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Advent 1, Cycle B

Face the future with confidence. The texts for the first Sunday of the new church year testify to the hope that lies ahead with Christ’s coming in the future. Christology, Eschatology, and Justification by Grace receive primary attention.

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
This psalm is a lament and prayer for deliverance or salvation from national enemies. Its reference to the leader entails that instructions are being given to the director of temple musicians. The meaning of the direction to recite the psalm on Lilies is uncertain, but it may refer to a particular melody. The reference to the psalm as a covenant may also be translated “testimony.” Asaph, to whom the psalm is attributed, seems, as we have previously noted on other occasions, to have been one of the Jerusalem Temple’s worship leaders appointed by David (1 Chronicles 6:31-32, 39). As evidenced by the tribes mentioned in verse 2, it was probably a prayer for the Northern Kingdom (Israel).

God is identified as shepherd [raah] of Israel (an image often associated with kings and rulers, as per Jeremiah 23:1-6), enthroned on the cherubim [kerubim, referring to the Lord's invisible abode on the cherubim in the temple's Ark of the Covenant] (v. 1). A strong doctrine of Providence is affirmed; God is said to be the one who has sent affliction (vv. 4-6). Reference in verse 17 to “the one at your [God's] right hand” [perhaps the king] or “the Son of Man [ben adam] made strong by God” perhaps refers to Israel, but could be interpreted messianically. Emphasis on restoration (literally to be “turned again”) and the theme that when God’s favor/face [panim] is shone salvation [yasha, or ease] transpires (probably a hymn refrain [see vv. 2-3, 7, 19]) are reminders that God’s new ways [the eschatological hope] are in continuity with God’s former manner of dealing with his people [redemption does not contradict the original/created order]. Reference is made to how the people who have been made restored will never turn back from God (v. 18).

Application: The psalm affords opportunities to preach on how all that happens is God’s work (Providence), to help parishioners understand that salvation is only the result of God’s favor or presence (Justification by Grace), to explore the messianic hope (see discussion of the identity of the Son of Man noted above), and to celebrate that the hope for salvation and God’s new way is in continuity with the original created order (Creation and Eschatology).

Isaiah 64:1-9
We have previously noted 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). A hypothesized third section (chapters 56-66) may have been written by Second Isaiah (author of the chapters from 40 on) or by one of his disciples in view of close stylistic similarities to chapters 40-55. But the last eleven chapters begin at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity and are likely written after the restoration of the exiled in Judah, expressing some disappointment about what has transpired since the exiles’ return. Our lesson originates in this period and is an eschatological prophecy.

The prophet begins with a lament that the people of Judah have continued to sin, even after their return from the Babylonian exile. They are said to have become a society in which “no one calls on your [God's] name.” The precariousness of the life (“we all fade like a leaf”) is noted (vv. 6-7). He prays that God would reveal himself as in the days of old, to do so in a cataclysmic, eschatological way (vv. 1-4). Petition is made that the awesome God who the prophet is bold to call Father [ab] not remember [zakar] the sins of the people forever (vv. 8-9). We are said to be but clay [mortar], the work of God’s hands (v. 8).

Application: Sermons on this text have the opportunity to reflect on the precariousness of life and the growing secularism of our day (Sin). Reflection might be given to how we yearn for clearer contact with God, as seems to have been the case in ancient times. God’s presence is related to the end times, and so is urgent (Realized Eschatology). This awesome but loving God who is so familiar to us (like a Father) has his way with us (Predestination and Providence), but forgets our sin (Justification by Grace).

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
The lesson is taken from one of Paul’s authentic letters, written from Ephesus prior to his epistle to the Romans, to a church he established (Acts 18:1-11). Relations had become strained with the church. The letter aims to address doctrinal and ethical problems disturbing the Corinthian church. This lesson is a thanksgiving to God as part of Paul’s salutation to the Corinthians, seeming to reflect the best traditions for greetings in the ancient Near East, but in fact hinting at the sensitive topics (knowledge, [ecstatic/charismatic] speech, and claiming the spiritual gifts) that were dividing them and the apostle (vv. 3-6). Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are not lacking any spiritual gift [charisma] (v. 7), a clear critique of their passion [perhaps of Gnostic influence] for attaining a wisdom from teachers other than Paul (chapter 2). They are assured that they have what they need until Christ comes again. The eschatological preoccupations of the epistle (see 4:5; 5:5) surface in verse 8. Assurance is given that we have what we need, will be strengthened, to endure blamelessly to the end [telos]. The reference to “blamelessness” [anegkletos] implies an affirmation of the justification of the sinner (6:11).

Application: This text offers several distinct approaches to the Advent season. In response to the restlessness of many churchgoers and the unaffiliated to the lack of deep spirituality, Paul allows preachers to proclaim that Christ is all we need, and we have that. Also we might focus on the sense in which Christ makes us blameless. The theme of Justification by Grace is prominent in these directions. More in line with this Sunday’s theme is the eschatological reference to having all we need until Christ comes, and so it is a little easier to endure hardships of the present.

Mark 13:24-37
With the new church year we turn to the first of the Synoptic gospels to be written, a book that was perhaps the source of other gospels. Perhaps based on oral traditions of the Passion narrative and accounts of Jesus (the so-called Q-source), it was probably written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Although an anonymous work, the tradition of ascribing authorship to John Mark is largely accepted. But his identity is not always clear, whether this is the John Mark referred to as an associate of Paul (Acts 12:12-25, 15:37; Colossians 4:10) or as Peter’s scribe (1 Peter 5:13). There is an extra-biblical source (Eusebius of Caesarea) who designates Mark as the apostle to Africa (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2/1, pp. 115-116). Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (especially Gentiles), as it presumes readers are unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4, 31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians. A general consensus has been that the gospel was written not so much for unbelievers, but to remind the audience that a believer’s response to the crucified Christ is still needed even after the Resurrection.

This lesson is a prophecy of the end of the age uttered by Jesus prior to the Passion in the context of his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (v. 2). There is essential agreement in Jesus’ prophecy with the version of other Synoptic gospels (save Mark’s characteristic omission of reference to the Son of Man returning in a great lighting of the sky [perhaps characteristic of the Markan concern to stress the hiddenness of Jesus' revelation]). (Compare Matthew 24:26-28 and Luke 17:23-24, 37 to the Markan account.) References to the Son not knowing the day or hour, only the Father (v. 32), may be indicative of Jesus as Son of Man (huios tou anthropos, his humanity) not comprehending all that the Father knows, though not that somehow the Son of God is subordinate to the Father. Heaven and earth may pass away, Jesus claims, but his words will endure (v. 31). The cataclysmic events prophesied are still under God’s control (vv. 6-25). The reason for these catastrophes is to prepare for Christ who will gather up his elect [elektos] (vv. 26-28, 37; cf. Daniel 7:13-14). They will come soon, for Jesus says it will happen before the generation he addresses has passed (v. 30).

Application: At least two possibilities for sermons emerge from this text. On one hand Future Eschatology might be explored, with a sermon on Christ’s second coming and what to expect. Or more in keeping with the Advent season, sermons might proclaim that the Eschaton has been realized in the person of Christ and that we are living in a new era in which new possibilities for the present are open, and so we need to be prepared. In both cases a focus on God being in control of things (Providence) and God choosing to save us (Predestination and Justification by Grace) is emphasized.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen