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Advent 4, Cycle B

Our Savior is coming! The Sunday’s focus on Christology leads us better to appreciate God’s faithfulness to his promises and his love for us. God’s ways make more sense in this light. Providence and Justification by Grace are insights growing out of life in Christ.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
The Psalm is identified as a Maskil, an artful song composed with artful skill, composed by Ethan the Ezrahite. He was either a wise man of Solomon’s court (1 Kings 4:31) or a temple musician (1 Chronicles 15:17, 19). This is a hymn extolling God’s power and faithfulness; it has its origins as part of a king’s prayer for deliverance from his enemies. It is considered a Royal Psalm, for it portrays itself as a prayer of a king for deliverance, a national lament.

Having been defeated in battle (vv. 38-45), the psalmist promises to sing of Yahweh’s steadfast love [chesed, also translated "mercies"] and extols God’s faithfulness [emunah] (vv. 1-2, 24). (We are reminded again that Selah appearing at the end of v. 4 is a liturgical direction, which may indicate that there should be an instrumental interlude at this point in the singing of the Psalm.) The Lord’s unalterable covenant [berith] with David is remembered. It is God’s promise that David’s descendants be established forever (vv. 3-4, 19-26). The Davidic covenant is renewed at the Christmas event. David is said to be mighty [gibbor] only because God elected him (v. 19). In that sense predestination is affirmed.

God said to be the rock [tsur] of our salvation, the Father [ab].

Application: The Psalm calls for sermons on how the Davidic covenant is fulfilled in Christ (see the gospel), which is another way of endorsing that God is faithful and never fails. (Providence is stressed in this approach.) Predestination and the comfort it affords might also be considered.


Luke 1:46b-55
Last week, when dealing with this alternative Psalm of the Day which repeats this Sunday, we noted that this is one of the synoptic gospels, 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). Addressed to Theophilus (1:1), it is not clear if this means that the work was written for a recent convert or for a Roman official from whom the church sought tolerance. But since Theophilus means “lover of God,” it is possible that the author addressed all the faithful. Once again the alternative Psalm is taken from the Magnificat (so called from the first word of the Latin translation of the hymn), Mary’s hymn of praise in response to Elizabeth’s prophecy about the child in Mary’s womb (v. 46b).

We noted last week that the song is unique to Luke’s Gospel, based on Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 for God giving her Samuel as a son. After expressing joy in God, the song praises Him for His love and mercy/kindness [elos] (vv. 48, 50). He is proclaimed as holy [hagios] and mighty/powerful [dunatos] (v. 49). Reminiscent of God’s preferential option of the poor taught by Liberation Theology, God is said to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful from their thrones, but lift up [hupsoo, literally "raise high" or "elevate"] the poor [tapeinosis, literally "the humble" or those of low estate ] and feed the hungry (vv. 51-53). He will also help Israel according to promises made to Abraham and David (vv. 54-55; cf. Genesis 17:6-8; 18:18; 22:17; 2 Samuel 7:11-16).

Application: This selection for the Psalm of the Day also opens the way to sermons on God’s faithfulness to his promises. God’s work of caring for the poor may be associated with the work of Jesus who comes. Providence and Social Ethics are respectively the themes emphasized by these sermon possibilities. We see God as loving and kind when we know that Christ is coming (Christology). The text also invites sermons on Sanctification (the joy and praise that comes with knowing what God is doing in Christ).

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
This book’s origin as a distinct work derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings). In its final form it is probably the result of the Deuteronomistic (D) history (the result of sweeping religious reforms in Judah under King Josiah in the seventh century BC). This text may be an expression of the conflict in Israel that developed over the eventual erection of the temple in Jerusalem.

The lesson begins with the recounting of David wishing to build a temple/house [bayith]. This is a later theological commentary probably inserted into earlier material, based in part on the Psalm of the Day. But the prophet Nathan is commissioned by Yahweh to inform the king that this task will not be undertaken by him, but by his son [Solomon]. It is reported that for the present the Lord desires that the ark [aron] of the covenant remain in a tent (vv. 1-12). Instead the Lord would give David a great name [shem] (v. 9). The Davidic covenant, the promise that his kingdom would endure forever, is established (v. 16). With this covenant a father [ab] – son [ben] relationship is established between Yahweh and David (or his heir), and Yaheweh promises not to withdraw his mercy [chesed, also translated "loving kindness"] from the Son (vv. 13-15). These promises and the desire to build a temple have close parallels to ceremonial texts of the royal house in ancient Egypt. Parallel passages include Psalm 89:19-37 and 1 Chronicles 24:28-29. The latter text is more about Solomon as the one who implements David’s plans to build the temple. Historically the dynasty of David was not everlasting, for it fell in 587/586 BC. Of course Christians understand it fulfilled in the person of Jesus, the Son of David and Messiah (Matthew 1:1; Luke 3:23-31).

Application: The lesson affords an opportunity to explain the Incarnation (how it fulfills the Davidic covenant, makes salvation possible and makes us confident in his love), but also how the Incarnation and God’s promises happen in unexpected ways. Justification by Grace and Providence (including the hiddenness of God’s ways) are the primary themes.

Romans 16:25-27
This letter of introduction was written by Paul between 54 AD and 58 AD to a church which to date he had never visited. The lesson is the epistle’s concluding benediction, reflecting a liturgical style not clearly Pauline, and so may be a later appendage. Romans and 2 Peter are the only books of the Bible to end with such a liturgical doxology. The mystery [musterion] of the incarnation is said to have long been kept secret/quiet [sigao], but has now been disclosed to all the nations [ethnos] through prophetic [profetikown] writings (vv. 25-26). Reference is made to the only wise [sophos] God through Jesus Christ, to whom should be all the glory (v. 27).

Application: The lesson’s appreciation that the incarnation is a mystery makes this a text for coming to terms with the incarnation despite doubts. It makes sense when we surrender our own assumptions and focus on Christ and God’s wisdom, appreciating the Old Testament witness as prophecy. Christology is the main emphasis of this text.

Luke 1:26-38
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). This lesson is the story of the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary by the angel Gabriel, an account unique to this gospel. Jesus’ Davidic lineage in noted (v. 27). Mary is hailed as “favored one” [eulegeo or "blessed"] (v. 28). The child’s name is to be Jesus (v. 31). This is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua ["Jahweh saves"]. His greatness [megas], status as Son [huios] of God, and his reign over the house of Jacob is revealed (vv. 32-33). The mode of birth through the work of the Holy Spirit is indicated. Mary expresses incredulity since she is a virgin [parthenos, which may also be translated "one put aside"]. The Holy Spirit overshadowing [episkiazo] Mary in the pregnancy is a phrase used in the Old Testament to explain how God’s light is hidden (vv. 34-35; cf. Exodus 16:10; 24:15-18; 40:34-35). It is revealed that Mary’s kin Elizabeth is pregnant in old age; it is added that nothing is impossible for God (vv. 36-37). Mary expresses obedience to God’s will (v. 38).

Application: This is another text to highlight that nothing is impossible for God, even if his ways seem hidden or mysterious (Providence). In this connection, when combined with the Psalm of the Day and First Lesson, this lesson affords occasion for preaching on the Davidic covenant. The idea that “virgin” can be translated “one put aside” affords a way of making sense of the virgin birth (for Mary is merely the one God put aside as Jesus’ mother). Also realizing Jesus is great and reigns may occasion sermons on how the world is changed since Christ’s birth, for he reigns (Christ’s way prevails in the universe, thanks to Christmas).

Advent 4, Cycle B (by Norman Beck — 2008)

If we concentrate on the Luke 1:26-38 Gospel account exclusively or even primarily, we will probably emphasize the person of Mary along with her relationships with God, with the angel Gabriel, and with Elizabeth. On the other hand, if we utilize all of the texts appointed for this day, we will probably in some way apply to our own life situation the Jewish and the Christian “Messianic expectations” regarding the promise of the Lord of an everlasting throne of David, a house, a kingdom that will endure forever.

It would be appropriate to take the latter of these two paths, since we have most likely heard many sermons and homilies, including some of our own, in which Mary’s experiences as developed within the Lukan Gospel’s creative drama were further expounded from the preacher’s own supply of interpersonal relationships, experiences, and inspired imagination. There is, of course, much value in continuing the Lukan Gospel’s process of thorough research of the subject, the gathering of oral and written traditions, and the use of earlier biblical style in the formation of a new literary or homiletical product. The Lukan playwright used effectively the references to the angel figure Gabriel in Daniel 8:15-17 and Daniel 9:21-23 in formulating the scene that we know as Luke 1:26-38, our Gospel text for this occasion. The Lukan writer also used the same type of terminology that is included in the Zoroastrian account of how the “Holy Spirit of God” (Ahura Mazda’s Spirit) had come over the mother of Zoroaster and had caused her to conceive Zoroaster without any interaction with a man. (The concept of the Spirit of God as the agency of conception of the Savior figure was also used in the Matthean tradition. Therefore, both of the Newer Testament traditions that developed a virgin conception explanation of how Jesus could be truly divine and truly human share terminology with the Zoroastrian tradition.)

