Lectionary Commentaries for December 20, 2020
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Luke 1:26-38

Courtney V. Buggs

Hebrew Bible scholar Renita Weems’ work on Mary inspired this writing, and offers refreshing insights for deeper reflection.

To a girl named Mary an angel came.1

Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you. This assurance of the present-ness of God sets the tone for the message that is to come. Mary does not know her life is about to be both upended and established forever in the history of humankind. She does not know that her humble beginnings are not indicative of her calling as the mother of the Messiah. She does not know that the favor upon her will not translate to personal gain, or popularity, or privilege. We have the advantage of knowing what is next, but Mary does not know why an angel would disrupt the normal course of her life with the simple words, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you.” It is no wonder that she was “perplexed and pondered” (1:29). Mary’s life circumstances would reasonably cause her to question—Am I favored? Is God with me? What will this favor entail?

Contemporary readers might explore how God uses “Gabriels” as holy interruptions that shift the course of life. Unexpectedly, suddenly, unanticipated—Gabriels appear and alter what seem to be fixed and predictable paths. But engagement between divine messengers and humankind is not a new phenomenon. An angel of the Lord found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness (Genesis 16:7). An angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flaming bush (Exodus 3:2). In the Hebrew Scriptures, Gabriel and Michael are the only two named angels, but they are amidst a cloud of other angelic hosts. The psalmist writes, “Angels encamp around those who fear God” (Psalm 34:7). This is often how the Divine manifests. Similarly, in the Gospels Gabriel appears with the revelation of John and Jesus. Rather than ask why Mary would have a divine intervention, perhaps contemporary readers should ask, why not Mary?

In the verses that precede Gabriel’s pronouncement, Luke promises an “orderly account” (1:3) of Jesus’ infancy narrative. Of the Gospel writers, only Luke provides a record of the first twelve years of Jesus’ life: from the promise of and preparation for His coming, as preached by John the Baptizer, to the fulfilment of promise through Mary, His mother, and Joseph, his earthly father (chapters 1-2). Only Luke records the account of Gabriel, Zechariah, and Elizabeth (1:5-25), foretelling the conception of John, juxtaposed to the account of Gabriel and Mary, foretelling the conception of Jesus (1:26-38). Whereas Matthew introduces Jesus through Joseph’s dream about an angel (1:18-25), Luke gives privilege to Mary. Matthew’s unnamed angel tells Joseph not to “put Mary away” secretly; Luke’s angelic messenger calls Mary favored, and affirms that she is in the company of the Lord, God of Israel.

Still, to a girl named Mary an angel came.

Significant in Luke’s account is that Mary speaks. While the Matthean Mary is talked about, the Lukan Mary is talked toand she talks back.2 In Luke women speak a mere fifteen times, and only Mary is given a full speech, that is, the Magnificat (1:46-55). Moreover, “Mary the mother of Jesus is often considered Luke’s model of obedient, contemplative discipleship.”3 She is celebrated for her submission, without regard for the social and physical strain that would come for a poor pregnant girl in ancient Palestine.

Indeed, to a girl named Mary an angel came.

Consider the life of a young girl on the cusp of marriage4 in the small agrarian town of Nazareth. Biblical archeologist Carol Meyers’ writing on the roles of females and males in ancient Israel is instructive here. Despite the absence of universal gender roles, Meyers asserts that the “survival of any group is dependent upon three major activities: procreation (reproduction), production (subsistence), and protection (defense).”5 The capacity for reproduction is biological, and thus lies within the realm of female responsibility. Stated differently, marriage and childbearing for women was an orderly or normal expectation. Defense of the community, generally speaking, was a male responsibility. Production, suggests Meyers, is an activity in which the whole community could contribute in varying degrees. The expectations of Mary for procreation and production were consistent with the social norms of her day.

However, a romanticized reading of Mary’s gestation ignores the embodied complexities of pregnancy in the ancient world. Imagine Mary’s pregnant body, continuing with the rhythms of a fishing communitycleaning, slicing, preparing. Imagine the strain on her back as she carried water from the well. Imagine the swelling of her feet as she planted and gathered the harvest during the late stages of pregnancy. Imagine the sweat dripping from her brow as she gathered grain and kneaded it for the evening meal.

Social distancing and ridicule for an unwed pregnancy aside, life for Mary would not have been easy. The communal lessons of piety, submission, hospitality, and homemaking, with the expectation of marriage would have framed her cultural narrative. Shame and self-doubt may have encroached upon her mental well-being. Weems reminds contemporary readers to consider the choices Mary makes for herself, in light of the choices available to her. In the same manner, we hope our daughters and nieces will judge our choices, based on the choices available to us.6

God with Mary—God with us

This advent season, may we sit with the assurance that God is with us. As we reflect on a tumultuous yearunprecedented, as it is so aptly referred tomay we receive the words of Gabriel to Mary as our ownGod is with us. The Divine visits an unsuspecting young girl named Mary; and the Divine visits us. May the vicissitudes of life be viewed through and conditioned by this conviction—God is with us. Even as a young girl by the name of Mary was impacted by the social realities of her day, we, too, are immersed in and squeezed by the societal challenges of 21st-century America. And God is with us. Gabriels remind us, assure us, comfort usyes, God is with us.


