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    Buy Direct from CSS Publishing Company is a free website that provides brief yet probing exegetical commentary for:

  • Pastors who need inspiration and idea starters for their sermons
  • Church musicians who want to coordinate music and hymn selections with scriptural themes
  • Anyone who wants deeper insight into each week’s lectionary passages

These background notes cover every assigned text in the Revised Common Lectionary for each Sunday and major observance throughout the year.

Advent 3, Cycle A (Ellingsen)

This column is on the Christian way to celebrate Christmas. This is an examination of the implications of Christmas for daily life (Sanctification) and community engagement (Social Ethics). The coming of the Lord and Christmas gives us a sense that a new era is dawning (Eschatology).

Psalm 146:5-10

This is part of a hymn of praise (the genre that dominates Book V of the Psalms of which this hymn is a part) asking God for help in the midst of human inadequacy. Like the last five Psalms, this song begins and ends with the Hebrew term haleluyah [Praise the Lord]. This joyful tone is reflected at the outset of the lesson, as we are reminded (just as it is said at the outset of the book of Psalms) how praising the Lord leads to happiness [ashere] (an insight borne out by much modern neurobiology). We are reminded how this Lord is the Creator; faithful to his creation; and cares for the poor, the hungry, the widow, and the orphan. This is a God to be trusted; not even the most powerful of all human beings can carry out matters like the Lord who reigns forever.

Application: The Psalm invites making contrasts between the transience of our own sinful condition (vv. 3-4) and the awesome God who reigns forever. Such insights have significant implications for how we live (Sanctification) — leading to joy, confidence, and a sense of worship (aware that all the good in creation is God’s). Social Ethics is also a legitimate concern in such sermons, as the Psalm reminds us that our God and his Son’s birth is about the business of caring for the poor, rather than acquiring new trinkets.


Luke 1:47-55

This is the famed hymn of praise attributed to Mary called the Magnificat. Though the book is the most Gentile oriented of all the gospels (along with Acts aiming to justify Paul’s outreach to the Gentiles), this song, unique to Luke’s gospel, is based on Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 for God giving her Samuel as a son. The song praises God for his love and mercy (vv. 48, 50). Reminiscent of the preferential option for the poor of Liberation Theology, he is said to scatter the proud, but lifts up the poor and feeds the hungry (vv. 51, 53).

Application: The text invites sermons praising God’s love and kindness (Justification by Grace) and his special concern for the poor (Social Ethics).

Isaiah 35:1-10

The text is part of a book that is an editorial compilation of two or three distinct historical strands of prophecy. Although appearing in a section devoted to the prophecy of the historical Isaiah, an eighth-century BC prophet to Judah (the Southern Kingdom) after Israel (the Northern Kingdom) had been annexed by Syria, it is more likely that this oracle was probably written by one of Isaiah’s disciples at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity in 539 BC, belonging to chapters 40-66 and then moved to its present location in the section devoted to the historical prophet. The prophecy promises the restoration of Zion (a hill in southwest Jerusalem that is probably the oldest and highest part of the city, a section associated with David). In response to the new reality, the prophet sings that wilderness and dry land will be glad and rejoice. The text’s reference to Carmel is to a well-wooded region in Canaan twelve miles from the Mediterranean Sea, and its reference to Sharon is to another region of rich pastures northwest of Jerusalem near the Mediterranean. All creation sees the glory of Yahweh (vv. 1-2). There is no need for weak hands and feeble knees, for Elohim comes to save (vv. 3-4). The blind see, the deaf hear, and the speechless sing for joy (vv. 5-6). This seems to be a reference to the pending correction of the redeemed’s spiritual disabilities. A highway through the wilderness that none can miss will be made plain (perhaps we might construe this as a messianic prophecy). Clear reference is made to the returning home of the exiles.

Application: The text proclaims hope for restoration of those who have been exiled (fallen on tough times) (Justification by Grace through Faith). The reference to the highway interpreted messianically opens the way to sermons on the difference the coming Christ and so Christmas can make in our lives….click here for the full installment

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Advent 3, Cycle A (Beck)

The primary theme of the texts for the Third Sunday of Advent for this year is that the Lord is coming and has come to relieve the suffering of those who are suffering political, economic, social, and religious oppression and those who are disadvantaged by a variety of afflictions.

Psalm 146:5-10
In this psalm the inadequacy of all human rulers is contrasted to the total adequacy of the Lord. It is the Lord, not any human figure, who is to be praised for all creation, for mercy and release from suffering for all who are weak, oppressed, and limited by afflictions.

Isaiah 35:1-10
In this text, which is in many ways the most outstanding of the four texts chosen for this occasion, the ancient Israelite poet’s imagination is given free rein. There are no restraints. Physical disadvantages and all of our usual limitations are removed. “Your God will come to save you!” in Matthew 11:2-11 is an echo of this and of other similar Israelite apocalyptic texts. The Matthean tradition affirms that when Jesus comes to act in God’s behalf the current physical restraints and limitations are cast away, the fullness of life is restored, and the gospel is proclaimed to the oppressed.

In order to highlight the beauty of this Isaiah 35 text, it would be appropriate to have two or more members of the congregation accompany the reading of this text with an interpretative dance coordinated to an expressive reading of the text. A free spirit in the reading and appropriate imagination on the part of the interpretative dancers will make this a memorable occasion. A second possibility would be that the Psalm would be memorized by someone and presented vividly in the storytelling mode that is becoming increasingly popular in the Church, as this recaptures in many ways the enthusiasm and exuberance of the ancient Israelite poets. We too can be inspired, just as were the psalmists and poets of the Isaiah tradition. Each of the worship services on these four Sundays of Advent should be a unique and memorable experience.

