Lectionary Commentaries for December 4, 2022
Second Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 3:1-12

Stanley Saunders

This episode interrupts the larger story of Jesus to introduce the one who “prepares the way of the Lord.” While informing us about John the Baptizer’s role, it also locates the ministries of John and Jesus in the larger biblical drama of the redemption of God’s people. The narrative arc of the Bible runs from God’s creation of heaven and earth, followed by human rebellion and the sundering of earth from heaven, through God’s various attempts to restore Israel in order to fulfill their mission, to the inauguration of God’s work to restore and renew the broken creation in the ministry of Jesus. Knowing who we are and what kinds of practices define us has everything to do with knowing where we are in the larger story set forth in the Bible.   

Time to build the road . . . 

Matthew’s biblical quotations are meant as bright, flashing signs: “Pay attention, this is important!” Audiences are expected to (and did) know both the quotations and the larger contexts from which they come. Matthew 3:3 links John with Isaiah 40:3, as well as with Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3. Isaiah envisions the preparation of a straight road upon which God returns to God’s people, running from captivity in Babylon back across the desert to Judah. Exodus 23:20 promises a “messenger” who will go before the people to guard them on the way to the land God has promised them. Malachi 3 identifies a messenger who prepares the way for the Lord, who will come suddenly to his temple. All three portray the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people, either of land or of return to land that had been lost, on the way to the restoration of God’s true dwelling place, the temple that is heaven and earth as one. Used here in reference to John’s ministry, Matthew 3:3 confirms that God is once more coming to redeem God’s people. 

. . .through the wilderness

Matthew dresses John firmly in the likeness of Elijah (see also 2 Kings 1:8), who, like John, fearlessly called the people, especially their rulers, to repentance (see also Matthew 14:1-12). John’s diet and location in the wilderness demonstrate his complete reliance on what God provides, recalling Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. Both diet and location also constitute an implicit critique of Jerusalem, its temple, and its leaders. 

Whether in ancient times or today, cities fuel and shape human imagination of how the world is ordered, what humans can create, and who is destined to rule. Jerusalem, with its magnificent temple, served well in this capacity both for Judeans and for those living in the Roman diaspora. For many, the pilgrimage to the temple was the definitive statement of their identity and allegiance. John, however, calls them away from the holy city and the temple toward the wilderness, a place of danger and testing, but also the place where Israel was formed, where God’s provision and care was demonstrated, and the people grew ready for God’s promises. In the wilderness, away from the trappings of human traditions and powers, we may see and hear God’s call more clearly. John’s ministry in the wilderness thus calls the people to remember who they were before their kings started building cities and temples, even before they had kings at all. 

Fruit and fire

John’s audience includes not only “Jerusalem and all Judea coming for baptism,” but also many Pharisees and Sadducees. It is not clear whether the latter come to be baptized or to critically observe what John is doing. Have they heard or sensed something of “the wrath to come” (3:7)? John suggests that the elites think their claim to be Abraham’s offspring will suffice. In any case, those who trust their human marks of success and status will resist repentance, which requires a turn from the human things we trust. They have not yet borne the “fruit of repentance” (3:8), so John tells them the ax is already at the root of the tree, a classic image of judgment against human pride. Because it has borne no fruit, their tree will be cut down and thrown into the fire (see also 7:15-19, again addressing the leaders/“false prophets”). 

Then John contrasts his own power and baptism with that of the still more powerful one for whom he is preparing the way, who baptizes not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and fire, images that suggest both redemption (perhaps the return of God’s Spirit to the temple) and judgment. The way ahead brings not only comfort to Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:2), but to its leaders the refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2-5). How do we preserve and convey both of these elements in our proclamation of the gospel today? 

