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Thanksgiving Day, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
What thankfulness does to us. The texts push the issue of thankfulness on us (Sanctification) as we explore the things to be thankful about (Creation, Providence, and Justification by Grace).

Psalm 65
The Psalm is a thanksgiving for good harvest. It is traditionally attributed to David and addressed to the leader (a worship leader in the Jerusalem Temple). We should be reminded that many scholars have concluded that references to David in the Psalms may have been a way of using him to represent the inner life of all his subjects and so of all the faithful (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 521). In that sense this song is about the praise and thanksgiving the faithful offer.

The psalm begins with a reference to Elohim deserving praise for answering prayer. Reference to praise due in Zion refers to God’s presence on Mount Zion in the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 1-2). He is said to forgive sin (v. 3). Those whom he chooses to bring near are happy/blessed [ashere]. In keeping with the song’s purpose of calling for a gathering at the temple, it is proclaimed that those giving thanks will be satisfied with the goodness of the temple [hekal] (v. 4). As the psalm is addressed to one said to be the God of salvation, the psalmist expresses confidence in receiving an answer from God in righteousness [tsedeq]. Although in its original Hebraic context this reference to God’s righteousness could connote legal, judgmental actions or a legalism on the Lord’s part, 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 is 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 teaches happens to Christians in Christ (Romans 3:21-26).

As the text proceeds, God is identified as the hope/confidence [mitbach] of all the earth (v. 5). He is praised as Creator and the one who administers the earth (vv. 6-7). We are awed by his signs (v. 8). God is said to provide rain and water. Reference to the “river of God” is just a way of referring to God’s protection (v. 9; cf. 46:4), crowning the year with bounty. Reference in this verse to God’s “wagon tracks” is imagery referring to God riding clouds in a chariot or a poetic way of speaking of his providential presence (v. 11; cf. 68:4). Pastures then overflow with good crops. The meadows and valley should shout and sing for joy (vv. 12-13). God is said here to be the one who makes the earth fertile.

Application: The text invites sermons celebrating God’s role in making the earth fertile (Creation and Providence). But this can be related to or the focus of the sermon might merely be on God’s commitment to honoring his promises (what it means to say that he is righteous) (Justification by Grace). With either or both themes, there is much for which to give thanks (Sanctification).

Deuteronomy 8:7-18
We note again that this book is the product of writings that emerged during the sweeping religious reform under King Josiah in the late seventh century BC. This literary strand also influenced the histories of the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The basic theme of this piece of literature is evidenced by the meaning of its title (“Second Law”). Portrayed in the form of Moses’ farewell address, it is the reaffirmation of the covenant between God and Israel.

Our lesson is a report of Moses warning the people that success in Canaan will tempt them to pride and to forget the wilderness lesson of complete dependence on God. Moses begins by speaking of Yahweh Elohim bringing the people into a good land, one with flowing springs, a land of wheat and barley, or olive trees and honey, a land where bread might be eaten without scarcity and nothing is lacking (vv. 7-10). He urges the people not to forget the Lord by failing to keep his commandments [mitsvah] and ordinances (v. 11). When they have eaten their fill and have fine houses with many herds, then they must not exalt themselves forgetting the Lord God who brought them out of slavery (vv. 12-14). The people are reminded that God has brought them through the wilderness with all its hazards, making water flow from flint rock and giving them manna in the wilderness (vv. 15-16). Moses warns against the people thinking they have gotten what they have through their own power (v. 17). For it is Yahweh Elohim who gives the power to get wealth [hon], so that he confirms his covenant [berith] which he swore to the ancestors (v. 18).

Application: This text invites reflection on our sinful preoccupation with self and forgetfulness of God’s covenant with us, and how thankfulness and appreciation that all we have is of God sets us free from such self-centeredness (Sin and Justification by Grace).

2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Probably written by Saint Paul, the epistle was written to address relations with the church in Corinth which he had established (Acts 18:1-11). The context for the letter was that relations between the church and the apostle had further deteriorated during the period after 1 Corinthians had been written. Chapters 10-13 are so different in style and tone from the first chapters (including this lesson) as to lead scholars to conclude that those chapters are the “severe letter” mentioned in 2:4. The lesson is part of Paul’s discourse on the collection he was raising for Christians in Jerusalem, leading him to offer exhortations on helping the poor.