By using all of the texts appointed for this day, however, we have an opportunity to explore an area with much broader implications for our own faith and lives today than that of the virgin conception accounts and to this we now turn.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

This text is a very important component of the suspense-filled “Succession Document” or “Court History of David” narrative that extends from 2 Samuel 6 through 1 Kings 2. It contains the delightful pun regarding the “house” that David had wanted to build for the Lord God but instead the Lord God would build for David. The “house” that the Lord God will build for David will be a structure made not with timbers and adornments but with the lives of people, for it will be a dynasty, a Davidic dynasty intended to last forever. This is the “Messianic expectation” within the Succession Document, and it became a dominant theme in much of the Older Testament, as well as later within Judaism where it provided a new phase of the promise of land, people, nationhood, and blessing to the patriarchs that had served its purpose and would be continued by being blended into this new Messianic expectation.

We can perceive a measure of how vitally important and relevant this Messianic expectation of continuity on the “throne of David” must have been for the remnant among the exiles from Jerusalem who remained faithful to the Lord God during many decades of relocation in Babylon where many among them accepted the religion and culture of the Babylonians and worshiped Marduk, the Lord of the Babylonians. We note the importance of this Messianic expectation with its Zionist hopes for Jews who were deprived of basic human rights in country after country throughout the centuries. We see also the related use of this Messianic expectation within the developing traditions of many of the followers of Jesus, as in this Luke 1:32-33 text, and continuing for us as Christians since that time. Jews have intensely wanted continuity as a People of God and have struggled valiantly to maintain their identity as a people and as a culture. The striving for continuity of life within the “kingdom of God” has dominated and shaped oral and written traditions within apocalyptic Judaism and within apocalyptic Christianity. As Christians, we ride upon this Jewish Messianic expectations vehicle within a somewhat modified Christian model. Certainly we shall want to acknowledge with great respect the Israelite-Jewish origins of this Christian vehicle in which we ride in accordance with the Word of God in these texts selected for this day. As the Christmas season approaches, what can be more appropriate than to acknowledge this in order to inform and to sensitize our own people and help them and ourselves to appreciate the heritage that we have received from the Jewish people. If we do this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year will be a good time to have Jewish guests within our worship services.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

In this context we concentrate on these few verses of this fascinating psalm. Psalm 89 should be taken seriously in its own setting, with its expectation that the descendants of David will be established forever, the throne of David built for all generations to come. The best of our Christian theology in harmony with the views of the apostle Paul that he expressed in Romans 11:28b-29 has held that the gift and calling of God are irrevocable for Israel and for the church. For the sake of our Christian covenant, we must respect the irrevocable nature of the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant. We must realize that if we reject the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant, it is only right and just that someday our derivative Christian covenant may also be rejected. For more about this, please see, among others, Norbert Lohfink, The Covenant Never Revoked: Biblical Reflections on Christian-Jewish Dialogue (New York: Paulist, 1991); Mary C. Boys, Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (New York: Paulist, 2000); and Mary C. Boys, “The Enduring Covenant,” in Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation, ed. by Mary C. Boys (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, 17-25).

Luke 1:46b-55

If this text is used on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, the emphasis should be focused on the final summation two verses 54 and 55 of the Magnificat in which the emphasis is on God’s enduring covenant with Israel, an emphasis easily overlooked within Christian Bible studies and worship services. With the texts selected for the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent in Series B, the emphasis is on the enduring covenants of God, which, while they may and indeed often are broken by us as people, are according to these texts, never revoked by God. Our Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, at their best, are always fully aware of this and find comfort in this. What better way than this can we as Christians prepare to celebrate during the coming Christmas season!

Romans 16:25-27

May this beautiful benediction with which the apostle Paul concluded his momentous letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome be ours also, together with the entire People of God! And with this benediction, shall we not let God define the extent of “God’s People”?

Luke 1:26-38

As followers of Jesus, we have every right to claim that the Lord God has given to Jesus the “throne” of David, so long as we realize that this is a theological throne and not a political or physical throne. Other necessary qualifications are that we understand the process by which some of the followers of Jesus made this theological claim, and that we openly recognize and continue to acknowledge the continuing validity of Jewish spirituality, Jewish life and faith, and of Jewish Messianic expectations. We know that we as Christians have taken the Jewish Messianic expectations into a new extended phase and in doing this we have given to them a somewhat different Christian Messianic expectation meaning through the Christian claim that Jesus in his life fulfilled the Messianic “prophecies” of the Older Testament. But what we have done is alongside the Jewish use of these expectations and in no way replaces or excludes the ongoing and dynamic Jewish use for which Jews have the primary claim. What we as Christians have done and are doing with these Messianic expectations must be seen as in a sense secondary to the Jewish use and in continuity with and congruent to the ongoing Jewish hope and expectations. It would be most appropriate for us as Christians to remember this and to acknowledge it at all times and especially here at the conclusion of our Advent season. Then perhaps we could invite Jews to be our guests in our Christian worship services and to hear our understanding of the Messianic expectations that we share, even as we are invited to be their guests and to hear their understanding of their Messianic expectations. When we have done all of this, we are truly “ready” for Christmas, prepared to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.

Christmas Eve / Christmas 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).

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).

Christmas 1, Cycle B

Christmas: dreams realized! The texts focus us on an awareness of how the Christ who has come to us in Christmas fulfills all our best hopes. Justification by Grace and Sanctification, along with Christology, are the predominant themes.

Psalm 148
A hymn calling on all created things (including animals, trees, mountains, stars, and angels) to praise God. Creation is said to transpire by his command or word (John 1). The reference to “horn” [geren] in verse 14 refers to God’s strength and power. In short, the Psalm claims that Yahweh has raised up strength for his People. Our strength politically, it seems, is his work.

Application: If the reference to God’s word is interpreted christologically in terms of John 1, then sermons might be developed along the lines of the Christmas season and the theme that the babe in the manger is the all-powerful Creator. Other options for sermons on the text include making links to the praise we give Christ and Christmas, with an awareness that creation itself praises him (Creation and Sanctification). Likewise the awareness that our strength (even America’s political strength) is God’s work reminds us that the good things in our nation are God’s gift (Social Ethics).

Isaiah 61:10–62:3
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). A hypothesized third section (chapters 56-66) of the book, perhaps written by Second Isaiah or be one of his disciples in view of the close stylistic similarities to chapter 40, begins at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity and is likely written after the restoration of exiled Judah, expressing some disappointment about what has transpired since the exiles’ return. This lesson is the work of this last section (called Trito-Isaiah).

It is unclear whether the final verses of chapter 61 are words of the prophet or of the suffering servant of Deutero-Isaiah (especially 50:4-11). When combined with verses in chapter 62 it seems more stylistically appropriate to interpret the whole lesson as the prophet’s proclamation of the Hebrews’ vindication. The exiles’ return to Judah will be seen by all nations, it is proclaimed. The new name of the nation that the Lord will give it denotes a change in its status (v. 2). The people of Israel will now be a crown of beauty [tiphereth] in the Lord’s hand [yad] (v. 3), totally God’s people. This vindication seems related to the people being clothed in salvation/safety [yesha] and righteousness [tsedeq], like a bride adorned with jewels (61:10). (A view of Justification as Forensic, being declared righteous by God, seems entailed here. This idea of righteousness as something bestowed by God on the faithful, as it is here, is not unusual in the later Old Testament period [von Rad, pp. 373, 376ff; cf. Isaiah 59:17].) Righteousness and so justification is a gift of God. Righteousness and praise are said to spring up from these shoots of righteousness (61:11). The spontaneity of good works seems taught (Sanctification).

Application: The lesson affords the opportunity for sermons on how God justifies sinners and makes them important and beautiful, people who can live significant lives (Sanctification and Justification by Grace).

Galatians 4:4-7
This book is a polemical letter written by Paul to a church he had founded in order to affirm that Gentiles need not become Jews in order to become Christian. In this lesson he addresses the enslavement of Christians under the law and how we get free. He refers to the coming of Christ, who, born of a woman under the law (stressing Jesus’ Jewish roots), redeems [exagorazo, literally "to acquire out of the forum"] us (vv. 4-5). His coming is eschatological (the fullness of time [pleroma tou chronou, a decisive moment] [v. 4]). As a result of Christ’s coming we are adopted [huiothesia] as God’s children (v. 5). The idea of being adopted fits the Forensic View of Justification described in the First Lesson. Consequently, the Spirit of the Son [pneuma tou huiou] (not the unity of the two) makes us relate to God as Father [Abba] (v. 6). No longer, then, are we slaves (v. 7).

Application: Sermons on this text can proclaim how Christ sets the Christian free, justifies us, atones for us, and makes us relate to God as a wonderful Father. This is also an occasion for sermons sorting out the relationship between the Son and the Spirit or about the Trinity.

Luke 2:22-40
We are again reminded that this 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). Addressed to Theophilus (1:1), it is not clear if this means that the work was written for a recent convert or for a Roman official from whom the church sought tolerance. But since Theophilus means “lover of God,” it is possible that the author addressed all the faithful. This lesson is the story of Jesus’ presentation in the temple in Jerusalem and encounter with Simeon and Anna. This is another account unique to Luke.

