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Reformation Sunday, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Freedom! The texts and the festival invite consideration of our freedom from the law (Sin, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works).

Psalm 46
A Korah Psalm (one of the songs attributed to professional temple singers [see 2 Chronicles 20:19]). The reference in the psalm’s preface to Alamoth is uncertain. We do know that this is the psalm (especially v. 1) that inspired Martin Luther’s famed hymn “A Mighty Fortress.”

God is said to be our refuge and strength, a present help in trouble. We need not fear [yare], for he subdued all others (vv. 1-3). This may be a reference to what God will do in the last days. The promise is made that Jerusalem will endure forever (vv. 4-7). Reference to the river making the city glad is an image for the service of blessing. Reference to Selah after verse 3 probably is a direction to insert an instrumental interlude at that point in the psalm. The establishment of God’s kingdom will bring peace (vv. 8-9). We are urged to be still and know that the Lord is God (v. 10). These words may be a divine oracle of salvation, giving God praise for his observance of help against enemies.

Application: Sermons on this hymn might examine our fears and troubles (Sin) with the assurance that God is still our refuge (Justification by Grace). Opportunities are also provided to consider the atonement (the Classic View, whereby Christ and God defeat the forces of evil).

Jeremiah 31:31-34
The lesson is drawn from a book of prophecies of the late seventh/early eighth-century BC prophet of Judah, dictated to his aide Baruch during the reigns of Josiah, Jehoiakim, and Zedekiah through the era of the Babylonian captivity. Some of the prophet’s criticism of the house of David and the temple, giving more attention to the Sinai covenant or a new covenant, may relate to his being an ancestor of one of David’s high priests, Abiathar, who lost control of the Jerusalem Temple and was finally banished (1 Kings 2:27). This text is part of the Book of Consolation (30:1–31:40), words of homecoming promising a restoration of Israel, probably written just before the Babylonian captivity.

The lesson prophesies that the Lord will establish a New Covenant [berith], replacing the one given on Mount Sinai that had been broken (vv. 31-32). The New Covenant will involve putting the law in the hearts [leb] of people and renewing Israel’s status as God’s people (v. 33). All will know him and the people’s sin will be forgiven [salach, or sent away], for God will remember [zakar] their sin no more (v. 34; cf. Ezekiel 11:19).

Application: Sermons on this text do well to proclaim the good news in the midst of the chaos and strains of modern life (Sin) that we are affirmed, for God has sent away our sin (Justification by Grace), along with an awareness that he unites us to him, so we become people who just cannot help but spontaneously do God’s thing (Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works).

Romans 3:19-28
This letter of introduction was written by Paul between 54 AD and 58 AD to a church that to date he had never visited. The lesson is a transition from Paul’s discussion of the world’s need for redemption to a discussion of God’s saving act in Christ. Paul begins by contending that the law [nomos] of God silences us, for no human may be justified by works. The law, it is said, gives knowledge of sin (vv. 19-20; cf. Psalm 143:2). The righteousness of God is revealed apart from the law, though it is attested to be the law and the prophets (i.e., Hebrew scriptures) (v. 21). Paul refers here to the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory but are now justified by God’s grace through the redemption [apolutrosis, or "loosing away"] in Christ as a gift (vv. 22-24a).

There has been much dispute in New Testament scholarship about the meaning of the righteousness of God [dikaiosune tou theou] and how it relates to the teaching of Justification [dikaiosis] by Grace through Faith. Of course the similar related Greek roots of Justification and righteousness are indisputable. But some contend that the Protestant reformers totally overlooked the Jewish roots of Paul in their interpretation of the concept. Certainly in its original Hebraic concept, righteousness [tsedeq] 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 at times later in the Old Testament era the righteousness of God is construed as something bestowed on the faithful, as it is in verse 25 of this lesson (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, 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.

Paul proceeds to note that all this transpires through Christ Jesus whom God put forward as a propitiation [hilasterion] or sacrifice of atonement by his blood. This shows God’s righteousness, because in his forbearance he passed over sins committed (vv. 24b-25). It proves that God himself is righteous, justifying the one who has faith in Christ (v. 26). This excludes boasting, for a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law (vv. 27-28).

Application: The text affords another opportunity to proclaim that we have been affirmed by God (Justification by Grace) and also have been changed (Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works). Another possibility might be to address the controversy of what the righteousness of God means (see the second paragraph of the interpretation of the text above).

John 8:31-36
John is the last gospel to be written, probably not until late in the first century in a sophisticated literary style (and so not likely the work of the apostle John), perhaps written for a Jewish Christian community actually expelled from the synagogue and consequently particularly concerned to assert Jesus’ divinity, that he was Son of God (20:31). In the first post-biblical church history text, Eusebius of Caesarea claimed that John had perceived the external facts made plain in the gospel and been inspired by friends and the Spirit to compose a spiritual gospel (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2/1, p. 261).

The lesson begins just after Jesus had been proclaiming himself as one from above [ano], perhaps a prophecy of his ascension (vv. 21-30). He proclaims to Jews who had believed in him that if they continue in his word they are truly his disciples (v. 31). The truth [aletheia], he claims, will make them free (v. 32). Elsewhere he identifies truth with himself (14:6). The Jews who are addressed object, contending that as descendants of Abraham they have never been slaves (v. 33). Jesus responds, claiming that any who sin are slaves to sin (v. 34). The slave does not have a permanent place in the household, but the Son has a place there forever (v. 35). So if the Son makes us free we are free [eleutheros] indeed (v. 36; cf. Galatians 4:1-7).

Application: With this lesson preachers can remind us of our bondage to sin, focusing on freedom (Sanctification as Spontaneous Good Works) with a reference to Justification as Intimate Union. The implications of this freedom for Social Ethics might also be explored.