Paul claims that one who sows sparingly reaps sparingly, but one who sows bountifully reaps bountifully (v. 6). Each must give as he/she has made up his/her mind to do so, not reluctantly. God loves a cheerful giver (v. 7). God is said to be able to provide every blessing in abundance so that we might share abundantly in every good work (v. 8). Paul does not seem to be negative about possessions at this point, seeing them as blessings. The great evangelist then quotes Isaiah 55:10 and its statement that God gives to the poor [penasen] and his righteousness [dikaiosune] endures forever (v. 9). No matter how one interprets God’s righteousness in this verse, the point seems clear that God will not change his behavior toward human beings, whether that means he will continue to be faithful to his covenant, will not change his commitment to maintaining our relationship with him, or will continue to make the faithful righteous. As God supplies the seed for the sower and bread for food, Paul states, he will also increase the harvest of righteousness (v. 10). The faithful will be changed, it seems, by God’s righteousness. The Corinthians, it is said, will be enriched in every way for their generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God (v. 11). The rendering of this ministry [leitourgia, a term used to describe free public service], Paul notes, not only supplies the needs of saints, but also overflows with many thanksgivings [eucharistia] to God (v. 12). Through the rendering of this ministry God is glorified by their obedience to the confession of the gospel [euaggelion] and by the generosity of their sharing with others, who in turn pray for the Corinthians because of the grace [charis] given to them (vv. 13-14). Thanks are given to God for his indescribable gift [presumably a reference to Christ] (v. 15).

Application: A sermon on this text can readily proclaim that the more thankful and focused on God we are, the more likely it is that good (including care for the poor) will happen spontaneously as God’s grace and righteousness come to manifest in our lives. Justification by Grace, Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works, and Social Ethics are the main emphases of the lesson.

Luke 17:11-19
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.

This is the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the ten lepers, an account unique to Luke perhaps because of the universal thrust of his message, making clear that Jews are not the only faithful people. On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus is reported to have wandered through the region between Samaria and Galilee (v. 11). Ten lepers [lepros] approach him, keep their distance, and they plead for mercy (vv. 12-13). In keeping their distance from Jesus they observe the sanitary regulations of Leviticus 13:45-46. Jesus instructs the lepers to show themselves to the priests, and as they went they were made clean (v. 14). One returns to Jesus to thank him. He was a Samaritan [whom the Jews of Judah regarded as lapsed and impure followers of Yahweh] (vv. 15-16). Jesus asks about the other nine [presumably Jews] and whether they were made clean, noting that none returned to praise him save the foreigner (vv. 17-18). Then Jesus tells the thankful healed leper to rise and go on his way, because his faith [pistis] has made him well (v. 19). The Greek word (the perfect active indicative form of sodzo) translated “made well” in this verse might also be translated “saved.”

Application: Several sermon options present themselves in this text. We have an opportunity to condemn our ingratitude and lack of thanksgiving (Sin), to remind us of all the reasons to give God thanks (Grace and Providence), but also entailing a healthy cynicism about the lack of gratitude we can expect to receive from those to whom we do favors (Sanctification). Another possibility is to highlight that often the most faithful among us are those who are outside the mainstream and removed from the social classes of churchgoers (Social Ethics).

Advent 1, Cycle B

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 64:1-9
We have previously noted that this book is actually the product of two or three distinct literary traditions. The first 39 chapters are the work of the historical prophet who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40-66 emerged in the later period immediately before the fall of Babylon (in 539 BC). A hypothesized third section (chapters 56-66) may have been written by Second Isaiah (author of the chapters from 40 on) or by one of his disciples in view of close stylistic similarities to chapters 40-55. But the last eleven chapters begin at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity and are likely written after the restoration of the exiled in Judah, expressing some disappointment about what has transpired since the exiles’ return. Our lesson originates in this period and is an eschatological prophecy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advent 2, Cycle B

THEME OF THE DAY
Get ready! All of the lessons have to do with the theme of getting ready (for Christ’s coming) or the passing of time. Christology, Providence (God’s care for us), Justification by Grace, Sanctification (living in preparation for Christ to come), and Eschatology receive special attention as we prepare ourselves for Christmas.

