Lectionary Commentaries for November 27, 2022
First Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 24:36-44

Stanley Saunders

The inclusion of this passage at the head of the Gospel lectionary reminds us that Jesus’ call to watch for the coming of the Messiah is not merely an Advent practice, but the normative state of readiness required of disciples.

No one knows but God alone

This reading, plucked from the middle of Jesus’ final sermon in Matthew, brings to a close his description of the chaos, seductions, betrayals, and violence that will threaten the unity and witness of the community of disciples as they await the coming of the Son of Humanity. When Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple (24:1-2), his disciples ask him when that will happen and what will be the signs of his coming and of the end of the age (24:3). Now, in 24:36, Jesus finally offers a direct answer to the “when” part of their question, albeit not the answer they had been hoping for. Jesus rejects the possibility that anyone other than God, including Jesus himself, knows the answer. Then he goes on to stress the importance of wakefulness (or watchfulness) and readiness, which provide the thematic focus for the rest of this passage, as well as the four parables that mark the culmination of Jesus’ formal teaching in Matthew (24:45-25:46). 

They knew nothing (24:37-39)

Jesus reminds the disciples that in the days of Noah, people went about life as usual, right up to the moment when the floods came. The emphasis here is on the sudden, unexpected devastation that was to sweep them away, for which there was no warning, no call to repentance, nothing that would alert them to what was coming. “They knew nothing until the flood came” (24:30). 

Even Noah knew only in general terms what was coming. The same is true for Jesus’ disciples and Christians today, who are expected to know only that the coming of the “Son of Humanity” is certain, but not when it will happen. This is a hard pill to swallow for modern control freaks in an era of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and long-range forecasting. We can, however, lift up the defeat of death in the cross and resurrection, which dramatically alters how we approach “the end” of the biblical story: the defining moment is not Jesus’ triumphal advent at the end of history, whenever that might be, but the moment of his revelation of God’s true power on the cross. The point, for those who know this much, is to live in the light of this transformed reality. 

One taken, one left behind (24:40-41)

Over the last century, these verses have often been read in support of dispensationalism, especially “rapture” theology, which attempts to plot where we are in proximity to the end—precisely what Jesus tells his disciples not to do. The parallel illustrations in 24:40-41 do not likely depict a moment when the righteous are plucked up from the earth and taken to heaven, while others are “left behind” to await tribulations and final judgment. For first century audiences familiar with the ways of the Roman Empire, being left behind was surely preferable to being taken. For the people of Noah’s day, being swept away was not a good thing. Instead, these sayings simply depict sudden, surprising separation, without indicating cause for judgment or reward on the part of those taken or left behind. Rapture theology, which has little or no scriptural support, may offer comfort for those who seek certainty or presume to have secured the inside track to heaven, but the focus of this unit is on remaining vigilant amidst the uncertainty of a long wait amidst discouraging circumstances.

Keep awake, be ready!

The final admonition and illustration in 24:42-44 underline the importance of staying awake and being ready. This is not advice for crisis moments, but a call to perpetual, normative readiness, regardless of circumstance. After all, for Christians living in the time of resurrection and the defeat of death, every moment is lived on the edge. Watchfulness or wakefulness is here not a defensive or preventive posture, but heightened attentiveness, attuned both to the signs of God’s presence and power, as well as the signs that the powers of this world are doubling down.

Like the people in Noah’s day, or the men in the field and the women grinding meal, the owner of the house might have chosen a different course if he had known a thief was in the neighborhood, but none of them knew. So, too, Christians do not know, cannot know, and are not supposed to know when the Lord is coming. This is a condition we are to embrace, not attempt to overcome. Watching and readiness are not meant to be switched on and off according to perceived need. These are, in fact, the disciplines to which Jesus calls his disciples more than any other as the end of his ministry draws near. You’re living at the end, so stay awake and watch. 

What might this mean? In Matthew 28:1-7, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, two of the women who follow Jesus from a distance during his trial and execution, come to the tomb at dawn on the Sabbath after his death. Mark tells us they come to anoint his body for burial, but Matthew says nothing of this motive. The angel who rolls away the stone from the tomb knows they have come to look for Jesus (28:5), who had announced that he would rise after three days. They have come to watch it happen. They are rewarded with a front row view of the empty tomb and, moments later, a meeting with the risen Lord himself (28:8-10). They have put themselves where they can see what God is doing. They are watching, and they are ready!   

