Lectionary Commentaries for November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent (Year B)

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Mark 13:24-37

Courtney V. Buggs

In this first Advent gospel reading, four times the disciples are called to keep awake, alert, on the watch. Something is going to happen.

The reader is drawn in with anticipation and expectation of an impending event. “In those days, after the suffering the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light…” (13:24). Wait! The something for which we wait is not the birth of the baby Jesus. It is not a manger or an overcrowded inn or shepherds in search of a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. Nor is it the baking of sugar plums, or covering of gifts with shiny reflective red, green, and silver gift-wrapping paper. It is not what we expect to hear at this time of year, or perhaps, it is just not what we want to hear. In fact, at first glance the prophetic overture is dim.

The selected text is made clearer as the whole of Mark 13 is brought into view. Early on Jesus calls the disciples to pay attention. Watch for deception. Watch out for yourselves. Watch during the difficult days ahead. In the face of environmental, political, social, and cosmic calamity—stay woke. It is as if there is the possibility that the disciples will miss that which should be seen and known. The disciples’ tendency towards ignorance in the midst of divine activity is a dominant theme in Mark’s Gospel. They do not seem to recognize Jesus, though they believe he is the Messiah. Jesus’ insistent call for attentive living might also be read as apocalyptic pastoral care.1 Despite their dull perception, Jesus urges them: stay alert and woke.

Cost of the call

There are various Greek words used to convey seeing or to see. The one most used in Mark 13 relates to the function of the eye, as opposed to blindness or not seeing.2 The term also relates to spiritual and intellectual perception (13:5, 9, 23). Verse 33 moves beyond spiritual perception to a call to lose sleep as one endeavors to participate in the work of the Divine. It is a care-full call to embodied vigilance, that is, mental, physical, and spiritual rigor, despite the fatigue that may accompany the absence of sleep or adequate rest. Later in Mark’s Gospel Jesus asks the disciples, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” (14:37). In this critical time before Jesus is falsely accused and betrayed, the disciples are asleep.

What is at stake when we sleep or allow our senses to become dull during times of crises? Who is at risk when God’s people slip into spiritual slumber? What is the cost for sleeping when the call is to see, to remain awake, and to work? While the disciples were sleeping, Judas, the religious leaders, and a crowd were en route to arrest Jesus (14:43).

Destruction of the Temple

The speech of Mark 13 is Jesus’ response to the disciples’ query: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). With traditional eschatological and Jewish apocalyptic imagery, the culmination of the realm of God is foretold. Jesus’ response on the Mount of Olivet indicates that signs of the impending tribulation and destruction of the temple will be pervasive. The center of religious life will surely be destroyed; the question is when will it be destroyed? A pertinent question for contemporary readers is what happens when the temple is destroyed?

For some congregants, the closing of houses of worship across the United States and the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic felt like ‘temple destruction’. Church buildings remained intact, but rituals and rhythms, religious habits and patterns were significantly altered (and remain so for many). In a matter of days, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted faith leaders and communities to abandon brick and mortar and reconvene in virtual sanctuaries. Across traditions, faith leaders reimagined and envisioned what it means to live without the physical assembly in the physical space. The disruption that was expected to be for a few weeks or a month has stretched into eight months and counting. Something was lost in an instant, demolished by the prevalence of virus. Was it normalcy? Comfort? Security, or the perception thereof? In the midst of it, the call to wait and watch and work remains.

When Lord when?

Time emerges as a theme related to watchfulness. When will these things be? The lesson of the fig tree juxtaposed to the parable of the houseowner may be interpreted as predictable imminence and unpredictable suddenness.3 The imagery of the ripening fig tree suggests a definite urgency; new sprouts hint that a new season is on the horizon (13:28). Similarly, the signs of the times let the disciples know, “he’s near, at the entrance” (13:29). Exactly who he is, is unclear. But with surety, when all else fails, Jesus is reliable.

