is the parable of the fig tree.  This parable is not, probably, what we normally think of when we think “parable.”  There really isn’t a story, per se, which is what we might expect — no little old lady searching for coins, no sons, or servants, or stewards.  There isn’t the point (or skewer) that is the trademark of the parable hidden in the palm of Jesus’ hand as he tells it, where the reader is caught (and stuck) at the end.

This “parable” is really more of an observation and a warning.  It heralds the coming of the Son of Man, calling the listener to have eyes to see the signs, and the good sense to be ready.  Jesus tells us that there are signs that indicate the arrival, the advent, the presence, and the power of the Kingdom of God.  Like leaves on a fig tree (or pimples on the brow of an adolescent), such signs can show us our redemption, and our Redeemer; this is an important part of what we need to be about as children of that Kingdom: looking for its signs. 

Luke 21 tells us that people will know fear, that earth and heaven will traumatized, and that “‘Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and glory.”  A difficulty, of course, is that there have been (and presumably will be many more) times when there is distress among the nations and the heavens appear to be shaken.  How will we know, when will we see, and how long must we wait?

Patience, it seems, may be exactly what is at issue for the fledgling Christian community as it awaits the day of the Lord.  The need for patience, endurance, and trust may well have been amplified when to all appearances the promise that “all things have [will have] taken place” (verse 32) during that first generation, has proved untrue.

Patience in this life is often the key issue for us as well.  Patience in the face of promises yet to be kept; patience in the meantime of enduring illness, broken relationships, and unrealized expectations or hopes; patience after all our patience has run out. 

One thing I remember clearly from my own childhood is that parents are not the only ones who need patience.  Children, too, need to learn to be patient with their parents, and with the progress of their own growth.  As we seek to be raised as children of the Kingdom, patience is key in watching for the signs, in living into the Gospel, and in our daily lives as congregations and as individuals.

The Concept of “Nearness” in the New Testament
The central promise of the parable of the fig tree — that the Kingdom is near, now — is a promise that the church needs to here regularly.  Watch for the signs, Jesus says, and you will see that your redemption is drawing near, and indeed is already near.

The Greek word here is engizo, a verb which expresses the immanence, the “coming nearness” of someone or something.  In the New Testament there are many things that might “draw near,” from the Word (Romans 10:8; cf. Deuteronomy 30:14) and the proclamation of the Kingdom (Luke 10:9,11), to appointed times (Revelation 1:3; 22:10; Matthew 26:45; Romans 13:12) including the end (1Peter 4:7), to that which is shown to be drawing near in the leaves of the fig tree, the promised redemption of all who believe (Luke 21:28; Romans 13:11), to whom God draws near in Christ Jesus (Hebrews 7:19; James 4:8; 5:8). 

Here, in this unusual parable and its visualization of this vital New Testament idea of “nearness,” we find the imperative of the gospel, its life-giving assurance — the Kingdom is not far off; it is not waiting; it is not an undiscovered country; it is right here in Son of Man, and in his proclamation.  Luke’s parable echoes the summary proclamation of the gospel in Matthew’s John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Twelve (cf. Matthew 3:2; 4:17; 10:7):  This is the good news: the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Our preaching of the parable can do the same.

Luke 21:28, 36 
One final note: I noted earlier that the parable lies at the center of this selection from Luke 21.  The two verses that introduce and, in a sense, summarize it, serve as something of an exhortation to the Christian calling, and a primer of what it means to be patient.

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.
Stand-up!
Raise up your heads!

Be alert!
Pray for the strength to stand!
Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”


1 The Greek Philosopher Epictetus (55-135 CE) clearly had patience in mind when turned to the fig and the fig tree as an illustration, saying, “No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”


First Reading

Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Melinda Quivik

As Advent begins this year, we immediately hear God’s assertion: “I will fulfill the promise I made… I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up… Jerusalem will live in safety.”

The first reading for this Sunday is assurance. We need these words in order to absorb what will follow throughout Advent, for many words in this season are filled with foreboding. The Lukan text for today warns of what will come “like a trap.” 

What vision does the lectionary give us in this time? On the one hand, it says that God’s word is about something very serious. On the other hand, we are to hear this seriousness from the position of ultimate security. We begin the new church year with the extremes of fear and ultimate stability set before us.

