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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
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  • 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.


Writer Mark Ellingsen

Mark Ellingsen, Pastor, Theologian, AuthorMark Ellingsen, author of Lectionary Scripture Notes, is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) and a professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated magna cum laude from Gettysburg College and has received four degrees from Yale University. He has authored many titles, most recently Lectionary Preaching Workbook for CSS Publishing Company….read more


Christmas Eve/Day, Cycle B

Why the incarnation matters! The assigned lessons make clear that Christ comes to save us (Justification by Grace).

Psalm 96
A hymn celebrating God’s kingship, speaking of him as Yahweh. Along with Psalms 47, 93, 95, 97-99, this may be an Enthronement Psalm originally used on a festival occasion when God was declared to be a king. Much of the Psalm reflects the Hebraic poetic style of parallelism (in which rather than rhyming lines, successive lines of the poem repeat the same idea in different words, the succeeding line intensifying the previous one). This song is said to be a new one (v. 1), most liturgically appropriate given the new thing that God has done at Christmas. After exhortations to praise God (vv. 2-3), the Lord is extolled as a powerful creator above all the gods (vv. 4-6). We are called to ascribe all the glory due God (vv. 7-8). All the nations and the universe join this praise (vv. 7-13). Yahweh is said to come to judge the world with righteousness [tsedeq] (v. 13). Although in its original Hebraic context this could connote legal, judgmental actions on the Lord’s part or a legalism, most Old Testament scholars note that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive, but more about relationship. Indeed, it has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us and even at times later in the Old Testament era the righteousness of God construed as something bestowed on the faithful (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff) in a manner not unlike what Paul says happens to Christians in Christ (Romans 3:21-26). This point along with the reference in verse 13 to the Lord coming could also be interpreted as pointing to Christ.

Application: The Psalm’s reference to the new song reminds us of the new thing God has done with Christ at Christmas. This is certainly worthy of praise. This point should be made in sermons on the text. The focus on God giving us righteousness could be related to Christ’s coming, leading to a sermon on how it is Christ’s mission to save (Justification by Grace).

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Isaiah 9:2-7
It is well-known that this book is actually the product of two or three distinct literary traditions. The first 39 chapters are the work of the historical prophet who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40-66 emerged in the later period immediately before the fall of Babylon (in 539 BC). This text is a prophecy of the historical Isaiah. It is a prophecy about the messianic king. It may have originally celebrated the accession of a new Judean king. This king is described as a great light [or] for those who had been in darkness [choshek], that is, in oppression (v. 2). Based on verse 1, presumably this is a reference to the liberation of the Israelite inhabitants of areas annexed by Assyria. Darkness is standard biblical imagery for oppression, and light is an image for relief from such oppression. This observation was readily applied to the Babylonian exiles of the sixth century BC, addressed in the chapters from 40 to the end of the book after this chapter pertaining to the earlier prophet was combined with the later chapters. Their exile was interpreted as having been contrary to God’s covenant aims.

The new king will make the nation more abundant, increase its joy, and break the oppressors’ rod, just as Gideon, the great war hero of the tribe of Manasseh, conquered the Mideanites (vv. 3-5; Judges 7:23–8:3). Reference is made to a child born for us, followed by comments about the Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (v. 6). These titles were customarily coronation names given to Egyptian kings at their accession. Read as prophecy, the verse could refer to the Christ Child who is identified with a loving God. This child is said to have authority to give endless peace, with justice and righteousness. He is identified with the Davidic line (v. 7). Peace [shalom] in this Jewish context refers not just to a state in which there is no combat, but to a state of well-being and thriving, to social justice (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 130). For the meaning of God’s righteousness [tsedeq], see the discussion above on the Psalm of the Day.

Application: Several sermon possibilities emerge from this text. Understood as a prophecy of Christ the lesson encourages sermons on the righteousness and freedom Christ brings (Justification by Grace). Christ’s contribution to peace and its Hebraic implications (see above) might be an alternative direction (Social Ethics). Christ being the light that overcomes darkness invites sermons on Christ vanquishing evil and oppression (the Classic View of the Atonement).