In contrast to the certainty of the fig blossom is the unpredictable suddenness of a traveling homeowner. The timing of the return of the homeowner is unknown to the servants. They are charged to work and watch, and not to be found asleep. The work referred to here is not specified but is often interpreted as the work of discipleship. But what happens when the return is delayed? The longer the delay, the more likely servants become at risk of complacency, slackness, and even distraction. The absence of certainty about the return makes ripe the conditions for workers to go absent without leave, or AWOL, and God’s mission goes unfulfilled. Nevertheless, even with this potentiality, Jesus is adamant that his followers remain alert and engaged. The precise timing of what is to come is irrelevant; preparedness for what is to come is what matters.

Waiting. Watching. Working.

We enter the Advent season with a tripartite call—to watch, to wait, to work. Watching can be hard. Waiting can cause disillusionment. Work can be difficult. Still, Jesus’ disciples are called to actively wait, with anticipation. We may not know what is to come, but we know Who is to come.


  1. Beverly R. Gaventa and David L. Petersen, eds., The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary, 1st edition (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010).
  2. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Gerhard Friedrich, and Gerhard Kittel, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1985).
  3. Gaventa and Petersen, The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 64:1-9

Christopher Davis

When my son, Christopher, was a boy, I took him to Toys-R-Us, and he got detached from me.

Christopher being my first child, my fatherly instincts caused me to panic. Yet, because I could see the doors, I knew that he had not exited the building. I paced up one corridor and down another… around a corridor… around another aisle… peeping… looking to find him amidst a crowd of people in the Christmas rush – but I could not find my son. I found a security guard and asked him, “Do you have surveillance in the store?” He said, “Yes.” I then asked, “Do you have a monitor?” “Yes.” “Can I look at the monitor?” “Yes.” “Can you scan the floor?” “Yes.”

The guard began to scan up and down the aisles, and there I saw my son, surrounded by toys, yet crying.  He was clearly in a state of panic. My son was all by himself among people he did not know. My son was feeling lost and alone, and I did not know what to do. I asked the guard, “Do you have an intercom?” He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Keep the camera on him.” Then I got on the intercom and said, “Christopher.” My son looked around because he recognized my voice. I continued, “Stay where you are.” He started looking around. “It’s Daddy,” I said. “Don’t move. I see you although you can’t see me. Stay where you are. I’m coming.”

In those moments, when you think that God cannot see you or that you cannot see God, always remember that God sees you. The invisible hand of God is active and is looking after your life.

In Isaiah 64, the children of Israel were much like my son in Toys-R-Us; they cried out for help from someone they could not see, nor could they be sure that they were seen. And while an intercom was sufficient to announce my arrival to my son, the prophet asks for something far more dramatic. He prays and asks for an announcement of God’s presence in ways that would garner respect and recognition from both the children of Israel and God’s enemies, who they viewed as their own enemies. They cried out for quaking mountains, burning brushwood, and boiling water.

Now, we should not think this request is unusual given the fact that God has been performing awesome deeds on behalf of Israel for quite some time. The plagues on Egypt that forced Pharaoh to let Israel go, the deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness, the flattened walls of Jericho and David’s victory over the giant Goliath all readily come to mind as we consider God’s consistency in intervention. However, this text presents a caveat that we do not find in the other examples of divine intervention. In verse 4, there is a qualifier placed on God’s involvement: “From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” In other words, God moves on behalf of those who wait.

Over and over in the Hebrew bible, God’s people are admonished to wait: 

  • “Wait on the Lord: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the Lord” (Psalm 27:14); 
  • “For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth” (Psalm 37:9); 
  • “I waited patiently for the Lord; and he inclined unto me and heard my cry” (Psalm 40:1).

Now, the idea of waiting has several implications. The first is that the Lord is worth waiting for.  No matter how long it takes, no matter what you have to go through, when you get to the place that God has purposed, planned, and provided, or you receive what God has promised, prepared, and produced, you will gladly testify that it was worth the wait.