The vocation of modern disciples is still to watch for the signs of God’s presence in power, especially as revealed through the cross and the resurrection, in healing the sick, standing with the broken and suffering, bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. In the final parable of this sermon, Jesus tells his disciples that the Son of Man/Judge is present among precisely these (25:31-46). This is where we, too, go to see what God is doing.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 2:1-5

Joel B. Kemp

Like much of Isaiah 1–39 (sometimes referred to as “First Isaiah”), our verses address a nation facing an uncertain future. The relative prosperity and peace the nations of Israel and Judah experienced during the early 8th century BCE are a distant memorylike a dream one barely remembers after waking. Instead, the relentless advances of the Assyrian Empire have decimated the nation of Israel. Many Israelites escaped Assyria’s invasion of their home and sought refuge within Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem. This southern refuge soon confronts the same Assyrian enemy and the hardships a prolonged military siege produces. Against this backdrop of suffering, anxiety, and imminent imperial conquest, the prophet announces he has received a vision concerning God’s perspective about Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:1). 

A better day

This prophetic vision (like many in the Hebrew Bible) promises a future that contradicts the people’s present experiences. The opening phrase in Isaiah 2:2 is often translated as “in the last days,” which can imply an eschatological or “end-time” setting. The Hebrew, however, does not require that the fulfillment of this prophecy is possible only at the end of time. Rather, the prophet simply tells the audience that the vision he saw for Judah and Jerusalem is for a future datea hopeful time promised amid a dire present. 

The prophetic vision begins with the elevation of the LORD’s temple dwelling. The temple’s prominent position precedes “all of the nations” coming to it. The author describes the nations’ coming to Jerusalem as though they are a stream of water (nahar). This play on streams (of water) and streaming (people) allows the prophet to remind the people that God’s prominence not only produces international attention, but also signals divine provision for God’s covenant people. Throughout prophetic literature, geographical and environmental transformation often accompanies a divine reversal of Judah’s and Israel’s fortunes.1 God’s promised future suggests the establishment of God’s sovereignty, the restoration of Judah’s reputation, and the renewal of a valuable resource often threatened by military invasionswater. Thus, any appeal to Divine restoration includes spiritual, societal, and material expressions. 

The image of “all nations” and “many people” coming to Judah continues in Isaiah 2:3, where their purpose for this pilgrimage is announced. These foreigners enter Judah’s territory because it is the place of God’s instruction (tōrāh). Similar to Psalm 119, Isaiah understands tōrāh (often translated “law” or “instruction”) as God’s invitation to know God more fully and walk more closely with God along the very paths God travels (Isaiah 3:1a). God’s laws, instructions, and commandments are neither impediments to human joy nor heavy burdens humans must bear.2 Rather, they are expressions of God’s invitation to draw closer to know not just God’s acts, but also God’s ways (Psalm 103:7). Within Isaiah 2, this invitation identifies a specific location as the source from which God’s law and word flowZion and Jerusalem. The prophet paints a portrait of Judah’s flourishing in which people flow into the city because of God’s majesty and their desire to learn of God. From this renewed and established holy place, God’s law and word flow out just as freely as many people stream into it. Within certain branches of the Christian tree, this image is often linked to Christ’s promises in John 7:37–39. In John’s gospel, the “rivers of living water” flow within each Christian as a reminder of the Spirit’s presence and power.

A lasting peace

Isaiah 2:4 ends with the famous refrain, “They shall study (or learn) war no more.” This refrain and its imagery are foundational for the Negro/African-American Spiritual, “Down By The Riverside.” In the spiritual and biblical text, the writers anticipate a time when the instruments of war can be abandoned and transformed in favor of tools that bring and sustain life. For Isaiah, a land ravaged by sword-wielding and spear-hurling soldiers is transformed into a fertile land in which every sword and spear become agricultural tools to provide food for a peace-filled community. How does the prophet imagine this transformation occurring? What is the key to ending war and ushering in this era of peace? According to Isaiah, God’s ability to judge and adjudicate disputes is the basis for concluding the nation’s wars (Isaiah 2:4a).  

A final invitation

Isaiah 2:1–4 is strikingly similar to Micah 4:1–5. The promises of the LORD’s temple being established, Zion and Jerusalem becoming sites for pilgrimage, the cessation of military activities, and the resumption of agricultural production appear in both texts. Micah 4:4 adds an important image of this divine reversal that has become popular in many American contexts. According to Micah 4:4, the peaceful resumption of daily life includes a promise that everyone “shall sit under their own vines and their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid…” 

This verse appeared in Amanda Gorman’s poem she composed and performed at the inauguration of President Biden. Before Gorman’s appropriation, the musical “Hamilton” quoted this same verse in President Washington’s farewell song. Like Washington in the musical and the biblical prophets, many ministers are charged with providing encouragement amid troubling times. Now, like then, a reminder of God’s ability and desire to turn weapons of war into tools for life is a needed balm and urgent challenge to God’s people. We, who are privileged to share God’s word in this time of suffering, anxiety, and war, can find in Isaiah a fellow-traveler to encourage, challenge, and strengthen us. As God and God’s people responded to the crises of their day, it is incumbent upon us to stand and do likewise in our day … one last time!


