Lectionary Commentaries for December 17, 2023
Third Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28

Timothy L. Adkins-Jones

The other day, as I was sitting down in a coffee shop meditating on this passage, I couldn’t help but overhear two older gentlemen at the table next to me arguing about who is the greatest baseball player in history. It was a relatively well-mannered debate that was fun for both fine gentlemen. I’ll spare you the specifics of their argument so as not to send the baseball fans among the readers on a mental tangent, but suffice it to say that they were making grandiose claims about their chosen players. The superlatives were flying, and each statement was grander than the last. 

While I’m sure they believed everything they were saying and that there were factual foundations to their arguments, it was the hyperbole of their presentation that really made a difference in their arguments, both for one another and for those of us, due to the volume of their conversation, who had no choice but to listen.  

As I read again John’s description of the one coming after him, I felt the power of his hyperbole in making his argument. By describing himself as someone unworthy of untying the straps of Jesus’ sandals, he is declaring himself to be the unworthiest of all to amplify the worthiness of Jesus. His hyperbole serves a few different functions in this text, like how those two gentlemen were talking about baseball, and preachers would find fruitful ground in playing with the ways that hyperbole might work as we describe both our unworthiness and Jesus’ worshipful status. 

Beyond merely emphasizing the worth of Jesus, this exaggerated speech helps build excitement about the reveal of Jesus, helps build community around the “legend” of this yet-unknown figure, and might serve as the kind of persuasion necessary to get someone to pay attention to the gospel being preached, for surely the “worthiest of all time” is worth learning more about.

Knowing who you aren’t

Before the line about worthiness, John has a back-and-forth with the priests and Levites about his identity. Verse 20 says that “he confessed and did not deny it,” in reference to his continued “nos” to their questions. After asking whether he was the Messiah, Elijah, or the prophet, the priests and Levites finally ask John an open-ended question and allow him to tell them his identity. But before getting to John’s quotation of Isaiah in verse 23, it is important to underline John’s confession of who he isn’t. 

The text emphasizes his confession of not being the Messiah. And unlike the hyperbolic sandal statement that was previously discussed, this honest confession of who he was not is necessary at a time when there is confusion about John’s role. The double confession plus the negative made it abundantly clear that he was the witness pointing back toward the light, and not the light himself. 

This negative confession serves as an important reminder for proclaimers and doers of the word. Our sermons should point back toward the light and avoid being so heavily associated with the preacher that the primary star is miscast. Similarly, the actions that we take in the community for the cause of the gospel must also point back toward the light, lest our churches become more noteworthy than the Jesus we profess to profess. One of my dear friends always prays to “make Jesus famous,” and I was reminded of that when reading John’s navigation of these rapid-fire questions from the priests and the Levites.  

Light and dark

John’s mission and identity are further clarified in the earlier passage from our lection. In the midst of the poetic start to this chapter, there is a pause on the cosmic description of Jesus for a short description of John’s role as witness to it all. John is said to have been sent as a witness to testify to the light, with the goal of everyone believing in the light. While the light mentioned here is a clear reference to Jesus, more specifically this light is the life of all people. One might think of it as life force, the animating power of our lives, and the darkness cannot extinguish this light. John is a witness to this light, to life, to Jesus the Christ who came to give us life, and life more abundantly. 

If we are to pick up John’s mantle and proclaim light and life in our congregations, we must celebrate the inextinguishable light available to us. Advent must elicit excitement for a light that can’t go out. Like the burning bush that was on fire but did not burn, Jesus is the light that the darkness of death cannot extinguish. And this is good news! In a world that is increasingly dark, amplifying the persistence and tenacity of the light in our sermons will be a welcome bit of hope to all.   

A word about recognition

This passage is full of what seems somewhat comedic, at least from the perspective of John and the readers—banter back and forth between John and the priests. But there at the end, in addition to the sandal hyperbole, John lets them know that Jesus is already there among them. They had a recognition problem; they were oblivious to the presence of the light that was immediately in their midst. This passage may also call forth sermons that talk about what it means for us to be attentive to the light, and how we might avoid the problem of recognition found with the priests and Levites. Was it a problem of openness? Perhaps of faulty expectations? Was it too dark for them to see the light? Or could there have been a perception problem? There is a lot of room here to explore as we think about the challenges our congregations face in recognizing the light.


First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Anathea Portier-Young

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). So declares Jesus at the beginning of his public ministry, after reading the opening verses of this lection (Isaiah 61:1–2; Luke 4:18–19) before a crowd of people gathered in the synagogue at Nazareth.