Notes

  1. Renita J. Weems, Showing Mary: How Women Can Share Prayers, Wisdom, and the Blessings of God (Boston: Walk Worthy Press, 2005).
  2. This may suggest a level of agency for women in Luke that is often absent in other writings, but the Women’s Bible Commentary cautions otherwise. Compared to the other Gospels, Luke certainly has more material about women, with 23 passages being particularly Lukan. However, the relative prevalence of women in the book need be considered in light of their roles and functions in relation to the Gospel.
  3. 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), 498.
  4. The average age of marriage for girls in the first century ranged between 12 and 20. See Amy Lindeman Allen, “Girl from Galilee,” Journal of Childhood and Religion, 2017.
  5. Carol Meyers, “Procreation, Production, and Protection: Male-Female Balance in Early Israel,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 51, no. 4 (1983): 573.
  6. Weems, 2005.

First Reading

Commentary on 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Casey Thornburgh Sigmon

A new king has a grand idea to build a fancy temple for God. But God has other ideas for David.

An emerging monarchy

First and 2 Samuel speak to Israel’s transition period from “a loose federation of tribes” to “an emerging monarchy.”1 As scholar Bruce C. Birch makes clear in his introduction to these books of the Hebrew Bible, the thesis is that God is “at work in these turbulent times.”2

King David is coming off of a high note in chapter 6: the return of the ark of God to Jerusalem under his leadership. This event marks the beginning of a theologically legitimized Davidic monarchy. Saul’s reign is over. The people have a center of power, both political and theological. God’s presence, symbolized by the ark, returns and remains through this Davidic dynasty.

Then why does God seem to challenge King David about notions of God’s presence in our pericope for today?

David wants to take God’s house to the next level

Our pericope opens with “the king settled in his house” and resting from trials and tribulation. But in his palace, David is unsettled about something.

That something? The house for the ark of God. Is a tent good enough of a home for the Lord who has delivered Israel through turbulent times? This God deserves a temple.

David runs to his seer, the prophet Nathan. Without skipping a beat, Nathan affirms David’s vision for a more permanent home for the ark. “Go, and do all that you have in mind.”

But then God has words with Nathan in the night. Nathan, the go-between of God and David, will be tasked with bringing King David back down to earth.

David, unable to discern the will and way of God because he only sees things from his point of view.

God doesn’t need a fancy house built of stone. God needs a people built by God.

The tension is when we project our needs onto God. God, through Nathan, reminds David of who and how God is—omnipresent, not tied down to one place, not a genie in a bottle, not so high and mighty to refuse presence in a humble tent.

This anamnestic move punctuates the Hebrew Scriptures at transitional moments. It is also the way in which the psalms sing of who and how God is. Before King David rushes to secure a dwelling place in the seat of political power, God reminds David that no such thing is required. Ark, exile, pasture, tent, God has been and will be with David and Israel. This is the covenant God makes in chapter 7.

Verse 7 is a playful image for preachers: God walking in all the places the tribes of Israel walked. God in the shoes of Israel when enslaved by Pharaoh. God in the shoes of Israel as they ran on dry ground through a parted Red Sea…When did I ever demand a temple from you? I go where you go. I am with you. No matter what happenstance or setting.

God takes David’s house to the next level instead

But God also sees that Israel needs a place, a home. Israel needs refuge from enemies, ground to cultivate, roots to grow. This is the plot twist in verse 11: “You will not build me a house,” replied the Lord, “I shall build you a house.”3

And the house that God builds is not a house in the sense of four walls either. In time, another meaning for the Hebrew word for house, bayit, will come to the fore: “dynasty”. Through the Davidic line, God dwells. God’s grace extends beyond what is shown to David and through a family line. And we know who is to come in that line: Jesus. Ultimately it is God who takes this covenant to the next level when God becomes present in human flesh as Jesus Christ. And we are heirs of this promise. Through baptism, God dwells with us and through us as we journey through turbulent times and when we dance in joyful processions.

God doesn’t need us to build a fancy new dwelling. God wants to build us.

Maybe what we need to overhear in this pericope during this pandemic, with pressure to take Advent and Christmas to the next level for God, are these words to David and the reminder that God does not need us to take anything to the next level when we have so little energy, time, or technological know-how to give. Rather, we need to slow down and let God build us—dwell in us—in humble, simple, quotidian ways.

God takes the covenant to the next level (not us). That’s the awe of Christmas. See now God incarnate, covered in the blood and amniotic fluid. See Jesus with the beasts, nursing from the milk of an unwed teen in the cover of night. When did I ever demand a temple from you? I go where you go. I am with you.