Jeremiah was uniquely situated to speak bold words of hope because of both his proximity to the events in Jerusalem and his status as something of an outsider. He lived two miles from Jerusalem in Anathoth and was, therefore, not a power structure “insider.” Yet, standing apart, he did not lack awareness of the nation’s situation. As the son of a priest, his lifelong apprenticeship meant he breathed in knowledge of both politics and faith.

Scholars tell us he was born around 645-640 B.C.E. This is a time of insecurity for the Hebrew people because the powerful Assyrian nation threatened to overrun them. Look at a map of the region in that period and you will see little Judah squeezed between the huge nation of the Assyrians to the north and the Egyptians to the west and south. During Jeremiah’s life, the rulers of Judah had to deal with whether to make alliance with Egypt to avoid destruction from the north.

What does a prophet do when threats arise? In the answer to that question lies the power of this reading. A prophet does not turn to the easy answer. A prophet does not lie. A prophet of the Lord lifts up God’s deep commitment to Israel and proclaims hope that comes from far beyond the political, military, social, and economic solutions humans can dream up. Jeremiah’s prophetic voice bypasses conventional answers to the problems of national survival and points to a future in which the Lord’s own righteousness will reside with the people: “I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David…. [to] execute justice… in the land.”

The time is not now, but it is coming. The Lord has made a promise that will not be forgotten. “The days are surely coming…” We might hear in Jeremiah’s speech the cadences of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who thundered to the nation marching in 1963 for civil rights: “I may not get there with you… but I have seen the promised land…” The days are surely coming.

The prophet is the one who holds out a vision for us to cling to especially when we cannot grasp the meaning. With these pronouncements, Jeremiah sets the tone for all that is to approach our ears in Advent, for we need to hear the warnings to “be alert” in the context of ultimate and sure promise.

Often, when we are in the midst of a situation, we have difficulty looking beyond it. The way forward can dissolve into panic over the immediate present. The horizon shrinks to concern for sheer survival. This is when ends and means get confused.

What do a people do when threatened? Remember what the United States did when threatened in 2001. Remember the fear of that time. How difficult it is to listen to the prophet who cautions against making agreements with one enemy in order to defeat another, for it can be argued that the U.S. embraced the restrictions of liberty in the name of freedom.

In Jeremiah’s time the forces arrayed against stability and security were formidable: the Assyrian power was at its height, threatening the people of Israel. Jeremiah spoke the word of the Lord under three rulers of Judah, warning against listening to the wrong voices. He told King Josiah not to side with Egypt. He castigated false prophets during Johoiakin’s reign, preaching that failure to obey the Lord would bring the nation to ruin. He urged King Zedekiah not to fight the Babylonians. In the end, no one heeded Jeremiah’s warnings. When he was about 35 years old and seasoned as a prophet, Assyria was finally defeated by a coalition of peoples including the Babylonians. This did not usher in a peaceful time for Judah; everyone was exiled to Egypt, including Jeremiah.

The word of the prophet Jeremiah, however, still works to reach beyond the moment. Indeed, Walter Brueggemann writes that the promises of Jeremiah 33 “join together the resolve of heaven and the future of the earth.”1 The strength of Jeremiah’s proclamation regarding the coming of the righteous branch lies in the fact that these words speak from the perspective of ultimate power about a this-world savior.

Jeremiah’s oracles against Judah’s disobedience come at the beginning of the book and his oracles against Judah’s enemies at the end. And in the middle is the heart of what stands against all the destruction and failure: God’s promise to bring rescue and safety. It is the promise that holds us, because it is the only antidote to the very easy and very dangerous possibility of slipping into facile blaming when our nation is in trouble. It is exactly when the problems of our people are most murky and complex, when the future seems most bleak, that we turn to the word of the Lord for vision.

Hold the image of that righteous branch as you preach through this Advent season. The branch is the eschatological reality toward which the people of God are securely moving.


1 Walter Brueggemann, To Build, To Plant: A Commentary on Jeremiah 26-52 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1991), 92.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10

Elizabeth Webb

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.”

This Psalm is a plea from the depth of a suffering soul to the God in whom the speaker trusts for deliverance and mercy. Yet despite this trust, the text is a cry of desperation. It points to our longing for God not only to deliver us from our troubles, but also for God to see us fully. As we enter Advent, we wait for God to see us through the darkness, and to bestow the mercy that we trust God alone to give.