The speaker of Isaiah 61:1–4 has been anointed for a mission of radical proclamation. Their commission is, first and foremost, to bring good news to the poor (61:1). In the ancient Greek (Septuagint) translation of Isaiah quoted in Luke’s Gospel, the phrase “to bring good news,” in Hebrew lĕbaśśēr, is rendered by the Greek word euangelisasthai, from the same root as euangelion, “gospel.” Combined with the fact that Jesus quotes this passage from Isaiah in the first sermon Luke attributes to Jesus, this verbal correspondence suggests that these verses from Isaiah have something to teach us about the character of the Christian gospel itself.

The content of the good news the prophet has been charged to deliver is summarized in the words “joy,” “liberation,” and “release.” Their effects are characterized as healing and comfort for those who are brokenhearted and sorrowing (Isaiah 61:1–2).

Exuberant imagery of reversal and exchange casts a vision of transformation. But the changes envisioned are not internal only. That is, though they encompass emotion and spirituality, they are not limited to these domains. Rather, the envisioned transformation is grounded in material realities. The prophet’s audience is “oppressed ones” (ănāwîm), a word that can also be translated “lowly ones” or “ones who are poor.” This latter translation corresponds to the Septuagint rendering ptochois, meaning “poor,” “oppressed,” or “powerless,” which is quoted in Luke 4:18.

While it might be tempting to regard this term as designating those who are humble or meek (see also the reference to those who are “poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3), in modern parlance humility is a voluntary condition. The Hebrew term ănāwîm here connotes a status that has not been chosen. It refers to those on whom low social status has been imposed and from whom economic advantages have been systematically withheld.

The social and material circumstances the prophet addresses come into sharper focus as the details of the commission unfold. In addition to joy and healing, the mission declares liberation of captives and release of prisoners. In the context of ancient Yehud, the captives and prisoners may have included Judeans still living in exile, those subjected to debt slavery, or even political prisoners. The “opening” or release the prophet here announces is thus not metaphorical. It may rather be seen as an example of the literary device of synecdoche, or part for the whole. These examples of healing and liberation betoken a wider set of reversals that will reverberate across every sector of society, bringing justice in the place of injustice, vindication in the place of oppression, and joy in the place of sorrow (Isaiah 61:1–3, 8).

Yet the passage does contain metaphor. Those who have been mourning will be called “oaks of righteousness” and “the planting of the LORD” (61:4). These organic metaphors display God’s power to elevate the lowly. God will raise up those who are bowed down and strengthen those who are weak. Their roots will give them staying power. Their elevated status will owe not to exploitation that keeps others down but to a quality of righteousness that lifts others up with them.

Indeed, they will build up ruined cities and turn wasted lands into thriving, fertile places (61:4–5). This imagery enfolds landscape and built environment into the promise of social renewal. In the lection’s final verse, a set of similes locates in the land’s capacity to nourish and bring forth new growth an analogy for God’s own power and will to bring about justice and praise (61:11). The people who are God’s planting will bear the fruit of righteousness.

A further set of similes and metaphors peppers the passage: that of clothing. Those who are sorrowing will trade their ashes for a radiant headdress and will receive a glorious mantle (Isaiah 61:3). Headdress and covering are introduced again in verse 10. The speaker praises God for clothing them in righteousness and salvation. The headdress they now wear symbolizes simultaneously the roles of priest (yĕkahēn) and bridegroom (61:10). The work of righteousness and the gift of salvation make of the speaker a mediator between God and nations. They inaugurate and make possible a lasting commitment that will bear fruit for a lifetime.

Jesus’ homiletic treatment of Isaiah 61:1–2 suggests that the gospel Jesus proclaims and the gospel that proclaims Jesus share key features with this week’s Old Testament lection.

I challenge you on this Third Sunday of Advent to speak directly to the social realities of this world. Isaiah and Jesus did not shy away from speaking to the concrete, material conditions of society. Their preaching was an intervention. The gospel is here revealed to be for the poor, for the brokenhearted, for the captive and the prisoner. There is here no glorification of poverty, but rather a recognition that low socioeconomic status and systemic injustice are causes of sorrow. They have the power to shatter people at their core. They also render us broken as a society. But our society is not unfixable. Places of devastation can become fields filled with new growth, sites for the flourishing of justice and righteousness. Christian preaching has a critical role to play.