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.

Proper 26 / Pentecost 21 / Ordinary Time 31, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
The marvelous things God’s word does. The texts permit us to focus on what God does (Providence and Justification by Grace) and how that changes us and our world (Sanctification and Social Ethics). Some of these themes permit attention to the celebration of All Saints Day commemorated just the previous day.

Psalm 107:1-7
This psalm is a group thanksgiving for pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for a festival. God is first praised for his love (v. 1). The redeemed [gaal] of the Lord should concur, for they were gathered from north, south, east, and west (vv. 2-3). Reference is made here to the Babylonian exiles. Then groups of verses follow offering thanks for deliverance from various dangers. Verses 4-9 are thanks for deliverance for those who traveled across the desert. In their hunger and thirst (v. 5), those traveling in the desert cried out to Yahweh, and he delivered [natsal] them (v. 6).

Application: With this song, preachers have occasion to examine ways in which we are endangered (Sin) as well as tragedies of hunger locally and nationwide (Social Ethics), along with the proclamation of God’s love (Justification by Grace) and Atonement (the Classic View, whereby Christ and God defeat the forces of evil).

OR

Psalm 43
This is a prayer in which the psalmist petitions that by being healed from a disease he might be vindicated as righteous, that is, in right relationship with God. First the psalmist pleads for vindication and deliverance from ungodly and unjust people (v. 1). God is the one in whom the psalmist can take refuge. He asks why he must walk about mournfully because of oppression (v. 2). God is petitioned to send out his light and truth [emeth, also translated "steadfastness"] that they may lead to God’s presence (the “holy hill” referred to in the text is probably the temple in Jerusalem that was set on the hill called Mount Zion), where we can joyfully praise him (vv. 3-4). The psalmist wonders why his soul [nephesh, more properly breath or life-force, not the Greek conception] is cast down. He would hope in God and praise him (v. 5).

Application: This text is an opportunity to preach on how God delivers us (Classic View of the Atonement and its affirmation of God’s conquest of evil), his providential care, and the strength it provides to follow him, as well as the joyful praise that follows these insights.

Joshua 3:7-17
This book is part of the Deuteronomistic strand that gave rise not just to Deuteronomy but also the histories in 1 and 2 Samuel as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The strand emerged in the seventh century BC during the reign of the religious reformer King Josiah of Judah. This book tells the story of Joshua’s leadership of Israel. There is a tension in the book between an apparently unified assault against Gentile inhabitants of the land, which succeeded under Joshua (11:23; 18:1), and the more piecemeal victory by the various tribes as represented in the book of Judges. This may be deemed eschatologically as a proclamation of what is to come if the Hebrews remain obedient (22:1-4).

The text is the story of the Hebrews’ crossing of the Jordan River under Joshua’s leadership. First Yahweh is reported to tell Joshua of his plan to exalt the prophet in the sight of Israel so that they might know him as their leader. Joshua is ordered to command the priests bearing the Ark of the Covenant to come to the edge of the Jordan (vv. 7-8). Joshua tells the people that by these actions they will know that God is living and will drive out the Gentiles in the region (vv. 9-10). He prophesies that when the Ark of the Covenant is brought into the waters of the Jordan, the river will divide. In fact that transpires (vv. 11-17). The waters flowed as far as Adam (eighteen miles north of Jericho) and Zarethan, a city further north.

Application: Sermons on this text can proclaim that God never compromises his promises and is consistent in his loving aims for us. (Note parallels between the events reported in the Jordan River and Moses’ leading the people across the Red Sea in the Exodus.) Providence and Justification by Grace are emphasized.

OR

Micah 3:5-12
The superscription of this book (1:1) indicates that the prophet worked during the reign of three eighth-century BC Judaic kings. But in fact he probably only worked in the last quarter of the eighth century BC during the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah. And it is also possible that only the first three chapters are actually the work of the prophet for whom the book is named. A younger contemporary of Isaiah who came from an aristocratic background, Micah was a member of the laboring class in a rural area. He did not espouse the Davidic tradition and its belief in the inviolability of Jerusalem. He was primarily concerned with ethical issues, prophesying that the sins of Judah had led to punishment with Assyria acting as God’s instrument. Like Amos who lived earlier, Micah inveighs against social and economic injustices. But there is a word of forgiveness and the restoration of the temple in the book.

In this lesson, wicked prophets and rulers are denounced. Yahweh criticizes prophets who lead the people astray by crying peace when they have something to eat but declare war against those who feed them (v. 5). The sun will go down on these prophets, and they will be disgraced (vv. 6-7). Micah, by contrast, claims to be filled with power, the Spirit of Yahweh, and with justice [mishpat, literally "judgment] to declare Israel’s transgression (v. 8). (It is good to remind ourselves again that that Hebrew term mishpat may connote a sense of comfort to the faithful, as per Psalm 72:2; 76:9, not just the threat of punishment.) Rulers who abhor justice/judgment [mishpat] are to hear, for they build Zion with blood (vv. 9-10).

Application: This condemnation of religious and political leaders can be linked to the Gospel Lesson, proclaiming both judgment (Sin and Social Ethics) and forgiveness (Justification by Grace). The comfort offered by God’s judgment is the source of this good and comforting news.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
The book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written in the early ’50s to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. Responding to criticisms that he had practiced heresy, immortality, trickery, and greed, the lesson is a continuation of Paul’s description of his life and work in Thessalonica. He notes how he worked day and night (on his trade [Acts 18:8]) among the people so as not to burden them (v. 9). They are witnesses to how blameless his conduct was (v. 10). He claims to have dealt with the Thessalonians like a father [pater] with his children, urging them to lead lives worthy of God who calls them into his kingdom (vv. 11-12). Paul notes that he constantly gives thanks to God that in receiving God’s word the people accepted it not as human works but as his word [logos], which is at work in them (v. 13).