Another implication of waiting is the reality that God reserves the right to keep us waiting; time was made for humans, not for God. Thus, God is not in a hurry. Another implication of waiting, which is probably the least popular yet the most applicable to the text, is the reality that while God is great, God can also be gradual. When it comes to God’s moves, God’s methods, and God’s miracles, God can be slow.

May I suggest that sometimes God uses slow because we are not ready for what God wants to give to us? Sometimes God uses slow because the ultimate end is not our gain but God’s glory.  We would do well to remember that God is not human, thus does not lie and has no need to repent. In other words, God is gonna do what God said. What we go through cannot cancel what God told us. Because God’s Word is more powerful than any struggle we go through along our way. If God said it, I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care what we have to go through. I don’t care what comes at us. None of it is strong enough to revoke, rescind, retract, reverse or repeal God’s promises. God promised to be the God of Israel, and they were to be God’s people. Thus, slow is never to be confused with no.

This passage closes with an impassioned appeal for God to look favorably on the people of Israel, forget their sins against God, and to remember that they are God’s people. I am inclined to believe that the wait had far less to do with God remembering than it did with the people remembering; remembering that God is our caring and concerned parent.

God might be disappointed with our behavior. God might have allowed us to engage in self-destructive behavior. God might have allowed us to shrivel up and blow away, like a leaf in winter.

But God’s purpose has never been our destruction. God’s hope is the hope of a Parent, who always hopes against hope that the children will see the error of their ways and return home.

“Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people” (64:9).


Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

James K. Mead

With this psalm selection and the other lectionary texts for the first Sunday in Advent, we leave Year A behind and step into the cycle of readings for Year B.1

The various texts for this Sunday are completely consistent with a theme of waiting in hopeful expectation; but Psalm 80 urgently presses the matter in terms of God’s responsibility for the plight of Israel. Those who follow Working Preacher have been richly rewarded with several excellent treatments of this specific psalm lection.

Rolf Jacobson (2008) emphasized how the refrain (verses 3, 7, 19) serves as a literary and thematic key to the psalm, helping us feel the increasing intensity of addressing God: O God; O God of hosts; O Lord God of hosts. He also calls attention to the mixing of metaphors for God—shepherd and gardener—when the complete psalm is considered. Dennis Tucker (2011) interacted with the militaristic overtones in the psalm and addressed the Advent worship setting in which this selection is used. James Howell (2014) compared and contrasted Israel’s national lament with how our own nation might learn from this psalm. Seeing no reason to restate their insights, I would like to discuss three other aspects of Psalm 80 for the preacher and worship leader to consider: the psalm as part of the Asaph collection; the psalm’s sense of community in relation to the other lectionary readings; and the psalm’s use of a specific Hebrew phrase, literally rendered as “son of man.”

First, the superscription for Psalm 80 identifies it as belonging to Asaph, mentioned in 1 Chronicles as a Levitical worship leader appointed by David (1 Chronicles 6:39; 25:1-2). Acknowledging the legitimate questions raised about the historicity of psalm superscriptions, Psalm 80’s association with the Asaphite singers reminds us to ponder the canonical shaping of the Book of Psalms as a whole. The twelve psalms associated with Asaph (Psalms 50, 73-83) are a collection “likely of northern origin, reflect[ing] a strong interest in divine justice, Israel’s history from exodus to exile, and Zion.”2

While there are notes of thanksgiving in the collection (Psalms 75, 76), its predominant lament form bemoans Israel’s failures to keep covenant while also asking God why judgment has come upon his people. This combination of concerns helps us understand Psalm 80’s contribution to the collection, insofar as it seems to place the onus on God for letting trouble come upon the nation when no particular shortcoming of theirs is condemned. The Asaphite capacity for honest, gut-wrenching prayer works along a spectrum of situations. Psalm 80 happens to reflect a time when the nation’s troubles appeared to have no identifiable source except God’s inexplicable displeasure with them.

