Lectionary Commentaries for December 6, 2020
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Mark 1:1-8

Courtney V. Buggs

On August 1, 2020, the Sarah K. Evans Plaza opened in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.1

Evans, known formerly as Private Evans, is now 91 years old, and reflects on the seemingly unremarkable event that has led to public recognition almost 70 years later. In 1952 Private Evans was on her way home from her first military assignment, when she refused to move to the back of the bus. Upon refusing, she was taken to jail and detained for 13 hours. Evans sued the Interstate Commerce Commission for discrimination. Despite a judicial victory in November of 1955, the ruling was not enforced until 1961.

Meanwhile, in March of 1955, a young black teenager, Claudette Colvin, refused to give up her bus seat to a white person. Having been exposed to the actions of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Colvin was emboldened to resist the injustice she experienced on the city bus. As a result, she was handcuffed and arrested. And like Evans, her story was hidden until recent years.

Before there was a Rosa Parks, the Civil Rights icon attributed with prompting the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955, there was Sarah Evans and Claudette Colvin. These trailblazing young women set in motion that which would be later attributed to Parks. Their names are scarcely, if at all, associated with the Civil Rights Movement, yet their actions precipitated one of the most pivotal events of the time. Evans preceded Colvin who preceded Parks. Just as John preceded Jesus.

Forerunners are often unseen figures and unsung heroes. Their back stories are unknown. The details of their lives are underimagined or undervalued. They garner minimal attention, because they are forerunners—those who plow the ground, destabilize the terrain, and make ready for change that is to come. They are not The One; they are those who come before The One. Every movement needs those who function as the advance team, that is, those who prepare the way for something beyond the present state of affairs. In today’s reading we find John preparing the way for Jesus. One homiletical entry for this text is to emphasize the necessity of those who are antecedents of change, setting the stage for an alternative future.

Forerunners and fortitude

Now visualize listening to the words of Mark 1 rather than reading the written record. This was the case for the First Century audience, practitioners of oral traditions and storytelling.2 It would be akin to a dramatic reading or interpretation that goes far beyond “a babe in a manger” and a weary Mary and Joseph. At the sound of lights, cameras, action, the author of Mark sets the fast-paced tone of the entire book in the first verse—Good News, Jesus Christ, Son of God. Sans the extensive genealogies provided by Matthew and Luke, and the intense Christological entrance to John’s gospel, Mark gives the listener a functionally focused title (rather than introduction), mirroring the rapid-fire record of Jesus’ life that is to follow.

Quickly the listener is moved from Jesus to John, as the writer echoes prophetic proclamations from the Hebrew scriptures: ‘the voice of a messenger, crying in the wilderness, preparing the way’ (1:2, 3).3 A glimpse into the synoptic gospels lets the 21st-century reader know that the lives of Jesus and John run parallel, at least until John is beheaded.4 John the Baptizer’s tragic end reminds us that the journey of forerunners is not without risk and consequence. Like John, Evans, Colvin, and Parks were imprisoned and ridiculed for what they believed was right. In the same way that John called early believers to repentance and suffered for his message, Evans and Colvin called communities to equity and just practices and suffered for their message. Even today, those who dare to defy the status quo and speak truth to power, even naming what can be before it is realized, experience threat, peril, and endangerment. Yet with fortitude, forerunners persevere. But wait, back to the visual scene of John’s life.

Forerunners and faith

In this Advent text John enters center stage, reminiscent of Elijah.5 Clothed in camel’s hair and leather, with a plate of locusts and honey nearby for a later meal, John’s life speaks of One who is to come. The scene is set in the wilderness. The most common reference to wilderness in the Hebrew Scriptures is to Mount Sinai, and is where the Israelites wandered for 40 years. Eerdmann’s Bible Dictionary suggests the wilderness was a place not meant for human habitation.6 It was considered the natural habitation of demons. In traditional interpretations the wilderness is depicted as a daunting place full of menacing sounds. As such, the wilderness was a place to be conquered and defeated.

However, theologian Delores Williams offers a different version of the wilderness, one rooted in the experiences of enslaved persons and that remains present in the traditions of many American Black churches. Rather than a place to be feared, Williams reinterprets wilderness through the lens of the biblical Hagar: wilderness is a place of struggle and Spirit, both problematic and promising. For in the wilderness, Hagar meets God. Hagar’s experiences become symbolic of the African American experience of wilderness as both sacred and struggle-ridden. “For African American slaves,” writes Williams, “the wilderness did not bear the negative connotations that mainline white pioneer culture assigned to it.” Further, “The wilderness was a positive place conducive to uplifting the spirit and to strengthening religious life.”7

The symbolic wilderness Williams describes enables us to hear the sounds of ancestors who navigated difficult terrain, preparing the way for generations to come. Forerunners. Perhaps understanding wilderness as a space where faith is cultivated and strengthened illuminates why “all the people of Jerusalem” went to John in the wilderness (1:5). They were drawn to a man on the margins with a message.

