Lectionary Commentaries for November 28, 2021
First Sunday of Advent (Year C)
Commentary on Luke 21:25-36
Commentary on Jeremiah 33:14-16
This lectionary reading introduces the season of Advent, when Christians await the birth of God’s messiah. In certain respects, the message is straightforward, since it quite obviously touches on the fulfillment of God’s promise to raise up a Davidic descendent once again. But why is this promise good news?
In Jeremiah 33:14-16, Jeremiah’s world is in a state of collapse. Jeremiah himself is in prison for preaching that God would deliver the kingdom into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar for their failure to keep the covenant with YHWH. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Jerusalem desperately attempt to protect themselves from Nebuchadnezzar’s inevitable invasion.
In an ironic reflection of Jeremiah’s commission to “pluck up and tear down,” the inhabitants of Jerusalem tear down their own houses in a vain attempt to save the city. In effect, they are destroying the city in order to save it. God’s message to Jeremiah concerns this people at this particular moment. Hidden within these desperate events is God’s abiding faithfulness to Israel. Indeed, God is already preparing to raise up a “righteous branch,” a descendant of David, and Jerusalem and Judah will be restored.
What is startling is the brevity of the text’s account of the Branch and his work: “He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jeremiah 33:15). Other messianic texts like Isaiah 11:2-9 extol the new king’s wisdom, counsel, and strength, often in hymnic and mythic language (see, for example, Psalm 72). Even the parallel text in Jeremiah 23:5-6 says more about this new king. This latter text from Jeremiah may have already existed before Jeremiah 33 was written, and it may be the “good word” or promise which God now promises to fulfill in Jeremiah 33:14-16.1 In Jeremiah 23:5-6, the righteous branch will “reign as king and deal wisely;” and the deliverance of Judah and Jerusalem are explicitly tied to the period of his reign. In addition, the Branch is given a new name: “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6).
By contrast, Jeremiah 33:15 speaks only of the Branch’s fulfillment of justice and righteousness while omitting any reference either to his reign or his wisdom. The emphasis on justice and righteousness is therefore important, and preachers may well wish to develop this theme. Throughout the Bible, the phrase “justice and righteousness” refers to the maintenance of what we might today call social justice, a concern to establish equitable social and economic conditions for the well-being of all in society.2
In the ancient world, justice was not an abstract concept. It was always a personal practice of care and attention to the needs of others, in particular the vulnerable ones such as widows, orphans, and strangers. The king was the exemplar of this ideal because he was the agent of divine justice and righteousness. Preaching this text during Advent would provide preachers a welcome opportunity to consider how Jesus’ own lowly birth prepares him to proclaim a transformative vision of justice and righteousness.
At the same time, this very brevity might suggest that the good news of this text lies elsewhere. When one compares the Branch of 33:14-16 with his portrayal in Jeremiah 23:5–6, one is struck by how little is actually said about this new ruler. When, for example, the new name, “He is our righteousness,” is assigned to Jerusalem instead, it becomes clear that the real focus of this text is not on the Branch so much as on what YHWH will do for Israel and Judah. Although the difference is subtle, the overall emphasis in Jeremiah 33:14-16 is to underscore YHWH’s gracious commitment to promises that appear to have been rendered null and void by their rebellion. Despite the destructiveness of their ways, Jerusalem’s new name will declare that it is YHWH who has made them right again.
In this little text, God’s good word—what we might easily call the gospel—resides in the emphasis on what God does to cause the Branch to spring up. This metaphor drawn from the plant world is an important symbol of hope when all is lost. Just as saplings grow out of dead stumps, even a dead dynasty can be restored. But, unlike the natural processes underlying this metaphor, the regeneration of the House of David is not “natural,” nor is it inevitable. Human families and dynasties can and do die out; destroyed and dismantled cities cannot and do not reassemble themselves. Instead, since it is YHWH who causes the branch to spring up, this regeneration is a sign of God’s characteristic faithfulness to Israel and, more particularly in Jeremiah 33, to David.
In the verses following this lectionary reading in Jeremiah 33, God’s covenant with nature underscores this point: “If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed times, only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken” (Jeremiah 33:20–21a). If the book of Jeremiah emphasizes anything, it is that these people, not to mention its kings, know how to break covenants. By Jeremiah’s account, time and again Israel and Judah could and did break their covenant with God to their own lasting injury. Yet here God wagers, rightly, that they cannot hope to damage God’s covenant with the created order.
Here, then, is the mystery: God’s promises to God’s people are as reliable as day following night. That fact fundamentally changes the meaning of Jerusalem’s self-destruction. Because God is faithful, the dead end of Judah’s rebellion against God becomes the starting point for God’s new work. Where they have torn down, God is already preparing to build up. What they have plucked up, God will certainly cause to grow again.
