Lectionary Commentaries for December 13, 2020
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

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

Courtney V. Buggs

One of my earliest memories of attending church with my grandmother (affectionately known as Big Mama) is of testimony service.

At Big Mama’s church there was singing and praying and preaching, and testimonies. I did not know the language of liturgy and proclamation, but I knew there was something significant about the ways in which the congregants talked about God. Adults and children would spontaneously stand up and witness to the goodness of God—which they called testifyin’. They seemed to know God, even as they wanted to know God more deeply.

The typical testimonial preamble sounded something like this: “Giving honor to God who is the head of my life, and to the pastor, officers and deacons, to the saints and friends; God has been good to me…” The testifier would continue with personal reflection about who God is, what God did, and how fellow worshipers ought to respond to this “miracle-working, prayer-answering, right-on-time God.” Jesus as the Way, the Waymaker, the Light, and the Answer permeated those testimonies, depicting the expansive character of the Divine.

Since then, I have attended many other religious assemblies wherein congregants can’t keep it to themselves just how good God has been. These testimonies shaped my views about the God and God’s activity in the world and continue to do so today. As I reflected on this week’s gospel reading, I was reminded of the power and efficacy of testimony.

Though not included in the lectionary gospel reading, the opening lines of the poetic prologue to John’s Gospel provide an overarching lens through which the reader might interpret the volume of the book. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

The narrative of Divine omnipresence and omniscience presented in John 1:1-4, coupled with the birth narratives and Mary’s pregnancy found in the synoptic Gospels, provides the reader with a robust portrayal of the incarnate Christ. Present with God and in God from the creation and born to a girl named Mary—such is the Light of the world of whom John testifies.

The theme of belief in Jesus as the messianic fulfillment—that is, the Light which shines in the darkness of the world—is a core message in John’s testimony. John is witness, not of his own accord, but sent by God (1:6). He is both witness (noun) and witness (verb), attestant and attesting, to the Word made flesh among us (1:14).

The term “witness” or some form of it appears over fifty times in this Gospel. Witness as used by John refers to the character and significance of God’s person.1 Paired with the term “testimony,” the notion of judicial proceedings or a trial scene comes into view. Credible witnesses are crucial to the judicatory process; their accounts of events may have life and death consequences for those for whom they testify. Character witnesses offer testimony to “positive or negative character traits and the person’s reputation and conduct in the community.”2 They offer evidence that corroborates or dispels the image(s) presented of the person during court hearings. The “cosmic trial”3 to come is against Jesus who claims to give eternal life, forgiveness of sins, and to be one with God. John’s evidence for belief in Jesus is rooted in God’s revelation of the Divine.

John’s genealogy suggests he is likely familiar with the prophets and aware of the messianic prophecies. He is the son of Zechariah, of the priestly order of Abijah, and Elizabeth, a descendant of Aaron (Luke 1:5). He may have heard the testimonies of his mother Elizabeth and Mary, the mother of Jesus—how John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at the voice of a pregnant Mary (Luke 1:40-41). Even before John knew himself, God revealed Jesus. “Even I didn’t recognize him,” asserts John, but the One who sent me told me how to recognize Him (1:33). John’s knowledge does not come from journeying with Jesus, as will his disciples; rather, God has revealed to John, “here is the Lamb of God” (1:36).

The inquiring delegation asks, “Who are you?” John perceives their real question as, “Are you the One?” (1:22). Jesus’ witness par excellence4 declares that he is not the One—not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the Prophet. His testimony defers to the One who offers light and life: I am not the One you seek; He is coming after me and already is among you (1:26). John further distinguishes himself from Jesus as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, echoing the prophet Isaiah (1:23). God is the One who provides the way to salvation, and for John, “Jesus is God’s agent of Israel’s salvation.”5

John’s testimony of Jesus reverberates across time as we look forward in this Advent season. We are reminded to thoughtfully consider our testimonies of word and deed—do our lives witness to the light of God within? In the midst of darkness, disappointments, and dreary outlooks, God sent Light into the world. Trying times have the possibility to yield tremendous testimonies. May God’s people ever bear witness that the Light is come and is now here. Thanks be to God.


Notes

  1. Merrill C. Tenney, “Topics from the Gospel of John: Part III: The Meaning of ‘Witness’ in John,” Bibliotheca Sacra 132 (July 1975): 229–41.
  2. “Character Witness,” Legal Information Institute, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/character_witness.
  3. Cornelis Bennema, “John: Witness Par Excellance,” in Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 61–74.
  4. Bennema, 2014.
  5. Bennema, 2014.