Second, with that background in mind, we can understand a little more of the community’s situation as they wrestle with God in Psalm 80. In the immediately preceding psalm, the Asaphites express their complaint (Psalm 79:1-5) before moving to petitions (Psalm 79:6-12). However, Psalm 80 contains this jarring opening of intense requests that God listen, act, and remedy their situation. Perhaps even more startling is the turn that takes place within one clause of verse 5. The sentence that begins, “You have fed them,” prepares us for a description of the sustenance they have received, but instead their solid and liquid diet is only tears. The community is trying to comprehend how their good shepherd can possibly be feeding tears to the flock. Such a circumstance is a reversal of the kind of compassion Jesus said we can expect from a good human parent or from God (Matthew 7:9-10).

Pastors looking for connections among the day’s lectionary readings will find significant intertextuality with the Old Testament reading from Isaiah 64. The similar rhetoric in that the prophetic oracle and Psalm 80 may not be proof of the latter’s historical setting, but it is suggestive of a shared theological outlook that can question God’s purposes while at the same time affirming God as the sole source of their deliverance. For its part, the New Testament selection (1 Corinthians 1:3-9) provides a completely different angle on prayer, with Paul thanking God’s for Corinth’s spiritual gifts prior to offering occasionally harsh critique of how that community used or abused those gifts.

Third, Psalm 80 provides an indirect connection to the “Son of Man” language used by Jesus in his apocalyptic discourse in this Sunday’s gospel reading (Mark 13:24-37). Many pastors and congregations that use the Revised Common Lectionary also use the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) for preaching and worship. Its translation of Psalm 80:17 is, “But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” A more literal reading of the object of God’s action is, “the man (’iš) at your right hand . . . the son of man (ben-’adam) . . .” We could argue that the NRSV has good reasons for going with a more gender inclusive rendering of those phrases, and contemporary scholarship understands it so.3 Moreover, when considering God’s love for humankind in Psalm 8:4, the terms “human beings” (’enôš) and “mortals” (ben-’adam) are rightly used.

However, we could also say that the terms in Psalm 80 refer not to human beings in general but to the Israelite king. To choose the word, “one,” at least for “the son of man,” might obscure not only the royal allusions in this psalm’s perspective but also its links to the apocalyptic image found in Daniel 7:13-14 (where, the NRSV has “human being”), on which Jesus seems to be drawing. I am not here arguing for a prophetic function of Psalm 80:17; rather, I want contemporary readers to understand how ancient interpreters, such as St. Augustine, could move freely between literal and figurative meanings, naming “this son of man, Christ Jesus.”4 Given our task as Advent proclaimers, perhaps we could, too.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 3, 2017.
  2. William P. Brown, “Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. ed. K . D. Sakenfeld (Nashville, Abingdon, 2009), 4:673.
  3. Beth Tanner, “Psalm 80: God, Bring Us Back,” in The Book of Psalms, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans, 2014), 634; Marvin E. Tate, Psalms 51-100, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco: Word Books, 1990), 316.
  4. Augustine, in Psalms 51-150, ed., Quentin Wesselschmidt, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 141.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Carla Works

Imagine that you spent a year and a half getting a church plant up and going. When you left to tend to other missions, the church was growing. Leaders were emerging, and the congregation was relatively healthy. All seemed well.1

Then, a delegation from the young church arrives. The delegation brings word—a letter full of questions and unresolved issues, and the letter carries some distressing news. The church is fighting. The factions are visible. Some are in danger of going back to their former lives to serve their former gods and to resume life as they once knew it. Others are lording their so-called knowledge over those whom they deem weaker in the faith. Class divisions are visible—even at the Lord’s Table.

