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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


Proper 17 | OT 22 | Pentecost 12, Cycle A

Things look better up ahead. The texts invite reflection on the possibilities of the future that God has in store for us (Eschatology, Providence, Justification by Grace).

Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c
We have previously noted how, paired with Psalm 106, this song was composed for use at one of the major festivals and consists of a recital of the basic events that created the nation of Israel. It begins with a hymn-like introduction summoning the congregation to worship and rejoice [sameach] in Yahweh, to seek his presence [panim, literally "face"] and remember his wonderful works [mopheth] and miracles (vv. 1-6). The people of Israel are said to be Yahweh’s chosen ones [bachir] (v. 6). What follows is a song about Israel coming to Egypt to become a great nation whom Egyptians come to hate, and concerning Moses who along with Aaron are raised up as leaders by Yahweh. Ham was thought to be the ancestor of the Egyptians (Genesis 10:6) (vv. 23-26). The part of the Psalm to be read concludes with the exhortation to praise the Lord (v. 45b).

Application: A sermon on this Psalm could celebrate how God has raised up leaders for his people, and so we have every expectation of that to happen again in the future for we are chosen by God (Eschatology and Providence). Another approach might be to focus on how in worship we come into God’s presence.

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Psalm 26:1-8
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies in the form of a lament. It is traditionally attributed to David. We need again to be reminded that psalms attributed to David are not likely written by the king. In fact, many scholars have concluded that references to David in the Psalms may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about the expectation that all the faithful encounter trials and cry for deliverance.

The Psalm begins with a cry for vindication against an unjust charge. Reference is made to Yahweh’s steadfast love [chesed] and an invitation to have God test [nasah, which also translates "prove" or "try"] the psalmist, for he walks in faithfulness [in God's truth] (vv. 1-3). He protests his innocence and claims to hate the company of evildoers (vv. 4-5). A liturgical ceremony (a washing) is described (vv. 6-7). The Lord and his temple are praised (v. 8).

Application: This Psalm allows for sermons reflecting on how life is about unjust charges (Sin). But unless the text is read as presupposing Christ, the protestations of innocence by the psalmist are problematic. But if understood as a claim by one in Christ (righteous in him [as per Romans 4:2-5; Galatians 3:6; Ephesians 6:13-14; also see last week's discussion of Isaiah 51:1-6]), then the faithful can claim innocence. The allusion in the Psalm to a ceremony of washing in the temple might then be understood to foreshadow baptism, which further testifies to the innocence of those walking in God’s truth (Baptism and Justification by Grace). Understood in this way, the Psalm’s insistence on the unjustness of the charges against the faithful makes sense. The trials of life are not vindictive punishments inflicted on us by God. The faithful can endure them with the hope that the loving God is testing them and will deliver them (Providence and Eschatology).

Exodus 3:1-15
We continue reading from this book of liberation, telling the story of the Israelites’ escape from Egyptian bondage. As previously noted and known by most readers of this resource, the book is the product of three distinct oral traditions. This text is probably the product of the oldest strands (most likely the ninth/tenth-century BC source), so named for its use the name Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”), as we read the account of the theophany of the burning bush, the divine commission, and the revealing of the divine name Yahweh.

The account begins with Moses keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian (a region to the east of the Red Sea). (The image of shepherd suggests leadership, much like David was first a shepherd, and Jesus uses this image in his famed parable.) He led the flock to the “mountain [har] of God [elohim],” called Horeb and Sinai (v. 1). This mountain was apparently a sacred place for the Midianites, as verse 5 suggests.

The angel [malak] of Yahweh (who some scholars believe to have been not just a creature like in Genesis 16:7 and 21:17, but an earthly manifestation of the Lord) appears to Moses in a burning bush that was not consumed (v. 2). (Fire was deemed a conventional medium of the divine presence [see Genesis 15:17].) Moses stops to observe this, and Yahweh calls him from the bush (vv. 3-4). He is told to come no closer and take off his shoes (an indication that he was on holy ground [Joshua 5:15], v. 5). The Lord identifies himself as the God of the patriarchs, and Moses hides his face (for gazing into the deity’s face can be fatal) (v. 6; cf. 33:20). Yahweh notes the bondage of his people and pledges to come down to deliver them from Egypt to a land of milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites (vv. 7-8). The Lord vows to use Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt (vv. 9-10). Displaying humility, Moses wonders how he is to do this (v. 11). God says as a sign [oth] for Moses, when he brings the people out of Egypt he will worship God on the mountain (Sinai) where they currently discourse (v. 12).