It seems that first-time mothers in Israel were to submit to rites of purification (Leviticus 12:2-8) and the firstborn were to be set apart for service to God (Exodus 13:2, 12), which accounts for Jesus’ presentation and the offering of a sacrifice (vv. 22-24). The devout Simeon looking for the messiah and the aged prophet Anna are introduced (vv. 25-26, 36-37). Simeon seeking the “consolation” [paraklesis, literally a "going alongside"] of Israel refers to the salvation or Israel’s independence that the Messiah would bring (Isaiah 40:7). Both recognize that Jesus will bring salvation [soterion] to Israel (vv. 27-32, 38). Simeon proceeds to praise God for letting him see the Messiah by offering a song, the Nunc Dimittis (vv. 29-32), used to this day in communion liturgies. Simeon sings that he is ready to die, ready to leave, since he has seen the Messiah and the hope of salvation. The “peace” [eirene] referred to should be interpreted in terms of the Jewish idea of shalom, completeness and well-being. The hymn continues, noting that the child will be a revelation for the Gentiles as well as for the Jews. Simeon also prophesies that the child Jesus will cause division among Israel, some falling and others rising as they respond to him (vv. 34-35). It is reported that when Anna saw Jesus she began to praise God and speak of the child to all seeking Jerusalem’s redemption [lutrowsin] (v. 38). Luke simply reports Mary’s and Joseph’s amazement over this praise for their child (v. 33), their return to Nazareth (but only after scrupulously following the law) (v. 39), and the subsequent maturation of Jesus, his strength and wisdom [sophia] (v. 40).

Application: A sermon on this text can focus on the eschatological promise of the babe in the manger, how he redeems us, makes the dream of the good life more real than what presently appears to be the case. Realized Eschatology and God’s hidden ways (Providence) are the primary themes.

Christmas 2, Cycle B (2015)

Christ is in control! The lessons give rise to sermons stressing that the newborn Christ overcomes all that is evil and chaotic in the universe. Atonement, Justification by Grace are the central emphases.

Psalm 147:12-20
This is one of the Psalms of Praise [zamar], a hymn praising God for his help. (The concept of praise in ancient Hebrew is associated with singing.) The song echoes themes of Job and Second Isaiah. After a call to praise Yahweh issued to the faithful in Jerusalem (v. 12), confidence is expressed that he will strengthen the bars (piercing objects) of the city’s gates (that is, strengthen the city’s defenses). As a result the people of Jerusalem will be blessed, granted peace [shalom], and feast on rich harvests (vv. 13-14). These themes of security and peace echo Isaiah 60:17-18. We should be reminded that 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). Reflecting themes of the fourth discourse of Elihu in Job 37:9-11, the psalmist sings of how Yahweh’s word runs swiftly, giving snow and hail (vv. 15-17). The word is said to be sent out and melts what it encounters, for the Lord will make the wind blow and the waters flow (v. 18). This text might be read prophetically as referring to God’s word in creation. This word [dabar] is said to be declared to Jacob, regarding Yahweh’s statutes [choq, that is limits decreed by God] and judgments [mishpat, which in ancient Hebrew refers both to punishment and also a sense of comfort], reminding the people that other nations do not know these judgments of God (vv. 19-20). There seems to be clear allusions in the song here to the conclusion of Moses’ first address to Israel in Deuteronomy 4:6-8, 12-13.

Application: A sermon on this Psalm will celebrate all the good things God has given and is giving us — peace in the Hebraic sense of well-being, rich harvests and security, not just for the individual but also for the whole of society. Of course there are limits set by God on use of these gifts, and yet these limits (the natural law) are not threats but provide order and comfort. The primary themes of such a sermon are Providence, Social Ethics, and Sanctification.


Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-20
This Apochryphal book deliberately reflects a prayer of Solomon for wisdom recorded in 1 Kings 3:6-9 and 2 Chronicles 1:8-10. It was probably not written by Solomon, but by a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria, perhaps just decades prior to Jesus’ lifetime. The book is written in Greek in the form of a didactic exhortation. But the message is a word of consolation — to help Jews who have been dispersed from the motherland to recognize that they possess true wisdom which surpasses that of the Gentiles.

Wisdom [Sophia in this Greek text, and chokmah in Hebrew] connoted for Old Testament writers the personification of the wisdom of the Hebraic elders. It might be regarded as Israel’s individualized application of the morality taught to the whole nation (T.W. Manson, ed., A Companion to the Bible, p. 306). With Hellenization (the impact of Greek culture and thought forms on the people of Israel) connections between this understanding and Greek or Roman philosophy developed, so that it began to connote an order of knowledge, related both to language and to what is firstborn of God. These developments indicate how the use of the term logos [Word] in the prologue of John’s gospel was an appropriate development in the reinterpretation of the Hebraic concept of wisdom. (Themes like this are evident in the writings of an eminent first-century Alexandrian Jewish rabbi Philo [On the Account of the Word's Creation Given By Moses XLV].)

This text is a hymn testifying to how wisdom delivered Israel from Egypt (v. 15). Personified as a female, this wisdom enters the soul of one of the Lord’s servants and is said to withstand kings with wonders and signs (v. 16; cf. Isaiah 63:11-14). This text might be read as a prophecy of Christ. Wisdom is said to give holy people the reward of their labors, guiding them along a marvelous way and becoming a shelter to them (v. 17). As she brought the people over the Red Sea, drowning their enemies, the righteous are led to praise (vv. 18-20).

Application: If interpreted prophetically as a testimony to Christ, this text could inspire sermons on Christ setting us free (like wisdom delivered Israel from Egypt), to stand up to evil in government, and overcoming evil. The key themes for these suggestions respectively are Justification by Grace, Social Ethics, and the Classic View of the Atonement (Christ overcoming evil). Another possible sermon might be to reflect on female dimensions in God and Christ.

Jeremiah 31:7-14
The text is located in a book of prophecies of the late seventh-early sixth centuries BC prophet of Judah. It was dictated to his aide Baruch. The prophet frequently offers criticism of David’s heirs and the temple leadership, giving more attention to the Sinai covenant (to ways of serving Yahweh which predated the temple cult established by David). This may be related to the fact that Jeremiah was an ancestor of one of David’s high priests, Abiathar, who lost control of the temple and was finally banished (2 Samuel 20:25; 1 Kings 2:26-27).

The lesson is part of a section in Jeremiah called The Book of Consolation (30:1–31:40). These are oracles and poetry speaking of a future restoration of Israel and Judah. Consequently it is likely that this literature dates from a period after the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem in 587 BC. However, this text and others in this section refer to Ephraim (v. 9), one of the northern tribes of Israel after their secession from the Davidic king of Judah in 922 BC. Consequently Old Testament scholars conclude that parts of these oracles (including the one we now consider) were originally addressed to the Northern Kingdom and then expanded by the prophet or an editor to apply to Judah. Rather than being a troubling insight, this loosening of the promises in our text from their original historical context entail that God’s promises are not the result of a last-minute feeling of passion on God’s part but have been part of the divine plan from the outset, are unconditional (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, pp. 351-352). These themes are evident in the lesson’s rejoicing over the salvation [yasha, or "giving safety to"] of the remnant of Israel from all over the world (vv. 7-8, 10). He is identified as Israel’s Father [ab] (v. 9; Hosea 11:1). Yahweh is prophesied as ransoming [gaal, also translated "to free"] Jacob, redeeming/freeing [padah] the people (v. 11), leading them to become radiant over Yahweh’s goodness [tub] (v. 12). As a result his goodness will be praised, leading to joy and to bounty in the restored homeland (vv. 13-14).

Application: The lesson opens the way to sermons on God (and so Christ) redeeming or freeing the faithful . Justification by Grace or a Classic View of the Atonement (Christ overcoming the forces of evil) will receive most of the attention in these sermons. A related homiletical approach might be to note how for the Old Testament salvation involves freedom (Social Ethics). The praise and joy with which the Psalm concludes and these works of God stimulate keep us firmly grounded in the joy of the Christmas celebration continued this day.

Ephesians 1:3-14
The text is a thanksgiving for blessings showered on the whole created order, offered in a circular letter written by Paul from prison late in his career or by one of his followers who had a hand in assembling a collection of his epistles. The latter prospect is made likely by the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the indisputably Pauline writings. It may have been written to and for a later generation of Christians, as the writer claims to have heard of the recipients’ faith and love towards all faithful (1:15). Thanks are offered to God the Father of Christ for blessings showered on us in heavenly places (realities behind and above the material universe) (v. 3). Reference is made to our election [proorizo, predestinate] in Christ before the foundation of the world, an election to holiness (vv. 4-5, 11). In him redemption [apolutrosis, literally "loosing away"] through his blood is given by grace [charis] (vv. 7-8a). With wisdom God is said to have made known to the faithful the mystery of his will set forth in Christ (vv. 8b-9). This will is that in the fullness of time [pleroma ton kairon,an eschatological image] all things in heaven and earth be gathered up in Christ. In him we obtain an inheritance (vv. 10-11). This could refer to the church as the Body of Christ or to all the world being redeemed in him, and it could also refer to a cosmic Christ whereby all created realities are understood to be absorbed in his deity. The Holy Spirit, said to be given to seal [sphragizo] or as a pledge of our redemption, seems to be given with faith in Christ (vv. 13-14).

Application: Several options present themselves with this text. It provides an opportunity to describe the idea of the cosmic Christ, that the whole universe is embodied in the exalted Christ and so reflects his love, or that he is present everywhere we go and are. Providence, Creation, and Justification by Grace should be stressed in such sermons. Other possibilities include sermons on the church as Body of Christ or Eschatology.