Titus 2:11-14
This book is one of the Pastoral Epistles, along with 1 and 2 Timothy, so named because of their concern with pastoral leadership. It purports to be a letter of Paul to Titus, a Gentile colleague in ministry (Galatians 2:1-3). None of the pastorals were likely written by Paul. They differ from his authentic letters in vocabulary, style, and treatment of concepts like faith, law, and righteousness, characterized by more emphasis on good works, godliness, and church order. Also many of the historical circumstances described in the Pastoral Epistles do not seem readily accommodated to Paul’s ministry described in Acts. This in turn suggests that they may not have been written until the second century and were circular letters written not to Titus or Timothy but to a general audience. While the other pastoral epistles address ascetic Gnostics (1 Timothy 4:3, 7; 2 Timothy 2:17-18), Titus engages debate more with leaders still maintaining fidelity to Jewish traditions (1:10, 14).

This text may be a fragment of an early Christian liturgy It moves from an assertion of the grace of God and salvation given to all (vv. 11, 14) to a declaration that we have become a people of God zealous for good works (v. 14). This new life is described in terms of self-control and godliness, not being caught up in worldly passions of the present age (v. 12). These images are compatible with Hellenistic moral philosophy, and in some sense remain in dialogue with the Gnostic asceticism critiqued in the other pastoral epistles. References in verses 13 to Christ’s coming [parousia] and his glory borrow the terminology of the imperial cult. We have in this text one of the few times a New Testament writer actually speaks of Christ as God.

Application: If references to Christ’s coming are understood in terms of Christ coming to us at Christmas, the text opens the way to sermons on how Christ saves us by grace, making us people eager to do good (Justification by Grace and Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works).

Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Once again we note that this Synoptic Gospel is the first installment of a two-part history of the church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Along with Acts, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the church (Acts 1:8).

Most of what Christians believe about the Christmas story is drawn from this text. The literary context for the account is said to be a census called for by the Roman emperor Augustus (who reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD) (v. 1). Reference is made to Quirinius who was the Roman governor of Syria. This raises questions about the date of Jesus’ birth or the accuracy of this account, since he was not governor during the reign of Herod the Great in Judah (who according to Matthew 2:1 was on the throne of Israel when Jesus was born). Since Herod died in 4 BC, this seems to move the date of Jesus’ birth prior to the beginning of the Christian era. It is also unlikely that a spouse like Mary would have traveled with her husband to his home of family origin unless she owned property in that town (vv. 1-5). This lack of historical credibility for the account is not surprising, since the birth of Jesus is not even part of the earliest narrative traditions about Jesus (note its omission from Mark’s gospel).

When in Bethlehem (the Davidic home to which Joseph as an heir of David would have traveled [3:23-31]), Mary is reported to have borne her firstborn son and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the inn (vv. 6-7). It was common in biblical times in Israel for owners to reside with their animals. Next follows the report of the revelation of the birth to shepherds. This is most appropriate in view of the fact that David was also a shepherd (1 Samuel 17:15), and it likewise makes sense given the fact that Luke’s gospel is preoccupied with concern for the poor and lowly (6:20; 14:12-14; 16:19-31). The revelation by an angel is said to produce fear [phobeo] among these shepherds as they encounter the glory of God (they experienced the fear of God) (vv. 8-9). The angel comforts them, bringing the good news of the Messiah, whom they are told they can find in Bethlehem in a manger (v. 12). The angel is then joined by a heavenly multitude (presumably other angels [aggeloi]) who praise God and sing of peace among those he favors (vv. 13-14). (See the discussion above in the notes on the First Lesson of the term “peace” [eirene] in a Hebraic context; that the New Testament continues to employ the term this way is suggested by Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, pp. 82-83.)

When the angels depart the shepherds proceed to Bethlehem, finding Mary, Joseph, and the child (vv. 15-17). All who heard the story are amazed. Mary is said to treasure these words and ponder them (vv. 18-19). The shepherds then return, glorifying God (v. 20).

Application: Sermons on this well-known account might try to have parishioners recognize how often we perpetuate the rejection of Jesus in Bethlehem (condemning our sin) while also identifying with the lowly shepherds and so realizing that Christ comes for us (Justification by Grace).

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

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