Lectionary Commentaries for December 5, 2021
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 3:1-6

Audrey West

Luke’s Gospel proclaims: God does not remain distant from the world. God’s reign enters time and space on the stage of world history, where life is too often constrained by people and events beyond one’s control.

Not the one(s) mighty to save

Luke 3:1-6 sets the stage for John the Baptist’s prophetic call by introducing an A-list of Earthly Powers: an emperor, a governor, three tetrarchs, and two high priests. Together they represent rulers of the known world, the regional lands, and the religious, political, and economic complex that stands at the heart of Jerusalem. Collectively they hold all the authority and might that wealth, military prowess, or ancestry can command.

Indeed, the world to which God sends the Messiah is a world held captive to earthly forms of domination and influence, represented in Luke’s Gospel by men like Tiberius, Pilate, Herod (Antipas), Philip, Lysanias, Annas, and Caiaphas. But, for Luke, the word of God does not come to any of those influential men of power, nor to the political territories over which they have command. It comes instead to a lone man out in the wilderness: John, son of Zechariah.

God’s prophet

Luke introduces John with a résumé that highlights his role as a prophet (Luke 3:1-2). Time-stamped by reference to that roll call of rulers (“in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius…”), it includes the prophetic call (“the word of God came to John”), family pedigree (“son of Zechariah”), and location (“in the wilderness”).

The pattern is common for identifying Old Testament prophets. Ezekiel provides one example: “On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the LORD came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was on him there” (Ezekiel 1:2-3; see also Jeremiah 1:1-2; Hosea 1:1; Isaiah 1:1).

John hails from priestly ancestry on both sides of the family (Luke 1:5-6). His father, Zechariah, is a priest whose rotation of duties includes service in the Jerusalem Temple. Elizabeth, his mother, descends from the line of priests originating with Aaron. If John were following the family business, he would be engaged in work associated with the Temple, the holy place in Jerusalem where God is said to dwell. 

However, filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth (Luke 1:15), John was born to be a prophet (Luke 1:76). Instead of serving near the Israelites’ holiest place on earth—and now having grown and become strong in spirit (Luke 1:80)—he is out in the wilderness, the region around the Jordan (Luke 3:3), at the liminal edge of the Promised Land.2

Far from the centers of worldly power, whether political, priestly, or religious, John fulfills his calling to “go before” the Lord (Luke 1:17, 76) “to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77). 


Given its place in the Exodus narrative, the wilderness (eremos = desert, deserted place) in biblical writings often represents vulnerability and uncertainty. In Luke it is a place of testing and of hunger (Luke 4:1-2; 9:12), and sometimes danger or destruction (Luke 15:4; 21:20) or being lost and then found (Luke 15:4). 

It is precisely in that wilderness place of vulnerability and danger that God appears.3

Just as God guided the Israelites by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21), God provides what is needed in the wilderness, such as daily manna (Deuteronomy 8:16; Psalm 78:24) or a feast for multitudes (Luke 9:12-17). 

Thus, the wilderness is where (and how) God’s people learn to depend on God. 

Paths of preparation

The purpose of John’s prophetic calling is not only to prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 3:4), but to prepare the people to receive the Lord (Luke 1:16-17) through repentance for the forgiveness of sin (Luke 3:3; repentance = metanoia, to change one’s mind). The Gospel reading for next week has much more to say about John’s message of repentance, while the current text, particularly the quotation from Isaiah 40 that concludes the passage, sharpens the focus on preparation.

In its original context, Isaiah 40:3-5 (quoted in Luke 3:4-6) refers to the return from Exile in Babylon. The physical road (or way) of that journey is a rough one, requiring travel over a long distance and a difficult topography. The metaphorical road is a challenge as well. The Israelites had been changed by the experience of exile, and now they were returning to a home that was also changed. Through Isaiah’s prophecy God promises to prepare them for the journey, to “smooth the way” for their return to life in the Promised Land.

Not only do raised-up valleys and flattened mountains lead to smooth passages, but they also represent radical transformation. The language of reversal, common in Luke, evokes words from Mary’s song, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52; see also Luke 4:18).

Nothing looks the same; everything is changed. This is a world set right by being turned on its head—not by the top-down power that is so often prized by humans, but by the upside down power of God.

All flesh shall see…

Today, having experienced the wilderness-level trauma of a global pandemic for nearly two years, many people long for certainty about the road ahead. Some hope for a new life, others ache to return to the way things were, and still others have little energy to look beyond the struggles of the current day. 

Very little is certain about the post-pandemic world, except for the promise represented by John’s proclamation in the wilderness: God enters this time and this space in this period of history, so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). 

Prepare the way of the Lord.