Moses then adds that if he goes to the Israelites claiming that the God of the ancestors has sent him, they will want to know God’s name [shem]. Yahweh provides his name — I Am Who I Am [or I Will Be Who I Will Be] (vv. 13-14). (The present and the future tenses are identical in ancient Hebrew.) It can also mean “He causes to be.” In the ancient world, names revealed something essential about the person or (in this case) the essence of God. This is why the name of God remains so much a matter of reverence and mystery among Jews to this day. God says again that Moses should say to the Israelites that he is the God of the patriarchs and that this is his name forever (v. 15).

Application: Several sermon possibilities present themselves. One could focus a sermon on the name Yahweh, a God of the future (I will be who I will be) or a God who gets things done (he causes things to be). The other possibility is to focus exclusively on Yahweh as a God of the future, stressing that just as Moses starts with nearly nothing but becomes the liberator of a nation, so with God the future is hopeful for he can make good out of nothing (Realized Eschatology) and can set free those in bondage (Social Ethics).


Jeremiah 15:15-21
This is a book of prophecies of the late seventh-early sixth centuries BC prophet of Judah, dictated to his aide Baruch, during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah through the era of the Babylonian captivity. These verses are part of the prophet’s second personal lament. Jeremiah begins with an acknowledgement that God is familiar with him and his life, and that Yahweh knows [yada] and remembers [zakur] him. He proceeds to pray for retribution on his persecutors (v. 15). The prophet notes his love for God’s word [dabar], how he has devoured them and they delight his heart. (This is a metaphor for expressing that Jeremiah’s words are those of Yahweh.) The prophet also claims to be called by Yahweh’s name (v. 16). This is because in Hebrew his name means “Yahweh exalts.” Jeremiah further notes that he has not engaged in the company of merrymakers, but under the weight of God’s hand [yad, a phrase which symbolizes inspiration or direction of God] Jeremiah claims to have been filled with indignation. Indeed his pain is unceasing. As such, he almost feels deceived by God (like a brook with no water deceives, first giving hope and then disappointment) (vv. 17-18). God then applies Jeremiah’s own message to himself. He promises conditionally (depending on the prophet’s response) not to abandon him, that Jeremiah will serve his word, to be a wall of bronze so that the people cannot prevail against him. The phrase “turn back” [shuv] suggests that Jeremiah might have abandoned his prophetic office and needs to repent (vv. 19-20b). Yahweh claims that he is with the prophet, to save [yasha, which also connotes "give safety or ease"] and deliver [natsal, connoting "snatch away"] him, and to redeem [padah, which also means "free"] him from the ruthless (vv. 20b-21).

Application: The bad circumstances in which Jeremiah finds himself (his sense of being persecuted and the hard times for the kingdom of Judah prior to the Babylonian invasion) could be used to examine our own despair or unhappy social dynamics in modern America (Sin and Social Ethics). Jeremiah needed to repent and so do we. He, like we often do, feels deceived with how God has operated, for God’s providential activity is often contrary to our expectations. (Jeremiah’s image of the brook with no water could be employed to describe how we sometimes feel about God’s providential activity.) But with Jeremiah it is also good to recognize that the prophetic task is to represent God’s word, not the preacher’s own desires, a response which happens spontaneously since God’s word delights the heart of the faithful. This is an excellent model for understanding ministry and the Christian life (Sanctification) which preachers could articulate. Alongside this is the promise of God of the better times that lie ahead (Eschatology), as we are assured that we can be saved, given safety, snatched away, and freed. The terms used in the text in Hebrew suggest that both salvation (Justification by Grace) and freedom (Social Ethics) is what God has in mind for us.