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
This is prayer for deliverance from national adversity. It is a Psalm of the Korahites (a group of professional Levitical musicians). Thus the verses seem to have origins in the Jerusalem Temple. The opening reference to God’s favor to his land and its people (v. 1) could be occasioned by the return of the exiles from captivity in Babylon. But it could also be taken as messianic prophecy, describing all Christ will do. The bulk of the lesson (vv. 8-13) includes an oracle of assurance, likely delivered by a priest. Messages of forgiveness (covering sin) (v. 2) and salvation/safety [yesha] (v. 9) are delivered. Righteousness [tsedeq] and peace [shalom] are said to kiss each other (v. 10). We should highlight once again that the concept of “righteousness,” even in an Old Testament context, is not to imply that the believer lives in faultless conformity to some moral norm. It has to do with living in right relationship with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 370-371). Thus the term in this case could refer to a vision of a just society or merely what happens to faithful people through God’s justifying grace. And 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 (von Rad, p. 130). Right relationship with God leads to a state of well-being (Justification by Grace, Sanctification, and Social Ethics). Likewise mercy [chesed, or loving kindness] and truth/faith [emeth] are said to meet. Love and faith go together. Salvation [yesha, also translated "safety"] and these new realities are said to be close at hand for those who fear [yare, that is, "reverence"] Yahweh (v. 9). Thus there is a clear eschatological dimension at this point in the text, which fits the viability of interpreting the text as a prophecy of Christ’s coming. Yahweh, it is said, will give what is good [tob], and this gift is related to the righteousness (restored relationship he will work out with us) going before him like a herald before a king, and also to the faithfulness [emeth, properly translated "truth"] which will spring from it (vv. 11-13). Again it seems clear that when God acts with righteousness (faithful to the covenant relationship with his people), faith and all good follow (Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works).

Application: The Psalm gives occasion to celebrate God’s forgiving love and goodness (Justification by Grace and Providence), but also to relate this to what God is about to do in Christ the coming one. Not only do we find a loving God described here in the Old Testament but also a vision of the Christian life (Sanctification and Social Ethics) springing spontaneously from God’s righteous actions.

Isaiah 40:1-11
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 lesson is the work of the latter period.

With the Babylonian captivity nearing an end (but while the Israelites are still in bondage), consolation is offered with the announcement that the exiles have served their penalty and that God is coming (vv. 1-3). This prologue to Deutero-Isaiah focuses on the heart of this message. We learn of his coming from a voice crying in the wilderness (v. 3). Verses 3-5 are quoted in the New Testament (Luke 3:4-6; cf. Matthew 3:3; John 1:23; and even in today’s Gospel Lesson, Mark 1:3) to refer to the preaching of John the Baptist. The idea of valleys being lifted up and mountains laid low could also be interpreted in terms of Social Ethics, as God’s willingness to challenge the powers that be in favor of the powerless. The fragility of life, how it fades like a flower, is noted, but it is also proclaimed that God’s word is forever (vv. 6-8). It is confidently proclaimed, despite the circumstances, that God is coming and will prevail (vv. 9-10). God will feed the flock like a shepherd [raah] (v. 11). The image suggests Christ as the good shepherd. It is also royal imagery, as the Babylonian king Hammurabi described himself as a shepherd. Also implied is the Lord’s resolve to restore the captives in Israel. His power over all creation to achieve this end is discussed in the remainder of the chapter (vv. 12-31).

Application: Sermons on this lesson should focus on the comfort we can take, in the midst of despair about life (Sin), that Christ’s coming is on the horizon (both Future Eschatology and Realized Eschatology in the sense that Christ’s birth made possible having our penalties removed and our restoration). Social Ethics may also be a sermon topic since the text highlights how God challenges the powerful for the sake of the powerless. The text also affords an opportunity along with the Gospel Lesson to highlight the witness of John the Baptist, to note how even the Old Testament prophesies him.