  1. With a nod to Isaiah 63:1.
  2. Although Luke clearly regards John as a prophet, this Gospel omits reference to the Elijah-like characteristics ascribed to John by Matthew 3:4 and Mark 1:6; cf. 2 Kgs 1:8.
  3. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Jesus goes out to the wilderness to pray (Luke 4:42; 5:16).

First Reading

Commentary on Malachi 3:1-4

Margaret Odell

In Malachi 3:1-4, God announces that he is sending a messenger to prepare for his coming. In the accompanying Gospel reading, John son of Zechariah appears as that messenger, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:1-5). In both texts, the message is both proclamation and act, as each messenger actively prepares the audience for their encounter with God. 

Yet there is at least one significant difference: where John offers the baptism of repentance to everyone, Malachi’s messenger cleanses and purifies only the priesthood. It is possible to interpret Malachi’s fiery messenger coming to cleanse the entire community; for example, that fiery cleansing is implied when John the Baptist declares that the one coming after him will baptize with fire.  But Malachi’s focus is on the priests alone. 

In this time of COVID, when churches have been opening up again after a long period of worshiping remotely—a term that by definition implies absence and separation—Malachi 3:1-4 challenges preachers to consider their own preparation for this particular season of the Lord’s coming. What does Malachi envision as a necessary first condition for being ready to meet God?

Most scholars agree that the book of Malachi reflects the period of restoration shortly after the Temple was rededicated in 515 BCE. This period of restoration was not an easy one. Mark McEntire suggests its crises were as threatening to community survival as the crises of Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 BCE and the subsequent exile to Babylon. 1

From the same period, the prophet Haggai speaks of famine and hardship, while Zechariah hints at the failure to re-establish the Davidic monarchy. Malachi reflects this situation. Besides the priesthood, no other leaders are mentioned, as if to suggest that the priests alone are now responsible for the community’s well-being. And, although the priests are condemned for offering lame and blind animals in sacrifice (Malachi 1:7), this may have been a necessary accommodation to the economic and agricultural hardships of the period.  

The book is structured as a series of interconnected “disputations” between God, the priests, and the members of the community. Although the question-and-answer exchanges can easily be read as contentious arguments, they can also be read as genuine questions about how relationships have broken down. Running throughout these disputes are questions about whether the community or its covenant with God can survive its present crisis. The pervasive tone is of a community or, more poignantly, a family that can no longer understand one another. 

Indeed, the community is on the verge of falling apart. Psychic injuries run deep. God can’t seem to get through to the people. The people, meanwhile, reflect a healthy skepticism about all things divine. “I have loved you,” says God; “How have you loved us?” comes the almost instantaneous reply (Malachi 1:2). If the community genuinely doesn’t feel God’s love, God is also rightly miffed at the sacrificial offerings of blind and lame livestock: “If then I am a father, where is the respect due me?” (1:6). 

This rupture between God and people spills over into human relationships. An inability to honor God as father is reflected in their faithlessness to one another: “Have we not all one father? Why then are we faithless to one another?” (Malachi 2:10). These fractures become painfully obvious at the altar, the site of sacred communion between God and people: “You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor at your hand” (Malachi 3:13). No one is satisfied with this relational impasse: God is weary, and the people are either exasperated or truly mystified that their best efforts at seeking God have failed (Malachi 2:17).  

As it turns out, it is their theological blame-shifting that wearies God. They claim that God somewhat arbitrarily favors the wicked: “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” The conclusion, that the God of justice they once knew has disappeared, then becomes inevitable: “Where is the God of justice?” (Mal 2:17). 

The messenger of Malachi 3:1-4 is God’s answer to the community’s theologizing. No longer engaging in endless argument, the messenger decisively resolves the impasse in these fractured relationships. Christians frequently associate the messenger with the task of prophecy. But it’s important to note that the messenger brings neither a message nor does he announce judgment, which is so frequently the task of prophecy. 

This messenger’s role more closely resembles that of the priests, who were charged with maintaining the sanctity of the Temple. In Malachi, this sanctity requires both moral uprightness and ritual purity. Priests tended to moral uprightness through their function of instruction (Hebrew torah), understood as guiding the people in the ways of the covenant (Malachi 2:1-9), while questions of ritual purity arose in connection with the offering of sacrifices on YHWH’s altar. Yet even here questions of purity and pollution have a moral component, since the offering of blind and lame animals indicates a lack of proper reverence for God. Taken together, these two tasks ensured full communion—God speaking to people, and people responding to God in love and gratitude at the altar.

God’s messenger purifies the priests so as to restore this full communion between God and people. The metaphor of refining silver and gold envisions a fearful yet vital transformation which restores the priests to their proper function so that the people’s offerings will once again be pleasing to YHWH. 