- Robert Carroll, Jeremah: A Commentary (OTL; Philadelphia; Westminster Press, 1986), 637.
- Walter J. Houston, Contending for Justice: Ideologies and Theologies of Social Justice in the Old Testament (London, New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 60–61. The discussion of justice and righteousness in this paragraph is indebted to Houston’s insightful study.
Commentary on Psalm 25:1-10
Beth L. Tanner
Happy New Year!
The Christian church begins its year, just as the secular calendar is winding down. It reminds me that to be a Christian means to never mold myself to the rules and principalities of this world. It also reminds me that with every closing, there is a new beginning. So, on this December day, we begin the story of our faith again anew.
The texts for this week each bring a different perspective to this New Year celebration. The Jeremiah text assures us a righteous branch will spring forth and execute justice and righteousness. Luke announces the “Son of Man” is coming and our redemption is near. The last two readings move from the one coming to the ones who will receive this Lord of Life. The epistle text offers encouragement and advice for daily life. The psalm speaks to God on behalf of one believer and provides a posture of receptiveness for the coming days.
Psalm 25 is an acrostic poem, so even if the lectionary focuses on the first ten verses, the psalm should be considered a seamless whole. The psalm covers several themes: beginning with petitions to God (verses 1-3), but quickly moving to requests for God to teach and forgive the one (verses 3-7), followed by declarative praise of God who teaches and forgives (verses 8-10), the remainder of the psalm focuses on forgiveness and salvation for the one (verses 11-21) and finally for Israel (verse 22).
Verse 1 begins with an affirmation of the relationship, “To you, I lift my soul, O God, in your I trust.” The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh which represents the whole self, not only the soul. As Advent dawns, it is good to affirm the bedrock of our faith – “I lift myself to you, and in you, I place my trust.” The affirmation is short and immediately followed by the realities of the world –do not let me or my community, the ones who belong to you, be shamed. Or in other words, protect us from the malicious acts of others. This one is asking God for protection for the individual and the community against the slings and arrows of the malicious ones.
Who are the malicious ones? It is for every reader and community to assess this for themselves. Poetry allows for each one to name those persons and situations which cause suffering.
The next pleas to God implore the Lord to teach and lead the one in God’s path and truth, followed by equal pleas to “be mindful of your mercy” and “not remember the sins of my youth, or my transgressions.” This psalm places learning and forgiveness together, and we are to contemplate why. How are these concepts related to the request for protection from shame?
The “why” or juxtaposition of two or more concepts is a hallmark of Hebrew poetry. The psalms ask us to stretch our theological muscles. I am sure there are many answers, but I thought of the quote from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.” The psalm is a reflection on the life of a person and a community. It calls us to look to the past to see how God has provided both growth and forgiveness. It also calls on us to be honest about our past.
The arc of a life is long, and usually, the arc of a church or a denomination is much longer. Individuals and the church have had positions over that time which now, after God’s life lessons, must be named as sin. The church has often been in the position of asking God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of humans it has hurt or excluded. Part of Reformed Tradition is a belief that both persons and faith communities will sin, but “when they know better, they do better.” This psalm celebrates this growth in God’s grace and is also honest about the mistakes along the way.
The lection ends with declarative praise for the Lord who teaches humans God’s ways. The Good News is that we do not remain stuck in our sin because God does not abandon us but “instructs the sinners in the way.” The individual and the community have a future and an opportunity to “do better.”
The Jewish New Year begins with Yom Kippur a time when all persons ask for forgiveness from each other (the day before) and God. It is a time to reflect on his or her actions in the past year. The purpose of this reflection is to first repent and then to do better in the coming year. Psalm 25 presents us here on the first day of our Christian year with a similar reflection. We can begin the Christian year with a reflection on the past, not as a condemnation of our youth, but as a celebration of God’s faithfulness and God’s teaching throughout our lives. We can leave the old behind us and move forward into a New Year trusting God will guide us to “do better.”
- Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 2, 2018.
Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
J.R. Daniel Kirk
One of the hallmarks of western culture is the ideal of “rugged individualism.” It might be one of our chief exports to the rest of the world as well. Sown in the fields of European expansion around the globe, this focus on the individual has borne its fruit in everything from entrepreneurship to weakened family ties to relentless pursuit of political freedoms.
It has profoundly shaped our religious practices as well. The Great Awakenings that swept the English-speaking world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped craft an expression of Christianity in which the individual’s response to the gospel message is paramount, the defining reality of faith and practice.
For those of us who have been deeply schooled in the pursuit of a “personal relationship with Christ,” New Testament depictions of our radical interdependence on one another can come as a shock. The biblical writers insist that our experience of God is so wedded to our experience of other followers of Jesus that, however personal our relationship may be, it could never be considered private or even individualistic.