The proclamation of liberation and release of prisoners and captives is especially needed in the context of the United States, a country that currently has the highest documented incarceration rates in the world and in which an estimated 1.9 million people are incarcerated.1 How might your preaching create an “opening” for those who have experienced or currently experience incarceration?

You, too, have been anointed to bind wounds and raise up the oppressed. May your preaching of Christ’s coming herald joy, liberation, and release.


  1. Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie,” press release, Prison Policy Initiative, March 14, 2023, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2023.html.


Commentary on Psalm 126

Samantha Gilmore

The first three verses of this psalm can be interpreted in at least two ways. The psalmist may be 1) remembering with joy what God has done for God’s people in the past or 2) anticipating with joy what God will do to restore God’s people in the (hopefully near) future. Both interpretations reveal the psalmist’s faith in the power of God to radically change people’s circumstances and the goodness of God to do so in a life-giving way. The preacher might practice both possibilities in the sermon, remembering with thanksgiving those seasons in the congregation’s past that were “filled with laughter” (verse 2) and looking forward to the uncontainable “shouts of joy” God will bring in the future (verses 2, 5, and 6).

While reading the psalm as anticipating the future, the preacher can invite the congregation to be “like those who dream” (verse 1) about their own context. This may be helpful for a congregation in the midst of imagining a new future for themselves or their larger neighborhood, town, etc. What could it look like for God to fill their mouths with laughter? What if this is not a metaphor for something less intense, which is often an assumption in 21st-century United States, thinking-over-feeling contexts, but something that God really does? This language does not suggest a few stifled giggles in an otherwise serious gathering but uncontrolled, tear-inducing, knee-slapping, belly-aching guffaws spreading through the crowd! What kind of events might bring this about?

Similarly, what could it look like for God to fill their tongues with “shouts of joy” (verses 2, 5, and 6)? Again, what if this is not a metaphor but something that God really does? This language does not suggest a calmly spoken “Thanks be to God” but a Psalm 150–level eruption, a mouth-hurts-from-smiling, arms-in-the-air, call-everyone-you-know kind of exhilaration that can’t not be shared with “everything that breathes” (Psalm 150:6). What would it take for this to happen? Why would this be good news?

Children tend to laugh much more than adults. In Advent, many children are in a particularly high state of anticipation, laughing and shouting with joy as they dream dreams of wish lists fulfilled, Christmas break from school, extra snow days off, etc. If your congregation has children, this may be a good sermon to employ their help in getting the grown-ups to brainstorm with abandon about God’s good future for them. If there are no children at church, talking to children in your life or remembering the noisy “shouts of joy” at recess, field trips, and birthday parties as a child may be helpful in your sermon preparation. What if this psalm was an opportunity to follow Jesus’ call to “change and become like children” (Matthew 18:3)?

Lest this much laughing and shouting seem inconceivable to your congregation, note the passive tense here: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue [was filled] with shouts of joy” (verse 2). The psalmist’s community certainly were active participants in their own lives (as indicated by verses 5–6 about sowing the seed), but they did not fill their own mouths with laughter and their own tongues with “shouts of joy.” God did that. God restored their fortunes then, and God can do so now. God’s action is what gives your congregation permission to dream beyond what they are able to do on their own. It allows congregations who have been living a cold, dormant winter to envision a warm spring full of new life sprouting up and shouting, “Glory to God!”

Verse 2b offers another lens through which to dream. Under what circumstances might the neighbors surrounding your congregation say, “The LORD has done great things for them” (verse 2b)? Not only does this suggest that any fruitfulness and abundant life is visible (or perhaps audible!) outside the doors of the church, but that it is universal enough to be recognized as such by nonmembers and non-Christians. Is this what happens when a community experiences the love of God deeply enough that they cannot help but share it so that their neighbors become partakers in it? Is this what happens when our neighbors “know we are Christians by our love”?1

The second half of this short psalm contains water imagery in each verse. The first may resonate strongly with those who live in dry climates. The Negeb is a desert that does not have any streams that run year-round. Instead, it experiences infrequent and sudden crashing, coursing water after rain. The psalmist asks that God would restore God’s community like that. He asks not for a little drop or trickle but for “watercourses in the Negeb” (verse 4), for a torrent of water to come flooding through his parched community. It is so dry that those who have never seen watercourses before may not believe it is possible for the community to be saturated with new life, especially not suddenly. But the psalmist knows what God is capable of.