In this text, may we hear and see the value of those who pave the way – the way to Jesus and the way to liberation in this present life. May we reflect upon the contributions of those who made ways for us when there seemed to be no way. How might we better see them, support them, and appreciate them? Are there those among us who are blazing trails? May we pause in gratitude for their sacrifices and for the work they do in the wilderness. Regardless.


Notes

  1. “Sarah K. Evans Inclusive Public Art Project,” accessed August 20, 2020, http://sarahkevansproject.com/.
  2. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, eds., Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition: Revised and Updated, (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012).
  3. See Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3
  4. See Mark 6:27.
  5. See 2 Kings 1:8.
  6. David Noel Freedman, ed., Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2000).
  7. Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2013).

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

Michael J. Chan

Isaiah 40:1-11 is one of the most important texts in all of Isaiah.1

The narrative immediately preceding it (Isaiah 39:1-8) features King Hezekiah, who hosts an envoy from the faraway country of Babylon. This narrative, which functions as the conclusion to “First Isaiah” (Isaiah 1-39) points forward to what is arguably the book’s most formative historical moment: The Babylonian exile. Splitting the book into two major sections—roughly pre-and post-exile—the destruction of Jerusalem is never described as it is in, say, 2 Kings 24-25. The exile is anticipated in Chapter 39 and then only assumed in Isaiah 40. It’s as if the editors didn’t need to—or perhaps couldn’t bear to—talk about “that” time, when God handed over God’s beloved Daughter Zion into the hands of a vicious foreign army. Whatever the reasons are for the lack of a description, the reader necessarily fills in the literary gap with her own memory.

Isaiah 40:1-11 can be described in one word: “Comfort” (root: n-ch-m). This text is a word of tenderness after a very long and dark night of judgment. The text is clear about one thing though. What happened to Jerusalem happened because of the city’s sin: “she has received from the Lord’s hand double in exchange for [or because of] all her sins” (verse 2, my translation). But, as is often the case, the violence got out of hand. The reference here to “double” (kiflayim) likely refers to excessive violence on the part of the Babylonians, a risk that God takes when employing empires in the execution of God’s will (Isaiah 10:5-15; cf. Zechariah 1:14-17). The “comfort” that Isaiah 40:1-11 offers, then, is not only an attempt to restore hope to Yhwh’s relationship with Israel, it is also an acknowledgement on Yhwh’s part that the judgment went too far, wells beyond what Yhwh intended.

It’s not accidental that “comfort” (or lack thereof) is also an important theme in Lamentations, a book that bewails the destruction done to Jerusalem and also bitterly wonders whether God’s judgment went too far (Lamentations 2:20-22):

“She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her [root: n-ch-m]; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.” (Lamentations 1:2 NRSV)

“Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; her downfall was appalling, with none to comfort [root: n-ch-m] her. ‘O LORD, look at my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!’” (Lamentations 1:9 NRSV)

“For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter [root: n-ch-m] is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.” (Lamentations 1:16 NRSV)

Isaiah 40:1-11 (and in fact much of 40-55) can be read as a prophetic response to outcries of pain like those voiced in Lamentations. Into this void of despair, the prophet speaks promises, which become the basis for Judah’s new future. Knowing, however, that his audience has been traumatized by war, the prophet also works hard to convince his audience that Yhwh’s words are actually trustworthy. Isaiah 40:1-11, then, represents the very best kind of preaching. It is the kind of preaching that is grounded in proclamation and promise, but shaped fundamentally by careful listening to those things that afflict the hearts of his audience. Great preaching one might say involves two ears and one mouth.

A new voice joins the scene in verse 3, declaring: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” While the addressees of this text are likely exiles, or at the very least people who have been affected profoundly by the exile, the highway is not for them, it is for Yhwh. The implication of this imagery is that God has abandoned Jerusalem, leaving it to the hands of the Babylonians (cf. Ezekiel 10). Verses 3-5 seek to assure the audience that the time of Yhwh’s long absence from Jerusalem has come to an end. Yhwh will return to his holy city and again be accessible: “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” (verse 5). The language of revelation in verse 5 is very important. The glory of the Lord needs to be revealed because, from the exiles perspective, it has been hidden, and a hidden God is a terrifying God. Isaiah 40:1-11 seeks to convince its audience that the season of God’s hiddenness has come to an end.

Zion herself is then called to the task of preaching: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion herald of good tidings” (verse 9). The message of Zion resembles the message given by John the Baptizer: “Here is your God!” (verse 9, cf. John 1:29-34). But the message doesn’t stop there. The God of Isaiah is never discussed in the abstract, only in terms of the particular words of demand and promise being offered. And for Zion, those promises are that:

  • “The Lord comes with might, and his arm rules for him” (verse 10)
  • “His reward is with him, and his recompense before him” (verse 10)
  • “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms” (verse 11)
  • He will “carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (verse 11).

Zion is called to herald an array of promises for Isaiah 40:1-11’s audience. The God announced is both powerful and gentle, able to comfort as well as defend. This God is a shepherd.