  1. See for example, Isaiah 35:6–8, 40:4; Ezekiel 47:12.
  2.  See 1 John 5:3 for a New Testament reception of this idea.


Commentary on Psalm 122

Jason Byassee

Advent is a delightfully mixed message.1 It is a season of judgment: John the Baptist announces fire and then Jesus brings it.

And yet it is also a season of joy. Psalm 122 is then the perfect Advent psalm, for it is full of gladness (Psalm 122:1). It is a delight to come up into the city of David and to rejoice there. A sermon on this psalm should be full of delight. Even, or especially, with a hint of judgment (verse 5).

This psalm has often served as a textbook example for the medieval church’s four-fold approach to biblical interpretation. What is Jerusalem? It is, first and most obviously, a city in Palestine. It is also, allegorically speaking, the church (Galatians 4:26). It is also the faithful soul. And it is, finally, the city of God, coming down out of heaven from God (Revelation 21:2). Modern approaches to the bible make the odd assumption that texts have only one referent—the one in the author’s head when pen was first put to paper. The actual referent(s) of a text hinge more on questions like these: what does God mean in this passage? What does the gathered community need to hear from these words? How can the good news lodge in my soul and make it a roomier place for God and the neighbor? How do we realign our longings aright for the new creation God is birthing, right in the midst of the old?

First, an actual city. You can go to Jerusalem right now, more easily than ever in human history. Walking around the old city one night, I noticed how tired my calves were. I was going up—literally—and uphill hurts! Pilgrims traipsed up and down and back up for days, and then roared with delight when they first glimpsed the city, when they came within the safety of its gates, when they entered the place where they could attain justice there like nowhere else. This psalm gives a literal directive like few psalms do: pray for Jerusalem. Right now. Stop what you’re doing and pray for its peace, for on its peace hangs the peace of the world. The specificity of Jerusalem demonstrates the biblical teaching of the scandal of particularity. Human notions of fairness, including many biblical ones, assume God shows no favorites. But the scandal of particularity says that God lives at One Temple Way in Jerusalem. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of the city “Here the trees, praise, the streets say grace, and my steps give thanks. The way of Jerusalem is a way of exaltation.”2

Jerusalem is also the church. Ancient Christians saw the church in the ascent of the gentiles up Mt Zion that Israel’s scripture prophesied would come at the end of the world (Isaiah 2:1-5). God’s deliverance of Israel would be so astounding even gentiles would notice and join in with the tribes going up for worship (Psalm 122:4). Delight is contagious. St. Augustine asked his hearers to “call to mind a scene familiar to you.” Folks assemble at a holy place and “incite one another,” so that we “catch fire with enthusiasm and all the separate flames unite.”3 The church is a people alight for God, merged into a single soul.

Soul talk has not fared overly well in modernity. We have been right to emphasize the bodily, the this-worldly, the corporality of Israel, Jesus, and church. And yet these passages have to mean something spiritually. Preachers know this—we can’t leave the cookies on the high shelf. We have to say why the stories matter for the lives of those gathered for good news. St. John Chrysostom did so when he pondered the fact that Israel wrote and then treasured this psalm from exile—that is, from a place where she was physically incapable of going up to Jerusalem. “This is the way God generally does things: when we do not appreciate the good things we have, God knocks them from our hands.”4 This is not the only spiritual interpretation of the psalm, of course, there are literally countless more. As a preacher you have to deliver one or more of them—your listeners are hungry, and you’re tasked to feed them (Luke 11:11-12).

Fourth and finally, the city God is bringing: Christians pray for it regularly in Jesus’ prayer. He had a hard time in his father David’s city. He went up regularly, as commanded here and elsewhere. His parents should have known he was not lost, but was teaching in its temple (Luke 2). Yet the city evokes his tears: it kills the prophets and would eventually kill him (Luke 13:31-35). Jerusalem is the navel of the world in Jewish imagination, the umbilical cord by which God feeds the cosmos. In this age that place of life has often been a place of death. Just have a look at the news. Prayer shaped by this psalm asks that the place meant for life, that we distort into a place of death, would become a site of resurrection. Let its walls be peace, its towers be security, its multiple generations be bound together, its good be ours and also the whole world’s. Prayer seeks to align our desire with God’s, first for Israel’s blessing and then for all the world’s.

Advent is a forward-looking time. Just as Christ came in fulfillment of God’s longstanding promises, so too he will come again and consummate those promises. The throbbing desire pulsing through these words of the ancient psalmist should pulse anew through our church’s life together as we await the babe in Bethlehem, the king coming on the clouds.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 1, 2019.
  2. Quoted in Stephen Breck Reid in Psalms for Preaching and Worship, ed. Van Harn and Strawn (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 316-318.
  3. Augustine Expositions on the Psalms vol. VI, trans. Maria Boulding, OSB (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2004), 14.
  4. John Chrysostom Commentary on the Psalms Vol 2. Trans. Robert Charles Hill (Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1998), 147.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 13:11-14

Jennifer Vija Pietz

In Romans 13:11–14, Paul exhorts believers to live fully into the new identity given to them through Christ’s death and resurrection. This new life is a divine gift that is both a present reality and something that will only be fully realized when Christ returns.