The water images in the final two verses are “tears” and “weeping” (verses 5, 6). The community cries as they carry seeds out to be planted and as they plant them. While both verses conclude with “shouts of joy” at the later harvest, the tears acknowledge the vulnerability of the present moment. The psalmist’s community is planting seeds in a drought. Their own tears are the only signs of water, of life. There is no promise of return; in fact, there is every reason to suspect that there won’t be any. Still, they sow in tears and look to the heavens with hope.

I wonder whether Mary wept, unable to fathom how the “Son of the Most High” could possibly come from her own womb (Luke 1:32). I wonder whether, in the next breath, she laughed and shouted with joy at what God was about to do through Jesus. I wonder whether preachers can invite their congregations to do the same.


  1. “They’ll Know We Are Christians,” Hymnary.org, accessed August 22, 2023, https://hymnary.org/text/we_are_one_in_the_spirit.

Second Reading

Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero

Living the life of the SpiriThis is the first day of the “O Antiphons,” a series of verses included in Evening Prayer during the final week of Advent. The first antiphon is O Sapientia (“O Wisdom”), which in its versified form reads:

O come, O wisdom from on high, embracing all things far and nigh:
in strength and beauty come and stay; teach us your will and guide our way.
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” ELW hymn 257, stanza 2)

Each antiphon highlights an aspect of Christ; this one describes Christ as wisdom, whose teaching will guide us through our lives.

Paul’s exhortation at the end of 1 Thessalonians captures some of the wisdom he received from Christ, about which he is reminding the congregation to whom he is writing. The use of the imperative verbs throughout this exhortation underscores the urgency with which Paul is writing. The text that prefaces this final exhortation reminds the congregation that the Lord will come “like a thief” in the night (verse 4), so they should “keep awake” (verse 6) and build one another up in community (verse 11). These images connect this Third Sunday of Advent with the previous two Sundays.

The refrain of the above-quoted hymn also connects to the first line of Paul’s exhortation: “Rejoice!” At the beginning of his letter, Paul reminds the congregation to receive what they have been taught with joy (1:6), so as to live as examples for their neighbors. This joy, signified by the pink candle (Gaudete = rejoice) on the Advent wreath, is meant to spill out beyond the season into the entire Christian life and thus throughout the whole liturgical year.

In his short book Life Together, written originally as a guide for communal learning in seminary, 20th-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the importance of praying without ceasing:

The unity of prayer and work, the unity of the day, is found because finding the You of God behind the It of the day’s work is what Paul means by his admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The prayer of the Christian reaches, therefore, beyond the time allocated to it and extends into the midst of work. It surrounds the whole day, and in so doing, it does not hinder the work; it promotes work, affirms work, gives work great significance and joyfulness. Thus every word, every deed, every piece of work of the Christian becomes a prayer, not in the unreal sense of being constantly distracted from the task that must be done, but in the real breakthrough from the hard It to the gracious You.”1

For Bonhoeffer, the Christian cannot separate prayer, which often takes us out of the world to be in relationship with God, from work, which places us directly in the world to be in community with one another. The two go hand-in-hand, where one’s prayer is almost indistinguishable from one’s work. To pray without ceasing places us in direct contact both with God and with our neighbors—the One from whom our work originates and the ones who are the recipients of our work.

Not only is the Christian life one of rejoicing and continuous praying, but it is also one of thanksgiving. Preachers must be careful about how they frame this language. Too many Christians have been subjected to bad theology that tries to discount the suffering that people experience. Paul’s exhortation is not a platitude for not taking suffering and pain seriously; instead, Paul is calling the faithful to give thanks in spite of what is happening at the present moment, for God is still present in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.

Following the short affirmative phrases that begin the exhortation, Paul continues with short prohibitions: do not quench the Spirit, do not despise the prophets’ words, and do not engage with evil. In between the affirmative and the prohibitory phrases is a larger statement: “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (verse 18b). While the coordinating conjunction “for” and the use of a semicolon in the New Revised Standard Version (or comma in other translations) may assume a direct connection between God’s will and giving thanks in all circumstances, it may be more appropriate to see this statement as the structural and thematic center of the entire exhortation.

For Paul, living the life of the Spirit—which includes joy, prayer, thanksgiving, goodness, prophetic guidance, and that which is lifegiving—is the will of God.

As we continue our journey through Advent and soon arrive at the manger, the preacher can use Paul’s exhortation as a reminder of the newness that comes with the Incarnation. This lection concludes with a note of certainty, in that God will do these things because God is faithful.


  1. DBWE vol. 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 75–76.