2 Peter 3:8-15a
Though represented as a letter by Saint Peter (1:1), this is likely a later work of the late first century (not by the author of First Peter, which is probably the work of one of Peter’s disciples). It was written to respond to various false teachings. The later date of composition is suggested in 3:3-4 indicating the disappointment experienced by the first Christian generation that Jesus had not returned. The epistle is likely dependent on the books of Jude and First Peter. Cast in the form of a farewell address by Peter, it is a response to critics of Christianity (probably Gnostics), who argued that Christians were free of moral constraints and that there would be no coming judgment.

In the assigned verses the author responds to charges that there will be no second coming of Christ or end of the world (v. 4). The expected response is by arguing the divine sense of time is not that of humans; that a thousand years is as one day to God (v. 8; cf. Psalm 90:4). The delay thus far experienced is not long, and so the claim of Jesus to soon return is not negated. The apparent delay is said to be really an example of God’s patience, for he wants none to perish and is giving all time for repentance [metanoia] (vv. 9, 15). The author claims that Christ will return suddenly and surprisingly, dissolving the earth with fire. The actual phrase used, “day of the Lord,” is a common biblical expression for the time of God’s final judgment (v. 10; cf. Amos 5:18-20; Joel 2:28-32). Stoic influence may reflect in the final verses of the lesson, as they entail the call to be at peace [eirene, the Greek term may refer here to harmony] and patient/long-suffering [makrothumia] while leading lives of holiness [hagios] as we await the creation of new heavens and earth in which righteousness [dikaiosune] dwells (vv. 11-15a). When we recall that righteousness is a concept entailing restored relationship in the biblical witness (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 371-372), we receive here a vision of how when Christ comes again the cosmos, even our relationship with God, will be like it is now, but perfect, made new.

Application: This is a text that can give hope, both in explaining the delay of Christ’s second coming (for 2,000 years is not a long wait for God in view of his way of experiencing time) and also giving hope in the same way and for the same reason when we feel that God has not answered our prayers. Providence and Eschatology are primary themes for such sermons. Guidance in living the Christian life (Sanctification) might also be a theme, as we are given advice to remain at peace/harmony, be long-suffering, and live in holiness (without passion) as we patiently await Christ’s coming in our lives.

Mark 1:1-8
We continue to consider the first of the synoptic gospels to be written, a book that was perhaps the source of other gospels, perhaps based on oral traditions of the passion narrative and accounts of Jesus (the so-called Q-source). 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 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 includes the introduction to Mark’s gospel, which is said to be good news (euangelion, or gospel] of the Son of God [huios tou Theou] (a title rarely used in Mark, though it had Old Testament precedents to connote an obedient servant in God’s history of salvation [see 2 Samuel 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7]) (v. 1). The remaining verses report the proclamation of John the Baptist. Parts of the First Lesson from Isaiah (v. 3) as well as Malachi 3:1 and Exodus 23:30 are cited (vv. 2-3). A messenger [angelos] will be sent to prepare the way for the Lord, crying out in the wilderness. John the Baptist is described — his nomadic way of life, clothed with camel’s hair complemented with a leather belt around his waist, and subordinating to the Messiah about whom he preached. (His attire recalls that of Elijah [2 Kings 1:8], which may be deliberate in Mark’s unique description, since some Hebrews believed the prophet’s return would be a sign of the end times.) A summary of John’s preaching regarding repentance and forgiveness of sins is offered, as well as the contrast between his baptism of repentance [baptisma metanoias] and the Messiah’s baptism of the Holy Spirit [pneuma hagios] (vv. 4-8). Matthew (3:4-6), but not Luke and John, closely parallels this data. What makes Jesus greater than John is not answered in this text, but we can assume that aspects of John’s ministry as a prophetic ministry prefigure Jesus’ own emphases. Perhaps the main distinction is in the baptism Jesus brings, for only by the Holy Spirit (grace) can we really be changed and spiritual communion with God established. The coming of the Spirit was also associated with the last days in the Jewish tradition (cf. Joel 2:28-29; Isaiah 11:1-2).

Application: The gospel affords an excellent opportunity to prepare for Christmas by focusing parishioners on its real meaning — that Christ comes actually to forgive sin, not just to call us to repentance. This stress on Justification by Grace may be complimented with a Sanctification theme, that we need John’s word of preparation in order to be prepared. Other sermon options include a stress on the Holy Spirit’s work in actually restoring our relation to God, the Spirit as a sign of the end times (Eschatology), or to focus on what baptism does — actually restore by the work of the Spirit our relation to God. This is an opportunity, then, to link baptism to the meaning of Christmas.