John 1:(1-9) 10-18
The prologue of the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 144). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the gospel and so John is a “spiritual gospel” (presumably one not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

The gospel’s emphasis on the incarnation (the deity of Jesus Christ) is made evident in that this is a theme of the orologue. The Logos [Word] is said to have been in the beginning and with God, identifying God with the word (vv. 1-2). (If the author’s use of Logos is drawing on Stoic or Greek philosophical suppositions, what is connoted here is that the essence of the word is rationality and that the things of the world that came into being through the word reflect this linguistic rationality. Also see commentary on the Wisdom of Solomon text, above.) All things are said to have come into being through the word. He is the light [phos] of all people which the darkness [skotia, which may correspond to its Hebraic equivalent term choshek, which connotes "oppression") cannot overcome (vv. 3-5). Apart from Christ both the physical and spiritual dimensions of reality would recede into nothingness.

Reference is made to John, who came as a witness to the light, but not himself the light (vv. 6-9). This point may have been to mitigate competition that existed between followers of John and the Christian community to whom the gospel was addressed. The text proceeds to report that the word came into the world, but the world did not know him, that his own people did not accept him. But to all who received Christ it seems that he gave power to become children of God who are born of God and not of human will (vv. 10-13). Then it is proclaimed that the word became flesh and lived among us, full of truth and grace. In testifying to him, John said that the word was the one who he had said ranks ahead of him (vv. 14-15).

From the fullness of the word it is reported that grace [charis] upon grace (that is a limitless amount of grace) was received (v. 16). The law [nomos] is said to have been given through Moses, but truth and grace come through Jesus Christ (v. 17). No one has seen God, the Johannine author notes. But his only Son who is in the bosom [kolpon] of the Father (in complete communion with him) and has made him known (v. 18).

Application: A number of sermon possibilities present themselves. Sermons on the cosmic Christ (see Application for Second Lesson) are one possibility. Other include what it means to call Jesus the word (Christology), how like John we are to subordinate ourselves to him (Sanctification), Christ’s conquest of oppression (Atonement and Social Ethics), or his embodiment of salvation by grace.

Advent 3, Cycle B (by Norman Beck — 2008)

How shall we put together a well constructed worship service based upon Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and Psalm 126 with their liberation theology for Zion, the Magnificat from Luke 1:47-55 with its emphasis on God bringing down those who are mighty and exalting those who are lowly, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 regarding appropriate behavior for the Thessalonians as they wait for the Day of the Lord, and John 1:6-8, 19-28 with its depiction of John the Baptizer as a man sent from God to be a witness to the Light, one who was much less worthy than was Jesus? How shall we do this when in many congregations the children are already presenting their Christmas program, people want to sing the Christmas carols in church because they have been hearing them in the department stores and discount stores since long before Thanksgiving, and many families are getting ready to leave soon so that will be able to travel to other places to be together with their extended families for Christmas? Our task as worship leaders on the Third Sunday in Advent is never easy.

There is obviously a point of contact with the Second Sunday in Advent through the person of John the Baptizer. One week earlier we heard about John from the perspective of the Markan narrative; now we have John from the vantage point of the Fourth Gospel. (Although we are in the Markan cycle in Series B, we shall not see Markan texts again until the First Sunday after the Epiphany, one month away. Our three year lectionary Series B is constructed in this way because in the Markan narrative there is no annunciation to the Virgin Mary, no virgin birth from the Virgin Mary, and Mary as the human mother of Jesus worries about the safety of her son as he becomes a significant political as well as religious leader. In Mark, Jesus was “adopted” by God as the Son of God when the voice of God announced this as Jesus was being baptized by John.) The Fourth Gospel perspective of John the Baptizer is also different from that of the Markan narrative in important aspects. Unlike Mark and its Synoptic parallels, the Fourth Gospel does not emphasize the Baptizer’s role as one who condemns those who come to him for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins and baptizes Jesus along with many others. Perhaps this is because the Fourth Gospel tradition with its high Christology could not and would not perceive Jesus as participating in a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, even in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the exalted “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” If we as worship leaders gently maintain the integrity of the Advent season and utilize Advent hymns and texts within an Advent worship service, we can focus the service primarily on the John 1:6-8, 19-28 text and use the other texts chosen for this day in doing this.

One of the ways in which we can utilize these Advent texts is to use the extended comparison “just as.” We see that just as John the Baptizer was “sent from God” (John 1:6), we too are “sent from God.” Just as John the Baptizer came not as the Light but to bear witness to the Light (John 1:7-8), we have not come as the Light but to bear witness to the Light. Just as John the Baptizer was not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet” (John 1:19-21), we today are not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet.” Just as John the Baptizer is presented as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the ways of the Lord’ ” (John 1:23), we too are voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Just as John the Baptizer baptized with water and said that he was not worthy to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet (John 1:26-27), we today baptize with water and are not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.

This extended comparison can and should be continued in a similar manner with the other texts chosen for this day in order to construct a cohesive message that will have an impact and be remembered, while being true to the Advent theme. Just as Mary, according to the Magnificat canticle that the inspired Lukan writer skillfully constructed on the Song of Hannah model of 1 Samuel 2:1-10, sang that her soul (her entire being) magnifies the Lord and her Spirit rejoices in God her Savior (Luke 1:47-55), we also should sing that our soul magnifies the Lord and that our Spirit rejoices in God our Savior. Just as a leader within the Isaiah tradition at the end of the Israelite period of exile in Babylon proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord God was upon that person because the Lord had anointed that person to bring good news to the afflicted (Isaiah 61:1ff.), we too can and should proclaim that the Spirit of the Lord God is upon us. Just as the writer of Psalm 126 rejoiced with shouts of joy, we also should rejoice with shouts of joy on this Third Sunday in Advent. Just as the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, saying, “Rejoice always, pray, and give thanks as you wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), we can and should say the same.

When we do this, we proclaim the message of these texts, we identify ourselves with the message of these texts, and we demonstrate audibly and visibly that we today are what John the Baptizer, the Lukan writer, Mary, the Isaiah tradition prophet, the Israelite psalmist, and the apostle Paul were in their times, i.e., instruments of God’s grace, bearers of God’s Word, people being used by God, and, just as they were, joyful to be used by God.

It will be especially effective if we use simple drama, or at least dramatic readings of these texts by a variety of people within the congregation, in presenting this message and in showing that both clergy and lay people are bearers of these messages now as in the past. Biblical storytelling in which various persons memorize and tell the stories dramatically will be especially effective. A bit of sweeping dance as the stories are told will add beauty to the Advent presentation.

Proper 18 / Pentecost 13 / Ordinary Time 23, Cycle A

God keeps us together. The texts for this Sunday are about how in all God does he aims to keep us in communion with each other and with him (Justification by Grace, Sanctification, Church).

Psalm 149
This is a hymn to accompany a festival dance. It directs that the Lord is to be praised [tehillah] in a new song in the assembly (v. 1). It also directs Israel to be glad in its maker and the children of Zion [the oldest and highest part of Jerusalem, a term poetically used to connote the whole city] to rejoice in their king (v. 2). We are to praise his name with dancing (v. 3). Yahweh is said to take pleasure in his people, ordaining the humble/afflicted [anav] with victory [yeshua, literally safety or salvation] (v. 4). The faithful are exhorted to exult in glory and sing for joy on couches (perhaps a ritual action that was part of the festival) (v. 5). High praises of God should be in their throats with swords in hand to execute vengeance on the nations, bringing their kings and nobles, executing them on the judgment decreed (vv. 6-9a). The dance that accompanied the music and lyrics may have been war-like in character. All this is said to be glory for the faithful. Yahweh is to be praised (v. 9b).

Application: A sermon on this text will link with its original theme of celebrating how God takes those in need with their afflictions and who know their needs and brings them to safety (Justification by Grace and Atonement). But insofar as the celebration is communal and dancing which is tied to the Psalm is communal, God’s salvation that is celebrated is communal, for God is said to take pleasure in his people (Social Ethics, and if read prophetically, this could refer to the Church).


Psalm 119:33-40
The Psalm is acrostic, with each stanza of eight lines beginning with the same Hebrew letter. The 22 stanzas use all the letters of the alphabet in turn (accounting for the significant length of the hymn). Almost every line contains the word “law” or a synonym. These verses are part of a meditation on the law, specifically a prayer to understand the law.

The psalmist pleads to be taught the way of Yahweh’s Law [torah] and pledges to observe it to the end (vv. 33-34). Petitions are offered to be led in the path of the commandments/statutes [mitzvah], for in them is delight [chaphets] (vv. 35-36). They give life (v. 37). We need to remind ourselves here that references to the law in the Hebraic faith of the Old Testament should be construed in terms of the Hebraic concept of torah, which is not intended as a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but regards the law as instruction or a guide for life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2).

Pleas are made that Yahweh’s promise [dabar, literally word] for these who fear him [in the sense of devotion] be confirmed (v. 38). His ordinances are said to be good [tob], and pleas are offered to turn away disgrace. The psalmist notes a longing for the law, so that in God’s righteousness [tsedaqah] he would receive life (vv. 39-40). We note again that in the Hebrew Bible righteousness does not connote judgmentalism on God’s part but is about right relationship or deliverance [Psalm 71:2] (Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 371ff). This is made clear in this song as the psalmist claims that God’s righteousness gives life (v. 40), a theme most reminiscent of Romans 3:21-25.