We depend on each other. Even in our relationship to God. Even for our connection to Jesus.
In 1 Thessalonians 3:9–10 Paul expresses the profound joy that undergirds his praise of God. Here, the source of his joy is not his personal relationship with Jesus. It’s the ongoing faith of the Thessalonian church. Paul had said in verse 8 that this was the source of his life: “For now we live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord” (NRSV). Here, that faith is the source of Paul’s joy and gratitude before God: we feel joy before our God because of you (verse 9).
As we go through the Advent season joy will be a recurring theme. We will remember that the angels proclaimed “glad tidings of great joy” to the shepherds (Luke 2:10). We will sing of these “tidings of comfort and joy,” and the “joy to the world” that comes with Christ’s arrival.
First Thessalonians 3 reminds us that the church is the body of the Christ who has arrived. We are the source of one another’s joy. We are the body of the savior, the ongoing presence of the One who was to come, who has come, and who will come again. You and I, together, are an appropriate subject matter for unceasing joy before God for one another. The ongoing faith of the Church, together, is testimony to the ongoing faithfulness of God in reconciling humanity to Godself through Jesus.
Paul goes on to express his hope that he and his companions will be able to return to Thessalonica and “restore whatever is lacking” in their faith (verse 10). In verses 8–9 faith is the source of Paul’s rejoicing before God, here it is what he hopes to fill up. Human limitations, incompleteness, imperfection—none of these are reasons to sideline what the community gives to us as reasons to rejoice before God. The Thessalonians’ faith is incomplete. And it is a source of joy and celebration. We rejoice not because something is one hundred percent complete and perfect. We rejoice because God is at work.
Advent is like this as well. We celebrate the arrival of Jesus. And at the same time we stir up our longing for Jesus to come again, because the work is not finished. The world is not completely restored. We are all called to restore what is lacking until God makes the blessings of Christ known “far as the curse is found.” We celebrate, we rejoice, even in the work that is not yet complete. Even in the incomplete work of God in our sisters and brothers.
The tie that binds
In 1 Thessalonians 3:11–13 Paul morphs into a prayer of blessing. He expresses his hopes for himself and the Thessalonian church. It’s a prayer lined with advent, woven with holiness, and stitched together with love.
First, Paul prays for advent. For his own advent, and that of his team to the Thessalonians. Hearing about their faith is a source of joy, and he expresses his desire to return and have his joy increase before God. The prayer draws a line between this hope for a return and Paul’s hopes for Jesus’ own arrival. Look closely at that second arrival and you’ll see that it, too, is a manifestation of Christian community—not individualism. Jesus comes “with all his saints” (verse 13).
Christ does not appear without his body. It comes with him. It is the embodiment of his glory (which is God’s glory). Our individualism must fade in the bright light of such a communal identity! In order for us to be prepared for such an advent of Christ we must become the sort of people who begin reflecting the glory of God here and now.
Second, then, Paul prays for the community to be stitched together with love. Community again. There is no love without there being both a lover and a beloved. It is literally impossible to fulfill the greatest commandments (love God, love neighbor) on our own. We cannot live a life pleasing to God by turning all our attention heavenward.
During Advent we remember the arrival of love and look for its fresh arrival. When we love, we are Jesus to one another. We are the advent of God’s love. We are its incarnation. To be loved by the body of Christ is to be loved by Christ himself.
And don’t forget: this love is not just in-house. It is “for one another and for all” (verse 12). Love your neighbor. Yes, but who is my neighbor? The scribe asked this of Jesus and got the parable of the Good Samaritan in reply. To be a neighbor is, simply, to be the one who loves. Not the one who passes by, reserving piety for those who belong to our own particular tribe.
Third, Paul prays for holiness. To stand in the presence of The Holy when Jesus comes with his “holy ones” (that’s what “saints” means, verse 13), the people have to be holy as well. The greatest mistake the church makes, again and again, is separating holiness from love. Holiness is the manifestation of the love of God as we love both God and neighbor. As 1 John says, no one who does not love his sibling, whom he can see, can love God, whom he cannot see. We do not prepare ourselves for the arrival of Jesus by ridding our communities of those we deem unworthy. Instead, we create holiness through acts of love even toward those whom we would otherwise think are outside the pale of God’s people.
This, too, is the story of Advent. It’s God’s story. The good news offered to the shepherds “shall be to all people.” All the nations. The gentiles. The unclean. The uncircumcised. The violators of God’s Law.
This is the love that has already appeared once, and whose advent we await again.
This is the tie that binds God to us and us to one another.
The season of Advent is a sticky-note reminder to the church: God is doing a new thing. Again.