First Reading

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

Elna K. Solvang

The passage begins with an announcement of divine presence and action.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Note

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 11, 2011.

Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 126

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

The theme of restoration that appeared in Psalms 80 and 85 during the first two weeks of Advent continues with Psalm 126.1

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

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

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

We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with shouts of joy (Psalm 126:5-6, author’s translation).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 11, 2011.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Carla Works

The reading for this Sunday comes at the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.1

In fact, since most scholars believe 1 Thessalonians to be the first Pauline letter, these verses could be the closing exhortations of the earliest writing in our New Testament.

How does Paul choose to end his first letter to the fledgling church at Thessalonica? The closing includes a series of easy to remember admonitions that, in reality, are hard to follow.

Upon first read, the short imperative phrases in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22 sound like the instructions that I might rehearse for my kids before dropping them off at a friend’s house: “Always be respectful. Listen closely. Pick up after yourself. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Call me if you need anything. In fact, just call me period.” The list goes on. Most of the time those words are not even heard, because my children know them by heart. They have heard them repeatedly. (Doing them is another matter!). I suspect that many of us read Paul’s list of final exhortations in a similar way—barely listening.

Though Paul may have given similar verbal instructions while he was in Thessalonica, this is his first-time writing. We should not assume that the Thessalonians heard these admonitions in the same way that we hear Charlie Brown’s teacher’s voice (“Wah wah wah wah wah Wah wah”). In fact, Paul seems to have gone out of his way to make the instructions more memorable to his first century audience.

Though in our English translations the verses sound like a disconnected string, in Greek a similar sound courses throughout the list to tie the string together aurally. Each imperative phrase contains a word beginning with a “p” sound (the Greek letter pi) as either the first or second word of the verse. Plus, while every verse contains a brief imperative, there is a natural break in the exhortations with the additional clause in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” This break creates a division between verses 16-18 and verses 19-22. Upon closer examination it is clear that the two sections also hold together thematically.

Verses 16-18 contain the following admonitions: rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things. These imperatives convey a human response toward God, recognition that God is the source of our joy and thanksgiving. While the exhortations to rejoice, pray, and give thanks are common in Paul’s letters, they take on new life when one considers that this church has been grieving over the death of some of its members. In chapters 4-5 Paul reminds them of the power of the gospel. This is a God who has conquered death and will not neglect the believers who have already died. God will raise them from the dead just as God raised Jesus (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). The gospel provides the very basis for rejoicing and thanksgiving, even in the midst of grief.

Verses 19-22 contain further evidence of God’s work among them, particularly in the context of community worship. The work of the Spirit (verse 19) is made evident in the gift of prophesying (verse 20), which is itself supposed to be a word from the Lord. Nevertheless, not all who claim the gift of prophecy or practice it in the community may be speaking through the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Paul admonishes the church to “test everything; hold fast what is good, abstain from every form of evil” (verses 21-22).

A few verses earlier Paul tells the believers to respect those who labor among them and have authority over them (1 Thessalonians 5:12). He has not left the church leaderless. He exhorts the congregation to esteem them, but he does not give these leaders the authority to say or teach whatever they wish. The congregation takes part in discerning the works and words of the Spirit. The charge to abstain from evil echoes verse 15’s admonition to seek the good for one another and not to repay evil for evil.

None of these admonitions result in a lazy or passive congregation. Paul ends the letter with action words that are God-centered. Rejoicing, praying, giving thanks, discerning, and testing—these activities leave no room for idleness (1 Thessalonians 5:14) nor do they allow the church to forget the source of their good news. Nonetheless, obeying these imperatives is only possible due to the power of the Spirit’s work among them.

The exhortations are followed by a final prayer for the congregation in verses 23-24 (compare to 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13). The prayer reminds the church that they are part of God’s work. God is the one who has called them and set them apart, and God has power to redeem all of them—body, soul, and spirit (verse 23). Here Paul makes a rare reference to a tripartite division of the body. Since Paul is inconsistent in talking about the body this way (see for example 1 Thessalonians 2:8), we should not place too much weight on this verse. Instead, Paul is using language that his congregation can understand. There is no aspect of one’s being that is beyond the realm of God’s grace and power. This God is faithful indeed.

The church today reads these final admonitions as we too await Christ’s return. Paul is insistent that Christ will come again (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Death, pain, suffering, and turmoil do not get the last word. We await a Savior who has conquered Death. This period of waiting, though, is not a time to twiddle our thumbs. We are called to be active. Pray and rejoice that God has not abandoned us to evil. Model what is good and peaceful. Allow God’s Spirit to shine in your midst for the God of peace is really at work among us.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 17, 2017.