Application: At least two possible sermon directions are suggested. The focus could be on the nature of the word of God; it is more than just information about God but God’s actual presence to us, changing people’s lives (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). Or the focus could be on the character of ministry and leadership (Sanctification), as like a father to the flock.

Matthew 23:1-12
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). It may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus proclaiming woe to the scribes and Pharisees. Much of the lesson is unique to this gospel, partly because of its anti-Pharisaic orientation no doubt a function of its being addressed to Jewish Christians no longer in full communion with Judaism (21:25; 23:39).

The lesson begins with Jesus telling the crowds and his disciples that they should realize the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat and so his followers should do whatever these teachers of the law teach. But Jesus advises the faithful not to live as the scribes and Pharisees do for they do not practice what they teach (vv. 1-3). It seems that the scribes and Pharisees place heavy burdens on people without helping them (v. 4). They do their deeds to be seen by others. Reference is made to the broad phylacteries [phulak] and fringes they wear (v. 5). Phylacteries were leather boxes worn on the left and forehead; they contained strips of parchment bearing the text of Exodus 13:9, 16 and Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:18-20. To have them be broad would be to announce one’s superior faithfulness to the Torah. Likewise, fringes were blue twisted threads at the four corners of male garments functioning as reminders to obey God’s commandments.

The Pharisees and scribes are said to seek places of honor at banquets and in the synagogues and also to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called rabbis (vv. 6-7). Jesus in turn tells his followers not to accept the title rabbi, for they are but students of his, the one teacher. Nor are they to call others father, for their one Father is in heaven (vv. 8-9). Likewise they should not accept the title “instructor” [kathegetes, or "leader], for they have the Messiah, the one true instructor/leader (v. 10). The greatest among them will be their servant [diakonos] (v. 11). (We observe here one of the biblical roots for the office of deacon.) All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble [tapeinoo] themselves will be exalted [hupsoo] (v. 12).

Application: This text also affords opportunity to condemn our sinful pride and belief that we are faithful people (Sin), but to assure us that in humble faith and service God makes us great (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

Proper 27 / Pentecost 22 / Ordinary Time 32, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
The difference relating to God makes. In keeping with the theme of the Pentecost season, we are led to examine the implications of our relationship with God for living the Christian life (Sanctification and Social Ethics).

Psalm 78:1-7
The lesson is part of a long story/song of God’s great deeds (especially the giving of the law) and his people’s faithfulness (or lack of it). This Maskil (an artful song composed with aesthetic skill) of Asaph (one of David’s chief musicians, see 1 Chronicles 6:39; 15:17; 16:5-7) is a psalm composed for one of the major festivals. In the style of wisdom writings like 49:1-4, the psalm calls the people to listen to the teaching of a parable [mashal, or "proverb"] or dark/hidden sayings [chidah] of old (vv. 1-2). These are things heard of old from the ancestors (v. 3). It is noted that this will not be hidden from the children but will be told to coming generations — the glorious deeds [maalal] of the Lord (v. 4). Yahweh is said to have established a decree (probably the covenant) and a law [torah] in Israel that he commanded the ancestors to teach their children, and the next generations might know to set their hope in God and keep his commandments [mitsvah] (vv. 5-7). It is good to be reminded at this point that for the Jewish faith the law is not considered a judgmental, condemnatory decree, but is deemed as instruction or a guide to life (Leo Trepp, Judaism: Development and Life, p. 2).

Application: God’s faithfulness to his plans and covenant (the essence of his righteousness [see Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 372]) might be the subject of a sermon on this song. Or one might also combine this theme or just focus on what difference this makes in the lives of the faithful. They are given a guide for life (Sanctification).

OR

Psalm 70
This psalm, practically identical with Psalm 40:13-17, is a prayer/lament for deliverance from personal enemies. It is said to be a memorial offering of David. Keep in mind 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 the faithful give God for rescuing us. The psalm begins with petitions to God to deliver the psalmist (v. 1). The psalmist then requests that those who seek his life be put to shame (v. 2). Petitions are offered that all who seek Elohim rejoice and be glad in him. Those who love [aheb] his salvation [yeshuah, also translated "safety" or "ease"] are exhorted to say forevermore that “God is great” (v. 4)! The psalmist adds that he is poor [ani, which also means "oppressed"] and needy, and so God is petitioned to hasten, for he is our help [ezer] and deliverer [palat] (v. 5).

Application: The text invites sermons on the atonement (the Classic View and its idea that God overcomes the evils in our lives), but also on how he rescues the poor (Social Ethics and the idea of God’s preferential option for the poor).

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
We have noted that this book is part of the Deuteronomistic strand that gave rise not just to Deuteronomy but also the histories in 1 and 2 Samuel as well as 1 and 2 Kings. The strand emerged in the seventh century BC during the reign of the religious reformer King Josiah of Judah. This book tells the story of Joshua’s leadership of Israel. There is a tension in the book between an apparently unified assault against Gentile inhabitants of the land, which succeeded under Joshua (11:23; 18:1), and the more piecemeal victory by the various tribes as represented in the book of Judges. This may be deemed eschatologically as a proclamation of what is to come if the Hebrews remain obedient (22:1-4).