Notes

  1. Bruce C. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” in New Interpreter’s Bible Volume II: Numbers, Deuteronomy, Introduction to Narrative Literature, Joshua, Judges, Ruth,1 & 2 Samuel, vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998).
  2. Birch, 1998.
  3. Birch, 1998.

Psalm

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

W. Dennis Tucker, Jr.

At the heart of Psalm 89 is the question of faithfulness.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 18, 2011.
  2. James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994), 285.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 16:25-27

John Frederick

The doxology of Romans 16:25-27, as well as the past sixteen chapters of the epistle center on the project of bringing all humanity to the obedience of faith in the Gospel in order to bring great glory to God.1

In contemporary culture, the idea of God receiving glory might be interpreted as something that makes God seem needy, or even arrogant. Who is this God who constantly requires this sort of affirmation and recognition; indeed, this sort of glorification, and that from the entire world? When we think of human “glory-seeking” exemplars, many images come to mind. We think of the professional athlete, the successful business person, the model parent or child, the high school quarterback, and a host of other examples that are often accompanied by the glorious accolades of human crowds.

This sort of thinking frustrates in advance our concept of “glory,” poisoning its potency by eviscerating the infinite qualitative distinction between God and every other person and thing in existence. Instead of viewing God as the infinitely wise, eternally loving, totally transcendent Other who is approachable only through supernatural grace, we view God as a cosmic football quarterback, sitting on a velvet throne, thriving on the glorious praises that are shouted from his adoring fans across the universe. We think of God as a version of ourselves that just happens to be more grand, expansive, and impressive.

Yet, in order to understand the glory of God, and to understand how the preaching of the Gospel brings God glory, we must rid ourselves of the rot of the insufficient analogy of human glory applied to God, and instead repopulate the meaning of glory by situating it in reference to the character of God himself. First we must ask: why does the preaching of the Gospel and the obedience of faith bring God glory? God is not like the prideful church planter who likes to drop church growth stats over coffee meetings with colleagues as a source of pride. God is not like the mega church prosperity pastor who gets glory based on the number of sheep herded into the arena and the volume of “love offerings” made toward the purchase of his third private jet.

Rather, God’s glory is a direct result of the paradox of divine love. God is glorious, not because he is infinitely arrogant; but because he is infinitely humble. This is most profoundly expressed by the others-centered, self-giving love of Jesus on the cross for the sins of the world. God’s glory, then, must be defined by the glory of his love, which is his very essence (see also 1 John 4:8).

The obedience of faith is considered to be the pinnacle of God’s glory not because God is after “big salvation numbers” but because faith in the God who is love transforms us into the image of his love (Colossians 3:10). And when we behold the face of the glorious God, we are transformed into the image of his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 4:5-6, it is through the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the preaching of his Gospel, that we come to a “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Elsewhere in Paul, in Philippians 2:1-11 the exaltation of Jesus by God the Father is not a result of Jesus’ will to human power or his claim to divine privilege; it is a result of his servant-like, suffering obedience even to the point of death on a cross.

The humility of God in the person of Jesus Christ redefines glory forever. The posh royal thrones of human rulers no longer express the glory of true kingship. The royal throne of the crucified God is now forever defined by the humility of a carpenter on a cross, thereby killing the idolatrous narrative of human prestige, power, and arrogance.

Earlier in Romans 5:1-11, the glorious love of the Gospel is on full display: Christ died for humanity while we were still sinners. The Gospel is a story about the humble king who died for a people who hated him in order that his sacrificial death might turn their hate into divine, world-transforming, redemptive, cruciform love. The glory of the Gospel is in the paradox of divine love, and the paradox of divine love, is what makes the obedience of faith so glorious.

The phrase, “the obedience of faith” is found earlier in the epistle, in Romans 1:5-6 where Paul says that his apostleship was given to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” Both there, and in Romans 16:26, the phrase can be interpreted as “the obedience which is faith,” thus functioning as a reference to the act of faith in the believer. Or, alternately, the phrase can be translated “the obedience which comes from faith,” focusing more intently on the obedient life that is sourced in or produced by faith in Christ. Whichever is the better rendering here, is really a moot point; in a robust, biblically-faithful theology, both are true.

In Galatians 5:6 we find that true faith is that which is “working through love.” Likewise, in James 2:26, the Scriptures teach that faith “apart from works is dead.” It is not that something else—love or works—is required in addition to faith to save us. Rather, the truth is more profoundly radical, namely, that true faith is alive only when it is infused with, characterized by, and empowered through divine, transformative cruciform love.

The obedience of active, loving faith glorifies God because it transforms individuals and the world through the power of divine love into the image of divine love. Through the exercise of the obedience of faith, the will to power is re-framed by the renunciation of power. The paradox of divine love results in heavenly redemptive humility rather than human regal haughtiness.


Notes

  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 24, 2017.