The Gospel texts for these four weeks run in reverse narrative order, starting near the end of Luke’s Gospel and moving backward to the beginning. The series opens with the teaching of Jesus (shortly before his death and resurrection in Jerusalem), followed by John’s prophecy in the wilderness (prior to the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry), and concluding with Mary’s song (as she and Elizabeth celebrate the impending births of their sons).
Thus, the end precedes its beginning, just as the beginning unfurls with the end already in sight.
Time after time
Time is not always as straightforward as it seems. From the perspective of those living in the Western Hemisphere, for example, “today” is already “tomorrow” on the other side of the Earth. With anticipation of a joyful event, time might move quite slowly. On the other hand, a dreaded end can arrive far too quickly. There’s never enough time or always too much. Time might feel feather-light or brick-heavy, depending on whether it expands one’s dreams or diminishes one’s hopes.
And who hasn’t experienced the shifting sense of time during the global pandemic?
Jesus in Luke 21 reminds his followers that God is not constrained by the chronos time represented by calendar and clock, the sort of time that keeps everything from happening at once. In God’s kairos time, past and future are woven together for the sake of today.
God’s time is the now/not-yet that reshapes the world’s present expectations—and our own.
Shortly before his death, the once-and-always Savior—called “a sign” in his infancy (Luke 2:34)—reveals how to know when the kingdom of God is near: There will be signs in the sun the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves … the powers of the heavens will be shaken (Luke 21:25, 26b).
Even during earth-rending moments, God is near.
A present future
Immediately obvious in the passage are the many references to the future. There will be signs (Luke 21:25) causing people to fear what is coming upon the world (verse 26). The powers of the heavens will be shaken and people will see the Son of Humanity coming in a cloud with power and glory (verse 27). All these things will begin to take place (verse 28; see also verse 36); indeed, that day…will come upon all who live on the face of the earth (verse 35). Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (verse 33).
To whom does this future belong? In the immediate literary-historical context, shortly before his arrest, Jesus speaks to “all the people” (Luke 20:45; 21:38) of a promise to be fulfilled on the other side of devastating events about to unfold. Included in “all the people” are those living a generation or two later, when Luke is written, after the destruction of the Temple (see 21:20-24), as well as we who are alive today. Already we receive God’s promised redemption even as we continue to look ahead to its fulfillment.
Reading the signs
The ability to interpret a future-shaped present depends, in part, on reference to the past. Jesus’ words in Luke 21:25-26 echo Isaiah’s prophecy against Babylon, when God promises to “make the heavens tremble, and earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the Lord of hosts in the day of his fierce anger” (Isaiah 13:13). The Son of Humanity (Son of Man, NRSV) who comes on a cloud with power and glory (Luke 21:27) hearkens back to Daniel’s vision of an apocalyptic figure who appears after God has ended the reign of an exceptionally cruel king (Daniel 7:13-14).
Even the parable of “the fig tree and all the trees” suggests that the past can help to make sense of the future. When buds begin to form on barren trees we are confident that winter is ending and summer will arrive. Why? Because we have previously lived through a change of seasons, or because others have told us of their own experience.
A world un-done
Despite the promise of spring, however, new buds do not always form. Sometimes they are killed by drought or swept away by the roaring waves of a hundred-year flood—for the third time in six years. Fires rage through forests and woods, darkening the sun and sending evidence of ash and smoke even thousands of miles away. Hillsides are cleared for the sake of a better view, corporations fell rainforests in order to improve their bottom line, and nations install border-walls that cut through orchards and separate trees from the people who attend to their care.
The devastation is enough to take one’s breath away—which is the meaning of the Greek word translated as “faint” in Luke 21:26: People will faint (apopsychō = to stop breathing, be breathless) from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.”
Nonetheless, the apocalyptic vision shared by Jesus is assurance that even (especially) in the face of devastation—whether it is caused by nature’s fury or by human hubris—the reign of God will not be impeded. No matter how much it appears that the world is coming un-done, God’s way endures.
Redemption and apocalyptic hope
The message on this first Sunday of Advent paints a hope-filled picture for “all who live on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21:34).
Jesus speaks in the language of apocalyptic, or revelation. Vivid images—the heavens being shaken, the Son of Humanity appearing in the clouds—depend on the metaphors’ capacity to express a community’s trauma while also offering powerful hope in the midst of those experiences.
When the present reality includes wars and political tumult (distress among nations), climate catastrophe (signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars), global pandemic (breathless from fear and foreboding), unemployment, hate crimes, racist ideologies, death-dealing illness, displacement by terror, or anything else that traps people in fear or despair (weighs down hearts), it is then that we look for the coming of the Son of Humanity, the Christ whose promised future makes all the difference for today.
Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near (Luke 21:28).