This text is an account of the covenant at Shechem, a fuller report of the events narrated in 8:30-35. Joshua is said to have gathered all the tribes at Shechem in Canaan (not far from Samaria and near Mount Ebal, the site of the covenant renewal reported in chapter 8). They presented themselves before God (v. 1). After summarizing God’s actions in locating the people of Israel in Egypt and liberating them, including how God gave them conquest of the Promised Land (vv. 2-13), the people are told to revere Yahweh and faithfully serve him and to put away other gods (v. 14). Joshua insists the people decide that day whom they will serve. He confesses that he has chosen Yahweh (v. 15). The people answer that they will not forsake Yahweh Elohim who brought them out of slavery and protected them from all the people they passed, even driving out the Amorites who lived in the Promised Land (vv. 16-18). Joshua tells the people that they cannot serve Yahweh, for he is a holy [qadosh] and jealous/zealous [qanno] God who will not forgive [nasa, meaning literally "lift up"] their sins (v. 19). If he is forsaken for other gods [elohim], he will do them harm (v. 20). The people insist they will serve Yahweh, and Joshua gets them to concede that they are their own witnesses about this (vv. 21-22). Joshua tells them to put away all foreign gods, inclining their hearts only to Yahweh. The people affirm that they will serve and obey him (vv. 23-24). Joshua then makes a covenant [berith] with Israel, along with statutes [choq] and ordinances [mishpat, literally "judgments"] (v. 25).

Application: Several related sermon options are offered with this lesson. On one hand, the focus could be on the various forms of idolatry in the modern world (Sin) and the need to be loyal to the true God. We could then make clear how this is a countercultural lifestyle, as it was for the Hebrews (Sanctification). It is good to remind ourselves again that the Hebrew term mishpat associated with the covenant at Shechem in our lesson may connote a sense of comfort to the faithful, as per Psalm 72:2; 76:9, not just the threat of punishment. And so the lesson is an occasion to focus on the comfort relating to God above all else provides (Justification by Grace and Sanctification).

OR

Amos 5:18-24
The book is a collection of the oracles and visions of the eighth century BC prophet to the Northern Kingdom during its greatest pinnacle of national prosperity, which was perceived by the people as the result of its military might. Amos denounces Israel and its neighbors for reliance on military might, the social injustices it had permitted, its immorality, and its shallow piety. Though many of the writings were probably by Amos himself, written in Judah after his expulsion from the royal sanctuary of Israel, segments of the book are the work of a later third-party editor of these prophecies. This lesson is part of the prophet’s indictment of Israel for its sin and injustice.

Amos challenges those who desire the day [yom] of Lord (which was thought by ancient Hebrews to be a time of vindication from their enemies). For his testimony is that it is a day of darkness not light, a day of doom (vv. 18-20). Yahweh is said to despise the Israelites’ festivals and assemblies, and will not accept their burnt offerings (vv. 21-22). Rather than hear the people’s songs, God proclaims that he wants justice [mishpat, or judgment] rolling down like waters and righteousness [tsedeq, which has to do with the quality of relationships and can also mean justice] like an ever-flowing stream (vv. 23-24). This is a common preoccupation for Amos. We need to clarify once again the concepts of justice and righteousness for the ancient Hebrews. Most Old Testament scholars agree that these are not concepts merely about legal, judgmental actions on God’s part, but are more about relationships with Yahweh, something he bestows on the faithful. But an important aspect of this relationship is God’s will for justice, being a guarantor of all who are deprived of their right (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, pp. 322, 373, 376ff; Vol. 2, pp. 134-135). And so that is to be an agenda for God’s people in right relationship with him.

Application: The text’s reference to the Eschaton (Day of the Lord) entails that a sermon on this Complementary First Lesson should give hope. It is a word about hope for justice (Social Ethics) which God wants, but also about the false piety that too often gets in the way of the quest for justice and quality relations (Sin).

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
As we have previously noted, the book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. The book may contain fragments of several letters. In this lesson Paul addresses questions concerning the coming of the Lord. He begins by noting that he does not want people uninformed about those who have died. He wants them to have hope [elpis] (v. 13). He reminds them that as Jesus died and rose again, so through Jesus God will bring with him those who have died (v. 14). Paul then declares by the word of the Lord (presumably a special revelation to him) that those still alive and left until the Lord [kurios, a title reserved for rulers] comes (he seems here to reflect the belief that some of his contemporaries would live to see Christ’s second coming) will not precede those who have died (v. 15). The Lord himself will descend from heaven with the archangel’s call and sound of a trumpet (a common announcement of a ruler’s arrival), and then the dead in Christ will rise first (v. 16). Then he teaches those alive will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (v. 17). Paul finally urges the faithful to comfort [parakaleo] each other with these words (v. 18).

Application: This text suggests sermons for engaging doubts about the second coming and our own resurrections with assurances that (in the big sweep of cosmic and evolutionary history [millions of years]) it will not be long, along with attention to the implications of this hope for living everyday life. Sanctification and Eschatology are special foci for these homiletical directions.

Matthew 25:1-13
We note again that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, a story peculiar to this gospel.

We begin with Jesus comparing the kingdom of God to ten bridesmaids/virgins [parthenos] who went to meet the bridegroom (v. 1). Five were foolish and five were wise (v. 2). A distinction can be made between the second coming of Christ and coming of the kingdom. The foolish are reported to have taken no oil, but the wise reportedly had flasks of oil with their lamps (vv. 3-4). When the bridegroom was delayed, everyone slept (v. 5). Then there seems to have been a shout at midnight that the bridegroom was coming (v. 6). All the bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish asked the wise for some oil (vv. 7-8). But these women replied that there will not be enough for everyone and those without oil had to go to dealers to buy more for themselves (v. 9). While the foolish women were gone the bridegroom came and those who were ready went with him to the wedding banquet and then the doors were shut (v. 10). The foolish bridesmaids came to ask the lord to open the door for them, but he replied that he does not know them (vv. 11-12). Jesus adds that we must keep awake [gregoreo, literally "watch"], for we know neither the day nor the hour (v. 13).