Advent 3, Cycle B

THEME OF THE DAY
Hearing the prophets of Jesus and becoming one of them for today. All the texts afford some opportunity to explore prophecy, an office and undertaking that proclaims our sin in the midst of praising God (Sanctification), gives hope (Eschatology), as well as proclaims and advocates justice (Social Ethics).

Psalm 126
This is a prayer of deliverance from national misfortune. It is a Song of Ascents, which means it probably originated as a pilgrim song for those Hebrews who were ascending (climbing the mountain on which the temple sat) on the way to worship in the Jerusalem Temple. (Other scholars contend the Psalm ascended in its poetic form.) This Psalm begins with reminiscence of the joy (laughter and singing) inspired by God’s favor toward his people, the great things he has done in the past (vv. 1-3). Prayers are offered that such favor might be shown again. Perhaps hope is expressed here for the return of the exiles from captivity in Babylon. Reference to the Negeb is a reminder that there is an arid region south of Palestine (the Hebrew text only refers to the region in the south) whose soil was made palatable by certain torrential streams in torrents of rain (vv. 4-6). Those in mourning and oppressed shall experience joy [rinnah, referring to loud cries and singing] (v. 6). A preferential option for the poor along with ecstatic celebration is posited here.

Application: Sermons on the great things God has done in the past and the hope that inspires for the present and future appropriately emerge from this Psalm (and so a stress on Providence and Eschatology must be embedded in such preaching). The proper way to worship God in these instances (joyfully, with singing and laughter [the Christmas spirit]) is also an appropriate homiletical direction. Finally the possibility that those oppressed might be liberated and restored makes sermons on Social Ethics a valid approach to this text.

OR

Luke 1:47-55
This is one of the synoptic gospels, the first installment of a two-part history of the church (which includes the book of Acts) 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 text is the famed hymn of praise attributed to Mary, called the Magnificat. It is so named from the first word of the Latin translation [megaluno, in Greek]: To “magnify to Lord” is to declare his greatness.

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). (The phrase “holy is his name” is a traditional Jewish word of praise [Psalm 111:9].) 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 text can give rise to sermons on praise of God (what prophets do and what Christmas is all about). These are Sanctification themes. Another alternative, like the additional Psalm of the Day, might be to preach a prophetic word on the possibility that the poor and oppressed will be liberated (a sermon on Social Ethics).

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
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 after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC. A hypothesized third section (chapters 56-66) of the book, perhaps written by Second Isaiah or by one of his disciples in view of the close stylistic similarities to chapters 40 on, 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. The speaker is either the prophet or the suffering servant (Messiah) of Deutero-Isaiah (especially 50:4-11). The anointed prophet/servant (note the Spirit’s presence) is sent to bring good news to the oppressed/poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim freedom /liberty [deror] to the captives, planting them as oaks of righteousness [tsedeq] (vv. 1-3). The agricultural metaphor of Israel as planted by God is common in Isaiah (4:2; 5:7; 60:21). We must keep in mind that to be righteous in Hebraic thinking is not so much a demand for morality as it is the expectation of being in right relation with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371).

Reference to the building up of the ancient ruins (v. 4) is a prophecy of a rebuilding of Jerusalem by the returning exiles. God is said to love justice [mishpat] and to promise to punish the oppressors. (It is good to remind ourselves again that the Hebrew term mishpat may connote a sense of comfort to the faithful, not just the threat of punishment. This would link with the subsequent testimony to the Lord’s forgiving nature, and the fact that Yahweh is said to seek fairness in Jacob [in Israel] might suggest the validity of understanding his judgments as pertaining to social interactions [justice].) The nations will change their estimate of Israel as a result of these actions by God (vv. 8-9). The prophet (or all Israel) will be clothed with the garment [beged] of salvation/safety [yesha] and righteousness (v. 10).