By focusing in this way on the purification of the priesthood, the messenger restores possibilities for divine graciousness. Clearly, the priests endure a fearful ordeal. But in the biblical lexicon of divine visitation, the arduous and painful process of refining is neither judgment nor punishment. Even though priestly malpractice surely did not survive either the fire or the caustic fuller’s soap, this fearfully thorough purifying and refining is better understood as a radical transformation of priestly practice. Thus restored, the priests will once again be able to present offerings rightly to God, and God will once again receive the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem. 

This little text suggests that the first order of business as we prepare for the Lord’s coming is not endless discussion—no more endless questions, please, about how we came to be in the mess we are in—of who is right and who is wrong, or, for that matter, whether God sees these things as we do. Rather, the first order of preparation is to establish the conditions for reconciliation—to consider how this God who desires life and peace may once again be encountered in ordinary human communities of conflict and tension. 

Justice, the practice of determining blame and setting things right, is not beside the point, nor is it set aside, since the verses immediately following Malachi 3:1-4 turn to address these questions (see Malachi 3:5). Even so, the messenger in Malachi tends to a more fundamental problem, of restoring the conditions for full communion—between God and people, yes, but also among the members of the community as well.


  1. Mark McEntire, A Chorus of Prophetic Voices: Introducing the Prophetic Literature of Ancient Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 187-88, 195-197.


Commentary on Luke 1:68-79

Yolanda Norton

Luke 1:68-79 marks the Benedictus—also known as the song of Zechariah.1

It is one of three canticles—the other two being Mary’s Magnificat and the Song of Simeon—in the first chapter of Luke. This song pronounces praise for the birth of John the Baptist. John’s birth marks a reversal of fate for Zechariah and Elizabeth after their period of lack, and it announces the beginning of a reversal of fate for humanity, who stands in a period of spiritual lack in need of God’s deliverance.

The Benedictus receives its name because of its beginning with “Blessed be…” (helogetos).

The liturgical format is reminiscent of the barakah formula in the Hebrew Bible which begins with an initial statement of praise (Luke 1:68a) followed by the reason for said praise (1:68b-74) and concluding with a formula for praise (1:75-79). Francois Bovon’s observation that the passive verb “blessed” leaves the subject of the blessing in “theological suspense.”2 Consequently, both the works of God and the audience of God’s work can express praise.

Here, the works of God are not only God’s blessing of Israel and their deliverance from enemies but also the maintenance of the covenant and the birth of John. In this way the author signifies human capacity to be God’s praise in our ability to live in communion with God. Similarly, but with some nuance, we as human beings have the ability to bear witness to God’s work in history. We see God’s ability to step, to be attentive, to deliver, and redeem; and as a result of what we see, we are able to offer praise. In this text, such praise unfolds in three parts in this Lukan text—through God’s visit, God’s deliverance, and God’s might.

In verse 68 the verb (episkeptomai) often translated “looked favorably upon” may also be translated as “to visit.” This verb appears in the Septuagint (LXX) in Genesis 21:1 when God shows up for Sarah and interrupts her prolonged season of bareness. In like manner it is the same verb in Ruth 1:6 when God ends the famine in Bethlehem. God’s visit is something more than simple presence; it is about more than merely seeing. When God visits God’s people, God makes God’s self manifest in their lives. God shows up to interrupt misery and lack with an intention to restore and sustain the people.

And so, the author reminds us that God visited Israel and “redeemed them” (Luke 1:68b). This redemption takes the form of a raising up a “horn of salvation” (commonly translated as “might savior”). The horn in ancient Israel signifies a show of strength. Most often this strength was demonstrated in military might. For example, in Deuteronomy 33:17, the author says of Joseph, “his horns are the horns of a wild ox; with them he gores people.” Here the author signifies God’s chosen as having a superhuman strength that pushes back their opponents. Joseph’s victory is assured because God has endowed him with these horns of strength. In a more militaristic context, in Joshua 6:20 the priests’ blowing of the horn is a sign for the people that there is an impending sign of God’s might. Following this sound, the walls of Jericho fall. The horns are signal of Israel’s strength as they prepare to invade this territory. There is no counter-response significant to subdue them.

In Luke 1 the horn is placed in the “house of his servant David.” Such an allusion points the reader to 2 Samuel 2; in Hannah’s prayer, she speaks of God’s ability to reverse fortunes and bring about unexpected outcomes for those who live for God. This prayer culminates with 2 Samuel 2:10 with God’s horn (LXX) resounding which is a sign of the king’s strength on earth.

In Luke 1 the horn become a signification of a different manifestations of God’s strength. Here God’s might is a signal of redemption and salvation.

All of this theological reflection in Luke 1:68-79 happens outside of time. Prior to this text and following it there is a narrative chronology. However, in this moment the author breaks time to speak to God’s amazing capacity to operate across and within chronological time. This brief text takes it reader through the exodus, into the monarchy, across the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel and into the hope for a new promise fulfilled first through John the Baptist and then through Jesus. As such, the text reminds us that we live in a cycle of both the declaration and fulfillment of God’s promises in prophetic utterances.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Nov. 24, 2019.
  2. Francois Bovon. Hermeneia: Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Helmut Koester, ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 72.