James 5:7-10
A glance at the Aktionsart (kind of action) of the Greek verbs in this text indicates that the writer of the Epistle of James was addressing a situation with much more urgency than is apparent in our typical translations into English. The “kind of action” is much more pronounced in the imperative verb forms in Greek than in the Greek indicative. We see, therefore, that the speaker/writer was urging the people of the community being addressed to “begin to be patient” (using the Greek aorist active imperative word makrothumesate) where the progressive active imperative word, had it been used, would have encouraged them to “continue to be patient.” The people of the community are urged to “begin to show some fortitude” (aorist active imperative steritzate) where the progressive active imperative, had it been chosen, would have encouraged them to “continue to hang in there.” When the negative command was used at the beginning of 5:9, the writer switched to the progressive active imperative me stenazete to admonish them to stop grumbling against each other; had the aorist active subjunctive form been used, it would have advised them not to start grumbling. If we prepare our own translations with an awareness of the Aktionsart factor of progressive forms for continuous or repeated action and aorist forms for simple action, the life-situation addressed in this text will be related much more closely to our life-situation today.

Matthew 11:2-11
Regardless of whether this text and its Lukan parallel represent incidents that occurred during the activities of the Jesus of history, the more significant consideration for us is “What is the principal theological message of this text?” “What is the gospel in this text that we can proclaim next Sunday?”

The gospel is most pronounced in the final verse of this text (and in the Luke 7:28 parallel), “Truly I say to you that there has not been raised up among those born from women anyone greater than John the Baptist. But the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is!” The principal theological value of this text as an Advent text for us lies in the anticipation in Matthew 11:11 of an impending glorious, joyous future. This is the point of contact cited above to the beautiful Isaiah 35:1-10 text. With these two texts we look forward with a “Joy to the World” motif to the time when all disadvantages, limitations, and impediments will be removed from us. Within this limited world of time and space each of us is suffering impediments in many ways, but the gospel here is that God will remove our limitations in a new and better life both here and in the life to come, in spite of everything….click here for the full installment

click here for future days

  • NEW 2016-17 Cycle A Resources
    Dean Feldmeyer
    The Real Deal
    Isaiah 11:1-10

    Matthew 11:2-11; Isaiah 35:1-10
    “The real deal.” Ask an internet search engine like Google or Bing for a definition of that phrase and you’ll get a handful of entries that, when put together, look something like this: An American idiom used to describe people or things that are genuine, real, legitimate, or authentic; possessed of all of the characteristics attributed to them; genuinely superior or impressive in some regard and therefore worthy of appreciation or respect. Synonym: “The real McCoy.”
         John the Baptist heard about this Jesus guy, some claims about miracles, some stories about healings. There was even some conjecture that this guy might be the messiah, the anointed one of God. John wanted more than just hearsay, though. He wanted eyewitness testimony. He wanted it straight from the horse’s mouth. But he was in jail, so he sent his disciples to find out: “Is this guy the real deal?”
         So they tracked him down, and not the sort to hem and haw around, they walked right up to Jesus and asked him: “Are you the real deal? Or are you another fake, a poser, another counterfeit prophet, telling people what they expect to hear for an easy buck?”
         Jesus is not offended by the question. He answers it clearly and straightforward, frankly and honestly. His answer, and the question that occasioned it, are as important today as they were the first time they were uttered.
         Was he? Are you? Am I? If not, how do I become “the real deal”?...more
    What Do You Want For Christmas?
    (Originally published in 1998)
    What do you want for Christmas? What is on your list? A new Nintendo 64? A Sony PlayStation? Maybe a new computer or a trip to Europe. Perhaps your desires are simpler. A new pair of socks and something sweet to eat between meals on Christmas day. Then again, I know that some of you really do want world peace and new hope for the world. Some of you just want a few minutes of peace and quiet -- a chance to calmly reflect on the life that you have been given. I know of a minister's spouse who would just like the reverend to be home for two nights in a row instead of attending committee meetings on finance or education or who knows what....more
    Cathy Venkatesh
    Easter in Advent
    The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally one that emphasizes joy. Our readings invite us into the joy of new life with God and to examine our hearts to discover what may be keeping us from fully embracing that joy. Ultimately, in this season (as in all seasons) we are called to live into the hope of the resurrection...more
    C. David McKirachan
    Why did he ask?
    Matthew 11:2-11
    If somebody comes into my house at this time of year and asks me, “What season is it?” I’d be sure they were being sarcastic, or they had come from another culture, insulated from the tsunami that we call Christmas. I go a little nuts....more
    Janice Scott
    Adrian's Swimming Coach
    There wasn't much that Adrian was good at, except swimming. He learned to swim when he was little more than a baby, and he loved it. When he was seven he joined a swimming club. It was there that he first met Mr Stevens, the swimming coach. Adrian got on well with Mr Stevens. Somehow Mr Stevens was really encouraging. He taught Adrian the best way of making his strokes and Adrian began to win at many of the galas he attended....more
    Mary Kay Eichelman
    Important People
    Object: Red carpet or red blanket or plastic red tablecloth
    Today I have rolled out the red carpet for you.  We are not famous people, movie stars or royalty, so maybe you have not had this kind of fancy treatment. But often for very important people, red carpet is actually put down for them to walk on...more

Author of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen

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