Application: Although the devotion of the psalmist to the law could be taken as an occasion to point out how a life lived under the law leads to despair (Sin), a sermon more in line with the original intention of the Psalm will talk about how good life is when we are guided by God, in right relationship with him, but that he is the one who delivers us into this right relationship (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

Exodus 12:1-14
This book is so named for the Greek term referring to the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. Its Hebrew name (meaning “These are the names”) refers to the first words of the text’s prologue. Like Genesis, the book is a compilation of three distinct oral traditions. This lesson is the version of the Passover from the Priestly oral tradition (the P strand of the Pentateuch, probably composed in the sixth century BC). It follows the account of the final plague the Lord worked against Pharaoh, which does not succeed in liberating the people (chapter 11).

The month of Nissan (March-April) is designated the beginning of the year (v. 2). On the tenth of the month, each family is to take a lamb or share a lamb with its closest neighbor and divide the lamb (vv. 3-4). The lamb is to be one year old and without blemish [tamim] (v. 5). Instructions are given to put the blood [dam] of the lamb on the doorposts and the lintel [mashqoph, or upper doorpost] of the houses of the people (these were the holy places of a house). The lamb is to be eaten the night it is killed, and instructions are given on how it is to be prepared and what is to be eaten (vv. 7-9). The lamb is to be entirely consumed, except for the remains to be burned the next morning (v. 10).

Instructions are given on the attire one is to have when eating the lamb, which should be consumed hurriedly (v. 11). The hurry with which to eat the meal is in commemoration of Israel’s hasty exodus. Passover is explained, how Yahweh would strike down the firstborn of all living things in Egypt, but the blood on the doorposts would be a sign for him to pass over [abar] the house so the plague would not destroy them. The gods of Egypt will also be judged (vv. 12-14). Henceforth the day is to be one of remembrance/memorial [zikkaron], a celebration of perpetual observance (v. 14).

Application: This lesson is a story of freedom, how God set the people of Israel free and so sets us free today (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics). It is crucial to note that the people as a whole, the community, are saved, not just individuals (an opportunity to highlight the importance of the Church). Or the Passover event might be interpreted Christologically, that as the lamb’s blood sets the people free, so Christ’s blood makes our exodus possible (Atonement).


Ezekiel 33:7-11
The Complementary First Lesson appears in a book attributed to a sixth century BC prophet from a priestly family whose ministry was to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian Captivity. Some oracles pre-date the fall of Jerusalem. This lesson is part of a series of Oracles of Restoration. The verses pertain to God’s charge to the prophet regarding his responsibility. First Ezekiel is reminded that he is a sentinel [tsaphah, literally watchman] for Israel, that whenever he hears a word [dabar, can also mean thing] from the Lord he is to give Israel warning (v. 7). Not to proclaim God’s judgment of death on the people entails that they will die in their sin and their blood [dam] will be required at Ezekiel’s hand (v. 8). But if warned and they do not turn [shub] from their ways, they will die (v. 9). Thus he is to condemn them for their sins but assure the people that God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked and wants the wicked to turn from their ways and live [chayah] (vv. 10-11).

Application: Several options for preaching emerge from this text. The call to turn back from sin is an opportunity to develop the theme of repentance, made possible by the God of love who has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. A focus on prophecy, its character as a critic of society, properly emerges from this text and from this point a sermon condemning problematic local or national social trends might be developed. This theme of condemning sin might be related to the theme of the Power of the Keys which emerges in the Gospel Lesson.

Romans 13:8-14
Paul begins to terminate his letter of introduction to the Roman church with a discussion of love fulfilling the law and the imminence of Christ’s second coming. The apostle first urges the Romans to owe nothing to anyone except for love [agapao] to one another, for whoever loves fulfills the law [nomos] (v. 8). The commandments, it is said, are fulfilled by love (vv. 9-10). Now is the time to awake, for salvation [soteria, also meaning safety] is near [egguteron], Paul proclaims (vv. 11-12a). The faithful are urged to lay aside works of darkness, putting on the armor of light [phos], living honorably and not in sin (vv. 12b-13). He urges the faithful to put on [enduo, literally "clothe"] Christ, making no provisions for the flesh (v. 14). Clearly Paul here indicates belief that the Esachaton (or Christ’s second coming) is near at hand.

Application: This text also opens the way for a number of possible sermons. Concern about nurturing community through love is an option in line with the Theme of the Day (Church and Sanctification). But this is only possible when we are clothed in Christ (Justification by Grace construed as being united with Christ, as per Galatians 2:19-20). Other themes (which might be linked to those just noted) include Realized Eschatology (the urgency of acting because Christ’s coming into our lives is on the immediate horizon) or condemning sin (that the Law of God is not fulfilled unless we practice selfless love).

Matthew 18:15-20
We continue to 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’ discussion of discipline among followers. Except for verse 15 the account is unique to Matthew. This is not surprising, for of the gospel writers Matthew alone concerns himself with matters of the church and how Christians are to live together.

The lesson begins with Jesus claiming that if another member of the church sins against a believer the aggrieved is to go and point out the fault to the offender in solitude. If this succeeds, this one has been regained (v. 15). If there is no reconciliation, then one or two other Christians should accompany the one offended in order that there be confirmation of what transpires by witnesses (v. 16; cf. Deuteronomy 19:15). If this fails, the church [ekklesia] should be told, and if the offender still refuses to listen he or she is to be treated as a non-member (a Gentile or tax collector) (v. 17). Jesus awards the Power of Keys to all the disciples (whatever they bind or loose is bound or loosed in heaven) (v. 18; cf. 16:19). If two agree on earth about anything requested, Jesus promises it will be done by the Father in heaven (v. 19). Where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name he agrees to be present to them (v. 20). This point suggests the vicarious presence of the risen Christ (28:20).

Application: The most obvious sermon emerging from this text is to proclaim forgiveness, how Christ has granted us the Power of the Keys, and the virtues of his mode of discipline — the virtues of private confrontation with those in the wrong before public reprimand (Sanctification). The fact that when we are in communion with each other Christ is present provides an excellent occasion to reflect on the church. And the promise of Christ’s presence among us is also a comforting word to proclaim.

Epiphany of Our Lord, Cycle B (2015)

The light of grace shows the way. In these texts, in accord with the major theme of the festival, testimony is given to God’s overcoming the darkness of chaos or evil, especially raising up the lowly. The Classic View of the Atonement (Christ overcoming evil), its newness (Eschatology), and Social Ethics should receive special attention.

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Culminating Book II of Psalms, this is an Elohistic Psalm of David (Psalms traditionally attributed to King David, probably because the conclusion [v. 20] and preceding Psalms claim to be his work, and employing Elohim as God’s name). Yet it is attributed to Solomon. Probably occasioned by the coronation of a king vv. 17-18), the Psalm is a prayer for God’s blessing of the king. It is prayed that the king be given judgment [mishpat] and his son righteousness or justice [tsedaqah] (v. 1). These terms do not just connote legal, judgmental actions, but when applied to God they concern loyalty in one’s relationships (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 373, 376ff). Such loyalty to relationships is evident in the prayer that the new king judge the poor with justice, defending their cause and crushing oppressors (vv. 2, 4, 12-14). Typical of the aura of surrounding Ancient Near Eastern royalty a supernatural character to the king is noted (vv. 5-6). Not just righteousness but peace [shalom] is to accompany the reign of this king (v. 7). And as we have noted previously, “peace” in Hebraic thinking is not just a state of non-violence, but a state of well-being and thriving. The suggestion of a supernatural aura to the king (and so the legitimacy of a messianic reading of the text) is further legitimated by the Psalm’s prayer that the king’s empire might be universal (vv. 8-11). (Tarshish mentioned in v. 10 may refer to Spain or Carthage in North Africa, while Sheba and Seba noted in that verse are regions in Ethiopia or South Arabia. These kings from three regions rendering the supernatural-like king may be construed as foreshadowing the three wise men who came to the Christ Child.) It is his concern for the poor which seems to account for his universal rule. And so we might conclude that the Messiah’s universal rule is related to his concern for and ministry to the poor.

Application: The text could be proclaimed as a celebration of the coronation or crowning of Christ as king of all. This might also be related to his care for the poor (Social Ethics). Related to this is the affirmation of the Classic View of the Atonement (Christ conquering evil). That all earthly kings bow before Christ is another testimony to the power of God and the subordination of political power to God.

Isaiah 60:1-6
This text is part of a prophetic book which is an editorial compilation of two or three distinct literary strands. Our lesson is probably part of the book’s final and newest section, not written by the historical prophet Isaiah of the eighth century BC, but after the Babylonian exiles had returned to Judah in 539 BC, quite disappointed with how the return home was going. Reference made to the darkness [choshek] among the people (v. 2) seems to portray the disappointment of those who had returned home in this period. It is a term in ancient Hebrew connoting distress, oppression, or chaos. Reference is made to light [or] that is come (v.1). Light in biblical Hebrew refers to that which overcomes darkness (distress and chaos). This chapter also associates light with Yahweh (v. 2). It is promised that the Lord is coming to Jerusalem (v. 2). This comment along with the reference to the light is most suggestive of the Epiphany star leading to or accompanying the coming of Jesus to earth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:2, 9-10).