Application: Sermons on this parable should be devoted to the issue of clarifying priorities about what is important in life, pointing out how too often we seek comfort in the wrong things (Sin). It should be made clear that our relation to Christ is the right priority and how that changes things (Justification by Grace and Sanctification). An element of urgency (Realized Eschatology) about the need to sort out our priorities could be introduced.

Proper 28 / Pentecost 23 / Ordinary Time 33, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
Serving God his way. In preparation for the celebration of Christ’s kingship and God’s majesty next week, the lessons proclaim how God sometimes works out of the box (defying the world’s expectations) and that Christians are called to be open to these surprises. The primary themes of the day are Justification by Grace, Providence, Sanctification, and Social Ethics.

Psalm 123
This is a prayer for deliverance from personal enemies in the form of a lament. It is a Song of Ascents, entailing that it could also have been a pilgrim song for those climbing the hill (Zion) to the temple in Jerusalem. The people lift up their eyes to God like servants look to the hand of their master until mercy [chanan] is conferred (vv. 1-2). Prayers for mercy are offered, for the people have endured much contempt [buz] (vv. 3-4). The speakers of these verses may represent all of Israel, but they could be intended only as the voices of those who have been oppressed.

Application: The psalm inspires sermons on God’s loving mercy in face of hard times (Justification by Grace) or an expression of confidence in God’s will for justice for the oppressed (Social Ethics).

OR

Psalm 90:1-8 (9-11) 12
We have previously noted that this psalm is a prayer of deliverance from national adversity, in the genre of a group lament. It is traditionally attributed to Moses (the only psalm so designated), but does not likely trace its origins to him. The psalm begins with a hymn-like introduction declaring God’s eternity and the transience of human life. In God’s time a thousand years are said to be like an evening, a brief period of the night (a watch) [layil]. Our lives are swept away like a dream. But God is identified as our dwelling place [maon, or "habitation"] (vv. 1-6). The people are said to be consumed by God’s anger [aph], for their secret sins are exposed (v. 7). All their days pass away under his wrath, and they come to an end with a sigh (vv. 8-9). The brevity of life, its character as toil and trouble, are noted (v. 10). Few consider the power of God’s wrath and the fear/reverence [yirah] due him. Prayers to God to teach us the wisdom to count our days that we might gain a wise heart [iebab] are offered (vv. 11-12).

Application: Sermons emerging from this psalm need to contrast the eternity of God to the brevity of our lives. From this starting point preachers can focus on seeing all our years as dwelling in God like their habitation (that all time is located in God, so that all events in history are simultaneous in his point of view, much like Einstein described time at the speed of light), entailing that in God we are not separated from our deceased loved ones, for from God’s perspective the time in which we live is their time too (Eschatology and Providence). This has implications for how we live (Sanctification), for what we do is done in the presence of and for our elders as well as for God. Another sermon direction emerges from the lesson’s final verses, as we are urged to make every day count, in living and serving God (Realized Eschatology and Sanctification).

Judges 4:1-7
This book is probably a compilation of ancient stories of tribal experiences under local leaders in the period from the death of Joshua to the establishment of the monarchy in Israel. These stories were collected for didactic purposes perhaps by the mid-eighth century BC. One hundred years later they were edited by the D strand, part of the religious revival during the reign of King Josiah. This lesson is part of the story of Deborah.

The lesson begins by noting that after the previous Judge Ehud’s death, the Israelites sinned again in Yahweh’s sight (v. 1). They were sold to King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Jazor, a city of Galilee. The Israelites cry out for help. Reference to the iron chariots of Israel’s enemies reminds us that ironworking knowledge was just being brought to Canaan in the period of the judges of the twelfth and eleventh centuries BC (vv. 2-3). Deborah is noted as a prophetess [nebiah], wife of Lappidoth. She becomes a judge and many Israelites submitted to her (vv. 4-5). She summons Barak, son of Abinoam, to take possession of Mount Tabor. She prophesies conquest of Jabin’s army (vv. 6-7), and eventually the king was subdued (vv. 23-24).

Application: Focusing on God’s use of Deborah, her leadership, and her ecstatic insight opens the way for sermons on God’s use of women and others outside the structures of power to achieve justice and other good things. Social Ethics, Providence, and Sanctification are the themes receiving most attention.

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
The collection of sayings by this prophet may date to the era just prior to or early in the reform of Josiah in Judah late in the seventh century BC. Zephaniah may have been a contemporary of Isaiah. This chapter arranges a series of oracles around the theme day of Yahweh, belief that a judgment of Judah for its religious syncretism lies ahead and yet with the expectation of restoration (3:8ff).

The day [yom] of the Lord is said to be at hand. The Lord is said to have prepared a sacrifice/slaughter [zebach] (v. 7). Punishment/inspecting [paqad] of Jerusalem is promised (v. 12). Wealth is to be plundered and houses laid waste (v. 13). This day is said to be near, a day of distress [metsuqah] (vv. 14-15). Distress will be brought on the people for their sin (v. 17). Neither silver nor gold will save anyone from Yahweh’s wrath, for in the fire of his passion the whole earth will be consumed (v. 18). Not just Judah, but all human beings will endure this judgment. In a way, this prophecy broke with religious-cultural suppositions about the day of Yahweh in this period. Rather than expecting the Lord to come to destroy Israel’s enemies, the lesson teaches that God’s punishment would be visited on the Hebrews, not a rescue of them.