To make matters worse, you hear secret reports that involve church members visiting prostitutes and a man sleeping with his stepmom. Some are even questioning the resurrection—the very heart of the gospel! The problems are overwhelming and unrelenting. You cannot go visit now. But the delegation is awaiting your response. And respond you must. Volumes are writing themselves in your head of all the things you would like to say, but there are limits to what you can include in a letter—even a long one!

Where do you even begin? How are you supposed to address all these problems in one letter? How did things go so wrong?

Welcome to Paul’s world. The text for this week is the opening of the letter that is Paul’s response to a church in crisis. Contrary to how we title this letter, though, 1 Corinthians was not his first piece of written correspondence to this church. Paul refers to a previous letter, a letter containing instructions which they apparently misunderstood (1 Corinthians 5:9). Letter writing, for all its benefits, always runs a risk of misinterpretation. Paul must now correct that misunderstanding in this current letter as well as respond to what he knows about the church’s problems.

1 Corinthians is addressing a convergence of factors: the church’s official letter full of questions sent to Paul, which the apostle begins to address in 7:1 (“now concerning the matters about which you wrote”) and oral reports from Chloe’s people (1:11) about matters that the church decided not to share with Paul (like the class divisions at the Lord’s table or the lack of belief in the resurrection).

The beginning of the letter, a part which we might admittedly be tempted to skip, sets the tone and prepares the audience for what is to come. Paul follows a fairly standard format in the salutation: sender and recipient information (1 Corinthians 1:1-2), followed by a prayer wish (verse 3), and the thanksgiving (verse 4-9). The body of the letter begins in verse 10 with an appeal to unity.

Though the letter concerns Paul, Sosthenes (the co-sender), and the church at Corinth, the opening of the letter mentions another player in this drama: God. God is everywhere. Paul calls himself an apostle of Christ by the will of God (1 Corinthians 1:1). The letter addresses God’s church in Corinth, whom God has sanctified in Christ and called to be saints. Even the prayer wish stems from God’s ability to grant grace and peace (verse 3).

It is no surprise that the thanksgiving is also addressed to God for God’s work and God’s grace among them.

It is commonly noted that the thanksgiving section of Paul’s letters give a foretaste, an abbreviated table of contents, of what is to come. So, the audience might expect Paul to start mentioning them—or at least the letter that they sent to him. To be fair he does mention them. There are hints of some lording their knowledge over others, allusions to squabbles over spiritual gifts, and indications of the weakening of the fellowship over factions. But even these subtle references come in relationship to what God has done and will continue to do for them. The thanksgiving is a way to reframe the issues around the bigger picture.

Paul reminds them that whatever knowledge that they have or whatever abilities that they possess have been given to them by God (verse 5). God has even given them spiritual gifts to use for the edification of God’s church—a church that awaits God’s revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul grounds the whole letter in the work of God among them, and this God is faithful. God is the one who has called them together in this fellowship, and God will see them through.

Why begin a letter with a theology lesson? No doubt some in the church were probably hoping that Paul would just weigh in on the problems and take sides in contentious matters. Paul begins by reminding them of what they seem to have forgotten. Everything that they have and are comes from God. There would be no church without God. And whatever problems they are facing, the God who called them is powerful enough not only to help them find a way forward, but to strengthen them even as they await the revelation of Jesus.

In many ways the church today is similar to First Church Corinth. We are torn by many issues. Each side claims some knowledge from scripture to bolster its arguments all the while chiseling deeper into the chasm that divides us. Like the early church, God is at work—even in the midst of the chaos that we create. As we await the revelation of God’s Son during this Advent, we would do well to look for God’s work among us and to be reminded of the gifts that God has given us to strengthen the body rather than to tear it down. Like Corinth, we are called to be a church that remembers Christ’s death until he comes (1 Corinthians 11:26). With this season of Advent, we proclaim with Paul, “Marana tha,” Our Lord, come! (1 Corinthians 16:22).


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 3, 2017.