It is promised to the downtrodden people that nations will see Jerusalem’s revival, its light (v. 3). Exiles are said to return or be returning (v. 4). Rejoicing will follow (v. 5a). These comments could again be interpreted messianically, in terms of the impact Christ’s coming might have on the world. The prophetic character of the text is even pointed out more clearly in verses 5b-6 with reference to the wealth of nations that would be brought to the light and how riches of Arabia (Midian, Ephah, and Sheba) would arrive by camel caravan, bringing gold and frankincense. This is most suggestive of the wise men and their journey to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1-2).

Application: The text can be read messianically to open the way for preachers to proclaim that new reality Christ ushers in, the overcoming of all distress and chaos. A Classic View of the Atonement should be particularly emphasized in such preaching. Connections made in the text to the story of the wise men (the gifts they bring) and to the presence of the light (Christ) among us leads to rejoicing (Sanctification).

Ephesians 3:1-12
This chapter is part of a prayer for wisdom in this circular letter written by Paul from prison late in his career or by one of his followers who had a hand in assembling a collection of his epistles. The latter prospect is made likely by the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the indisputably Pauline writings. It may have been written to and for a later generation of Christians, as the writer claims to have heard of the recipients’ faith and love toward all faithful (1:15).

Portraying himself as Paul and in prison (though on which occasion [2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:23; Philippians 1:13-14; Colossians 4:3, 18] is uncertain), the author first offers some comments on his ministry to the Gentiles. He speaks of a mystery made known to Paul by revelation (see 2 Corinthians 12:1, 7), which was not previously known (vv. 2, 4). (The theme of “mystery” [musterion] is very typical of Ephesians, and it may be deployed here to explain why no one previous to Paul recognized the validity of a ministry to the Gentiles.) The revealed mystery is that Gentiles are fellow members with Jesus of the same body and sharers in the promise of Christ (vv. 5-6). Paul proceeds to note that God’s grace has been given to the Gentiles, for he is the least of the saints [hagion, meaning "those set apart"] (v. 8). He speaks of an eternal purpose of God carried out in Christ that through the church God’s wisdom might be displayed to rulers and authorities in heavenly places (i.e., angels (vv. 10-11). In confidence and boldness we have access to God through faith (v. 12).

Application: This text opens the way to sermons proclaiming the new circumstances (the new inclusivism of God to all people), that has transpired through Christ. This is the full realization of the Christmas Dream (Justification by Grace and Realized Eschatology). Christ’s reign over the political and heavenly realms can also be affirmed and so we can be bold in faith (Sanctification).

Matthew 2:1-12
This text returns us to a gospel which was likely written to Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (see 24:20). It is the most Jewish of all the gospels, evidenced like in this lesson with the concern to find links in the stories told to the Hebrew Scriptures. We read in this text the story, unique to this gospel, of the wise men (Magi, also translated “astrologers,” seem to have belonged to a learned class in Persia). Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is recorded as transpiring during Herod’s reign as a Roman puppet king which ended in 4 BC (v. 1). (Our dating of Jesus’ birth at the beginning of the Christian era is obviously incorrect by four or more years.) If the wise men came from the east, that does not rule out an Arabian or an Ethiopian African home for them, if we read Isaiah 60:6 prophetically. (And if Ethiopia, but even if from Persia, it is likely that the wise men came from a region with Semitic ethnics who might have at least known something of the Hebrew faith.)

The wise men come to Jerusalem seeking the child who would be born king of the Jews, whose coming had been revealed, they claimed, by a rising star (v. 2). The Messiah is associated with stars by Numbers 24:17. And a later, well-known Messianic pretender, a revolutionary named Jesus Bar Kochba (132-135 AD), has a name (Bar Kochba) which means “Son of the Star.” Herod is reported as frightened by the news, finally learning from chief priest and scribes (scholars of Hebrew Scripture) that based on Micah 5:2 the baby king is likely to come from Bethlehem (vv. 3-6). Herod then sends the wise men to Bethlehem wanting to learn the child’s location (vv. 7-8). The star leads the wise men to the Babe where they bring their gifts and worship, but do not inform Herod, as per instructions they receive in a dream (vv. 9-12). The idea that the king wants a savior killed in infancy is reminiscent of Pharaoh’s efforts to kill Moses, and so other Hebrew children in infancy (Exodus 1:15-16). Matthew may be trying to draw parallels between Moses and Jesus at this point.

Application: This lesson affords opportunities for sermons on God’s providence, how he guides us like in this story and in the man Jesus to overcome the darkness of chaos through lowly, ordinary things (like starlight and ordinary human beings). This takes us away from undue pride in ourselves and our accomplishments and also proclaims forgiveness (Justification by Grace and Social Ethics [a prioritizing of the poor and ordinary]).

Baptism of Our Lord, Cycle B (2015)

Baptism and new life! Baptism, Creation, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification are central to the development of the festival’s theme.

Psalm 29
This is a hymn attributed to David, though it is unlikely that he wrote it. The text sings of God’s control of all nature (vv. 3, 5-6, 8-10), even of storms, and yet we are assured that Yahweh blesses us with peace in the midst of storms (v. 11). The Psalm begins with a call to worship, where there is a reference to “heavenly beings,” which is a bad translation for what should be rendered in English “sons of mighty ones.” This insight suggests that in the temple era and perhaps in earlier periods Hebrews believed that there was a heavenly court of lower gods or semi-divine beings who acknowledged Yahweh as supreme ruler (Psalm 82:1, 6; Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 32:8).

The Lord seems to rule earth and waters with his word. The reference to “mighty waters” could be the Mediterranean Ocean or to the primordial waters Yahweh vanquished in creating (see First Lesson).

Of course the reference to his voice [gol] (vv. 2, 3, 4, 5, 7) could refer to his manifestation through thunder in thunderstorms (v. 7). The cedars of Lebanon noted in verse 5 refer to the principal mountains in Syria. Sirion noted in verse 6 is the Phoenicain name for Mount Hermon on the eastern border of Israel, and the wilderness of Kadesh in verse 8 is a reference to a desert in Syria. The Lord’s voice in this storm is not just powerful, but hadar in Hebrew (majestic, even beautiful) (v. 4). God’s rule over nature and over waters could be indebted to Canaanite mythology’s affirmation that Baal was enthroned over the conquered flood. Christians might interpret this reference as a prophetic reminder of his use of water in baptism to proclaim his word and will. The Psalm concludes with petitions that the Lord may give strength to and bless his people (v. 11).

Application: Sermons on this Psalm can focus on God’s providential rule overcoming chaos the depths of life, how he even uses water in creation (Evolutionists note that life first developed in water) and in Baptism to strengthen and bless his people. Creation and baptism are doctrines that are emphasized.

Genesis 1:1-5
Like all five books of the Pentateuch, this Book of Origins is probably the product of several distinct literary traditions. This one is just comprised of three strands: (1) J, a ninth/tenth-century BC source, so named for its use of the Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”); (2) E, an eighth-century BC source named for its use of the divine name Elohim; and (3) P or Priestly source, dated from the sixth century BC. This lesson is part of the creation story (the first three days) provided by the P strand. In creation God is said to master the primordial depth [choshek, literally "darkness"] with light [or] (vv. 2-3), much like the light/energy of the big bang is said to have been the source of all things in the universe. Creation out of nothing is presupposed in this verse. The world here is said to originate from watery depths [mayim]. This link between life and water nicely fits the theme of baptism and also with Evolutionary Theory’s findings that all like emerged in and from water. Reference made to the ruach of God active in creation may be translated the “wind” or “Spirit” of God (v. 2). God’s word is the agent of creation (vv. 3-5). The fact that there is a similar verbal pattern throughout this account, on each day of creation there is a divine command, result, and God’s approval, suggests Hebrew poetry’s use of parallelism rather than rhyme. This observation has led some scholars to suggest that the Priestly version of the creation story might have had its origins in worship, as hymns.

Application: A sermon on this lesson would aim to clarify God’s consistent use of water (in Baptism and in Creation). This is an opportunity to deal with either of these doctrines. Attention could also be given to what this life we are given looks like (doctrines of Humanity or Sanctification) or even ecology (Social Ethics).

Acts 19:1-7
We are again reminded that this book is the second 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 Luke, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the church (Acts 1:8), which entails special attention to and appreciation of the ministry of Saint Paul. The lesson is an account from the early stages of Paul’s third missionary journey. We have described in these verses part of the apostle’s mission in Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, located on the west coast of modern Turkey. Paul is said to be following the ministry of the Jew Apollos (v. 1) who was a follower of the way [hodos] (Christianity), though Apollos had only known of John the Baptist’s baptism (18:24-28). The disciples Paul encounters seem to have been Christians who had not yet received Christian baptism or were just followers of John the Baptist. Those baptized in Ephesus with John’s baptism by Apollos had not yet received or heard of the Holy Spirit (vv. 2-3). Paul notes that John only offered a baptism of repentance [Baptisma metanoias] to prepare for Jesus. The Ephesians then receive a baptism in Christ’s name (vv. 4-5). At their Baptisms, Paul lays hands on these Ephesians followers of the way, and they receive the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues [glossa] (vv. 6-7).

Application: This text affords opportunity to make clear that in baptism the Holy Spirit is active and is given to the baptized. Preachers can help the faithful recognize that all those baptized are Spirit-filled (Sanctification).