Certainly in its original Hebraic concept, righteousness [tsedeq] with reference to God’s judgment could connote legal, strongly judgmental actions on God’s part or a legalism. Yet most Old Testament scholars note that this attribute of God is not in any way punitive but more about relationship. It has to do with God’s loyalty to his covenant in saving us, and even here later in the Old Testament era righteousness is construed as something God bestows on the faithful, as it is here in verse 10 (von Rad, pp. 373, 376ff). So whether we continue to employ a judicial metaphor for understanding the concept of righteousness (God declaring us righteous) or regard it as God’s faithfulness to the covenant in restoring his relationship with the faithful, it does not ultimately matter. Either way, righteousness and so justification is a gift of God. If the text is read as words of the suffering servant about himself and is in turn read as referring to Christ, then the text is about the coming child who works righteousness and justice and good news for the oppressed/poor.

Application: The text affords opportunity to clarify the focus of both Jesus and what prophets (including Christians like us) do — proclaim/work Justification by Grace or work justice for the oppressed (Social Ethics).

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
This epistle is an authentic letter by Paul written in the early 50s to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city (the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia) threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. In a concluding exhortation Paul urges the faithful to rejoice [chairo] always (v. 16), never to cease to pray (v. 17), give thanks [eucharisteo] in all circumstances (v. 18), not quench the Spirit [pneuma] (v. 19), and not despise the words of prophets (v. 20). Also he urges that we test [dokimadzete] everything, holding fast to what is good [kalon] and abstaining from evil (vv. 21-22). In considering the warning not to despise the prophecies (v. 20), it is relevant to note that the Greek term for “prophet” [prophetes] literally means “public expounder.” Paul concludes with a benediction by praying with confidence that God would sanctify the recipients of the epistle, expressing that a faithful God will do this (vv. 23-24). The reference to spirit, soul, and body in verse 23 is not to suggest he thinks of a person in three parts, but as a unity which may be viewed from three distinct points of view.

Application: The text invites sermons on the nature of prophecy as public expounding of a confident word of hope in a faithful God in the midst of social pressures. Justification by Grace and Eschatology are central themes in such a homiletical agenda. Sanctification might be emphasized if the sermon focuses on urging hearers to live as prophets, which includes according to the lesson lives of rejoicing, prayer, thanks, and not quenching the Spirit. These themes might be enriched by noting the prophet’s role as social critic, addressed in the First Lesson and the Psalm of the Day. Sermons both on the Holy Spirit and the need to “test” our Christian commitments with scripture are also possible sermon directions.

John 1:6-8, 19-28
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).

The first three verses of the lesson are from the prologue of the gospel. John the Baptist is introduced in his role as one who came to testify to the light while he himself was not the light [phos] who is Christ (vv. 6-8). The remaining verses are the author’s version of John’s testimony. They echo the prologue’s report of his coming to testify to the light, not to that status for himself. He denies both being the Messiah or Elijah (vv. 19-22). Isaiah 40:3 is cited as John’s testimony, to prepare [euthanate, make straight] the way [hodos] of the Lord (v. 23). Some biblical critics have speculated that John the Baptist’s clear subordination of himself to Jesus is a function of the fact that rivalry between the disciples and John’s followers continued until well into the late first century. Having denied his status as Elijah or the Messiah, John is challenged by the Pharisees for performing baptism (vv. 24-25). (None of the parallel synoptic gospel accounts report this dialogue.) He responds again with humility, pointing to the Messiah, for he only baptizes with water (v. 26). John claims that he is not worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandal (v. 27). There is more focus on what John did than on how he looked, as is typical of the of the parallel gospel accounts of Mark (1:6) and Matthew (3:4).

Application: This text provides another occasion to witness to the nature of prophecy as humility ever pointing to Christ, making things straight in people’s lives to get to Christ. This insight might be enriched by noting the prophet’s role as social critic, addressed in the First Lesson and the Psalm of the Day. In any case, Sanctification is an emphasis in such sermons.

Advent 4, Cycle B

THEME OF THE DAY
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.

OR

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).

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

THEME OF THE DAY
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).

OR

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).

OR

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.

Christmas Eve / Christmas Day, Cycle B

THEME OF THE DAY
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

THEME OF THE DAY
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.