The fruit of repentance

John’s way of preparing a straight path focuses on repentance, that is, turning from the ways of this world to practices that fit the time of God’s coming. Jesus identifies these practices in passages such as the Sermon on the Mount, his reply to John’s question about whether he is really the one to come (11:2-19), the sign-acts that define his own ministry (chapters 8-9), the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (25:31-46), and more generally in his practices of inclusion and welcoming, which nurture forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration, and wholeness.

Repentance is harder for those more deeply invested in or comfortable with the current order of things, as were the Sadducees and Pharisees who come to observe John’s baptism, and as many of us are today. It may be easier—and necessary—for comfortable people to change when confronted with a great social or personal crisis, which requires us to challenge our prevailing narratives, as when today we must face the realities of racism or climate change. Survival lies in critically examining, repenting of, and replacing the narratives that have brought us to crisis. Wisdom entails repenting prior to crisis.

For Christians repentance is not a religious moment or experience in which we “come to God,” but then continue to live within the social narratives and structures that constitute life as usual. Repentance is a perpetual state of readiness to challenge our commonplaces, the myths we live by, which produce not the fruit of repentance, but the practices of alienation and violence we too easily take for granted.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10

Cory Driver

One of the reasons I love preaching from Isaiah is the depth of meanings found therein. Isaiah’s words were a cause of introspection and hope during the prophet’s life in 8th century BCE, during Jesus’ earthly life in the first century CE, and in our times as well. For me, it has been important and lifegiving to delve into why Isaiah’s messages were so impactful for the original audiences that this scroll, presumably after some heavy editing, was being intensely scrutinized centuries later at the time of Jesus’ incarnation. 

The words of Isaiah 11 offer a sense of hope for a time of peace and new potential in relationships between former enemies. Indeed, even serpents and humans, destined to crush and bruise each other, seem to receive a peaceful reprieve from their destinies, though one wonders if the snakes truly welcome random babies’ arms reaching into their nests … But to what is this vision of peace responding? Is this a temporally unmoored vision for the end of time? Is this the messianic age realized in human history? Or is there something else going on here? 

One of my favorite interlocutors of Scripture, an eleventh century CE French sage, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (better known by the acronym “Rashi”) insists that we read the promises of Isaiah 11 in light of the words of Isaiah 10. In the previous chapter from our lectionary readings, God has given the northern Kingdom of Israel, and many of the cities of Judah, into the murderous hands of the kings of Assyria. Why? God-through-Isaiah wants the people to know why they will be judged:

Woe to those who enact unjust statutes
And to those who constantly record harmful decisions,
So as to deprive the needy of justice
And rob the poor among My people of their rights,
So that widows may be their spoil
And that they may plunder the orphans. (Isaiah 10:1-2, NASB)

Bad governance supported the rich and powerful becoming more rich and more powerful at the expense of the already poor and marginalized. The wealth and power gap extended to such an extent that the powerful were able to codify laws to justify their injustice. God also condemned the Israelites as “a godless people” (Isaiah 10:6). God would allow the Assyrians to destroy a kingdom built on the twin sins of injustice and idolatry. But God also promised that the Assyrians would not go unpunished for their destruction of the lives of God’s people. The Assyrians too would be crushed and destroyed (Isaiah 10:12-19, 24-34). 

But how is the destruction of the people who destroyed Israel and much of Judah hopeful? Sure, revenge feels good for a time. Seeing the people who hurt us being hurt in turn may satisfy some notions of justice. But God has a better hope and future in store for the whole world than just reciprocity. This is the situation into which Isaiah 11 begins to speak hope.

God promises, through the prophet, that a shoot will come from Jesse’s (and thereby, David’s) stem, and a twig will grow from his roots (Isaiah 11:1). Christians will naturally see these words as speaking of Jesus, but for centuries before the incarnation, and in Jewish interpretation afterward, these words applied to King Hezekiah of Judah. Indeed, the first section of the book of Isaiah closes with a prose interlude that reads like the climax of a novel, wondering if Hezekiah will be the one to save the people, or not. Hezekiah certainly had a lot going for him. His efforts to eliminate idolatry (2 Kings 18:3-6), reform the Levitical and priestly roles (2 Chronicles 29:5-19), rededicate the aristocracy to worshiping the God of Israel (2 Chronicles 29:20-33), and welcome back apostate Israelites to the holy festivals in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 30:1-12) were so well known, that even the enemies of Judah spoke of them (Isaiah 36:7). 