Mark 1:4-11
We return again to the gospel for this church year, the first of the synoptic gospels to be written. This book was perhaps the source of other gospels, probably based on oral traditions of the passion narrative and accounts of Jesus’ sayings (the so-called Q-source). Likely written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, this anonymous work is traditionally ascribed to John Mark, perhaps 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). Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (especially Gentiles), as it presumes readers unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4, 31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians.

This lesson is a report of the ministry of John the Baptist (vv. 4-8) and of Jesus’ baptism by him (vv. 9-11). John’s attire and diet remind the people of the nomadic existence during the exile of or Elijah’s appearance (v. 6; cf. 2 Kings 1:8; Leviticus 11:22). As we have previously noted, many Jews at this time believed that Elijah’s return would mark a sign of the end times (Malachi 4:5). John’s location in the wilderness (v. 4) is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the messenger noted in Isaiah 40:3. John proclaims a baptism of repentance [Baptisma metanoias] (v. 4) and the coming Messiah (the mightier one) (v. 7). (This was a set of themes linked in first-century Jewish literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls [The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered, pp. 230-231]). He claims to have performed a baptism of water, while the powerful one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit (v. 8). This gift of the Spirit was also associated with the end times (Joel 2:28-32). Jesus himself seems to recognize that the baptism he would offer are not identical with John’s (2:18).

Much less detail is given in Mark’s account of John’s preaching is given than is the case in the other synoptic gospels (Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-14). This is in character with Mark’s gospel that is more action-focused, recording fewer words of Jesus than the other gospels. No reference is made to the people confusing John with Christ or Elijah, like in Luke (3:15) or John (1:19-22). The story progresses with John baptizing Jesus in the Jordan (v. 9). Nothing significant about Jesus’ person is noted, save God’s word about him.

As usual in Mark, things happen “immediately” [euthus (a sign of the end times). As Jesus emerges from the water the heavens are torn apart [skidzomenous], an apocalyptic image signifying divine disclosure. The Spirit is received, and a voice from heaven proclaims him the “beloved [agapetos] Son” [huios] (vv. 10-11). The account here and the words of the voice from heaven parallel Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 43:1. The Spirit descending on Jesus is a fulfillment of messianic prophecy in Isaiah 61:1. Except for the immediacy (eschatological emphasis) of the heavenly events, the account is closely paralleled in the other gospels. Difference are that in Matthew (3:14-15), John tries to avoid performing the baptism, claiming that he should be baptized by Jesus, while in John’s gospel alone (1:29-36), John testifies who Jesus is.

Application: A sermon on this lesson could distinguish Christian baptism, focusing on the connection between the Holy Spirit and Baptism (see Application for Second Lesson). Or the lesson’s stress on Eschatology could be highlighted, leading to sermons that emphasize that those baptized with a Christian baptism have radically been separated from the past and so have a fresh start in life (Sanctification).

Epiphany 2 / Ordinary Time 2, Cycle B (2015)

God is present unexpectedly in all spheres of life. These texts focus on God’s rule in our lives and his unexpected presence in them. Providence, but also the surprises of his love and grace (Justification by Grace), should receive special attention from the pulpit.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies attributed to David. As we have previously noted, most Psalms attributed to the great king were not his work. In fact, this particular Psalm is probably of a later date, appended to the original collection which comprises book 5 of Psalms. Thus it seems useful to reiterate that the conclusion of many scholars that references to David in the Psalms like this one 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 trust in God and his guidance in face of hard times that all the faithful experience. The inscription “to the leader” at the Psalm’s outset probably is addressed to the leader of musicians in the Jerusalem Temple.

The song begins with an affirmation that everything we have ever done or thought is known by God (vv. 1-6). We are “hemmed in” [closed in] by him. God is said to be active in our lives (v. 5). Such knowledge is said to be too wonderful [pili]. Knowledge of the psalmist since conception is attributed to God (vv. 13-16). The wonder/preciousness of it all is celebrated (vv. 17-18). All dimensions of life seem to come from God.

Application: A sermon on this lesson will celebrate God’s providence, that he has known us and kept us “hemmed in” our whole lives. He is present everywhere in our lives and can be trusted, no matter how bad things look.

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20)
This book’s origin as a distinct work derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings). It is probably the result of two or three sources: (1) Early traditions about Samuel and Saul; (2) Editor-molded materials into a connected history implying a critique of the events, deeming Israel’s kingship problematic, and so contending that the people must be set under the role of God and his prophet Samuel; or (3) Incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic (D) history (the result of sweeping religious reforms in Judah under King Josiah in the seventh century BC). This lesson is the story of God’s first revelation to Samuel, when as still a boy he was lying down in the temple in Shiloh (where apparently the Ark of the Covenant was then housed) while his spiritual mentor Eli, the high priest and judge of Israel in the eleventh century BC, was lying down in his room (vv. 1-2). It is noted that this was a time when the word of the Lord was rare and visions were not widespread. (This may refer to a lack of visions in this era, as they were equated with revelations to the ancient mind.) During the night while Eli and all slept, the boy hears his name called, but three times incorrectly responds, thinking Eli is calling him (vv. 4-8). Eli directs Samuel to remain lying down and if called again to respond to Yahweh. The lad complies when the Lord came to him again (vv. 9-10).

The lesson continues with Yahweh recounting to Samuel a warning he had already issued to Eli through an anonymous spokesman (in 2:27-36) that due to the blaspheming [qalal, literally "making themselves vile"] his sons had undertaken and his failure to restrain [kahah, literally "make dim"] them, the sin could not be abrogated by sacrificial offerings (vv. 11-14). Samuel lied there until the morning and was afraid to tell Eli (vv. 15-16). But after receiving reassurances from Eli, Samuel tells everything (vv. 17-18). It is reported that Yahweh was with Samuel as he grew, and all Israel knew him as a trustworthy prophet [nabi] (vv. 19-20).

Application: This lesson provides preachers with an opportunity to proclaim how God uses the most surprising means, a young child in the midst of great and trained religious leaders, to work his will. Thus we need to be alert to his presence in all dimension of life. These themes are all about Providence and God’s presence throughout Creation.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20
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 had 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. The lesson addresses a controversy touched off by some Corinthians who were teaching that his views entailed that all things are lawful/authorized [exesti] (v. 12), and so they could indulge in satisfying sexual desire, much like we satisfy desire when eating. Paul responds by noting that not all things are useful and that the body is not made for fornication (v. 13). We are members [melos] of Christ (v. 15), one spirit with him (v. 17), a temple [naos] of the Holy Spirit (v. 19). Some things, like adultery, he adds, are not beneficial, and we should not be dominated by such desires (vv. 12-13). The resurrection of Christ is said to raise [egeiro] the faithful (v. 14). Our bodies dare not become members of a prostitute (v. 15), for we belong to the Lord (v. 14). He justifies these moves by noting that two become one flesh in sex, so that in sex with a prostitute we become who she is (v. 16). All the more reason to shun such behavior, as we are now a temple of the Holy Spirit, are no longer our own (v. 19). Paul reminds the Corinthians that they have been bought [agorazo] with a price, now belong to Christ, and may glorify [doxazo] God (v. 20).

Application: The main point of a sermon on this text should be to explore how Justification by Grace affords us a life of freedom from the law (Sanctification), and why such freed persons do not want to engage in evil. Another related sermon direction would be to focus on the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, for we belong to Christ. This both explains why as free we still want to do God’s thing (Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works) and also highlights why in all dimensions of our lives God is present.

John 1:43-51
We have previously noted that this book is the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the gospel and so John is a “spiritual gospel” (presumably one not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

This lesson is the call of several of Jesus’ disciples — Philip and Nathanael. There are no parallel accounts in the synoptic gospels. (Nathanael may be the same person called Bartholomew in the synoptics [Mark 3:18; Matthew 10:3; Luke 6:14].) Jesus had just gained some of John the Baptist’s followers (especially Andrew and Peter) (vv. 37-42). Like Andrew and Peter, Philip is said to be from Bethsaidea, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Philip and Nathanael recognize Jesus as the Messiah (“the one about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote”) (vv. 43-45). Nathanael expresses surprise originally that the Messiah could be from Bethlehem (backwater town that it was) (v. 46). Jesus recognizes who Nathanael is prior to meeting him (having seen him under a nearby fig tree), and Nathanael is led to confess Jesus as Son of God [huios tou theou] and king of the Jews (vv. 47-49). Jesus’ comments about Nathanael being a Hebrew in whom there is no deceit/guile [dolos] (v. 47) are probably a reference to the fact that the man named Israel (Jacob) received his original blessing through deceit (Genesis 27:35). After he had confessed Jesus to be Son of God [huios tou theou, an affirmation in John which entails his divinity], finally, Jesus challenges Nathanael as to whether he believed only because of this prophecy of identification, for there will be greater things to be seen in his ministry (vv. 49-50). The greater things to be seen are heaven opening, the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man (v. 51). This reference to the opening of heaven may again refer to Jacob, to a dream he had (Genesis 28:12) after deceitfully receiving Isaac’s blessing. In this gospel, “Son of Man” [huios tou anthropou] seems to represent a link between heaven and earth (3:13; 5:26-27; 6:62).

Application: The account provides an opportunity to remind the flock that God’s presence is revealed not just in astonishing miracles, but that faith sees miracles in what seems ordinary. These points might be related to John’s titling Jesus Son of Man. Christ is the link between heaven and earth, so that in him we perceive ourselves here on earth always linked to God and in his presence (Christology).