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  • SermonSuite Special
     
    SermonSuite
    Leah Lonsbury
    Ready, Set...
    Mark 13:24-37; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

    In this week’s gospel text, Jesus issues a sternly worded warning about being ready. We have to be ready at all times, he says, for we never know when or how the master of the house (the Messiah) will return. Throughout Advent, most of our lectionary texts hold a heightened sense of anticipation akin to this one, and that expectation is only ratcheted up by our more secular surroundings. The Walgreens around the corner from my house has been steadily building its Christmas stock since what had been the Halloween aisle became a Christmas extravaganza on November 1st. There were reindeer band-aids on the first aid aisle yesterday, and it’s becoming nearly impossible to escape this Walgreens’ brand of scurry and scramble even though it doesn’t quite match up with the hopeful anticipation and preparation we typically associate with the season of Advent. Perhaps that’s because much of the waiting and anticipation in our modern-day human experience is anxiety-ridden and -driven -- not so much waiting for the birth of Love in a humble stable as for the other shoe to drop. This isn’t surprising in a world where struggle, disappointment, and tragedy are woven into the human condition, and where the 24-hour news cycle constantly reminds us of that with reports on the latest horrors and all their grisly details (such as the gruesome attack on a synagogue in Israel or the most recent ISIS beheading). As a result, much of our anticipation is based in fear. This can be clearly seen in Ferguson, Missouri -- where gun sales are soaring and police are stocking up on tactical gear while the public nervously awaits the findings of a grand jury investigating the case of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager killed by police officer Darren Wilson.
          In this kind of atmosphere, it’s easy to shut down and give up hope, but that is exactly the opposite of what Jesus is calling us to in our gospel text from Mark. This week we’ll take a look at the type of readiness and anticipatory living Jesus is describing, and see if we’re up for that kind of risky engagement in a world swirling with anxiety and fear. It’s clear in our passage from Corinthians that Paul believes we are -- because, as he writes, we already have and know and are exactly what the troubled world is aching for, despite our qualms and potentially incapacitating doubt....more
    Denial Ain't A River In Egypt
    Have you ever denied something that, deep down, you know to be true? Have you ever turned from a situation or circumstance in order to avoid the uncomfortable process of dealing with it? Or maybe you have had the experience of keeping a stiff upper lip and pretending that something is not ... well, what it is.
         The term we use for this, of course, is denial. We all practice it to some extent or other. Some of us deny the fact that we're a few pounds overweight. Others of us deny the fact that the cars we drive contribute to the growing danger of global warming. Still others deny brokenness and wounds that occur in our most important relationships, leaving the untended hurts to fester and grow worse. ...more
    Wayne Brouwer
    Anticipation
    A well-rounded biblical "Screw your courage to the sticking-place," says Lady Macbeth to her doomed husband in Shakespeare's tragedy, "and we'll not fail." But fail they do and no amount of courage in the world can save them or turn them into heroes.
          Courage is a funny thing. It's a bit like happiness: the more you seek it, the more you demand it, the more you try to call it up, the less it shows its face....more
    Keith Wagner
    Hope for Anxious People
    Mark 13:24-37

    Every year on the first Sunday in Advent the lectionary includes the one of the "end times" texts. Like all scripture, this passage takes place in a time when the disciples were living in a very uncertain moment. They were oppressed by a powerful Roman government. They found themselves in opposition to the religious establishment and they didn't have an abundance of resources. Thus they were anxious and consequently they lacked hope.
          One Black Friday, the day following Thanksgiving, I was shopping and I observed some shoppers standing in line waiting to pay for their bargains. The lines were long and you could see the anxiety on their faces....more
    Janice Scott
    Is this the end?
    Today is Advent Sunday, the first day of the New Year. No, not quite the usual New Year, but the Church's year. From today, we begin to read and study Mark's gospel for a whole year, interspersed around Christmas and Easter with readings from John's gospel.
          Mark's gospel is thought to be the first one to have been written. Both Matthew's gospel and Luke's gospel are thought to be based on Mark's gospel, although there is always dispute among biblical scholars about these things....more
    Cynthia Cowen
    Be Prepared!
    The Point: As we prepare to celebrate Jesus' birth on December 25, our preparation for his return is even more important.

    The Lesson: Good morning, boys and girls. I am thankful that you chose to come up front with me and that we can share this time together.
          This is a season of preparation. We are preparing to celebrate a truly special day for all humankind. What day am I talking about?...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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