Application: This Complementary Version of the First Lesson forces us to recognize that our vision of the second coming and the thinking of many of us that God will get all those bad guys and save us is not the word. We need to recognize that God’s way is to condemn us for our sin, that we deserve such judgment (Sin and Eschatology). But this harsh word should then be combined with the Second Lesson’s promise that in the end God has destined us for salvation (Justification by Grace).

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
We note again that the book is likely an authentic letter by Paul, written to a church of mostly Gentiles in a Greek city threatened by social pressures and some persecution to return to the values of secular culture. The book may contain fragments of several letters. In this lesson Paul addresses further questions about the coming of the Lord. Paul first notes that concerning the times and seasons an eschatological timetable is not necessary (v. 1). For the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (v. 2). Paul uses the common image of a pregnant woman to illustrate the suddenness of Jesus’ return (v. 3; cf. Isaiah 13:8; Jeremiah 6:24). The faithful are not in darkness about this matter. They are said to be children of light [phos], not of darkness [skotos, which also means "gloom"] (vv. 4-5; cf. Luke 16:8; Essenes used this contrast between children of light and children of darkness [Dead Sea Scrolls, "War Scroll"]). Paul proceeds to urge that we keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep do so at night.

Likewise with drunkenness (vv. 6-7). In being sober, the faithful are to put on the breastplate [thora ] of faith and love and hope of salvation [soteria] as a helmet (v. 8). This reference to armor suggests Christian life must be a struggle. Paul then adds that God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through Christ who dies for us, so that whether awake or asleep we may live with him (vv. 9-10). Paul urges mutual encouragement in closing (v. 11).

Application: Sermons on this text remind us that we do not know when Christ will come again, but we need to be prepared. But we do know salvation lies ahead, though there will be struggles to live as God’s people. Eschatology, Justification by Grace, and Sanctification are all emphasized.

Matthew 25:14-30
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the talents, a teaching that only appears also in very similar parallel account in Luke (19:12-17). The account begins with Jesus telling of a man going on a journey who gave five talents (a talent [talanton] was worth more than fifteen years’ wages of a laborer) to one of his slaves/servants [doulos], two to another, and one to a third, each according to his ability (vv. 14-15). (The image of a journey may suggest a foreshadowing of Jesus’ pending absence from the disciples.) The one who received five talents went and traded with them, making five more talents. The one with two talents did the same, earning two more (vv. 16-17). But the slave with one talent dug a hole, hiding the master’s money (v. 18). After a long time the master returns and settles accounts with them (v. 19). (This may be a reference to the delay in Christ’s second coming.) Those who had raised more talents report the results and are praised (vv. 20-23). But the one who buried the talent comes forth to report, noting how harsh the master was (vv. 24-25). The master calls this slave wicked and lazy, for he is accustomed to reap where he did not sow. At least this slave should have invested the mater’s money in the bank (vv. 26-27). The master takes the slave’s one talent and gives it to the slave with ten. He claims that to all who have, more will be given, but from those with nothing, that will be taken away (vv. 28-29). The slave who had just one talent is said to be worthless and is thrown into outer darkness [skotos] where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (v. 30).

Application: The parable gives rise to sermons condemning our sin (sloth and cowardice) and proclaiming the good news of Justification and Sanctification (a life devoted to using and sharing our talents).

Christ the King (Proper 29) / Pentecost 24 / Ordinary Time 34, Cycle A

THEME OF THE DAY
The good news of the reign of Christ. This last Sunday of the church year is clearly a day to take stock, to contemplate the power and authority of Christ, not just in our lives but throughout the created order to the end (Creation, Providence, Christology, Eschatology).

Psalm 100
This is a Psalm of Thanksgiving, probably a doxology for a collection. While the song does not refer specifically to God as king, its mood is similar to the alternative kingship psalm that follows. We are exhorted to make a joyful noise [rua, meaning "to shout"] to the Lord and to worship with gladness [simchah] and singing [shir] (vv. 1-2). Reminders are given that Yahweh is God who made us and that we are his people (v. 3). Exhortations are then given to enter his presence [shaar, literally "gates"] with thanksgiving and praise (v. 4). We confess that Yahweh is good [tob] and that his steadfast love [chesed, or "mercy"] and faithfulness [emunah] endure forever (v. 5).

Application: A sermon on this psalm needs to involve praise of God for his majesty that is filled with love (God, Providence, Justification by Grace). Another possibility for the sermon is to focus on the nature of worship as joyful praise.

OR

Psalm 95:1-7a
This text is part of a liturgy of God’s kingship. These verses are part of a brief outline of a worship service, opening with a hymn and perhaps a processional. The congregation is exhorted to come to Yahweh, singing with a joyful noise to the rock [tsur, referring to a sharp rock] of our salvation [yesha, meaning "safety" or "ease"] (v. 1). They are urged to come into his presence [panim, literally "face"] with thanksgiving and with a joyful noise of hymns and praise (v. 2). Yahweh is said to be a great God, a great king above all gods. The depths of the earth, the mountain’s heights, the sea, and the dry land are his, for he made them (vv. 3-5). More exhortation is given to worship and kneel before Yahweh the Creator, for he is said to be our God and we his sheep (vv. 6-7).

Application: This psalm would also inspire sermons devoted to praising God for his majesty and the way he gives us safety and ease in life (God and Providence). In this case as well, another possibility would be to focus on the nature of worship as joyful praise. But focusing on the majesty of the created order and helping the flock recognize that God’s rule is related to the fact that he made the cosmos (Creation) is another alternative.