Epiphany 3 / Ordinary Time 3, Cycle B (2015)

Now is the time! The theme of Realized Eschatology should dominate in the sermons, stressing the urgency of God’s love (Justification by Grace) and our response (Sanctification).

Psalm 62:5-12
This is a Psalm attributed to David, which refers to God as Elohim. We note once again that most Psalms attributed to the great king were not his work. Thus, many scholars have concluded that references to David in the Psalms like this one 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 confidence in God’s protection and total dependence on God that all the faithful experience. The Psalm begins with the Psalmist noting that he waits in silence for God, for he alone is his hope [tiquah], fortress/tower, and rock of salvation [yeshuah, meaning "safety"] (vv. 5-6). The reference to the Psalmist’s “soul” employs the Hebrew term nephesh which literally means life-source, not the Greek concept of a spiritual being distinct from the body. Our total dependence on God is expressed (v. 7); we are called to trust him (v. 8). Reference to Selah at the end of verse 8 is a liturgical direction which may indicate that there should be an instrumental interlude at that point. Life is said to be but an instant, and we are warned not to set hope on riches and gaining them dishonestly (vv. 9-10). An awareness that power [oz] belongs to God and of God’s steadfast love/mercy [chesed] is expressed, even though we are to be repaid according to our works (vv. 11-12).

Application: Several sermon options emerge from this Psalm. It is an occasion to confess their dependence on God and his loving mercy, despite the fact that they deserve condemnation were they repaid by their works. (Providence and Justification by Grace are the key themes for such a sermon.) Other possibilities include sermons on the transience of life (Eschatology) or against excess preoccupation with wealth and the dishonest ways it is often acquired (Sin and Social Ethics).

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
This book was likely written in the sixth or fifth centuries BC as Jews struggled to adjust to the Babylonian captivity. Drawing on Mediterranean folklore, a story told of Jonah who seems to have been a Northern Kingdom prophet who counseled Jeroboam II in the eighth century BC, the book is a satire seeking to communicate the theme of undeserved forgiveness of foreign people. The lesson commences after Jonah’s deliverance from the whale (2:10). He is commanded a second time to preach in Nineveh (the capital of Assyria). He goes and succeeds in calling the people to repentance (vv. 1-5). (The three days it took to traverse the city [v. 3] recalls Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly [1:17].) As a result God spared them (v. 10). As is widely recognized, after the lesson ends Jonah expresses his unhappiness about God’s saving foreigners (4:1-2; 1:3). God responds with a reiteration of his concern for all, even Ninevites (3:11). Salvation is of the Lord (2:9b). This is a critique of a misunderstanding of Israel’s election as a particular status.

Application: This lesson provides a good opportunity to proclaim Realized Eschatology, the urgency of deciding for serving Christ without delay, for God can use us even when we are not really ready, willing, and able (Sin, Justification and Sanctification by Grace).

1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Again we read a lesson is taken from one of Paul’s authentic letters, written from Ephesus prior to his epistle to the Romans, to a church he had 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. The verses of the lesson emerge in the context of Paul’s discussion of marriage throughout the chapter. In these verses (vv. 29, 31) Paul notes that the end will soon come. As a result of the imminence of the end, Paul advises those with wives to live as though they had not (v. 29), to mourn as though not mourning (v. 30), to deal with the world as though not dealing with it (v. 31).

Application: This lesson also affords opportunity to proclaim Realized Eschatology, the urgency of deciding to serve Christ right away, and given this urgency Christians are to live “in,” but not “of” the world (Sanctification).

Mark 1:14-20
We return this Sunday to a text in 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’ sayings (the so-called Q-source). Probably written prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, this anonymous work is traditionally ascribed to John Mark, perhaps 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). Some speculate that the original audience was the church in Rome (especially Gentiles), as the gospel presumes that readers are unfamiliar with Jewish customs and Palestinian geography (see 7:2-4, 31), but it also could have been written for Palestinian Christians. The lesson reports on developments at the beginning of Jesus’ activity in Galilee. It commences by noting that after John the Baptist’s arrest Jesus began proclaiming God’s good news (v. 14). This word is summarized as a call to repentance [metanoeo] and eschatological urgency (highlighting the kingdom of God [Basileia tou Theou]) (v. 15). This is the oldest, most historically authentic account of his preaching. The kingdom’s proclamation precedes the call to repentance. (This is not the priority in the parallel version in Matthew 4:17 and Luke 4:14.) An account of the call and response of Simon and his brother Andrew follows. Both are said to be fishermen who left their father Zebedee to follow Jesus (vv. 16-20). In typical Markan fashion these responses and those of others called are said to be “immediate” (at once [eutheos]) (vv. 18-20), signifying the eschatological urgency of the response. (This urgency is also reflected in the Matthean parallel account [4:22].)

Application: A sermon on this text will also exhort a lifestyle (Sanctification) governed by an awareness that the kingdom of God is at hand, a sense of the urgency about life (Realized Eschatology). This makes us bolder in the interests of seeing life in light of God.

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  • SermonSuite Special
    Leah Lonsbury
    Dean Feldmeyer
    UPS and Mary: A Story of Delivery / Fear Not!
    Luke 1:46b-55; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

    To provide you with a full complement of resources, the next installment of The Immediate Word offers two main articles – one primarily addressing a Fourth Sunday of Advent text, and another focusing on the Nativity.
         For the Advent 4 piece, team member Leah Lonsbury will address the well-known Magnificat text. While on the surface we are drawn in by its joyful tone and its keen insight about God completely upending the human order of things, Leah reminds us that there’s much more going on in this passage -- after all, Mary’s outburst comes from an unwed teenage mother... who despite Joseph's steadfast support fits the stereotype of someone who is a social outcast.
         As Leah points out, there are many different view in our society toward those who are pregnant -- especially as the large-scale introduction of women into the labor force in the last half-century has made women working while they are pregnant a common phenomenon. But as a case argued before the Supreme Court last week indicated, in numerous cases pregnant women still face a significant risk of losing their jobs. Leah examines what this controversy indicates about our attitude toward women, especially those of “lowly” station -- especially in light of Mary’s viewpoint as described in the Advent 4 and Christmas scripture texts
         For Christmas Eve, team member Dean Feldmeyer looks at vv. 10-14 of Luke’s nativity account, in which the angel tells the frightened shepherds: “Do not be afraid... I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people... Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” At its core, this is the Christmas message -- the birth of the Messiah trumps all of our fears and brings peace to a troubled world. But as Dean suggests, that flies in the face of our current headlines -- which are dominated by fear, and which we use to justify all sorts of harsh measures as we seek to find security. The list goes on and on....more
    Ah, Sweet Mystery Of Life
    An early movie version of Victor Herbert's romantic operetta Naughty Marietta has the young and dashing Nelson Eddy sing to an enraptured Jeanette MacDonald:

    Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life, at last I've found you.
    Ah, at last I've found the secret of it all
    ... Yes, 'tis love and love alone
    The world is seeking....

    This charming song expresses what the Christian has known to be true all along. It is love -- and love alone -- that unlocks the mysteries of life. Not the transient and sometimes trashy love of the modern novel but the eternal love of the Advent Christ who wrote the real meaning of love, not in words but in the greatest of deeds, the giving of himself on a cross in order to secure humankind's profoundest need -- the need for forgiveness.
         At the conclusion of this epistle to the Romans, the grandest of all Paul's letters, theology turns to doxology as he speaks of the mystery of God's gracious action toward each of us in Christ, our Lord. May these words speak deeply to us today....more
    David Coffin
    When does a house become a home for the holidays?
    Many people make Advent preparations in hopes that they will be able to celebrate their hard-earned holidays in a "home." However, there is also the risk that the dwelling of relatives, family and friends where the holidays are observed hardly meets that definition. Will these be times that are spent in merely a house that warm bodies occupy for a finite period of time while awaiting the next event in their lives? The texts today point out the differences between a "house" and "home" in rhetoric or the framing of the cherished event of the day. One caveat of such descriptions of "house and home is that one person's home may seem to be merely another person's house and vice versa." The first lesson in 1 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 is God's reply to King David's offer to build the deity a temple....more
    Peter Andrew Smith
    Finding Your Way
    Luke 1:26-38

    Kevin came down the stairs and worked his way over to the man sitting by himself in the bleachers. Dan's attention was fixed on the youngsters practicing their skating on the ice but he noticed his son and waved him over.
         "How did you know I was here?"
         "It is Saturday morning at dawn, where else would you be?" Kevin scanned the players on the ice until he found the number sixteen. "Is my little sister still dreaming of playing professionally?"
         Dan smiled. "Julie is nothing if not persistent."...more
    Janice Scott
    Mystery and secrets
    One of my most relaxing hobbies is the reading of mystery stories. I especially enjoy a well-written plot which keeps me guessing until the very end of the book, although I'm not so keen on plots which seem contrived just to get in a twist at the end....more
    Cynthia Cowen
    A Servant of the Lord
    The Point: We are to be servants of Jesus.

    The Lesson: Welcome boys and girls. Thank you for sharing this special time with me.
         This morning I brought my apron. Why do people use an apron? (let children answer) When I am going to do some cooking, especially when I barbecue, I put on my apron....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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