Second Reading

Commentary on Philippians 1:3-11

Carla Works

What would your parting words be to a faith community whom you have planted, loved, and nurtured? How do you possibly find the appropriate final words to thank the folks who have risked their own welfare just to be associated with you, who have supported you and stood by you—even though they could have been harmed by the scandalous, treasonous claims that you made, and whom you know may face some hardships in the near future?  

That is the dilemma in which Paul finds himself as he pens the letter to the Philippians.  Imprisoned and awaiting another trial, Paul knows that he could face death. Prisons in the first century were not intended as punishments in and of themselves. They were places to wait—wait for trial, wait for pardons, wait for hearings, and sometimes wait for death. 

And Paul deserves death. He has been going around the empire preaching that there is a king other than the emperor. It is of little surprise that the charges leveled against him, as recorded in Acts, claim that he and his associates are turning the world upside down and preaching another king, Jesus (Acts 17:7). After all, in this very letter, the only letter that we have to this church, he will make the bold claim that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord—that is, every knee on earth, under the earth, and in the heavens, even Caesar’s knee (2:10-11).   

In his final words to these believers, Paul is neither defiant nor despondent. He is joyful, full of warmth and love for this community of faith that has not only stood by him and supported him during his imprisonment, but has remained true and faithful to the gospel. What does he tell the Philippians? He urges them to continue to lead lives worthy of the gospel (1:27) even though this path could lead to suffering (1:28-30). The Lord that they serve is worth the risk; they serve the real Lord after all, the one whom the whole world will someday recognize as the rightful king (2:6-11). 

In the passage this week, the apostle expresses gratitude to God for the believers. In this thanksgiving section, he mentions matters that he will develop in the body of the letter. The first matter of note is joy, of all things. There is nothing about the situation that seems joyous. Paul will assure the Philippians that his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel even “among the whole praetorium” (1:13-14). The reference to the praetorium here echoes Acts 23:35 where Paul is being held in Caesarea in the praetorium of Herod, but if Paul is writing this letter from his Roman imprisonment then he could be referring to the imperial guard. We do not know which imprisonment this is. In either case, the point is that his scandalous message is even infiltrating the ranks of those who maintain the hegemony of empire. This success can only be met by joy. 

Joy permeates this letter. Paul will make use of the language of joy or rejoicing sixteen times. The apostle can have joy in the midst of suffering because of his confidence in God’s work through Christ. His joy is wed to God’s activity rather than to his own personal circumstances. Joy is an appropriate theological response. It is not joy because of suffering, but joy because those who cause the suffering will not have the last word. 

God will destroy anti-God powers and enemies (1:28; 3:18-19). The “harvest of justice” or the “fruit of righteousness” is in the hands of the real King (1:11). Paul hopes that the church will see the current situation through this larger picture of what God is doing to rectify the world. It is no surprise that he will close the letter with an exhortation, then, for them to share in his joy by rejoicing with him (4:4-7).

The source of joy is the certainty of Christ’s return. Twice in this thanksgiving section Paul mentions the day of Christ (1:6, 10). The Philippian hymn (2:6-11) serves as the theological underpinning for the advice in the letter. Christ, though equal to God, emptied himself and took the form of a slave. He endured great suffering—even death on a scandalous cross, and God “super-exalted” him (2:9) and honored him with a name so great that every tongue will confess his lordship (2:10-11). With Christ’s return and exaltation, God will complete God’s work among the Philippians (1:6). The cross embodies God’s love; the resurrection fuels our hope. 

The letter is also concerned with the Philippians’ partnership with Paul. Partnership, or koinonia, is more than fellowship. It is more like an investment together in an enterprise. The Philippians have invested in Paul’s ministry—even during a time of uncertainty. Since prisoners were at the mercy of their family and friends to provide basic needs, the church sent Epaphroditus with goods for Paul during his imprisonment. 

Now, the Philippians may be wondering what would occur to the mission if Paul’s trial ends in the death penalty. The apostle writes to let them know that the mission does not end. The mission lives on with them as they, too, walk in the footsteps of Christ. After all, they have been “partakers in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (1:7).  

What does it mean to read this passage in the darkness of Advent? The words of Paul beckon us to continue our partnership in this great faith as we await the Coming One. We will need each other on this journey, because the days ahead may be daunting. Even in the darkness of imprisonment, though, there is joy—joy not in our circumstances but in the great God who has brought us together and in God’s Son who willingly took on flesh because of his great love for us. May we hear the words of Paul spur us on to live lives worthy of the good news.