Earlier in Romans, Paul detailed his understanding of the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16). Only God’s saving action can free humans from the bondage of sin and death that characterizes life apart from God. The good news is that divine salvation comes through Christ’s death for people while they are still sinners (Romans 5:8)—that is, while turned away from God towards various idols and behaviors that are destructive to self and community. Such a “life” ultimately results in death (for example, Romans 1:18–25, 28–32; 6:23). But Christ’s giving of his own life demonstrates God’s love and brings people into a new and eternal life that is characterized by this same other-oriented love (for example, Romans 12:9–21; 13:8–10). 

According to Paul, when someone trusts or has faith in God’s gift of Christ, they are placed in right relationship with God, or “justified” (Romans 5:1). Divine salvation is thus a reality for believers in the present but will only be fully realized in the future. Paul, for example, says in Romans 5:9 that those who have been justified by Christ’s blood will be saved from God’s wrath (see also Romans 6:5, 8; 8:18–25). God’s transformation of believers and of the whole creation began with Christ’s death and resurrection but will only be fully realized in the eschatological future. Thus, the gospel is not only how people are initially brought into relationship with Christ; it is also how they are to continually live out this relationship.

In other words, Paul envisions God’s work in the church and the world as still in process. Beginning in Romans 12:1, therefore, he explicitly issues imperatives to believers to allow the gospel to continually transform their lives to increasingly reflect Christ (for example, Romans 12:1–2). This is a holistic process that involves an individual’s body, spirit, and mind. But even more so, Paul is speaking of the collective transformation of the entire body of Christ, or church, of which each believer is a part (Romans 12:4–5). 

Reading Romans 13:11–14 in this context helps make sense of Paul’s seemingly abrupt “wake-up call” here. Yes, the Roman Christians have already been freed from sin and death in Christ, but the glorious day when Christ will return and their salvation will be complete has not yet come (Romans 13:11–12). The contrasts of night/day, dark/light, and taking off/putting on reflect the character of this living-in-between. Currently, the old era of sin and death clashes with the new, eschatological era of divine life and love that has already come into the world through Christ’s death and resurrection. Consequently, the forces of sin and death still assail those who belong to Christ, seeking to draw them into behaviors that do not align with their new identities and seek to destroy the community that is Christ’s body (verses 13–14).This is why Paul needs to exhort the Roman Christians to continually embrace the “day” (verse 13) and the accompanying light of Christ that has already claimed them and that calls them to remain faithful until the Day when Christ returns (verse 12).

In order to stand firm in the battle that rages in the meantime, Paul commands believers to “put on” or clothe themselves (enduō) with both the “armor of light” (verse 12) and the Lord Jesus Christ himself (verse 14). The latter is a particularly striking image that can be fruitful for preachers to explore. In Galatians 3:26–29, Paul describes baptism into Christ as people clothing themselves with Christ. This reflects a shift in what primarily defines a person: it is no longer their religious background, ethnicity, gender, or social class, but rather Christ, who unites a diversity of people into the one people of God. Romans 6 similarly portrays baptism as being united with Christ in a transformative way. Claimed by Christ from sin and death, people are empowered by the Spirit to live new lives that reflect Christ’s love (for example, Romans 7:4–6; 8:1–17; 12:3–21).

Paul’s command to “put on” Christ in Romans 13:14 also likely references the transformation of believers at baptism that takes them out of the realm of sin and death and places them in Christ.1 It therefore serves as further exhortation to live consistently with this new reality. The implication is not that one might “put on” and then “take off” Christ as often as some twenty-first century readers change their clothes, but rather that one continually embraces a Christ-like life in a world that presents many alternatives. A preacher might thus present clothing oneself with Christ as a metaphor for tangibly manifesting in one’s daily life their core identity as a Christian. This image has some resonance with how some today see clothing as an important expression of one’s identity. A sermon, therefore, might call for meditation on the extent to which an individual’s and a community’s actions and choices truly reflect their identities in Christ.

As the church celebrates the first coming of Christ during Advent, Romans 13:11–14 challenges Christians to fully embrace now what they will become at his second coming. It need not fuel a fear-based sermon about the end times. Instead, it invites us to boldly bring into the light those attitudes and behaviors that are damaging to oneself and the church, trusting God’s Spirit to start working new creation in our lives now, even as we await the fullness of this in the future. 


  1. It is possible that in Paul’s time, a person was actually dressed in new clothing after baptism.