While the lectionary reading is limited to verses 1-10, considering the entire Psalm provides a richer understanding of the Psalmist’s prayer. In many ways, Psalm 25 is a brilliantly woven text. The Psalm as a whole appears to be two prayers woven together: one expressing the experience of a suffering individual who feels the absence of God, and the other expressing a community’s trust in God’s direction and deliverance. The individual and communal voices alternate, with verses 1-7, 11-12, and 16-21 voicing the individual, and verses 8-10, 13-15, and 22 voicing the community. It may be that two prayers were interwoven in this way for use in a worship context.

The result of this interweaving is a compelling prayer that contains all the elements of a lament:

  • Petition: As we see from the first two verses, this Psalm is addressed to God, calling upon God to hear the sufferer’s plea. The speaker pleads for God’s attention to and for deliverance from suffering (verses 1-3 and 16-21), and also for forgiveness of sins of the past, which seem to be haunting the speaker and contributing to that affliction (verse 6-7 and 11-12).

Woven together with this plea is a petition for instruction in following the right path (verses 4-5 and 8-10). While mercy is dependent on God and not on our own deserving, the Psalmist knows that such mercy is most often found by walking the way that God has provided within the covenant community (verses 10, 13-15).

  • Complaint: While we don’t have here a description of the precise nature and source of the Psalmist’s suffering, it is clear that the situation is dire; the Psalm is rife with the language of shame, guilt, loneliness, and affliction. Whatever the cause of the individual’s suffering, a significant piece of the pain expressed here is God’s apparent absence in the midst of it.

This absence is a source of shame for the speaker, who is persecuted for maintaining faith in a God who seems either unwilling or unable to respond (verse 2-3 and 20). Indeed, for the Psalmist that persecution is a “violent hatred” (verse 19) that further intensifies the acute pain of the experience.

  • Appeal to God’s character: The speaker takes this complaint to God precisely because God is the one who can be trusted to provide deliverance. In verses 6-7, 11, and 18, the Psalmist calls on God to make known the steadfast love that characterizes the Divine Reality. Here we see another example of the brilliant weaving of this Psalm: the appeal to God’s character is interwoven with a particular plea for forgiveness. “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love . . . Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” (verses 6-7).

    It is as if the speaker is saying, “Remember, God, both who you are and who I am, and forget the sin that seems to stand between us.” The natures of God and of the human being both seem hidden under suffering and shame, and only God’s attention to the afflicted can restore them.

  • Statements of confidence in God, and promise of sacrifice or praise: These final two elements of Psalms of lament are less explicit and frequent here than in other such Psalms (see Psalm 22). The speaker asserts trust in God (verse 2), maintains the goodness and uprightness of the Lord (verse 8), and repeats the refrain of waiting for God to respond, implying assurance that a response will come (verses 3, 5, 21).

The speaker praises God for the sureness of God’s instruction (verses 8-10). But the overlying theme of this lament remains that of suffering and divine absence; the Psalmist’s faith remains interwoven with fear and doubt, and the Psalm ends with a plea for the redemption of all Israel (verse 22).

Advent often seems to come to us as a pinhole of light surrounded by darkness. The world, with its suffering, its violence, its ruthlessness, at times seems so dark, and the light seems so puny. We want it to be enough, but we’re not really convinced it will be. We fear that the light that God has promised won’t really shine in the darkest corners of our world, or of ourselves. And it is only dimly, through that pinhole of light, that we see ourselves, reduced to our shortcomings, and we long for God to look past those faults and really see us.

With the Psalmist, as a community and as individuals, we pray, “See me, God, and show me that mercy and steadfast love for which I long, and which I can receive only from you.” As the season of Advent begins, we cry the lament of Psalm 25, and wait for the salvation that we know is ours.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Jacob Myers

Paul’s words of thanksgiving, admonition, and encouragement to the fledgling churches at Thessalonica reverberate with pastoral passion; nearly every sentence could end with an exclamation point!

Those of us who have experienced (or endured) clinical pastoral education (CPE) might recognize something of Paul’s exuberance in some of our colleagues’ verbatims (or perhaps it was one of our verbatims). Paul’s pastoral care, concern, and devotion to this nascent community are contagious.

I must confess, however, that as I re-read this epistle I sensed a mounting wariness within me. All of the important lessons I learned through CPE I wanted to shout to the Apostle — Don’t get too close Paul! Keep some pastoral distance for your own sake!