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Ezekiel was a prophet from a priestly family whose ministry to his fellow exiles during the Babylonian captivity extended from 593 BC to 563 BC. Some oracles pre-date Jerusalem’s fall. The original collection of prophecies was rewritten and expanded by an editor. This lesson is a prophecy on the shepherds of Israel. Yahweh Elohim declares that he will himself search for his scattered sheep (vv. 11-12). He promises to bring them back to their own land where they will be fed (vv. 13-14). The Lord promises to be their shepherd [raah]. He will seek the lost, bring back the stray, and strengthen the weak (vv. 15-16). Yahweh Elohim proceeds to claim that he will judge [shaphat] between fat sheep and lean sheep, saving those who will no longer be ravaged (vv. 20-22). He will set over them one shepherd, his servant David, who will feed them and be their shepherd (v. 23). It is promised that the Lord will be the God of the people and David their prince (v. 24).

Application: A sermon on this text could provide occasion to proclaim God’s care for the poor despite our sinful resistance, and the forgiving, empowering grace we need in order to do this (Social Ethics, Sanctification, and Justification by Grace). Or more focus could be placed on God and Christ as our shepherd (Justification by Grace).

Ephesians 1:15-23
This book is a circular letter, written either by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of Paul who had had a hand in gathering the collection of his epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics which are markedly different from the Pauline corpus. Either way, the epistle seems to have been written to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15). This is a lesson offering thanksgiving reflections and prayer. It begins with the author claiming to have heard of the Ephesians’ faith and love toward all the saints. Thus he gives thanks for them, remembering them in his prayers (vv. 15-16). He proceeds to pray that the God of Jesus Christ may give the Ephesians a spirit of wisdom and revelation enlightening their hearts [dianoia, which properly translates "mind"], so that they may know the hope [epis] to which he has called them and the riches of this inheritance among the saints (vv. 17-18). The author then speaks of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power [kratos] for all who believe (v. 19). God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him and seated him at his right hand, far above all earthly powers (vv. 20-21; cf. Psalms 110:1). God is said to have put all things under Christ’s feet, making him the head over all things for the church. It is said to be his body [soma] and fullness of him who fills all in all (vv. 22-23).

Application: This lesson invites sermons on the cosmic Christ (how the Logos permeates all the structures of creation and subdues them, most especially in the church). The implications of this insight about Christology and Creation for everyday life (a sense of Christ’s presence in everything) may be explored.

Matthew 25:31-46
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]), a book perhaps written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus’ proclamation of the great judgment.

Jesus begins by claiming that when the Son of Man [huios tou anthropou] comes with all the angels he will sit on the throne of glory (v. 31). All the nations will be gathered before the Son, it is noted, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats (v. 32). Then the king will tell those he puts on his right that they are blessed and may inherit the kingdom prepared for them before the foundation of the world (v. 34). This idea underlines the certainty of promise, endorsing the Hebrew idea that something we expect in the future is already present in God. Jesus then proceeds to comment that the reason for this separation was because those placed on his right fed him when he was hungry, welcomed him as a stranger, clothed and cared from him when he was naked and sick (vv. 35-36). The righteous will answer with surprise that they served him, Jesus notes (vv. 37-39). The king will answer that they have served him when they served the least of those who are members of his family, for then these deeds were done to him (v. 40). Next those placed by Jesus on his left hand will be told by him that they are cursed and must go to the eternal fire prepared for the devil (v. 41). For they have not served him when he came in the form of a stranger, or as one who is naked, sick, and in prison (vv. 42-43). The cursed will answer that they did not see Jesus come to them as hungry, thirsty, as a stranger, as naked, and the like (v. 44). Then Jesus, it is prophesied, will answer that as they did not do it to the least of these they have not done it to him (v. 45). And then they will go away to eternal punishment, while the righteous [dikaios] go to eternal life (v. 46). Scholars have argued that this lesson’s emphasis on works must be held in tension with Matthew’s stress on grace in 20:1-6 (Eduard Schweizer, Good News According to Matthew, p. 480).

Application: This lesson affords opportunity to proclaim how and why the last judgment is good news. Justification by Grace and Eschatology should be emphasized, with attention to Social Ethics and Sanctification. Another approach might be to focus on what it is like to find Christ in our poor neighbor.

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.

All Saints Day (2014)

THEME OF THE DAY
This is inspired by the saints and the love of God. The festival and the assigned texts focus on the Christian life (Sanctification), with an appreciation that this does not happen apart from God’s work on us (Justification by Grace). There are also eschatological elements/themes to be explored in relation to these themes.

Psalm 34:1-10, 22
This lesson is a thanksgiving for deliverance from trouble, traditionally attributed to David when feigning madness before Abimelech, whom he ultimately overcame. (In the actual event reported in 1 Samuel 21:10-15, David tricks Achish, King of Gath.) We have previously noted 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 help we can count on from God in the midst of our troubles. The psalm is acrostic, with the first letter of each line following consecutively the order of the Hebrew alphabet.

The lesson begins with a brief hymn of praise, referring to blessing [barak] Yahweh at all times (vv. 1-3). The psalmist claims to have sought the Lord and been delivered (vv. 4, 6). Yahweh’s angel [malak, referring both to a messenger and to Yahweh's power] camps around all who fear [yare, referring to obedience and proper relationship with God] him (v. 7). We are told to taste and see that Yahweh is good [tob], and those who take refuge in him are blessed/happy [ashere] and are never in want (vv. 8-10). The style here is typical of teachers of Hebraic wisdom (Psalms 1 and 37). The Lord is said to redeem [padah, which also means "free"] the life of his servants not condemning those who take refuge in him (v. 22).

Application: Sermons on this song might depict the Christian life (Sanctification) as taking refuge in God. These saints are never in want and are blessed (which entails their happiness). The character of happiness in Old Testament times, reflecting on how we might find happiness today in holiness and right relation with Christ, could receive further attention.