Romans 12:9-21
Writing to Christians in Rome he had not met (between 54 and 58 AD), Paul offers a series of exhortations drawn from wisdom traditions (ancient insights for coping with life). Paul begins by urging that love [agape, it is distinguished from brotherly love] be genuine, that Romans hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good, loving one another and outdoing each other in showing honor [time] (vv. 9-10). They are to rejoice in hope, enduring [hupomenontes] in suffering, steadfastly continuing [proskarterountes] in prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints [hagiown], and extending hospitality [to strangers] (vv. 12-13). Exhortation is also given to bless the persecutor; we are to rejoice with those rejoicing, weep with those who weep, live in harmony with each other, associate with the lowly [tapeinos], and not claim to be wiser than they are (vv. 14-16). The faithful are also exhorted not to repay evil for evil, but to take thought for what is noble (v. 17). If possible we should live peaceably [eireneuontes] with all (v. 18). Then the beloved of Paul are urged never to avenge [ekdikeo] themselves but to leave place for the wrath of God as per Deuteronomy 32:35 (v. 19). Rather, if the enemy is hungry or thirsty this need should be met, for by so doing this heaps burning coals on them (v. 20). We should not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good [agatho] (v. 21).

Application: At least two possibilities for sermons emerge from this text. The various wisdom sayings and virtues outlined (Sanctification) should properly be related to last week’s Second Lesson (vv. 1-8) where it was clear that a new identity has been given to Christians in Christ, and they have been transformed into fulfillers of God’s will (Justification by Grace and so the virtues in this lesson transpire spontaneously). The full acting out of these virtues in living the Christian life lies ahead, to be fully realized at the end (in the future) (Eschatology). Among these virtues, especially note the willingness to suffer (the Christian life is a denying of the self and crucifying our sinfulness, as per Romans 6:1-14) and the willingness to care for or identify with the poor (Social Ethics).

The other possibility for the sermon is to focus on the eschatological theme of judgment that God will judge others for us.

Matthew 16:21-28
Again we consider the most Jewish-oriented of all the gospels, addressing an original audience that was probably Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). This is an account of Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection along with a discourse on discipleship, a prophecy and teaching which appears in all the Synoptic Gospels.

Jesus begins to show the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, undergo suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priest and scribes, be killed, and rise on the third day (v. 21). Peter begins to rebuke him, saying it must never happen. Jesus in turn calls Peter Satan [Satana], a stumbling block to him for setting his mind on human things (vv. 22-23). Here Peter probably represents all the disciples (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, p. 346).

Jesus then tells his disciples that if one wants to become a follower, let him take up his cross [stauros] and follow him (v. 24). For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it (v. 25). Jesus then asks, what will it profit anyone to gain the whole world but forfeit their lives/souls [psuche] (v. 26)? He adds that the Son of Man [huios tou anthropou] will come with his angels in the glory of the Father and will repay everyone for what they have done (v. 27). While for Mark “Son of Man” implies Jesus’ lowliness, it is a title for Matthew identical with “Son of God” (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, pp. 336, 340). The title Son of Man seems to have eschatological implications in this gospel, construing him as final judge in accord with Daniel 7:13-14 (cf. 13:37-39). The idea that the Son would repay us for what we have done links with the characteristic emphases of the gospel of Matthew, which construes the Law of Moses [nomos] not as a temporary measure superseded in the kingdom of heaven but as remaining the measure of entrance into the kingdom. In this Gospel Lesson, the law is the way of righteousness (13:52). Jesus adds that some standing with him as he utters these words will not die before the Son of Man comes back in his kingdom (v. 28).

Application: There are at least two possibilities for sermons offered by this lesson. One is to take Matthew’s insistence that the law is not superseded by the gospel and so they remain in harmony. (Some Protestant traditions might be inclined to take this text as a condemnation of our sin, as teaching that if we were judged by what we have done we are condemned [Sin], and so need the word of the Complementary Version of the First Lesson regarding God’s work in saving and delivering us [Justification by Grace].) The other possibility relates to Peter’s problem with the directions Jesus suggests his ministry will move and our Lord’s call for a life of cross-bearing. The Christian life involves a countercultural lifestyle, one that goes against the grain of our expectations about what faith in Christ or the life of Christ should be like (Sanctification). But such a way of life (of suffering) is not an end in itself but points to God’s aims for human beings in the future, at the final consummation (Eschatology).

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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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