Early in one’s ministry it is all too easy to fuse one’s calling with the faithfulness (or lack thereof) of those we are called to serve. New ministers have a tendency to experience the emotional undulations of pastoral ministry as a child on her first rollercoaster ride: jaw clenched, knuckles white, shoulders tense, brow furrowed. We see things without gradation, employing words like always, never, completely, and altogether to convey the life of Christian discipleship.

I am confessing my own experiences and struggles through my first pastoral calling … and my second … and my third. I cringe at Paul’s seemingly unhealthy attachment to his flock (does he really compare himself to a mother in 2:7? And a father in 2:10?). I cringe because his effusiveness reflects my own experiences of insalubrious ministerial attachment.

Paul displays the telltale signs of one unlearned in the art of emotional abstemiousness. His all-in, hold-nothing-back love (2:8) for this nascent community undergoing intense suffering and conflict (1:5; 2:14) is a recipe for pastoral disaster.1 Just a few verses prior to this week’s Scripture lesson (3:5), Paul declares that if some have fallen away his work would have been “to no purpose” (eis kenon). A little extreme, don’t you think?

Commentators marvel at Paul’s rhetoric of 1 Thessalonians.2 This epistle is epideictic in the service of communicating Paul’s profound love and concern that the Thessalonian congregants not fall away during these times of persecution (3:2). This week’s lection forms the culmination of the grounds for thanksgiving begun in 1:6. That’s thirty-seven verses of thanksgiving!

In 3:9 Paul declares, “How can we thank God enough for you, given all the joy we have because of you before our God?” His prayers of thanksgiving and supplication ring out incessantly (“night and day”) and his only wish is to reunite with his flock. Paul’s work busts the seams of epistolary convention; it teams with rhetorical fervor.

Most commentators will attribute Paul’s intensity — in prayer (e.g., 3:10: hyperekperissou deomenoi, literally, “begging beyond all measure”) as well as parenesis — in this epistle to a heightened eschatological expectation (4:13 ff.), one that offers little resonance for our contemporary contexts following a multi-millennial delay of Christ’s parousia.

Or could it be something else?

I’m not arguing against the scholarly consensus as much as I am suggesting an additional reason for Paul’s intense, and perhaps hyperbolic, discourse. What if Paul writes with such urgency because he deeply loves his congregation? What a concept! Today’s Christian communities are enduring their own forms of adversity. Indeed, history has proven the sword of persecution to be less threatening than the swaddle of apathy.

Recall the pastoral situation into which Paul writes. Under persecution Paul left the congregation abruptly (cf. Acts 17:1-10) with no enduring texts or leadership to supplement his teaching. They were prematurely abandoned after only three weeks of instruction while Paul worked and taught among them (2:8-9). Moreover, in that short time they turned to God from idols (1:9-10), which meant they had forsaken the pagan cult and their ties to the social, political, and economic powers that dominated Thessalonica.

Paul views imitation of his ministerial example as a crucial dimension of discipleship and in his absence he feared they would fall back into their cultural mores. How better for Paul to communicate his explicit desire — “May the Lord cause you to increase and enrich your love for each other and for everyone in the same way as we also love you” (3:12) — than to model the kind of love he desires to see at work among the Thessalonians? It is clear that they learned by imitation when Paul was among them (1:6), and I am suggesting that Paul is continuing the pattern in this letter: practice what I preach!

Paul would likely have failed CPE and if this letter is indicative of his pastoral sensibility it is a wonder that he survived as long as he did as a minister of the Gospel. But what if this is exactly the kind of intensity required of we who serve others in the church. What if we modeled through our preaching, our prayer, our Bible studies, and our home visitations the kind of self-effacing love that Paul displays? What if we strove for greater attachment to our congregants? Then perhaps the overflowing love, love for those both inside and outside of the flock (3:12), love that comes from God the Father through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit may transform our communities (3:13).

Pastoral detachment cannot “supply what is lacking” (3:10) for those in our congregations. In an age of pastoral burnout I believe that Paul offers us a vision for pastoral ministry that is not to be missed — I know that it has not been missed on me. The wisdom of CPE notwithstanding, Paul models through his writing a simple yet profound truth: we need to convey more passion through our ministries, more love toward those under our care, and perhaps, more exclamation points.

1For an excellent analysis of the conflict at Thessalonica see Todd D. Still, Conflict at Thessalonica: A Pauline Church and Its Neighbors, JSNTSS 183 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).
2See especially Robert Jewett, The Thessalonian Correspondence: Pauline Rhetoric and Millenarian Piety (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1986).