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Advent 3, Cycle A (Ellingsen)

by Mark 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.

James 5:7-10

James is probably a piece of Christian wisdom literature, not a letter at all, but with an epistolic greeting added. Traditionally the book has been attributed to James, the brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19; Acts 15:13, 21:18), but the Greek seems too good to have been his work. Of course the work could have been authored by an admirer of the Lord’s brother who used his name. But the general nature of the book’s contents makes it difficult to attach it to a specific time and place. This text is part of the author’s concluding encouragement to readers. He urges patience regarding the Lord’s coming, which is said to be near (vv. 7-8). Grumbling is condemned and a judge (presumably Jesus) is said to be near. The suffering and patience of the prophets are cited as examples (vv. 9-10).

Application: Those anxious or despairing about the coming holiday can be comforted with this text, for Christ is near (Justification by Grace). The Christian life (Sanctification) may be portrayed in terms of patience and its virtue.

Matthew 11:2-11

This is an account illustrating the authority of Jesus. Given this gospel’s efforts to address Jewish Christians, it is not surprising that at a number of points the authority that our Lord claims refers to Old Testament prophecy. Jesus responds to questions of the disciples of John the Baptist about whether he is the Messiah (vv. 2-3). In response Jesus had John’s disciples report what they had seen — healings, the dead raised, and the poor receiving good news (vv. 4-5). These are all works predicted to be manifest at the Eschaton by Isaiah (29:18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1). This suggests that in Matthew’s view, with Jesus the end has come. One taking no offense in him is blessed (v. 6). This insight may testify to the purpose of the gospel to comfort Jewish Christians in Antioch no longer in full communion with Judaism (23:25-32; 24:20).

As John’s messengers leave, Jesus calls him a prophet, or more than a prophet. Malachi 3:1 is cited to suggest that John is a forerunner of the Messiah (vv. 9-10). John is said to be the greatest of all born of women, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (v. 11).

Application: At least two possible directions for sermons emerge from the text. Like the Psalms, this occasion is provided as a reminder that Christ’s ministry and the Christian faith are concerned about poverty and the poor (Social Ethics). Another dimension of the text is the opportunity afforded to remind the congregation that the works of Jesus and the church (healing, raising the dead, caring for the poor) are signs of end times, and that Christmas gives us a little glimpse of heaven (Sanctification and Realized Eschatology).

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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