Judahites and Israelites seeking asylum after the destruction of Samaria must have wondered if Hezekiah would be the one about whom Isaiah spoke. Certainly, he seemed to be guided by the Spirit of the LORD with wisdom, understanding, knowledge and the fear of the LORD (Isaiah 11:2-3). At a time when Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians because of a lack of justice for the poor and faithfulness to God, Hezekiah stood out because he judged the poor with righteousness and decided with fairness for the humble of the earth (Isaiah 11:4). Indeed, righteousness seemed to be the belt around his hips and faithfulness seemed to cling to him like a belt around waist (Isaiah 11:5). The words of Isaiah 11 seemed to confirm suspicions that Hezekiah would bring the world to peace and make war a thing of the past, to realize a time when the lion would lie down with the lamb. But it was not to be. Hezekiah instituted important reforms, to be sure, but did not bring an end to war and fighting. 

Hundreds of years later, the Holy Community lived under the threat of a violent people, perhaps even worse than the Assyrians. The Romans had been invited to support their vassals in the Herodian family as they inflicted injustice and violence on the people. Into this milieu, into a family too poor to present the prime offering for the birth of a son (Luke 2:24, Leviticus 12:6-8), a child was born and grew to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven with its ways of justice and faithfulness. As in the days of Hezekiah and in the days of Jesus, we are still waiting for that dawn in which war shall cease. But if we refuse to uproot Isaiah from its context, we can see that God has always been calling the Holy Community to justice and faithfulness, and has always promised to send leaders who will show the way. It is such a leader that we, along with Isaiah, look for during this Advent. 


Commentary on Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Walter C. Bouzard

Psalm 72:1-17, a prayer of well-being for the king, was employed as a part of a royal coronation or on the anniversary of the king’s accession.1

Verses 18 and 19 are not part of the psalm proper. Instead, they constitute a later doxology that marks the end of Book II of the Psalter.2 Verse 20 appears to be yet another editorial commentary by a post-exilic redactor.

The king and the king’s son mentioned in Psalm 72:1 are the same individual. The Royal Zion theology that undergirded the Davidic dynastic monarchy included the notion that the king’s relationship to God was as intimate as that of a son to a father (see 2 Samuel 7:8-16, especially verse 14; Psalm 2:7).

  1. Psalm 72:1 establishes the themes of much of what follows. The petitioner asks that God imbue the king with God’s own justice (mispateka, “your justice”) and righteousness (sidqteka, “your righteousness”). Yes, petitions for the king’s long life also appear in the psalm (verses 5-6, 16). That concern, however, pales in importance when compared to the urgency that this king—and thus his reign—reflect God’s own regency. In other words, the king is to rule with the self-same justice and righteousness as would God if God sat on the palace throne. 

In particular, Psalm 72:2 includes a petition that the king should judge “your people” with righteousness. The verb translated “May he judge” is din. The term suggests that the king might redress the wrong done to God’s people and thus obtain justice for them by means of a righteous judgment.3 The parallelism with verse 2b makes it clear that “your people” are Yahweh’s afflicted poor who stand in need of judgment:

May he judge your people with righteousness (besedeq),
                and your poor with justice (bemispat) 

The plea behind Psalm 72:2 reappears in verse 4. Once again, the anticipation is that the king might “defend” the cause of the poor, the needy, while eliminating their oppressor. The NRSV translation, while correct, disguises the presence of the verbal root of justice, spt. The NJB helpfully translates “he will judge,” thus clarifying the verb albeit missing the jussive force of the petition. 

The psalm is not done with the theme of the king’s just treatment of the oppressed. The king will be successful and victorious (Psalm 72:9-10) and foreign regents will do obeisance to this king (verses 10-11) precisely because of his compassionate care to the needy, the poor, the helpless, and the oppressed (verses 12-14).

Because of the king’s righteous judgment and justice, the creation will persist and flourish, as will his subjects (Psalm 72:5-6, 16). The unspoken threat, of course, is that injustice for the poor and needy lead to the success of the king’s opponents (see Jeremiah 5:15-17) and to even the undoing of creation (see Hosea 4:2-3).

For most nations, the power of regents—if they exist at all—is extraordinarily limited. At first blush, therefore, it may seem that this psalm is irrelevant in our contemporary context. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. Those living in representative democracies such as the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, elect to office persons who will legislate on their behalf. This means that Christians have an opportunity and an obligation to elect representatives who will champion laws and policies that are consistent with faith and the values of the kingdom of God.

That last claim, of course, was the assertion of the so-called Moral Majority, a loud action group on the American political landscape during the 1980s. Therein, however, lies a cautionary tale. The Moral Majority’s agenda revolved around a narrowly defined understanding of what constitutes the Christian faith, e.g., opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and opposition to legal acceptance of LGBTQ people. The group’s leaders erroneously insisted that America was founded as a Christian nation and therefore Christians (again as they defined Christians!) ought to control the government.

Should the preacher take up this psalm, she ought to be clear that this prayer for the king—like our prayers for our elected representatives— has nothing to do with a petition for Christian hegemony. Instead, the psalm centers on the hope that God will bestow upon leaders a measure of God’s justice and righteousness. 

A leader’s integrity, of course, is weighed on the scale of justice and righteousness, especially with regard to the poor, the needy and the oppressed. Jim Wallis, founding editor of Sojourners magazine writes, “the Bible insists that the best test of a nation’s righteousness is how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst.”4 Wallis could easily point to Psalm 72 as evidence. The regent (and our leaders) are to exercise authority on behalf of the poor, the needy, and the oppressed in the stead of God. In other words, leaders ought to be elected based on whether or not they give signs of helping those marginalized people about whom God is manifestly and particularly concerned. 

In the psalm, the success of the king and the durability of his reign depend entirely upon his saving the lives of the needy (Psalm 72:11-15). The biblical witness is that no regent, no empire, and no nation will long persist if God is mocked by a lack of justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed.

For Christians who pray weekly, if not daily, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” it is surely not too much to insist that our elected leaders extend God’s justice and righteousness to the needy on our behalf. 

Failure to do so, it seems, puts us in opposition to God.


  1. Commentary first published on this website on Dec. 8, 2019.
  2. See similar expressions at the close of Book I (Psalm 41:13), Book III (Psalm 89:52), and Book IV (Psalm 106:48). Psalm 150—or the entire collection of doxological psalms contained in Psalms 146-150—mark the end of the Psalter’s Book V.
  3. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, v. I, 220.
  4. Jim Wallis. Who Speaks for God? (New York: Delacourt, 1996), 42.

Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 15:4-13

Jennifer Vija Pietz

There are many striking features of Romans 15:4–13 that might stimulate a preacher’s imagination. It begins and ends with God-given hope (verse 4, 12–13). It is filled with exhortations to glorify God because of God’s work through Jesus Christ (verses 6–7, 9). And at its center, this passage implores believers to welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed them (verse 7).

The word “welcome” can have various connotations. It serves as the standard polite response to being thanked and as an indicator of hospitality on doormats. But if a stranger were to knock on the door of a house bearing a “welcome” plaque, what kind of response would they receive from the homeowner? Would they actually be invited into the home? If so, would they be asked to stay for a meal and conversation? Might an ongoing friendship develop from such an encounter? 