For the preachers and teachers who decide to use Isaiah 40:1-11, I urge you to read it not only as a word for your congregation or audience, but also as a primer on preaching itself. Like all of us, Second Isaiah was forced to preach to an audience that had experienced trauma and whose relationship to God had been deeply wounded as a result. For this audience, God’s hiddenness was far more real than God’s presence, and the preacher’s job, at least in part, is to point to those places where God is present (“Here is your God!” verse 9).


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 6, 2015.

Psalm

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

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The biblical texts for the second week of Advent are Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, and Mark 1:1-8.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 4, 2011.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8-15a

John Frederick

Apocalyptic language is used in 2 Peter 3:8-15a to express the seriousness of Christian holiness and divine judgment.1

For many Protestant believers, a category for a judgment according to works does not exist; we’re saved by faith after all! The concept of a judgment according to works is considered in much of pop evangelicalism to be a “Roman Catholic error.” While a judgment according to works is certainly not an error, it can be said to be both Roman and catholic, for one of the primary places that this catholic (that is “universally held”) doctrine is taught is in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans 2:6-8 (“He will render to each one according to his works”).

There are a host of other places in the New Testament in which the biblical author exhorts Christians (not pagans)—folks who are already following Jesus—to live a holy life lest they cease the ability to “inherit the kingdom of God” (for example Ephesians 5:5; Galatians 5:21). Thus, the biblical call to live a sanctified, holy life is a positively crucial truth with eternal consequences. We are not justified by faith with an option to sign up for the additional “holiness package.” Rather, we are justified by faith in order that we might have access to a transformative relationship with the holy God.
It helps to begin a study of this passage with a consideration of the importance of sanctification in the Christian life because holy, godly living—not eschatology—is the primary point of 2 Peter 3. In a Christian subculture that is seemingly obsessed with the idea of the “end times” and which has effectively turned the topic into a multi-million-dollar entertainment genre, it is helpful and healthy to issue the exegetical alarm.

On the surface these verses may appear to give good reason to ready one’s rapture survival kit in anticipation of the apocalypse, but under the surface it becomes apparent that perhaps this hermeneutic must be left behind.
Apocalyptic was a popular Jewish literary genre in the Bible and in the Second Temple period. In apocalyptic literature, the language of cosmic destruction and cataclysmic disaster was used to express—not the end of the physical universe—but the imminent arrival of an event of great political and/or spiritual significance. Thus, Jesus in Matthew 24 uses the language of international wars, earthquakes, famines, and birth pains to prophesy about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Often those very verses have been used to cook up kooky, end-time teachings propagated by overzealous oddball televangelists peddling predictions of impending eschatological doom. The entire enterprise would be enough to make Kirk Cameron and Nicholas Cage roll in their future graves … that is, if they aren’t raptured first.

The text begins by putting the primary focus on the day of the judgment of the Lord. It is important to point out that the desire of God is clear, namely, that he wants all to reach repentance before the day of judgment. The frequent claim by some that in these verses “all” means “all kinds of people” is unlikely. We know, for example, from John’s Gospel that Jesus is the “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Likewise, there are a number of other verses that clearly communicate that God desires the salvation of all people (see also 1 Timothy 2:3-4 “God … desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”; 1 Timothy 4:10 “God … is the Savior of all people, especially those who believe”).

In addressing this issue from the pulpit, however, care should be taken to not go beyond the tension and mystery of Scripture. At the end of the day, faithful interpreters from a variety traditions just cannot see eye to eye on these issues. And far too many sermons that should be about Jesus end up as theology lectures in which a divisive theological factoid peripherally related to Jesus replaces the preaching of Jesus. We are not called to preach Calvin or Arminius; we are called to preach Christ crucified and risen. In any case, these verses are focused on the themes of holiness and judgment, not the end of the world or atonement.

All of the cosmic language in the passage actually serves to highlight the themes of repentance, judgment, and holiness. Notice that the talk of the “heavens passing away with a roar,” and “the elements” burning and dissolving are for the purpose of discussing—not cosmology—but sanctification. When the elements are dissolved that which is revealed is not something biological or geological; it is something moral, namely “the works” that are done on the earth. Again in 2 Peter 3:11, the dissolving of the elements is specifically shown to function as a literary mechanism, a picture, that reveals something moral, that is, the type of people we are in regard to “holiness and godliness.”

Interestingly, rather than employing typical Jewish apocalyptic categories of melting mountains and falling stars, Peter takes up popular Stoic cosmological language that was widely known by Gentiles in the Greco-Roman world of the time. In Stoic thinking, the cyclical destruction of the world through fire (known as “the conflagration”), was indeed conceived of as a literal happening through which the world was destroyed and restarted in an endless cycle. Yet, in what proves to be a brilliant example of contextual communication, Peter uses this popular Stoic form of secular, Gentile cosmological language and inserts it into the Jewish genre of apocalyptic literature.

In doing so, he is not attempting to provide a cosmological map of the end times. After all, Peter is not a Stoic and certainly does not adhere to Stoic physics, theology, or cosmology! Rather, like the Apocalypse of John, the Gospels, and the Old Testament prophets Joel and Ezekiel, he is using contemporary, contextual cataclysmic language to talk about the reality and severity of judgment, and the necessary pursuit of holiness for Christians.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 10, 2017.