The “welcome” Paul describes in Romans 15:7 (NRSV) connotes something deeper than exchanging pleasantries or a general appearance of hospitality. The Greek verb behind it, proslambanō, can also be translated as “accept” (NIV) or “receive” (NKJV). Such translations convey the relational implications of Paul’s exhortations in Romans 15:4–13 and the rest of the letter.

The Roman Christian communities that Paul addresses were likely composed of both Jewish and gentile believers. Indeed, a core part of the gospel that Paul articulates in Romans is that God, through Jesus Christ, has included gentiles along with Jews in the divine blessings and promises given to the people of Israel. This is reflected in Romans 15:8, where Paul declares that Jesus Christ—himself a Jew—became a servant of the Jewish people (or “the circumcised”; NRSV) precisely to show that God has been faithful to fulfill promises made to the patriarchs of Israel.

To support this point, Paul interprets the Scriptures christologically. We see this in Romans 15:3, where Paul has Christ speaking the words of Psalm 69:9b. This portrays Christ as the one who has taken humanity’s insults that were directed toward God upon himself. Christ’s service (see also Romans 15:8), therefore, was not about pleasing himself but rather involved giving his life to bring humanity, which was alienated from God, into relationship with God.

This humanity also includes gentiles. In Romans 15:9–12, Paul again draws on Scripture to now show that God’s gift of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, is also for gentiles so that they too might glorify God (see also Romans 3).

The Scriptures, therefore, and the Christ they witness to, provide both the theological grounding and model for how the Roman (and all) Christians are to live united in a community that accepts its members’ differing backgrounds and convictions (Romans 15:4–6). Presenting Christ’s own “welcome” as the standard for how Christians are to welcome one another sets the bar high—far above simply greeting one another as we take our seats in the sanctuary or the pastor issuing a general welcome to visitors from the pulpit without anyone taking time to speak with them after the service. Christ’s acceptance of all people came at the cost of his own life. His service to God and people turned away from God meant laying down his own life (see also Romans 5:6–11). It is this gift of ultimate love that empowers Christians by the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13) to also serve each other in ways that build up all members of the community, even when it is difficult or costly to oneself (for example, 15:1–3).

In Romans, Paul speaks of this specifically in terms of the “strong” putting up “with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). In 14:1–4, he uses the same verb for “welcome” (proslambanō) to command believers to “welcome” or “accept” (verse 1) without judgment those who are weak in faith because God has already “welcomed” or accepted them (verse 3). There is debate about whether, or to what extent, Paul’s directives about conflicting understandings of acceptable foods and religious practices in this chapter are addressing specific issues within the Roman Christian communities or are more generally speaking to the dynamics of any diverse Christian community.1 In any case, they demonstrate the principle that is binding on all Christian communities: do no harm to one’s neighbors but instead build them up, even if it means suspending one’s own rights and privileges (Romans 14:13–23; 15:2).

This is how Christians of diverse backgrounds and convictions can glorify God by living in harmony with one another (15:5–6). Seen in context, Romans 15:4–13 thus presents both a challenge and a word of hope to Christians today. It is much easier for many Christians to truly accept people who vote like them or hold the same views on controversial social issues than it is to intentionally develop mutually edifying relationships with believers who disagree on such matters. It can be difficult to suspend one’s preference for a “traditional” or “contemporary” style of worship in order to praise God in harmony with others who have different preferences. And it may feel awkward to invite people over for dinner who do not share one’s socio-economic or citizenship status. But this is precisely the type of other-oriented love and acceptance that the gospel not only calls people into, but also empowers. 

It is important, therefore, to meditate on Paul’s blessing in 15:13. He prays that the God of hope will fill believers with joy, peace, and yes, abundant hope! Such hope involves trusting that God, by the power of the Spirit, is working in the church to bring about the kind of Christ-like community that humans cannot create on their own, or perhaps even envision in the present.


  1. See, for example, Luke Timothy Johnson, Reading Romans: A Literary and Theological Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 196–199.