Revelation 7:9-17
The lesson is taken from an apochryphal book of the late first century expressing hope for salvation after a world-ending new creation. Although parts of the book may predate the fall of Jerusalem, it is likely that it achieved its present form during the reign of Emperor Domitian between 81 and 96 AD. Christians were being persecuted for refusing to address him as lord and god. Though the tradition ascribes the authorship to John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), it is by no means clear that the author is one of the disciples. However, the book’s Semitic Greek style does suggest its author was Jewish. It relies heavily on eschatological images of the book of Daniel and other Old Testament texts (see 1:7, 12, 16; cf. Daniel 7:3; 10:5-9). This lesson is a vision of the multitude of the redeemed, transpiring between the opening of the sixth and seventh seals (opened by the lamb [presumably Christ] in 6:1).

The multitude of every nation is said to stand before the lamb robed in white (symbolizing righteousness and victory). They carry palm branches (also symbolizing victory) (v. 9). A praise psalm is offered regarding salvation belonging to God and Christ (v. 10). Angels stands around the throne of God and also around elders and four living creatures. They worship God, singing a sevenfold ascription to God (vv. 11-12). In dialogue with an elder, John learns that those robed in white are those who have weathered persecution and been washed in Christ’s sacrifice (vv. 13-14). Those who endured persecution (probably a period of distress prior to the end times) have a favored position, standing before the throne of God. They worship him day and night, receiving shelter (v. 17). They will also hunger and thirst no more, enjoying comfort from the heat (Isaiah 49:10; Psalm 121:6) (v. 16). The lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd of those who suffered. He will guide them and God will wipe away their tears (v. 17).

Application: This text invites sermons that teach and proclaim the vision of the end time and its relevance for everyday life (Eschatology, Sanctification, and Social Ethics).

1 John 3:1-3
The lesson is found in a treatise or sermon by an unknown teacher in the Johannine tradition, probably aiming to clarify the proper interpretation of the gospel of John. Unlike the gospel, this early second-century work was not concerned to address the relation of Christian faith and Jewish traditions, but it is concerned like the gospel with the proper testimony about Jesus in the Christian tradition. The book addresses segments of the Johannine community that have broken away (2:19; 4:1; 2 John 7). The dispute was over Gnostic or Docetic doubts about whether Jesus was truly a human being and whether his death on the cross was a sacrifice for sin (1:1-3, 7; 2:2; 3:16; 4:2, 10; 5:5).

This lesson is a discussion of how loving relations are expressed in right conduct. The author advises that the Father has given us much love [agape] and that we should be called children [teknon] of God. The world does not know the faithful, for it does not know him (v. 1). He further proclaims that we are God’s children now; what we become has not yet been revealed. When Christ is revealed we will be like him (v. 2). All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure [hagnizo] (v. 3).

Application: Sermons on the lesson might clarify and proclaim that by God’s grace we have been made saints and then describe what it might look like (what lies ahead when Christ comes again). Justification, Sanctification, and Eschatology are the highlighted themes.

Matthew 5:1-12
We have previously noted that this gospel is an anonymous work based on oral traditions about Jesus (though traditionally attributed to Matthew, one of Jesus’ disciples [9:9]). The book may well have been written in the last third of the first century in Antioch, for its Bishop Ignatius seems to quote it as early as 110 AD. That it is written in Greek seems to rule out the disciple as its author. This lesson reports Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes from his Sermon on the Mount, which is only also taught in Luke (6:17-23). The sermon itself proclaims God’s favor of those who aspire to live under his rule. It is so named because in it Jesus names various characteristics that contribute to or characterize the faithful’s blessedness (happiness). These are not conditions for receiving blessings but depict the eschatological age which is dawning (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According To Matthew, p. 88).

The lesson begins with Jesus going up to the mountain, and after sitting down with his disciples he teaches them (vv. 1-2). Being seated was the usual position of Jewish rabbis while teaching. The poor in spirit (those with a deep sense of spiritual poverty) are said to be blessed [makarios, happy], for theirs is the kingdom of God (v. 3). Likewise, blessed are those who mourn as they will receive comfort, those who are meek for they will inherit the earth, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled (vv. 4-6). Also blessed are: 1) the merciful, receiving mercy (v. 7); 2) the pure in heart (those with single-minded sincerity), for they will see God (v. 8); 3) the peacemakers called children of God (v. 9); and 4) the persecuted, for there is God’s kingdom (v. 10). One with a pure heart seems to refer to a person not embarked on a course of evil and not seeking to deceive his neighbor (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew, p. 93). Jesus adds that we are blessed by people who revile and persecute us (v. 11). Then we are told to be glad for our reward is great in heaven, for in the same way Christians are now persecuted this happened to the prophets before the church (v. 12).

Application: A sermon on this gospel can clarify what the Beatitudes are (see last sentence of the first paragraph above). This is also an opportunity to clarify what saintliness is, the balance between extremes (Sanctification).

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. 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 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).

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).

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  • SermonSuite Special
     
    SermonSuite
    Leah Lonsbury
    For All the Saints
    Matthew 5:1-12; Matthew 23:1-12

    Many of us will be celebrating All Saints Day this Sunday, pausing to honor the lives of the members of our congregations who have died in the past year. But what is it exactly about a person that makes them a saint? William W. How gives us some ideas in his famous hymn “For All the Saints.” Saints, according to How, are those who profess their faith before the world; bless the name of Jesus; find shelter in God; look to the Lord in their faithful, bold, and “well-fought fight”; win the victor’s crown; and shine in glory.
         Those sound like some pretty tough standards to live up to, right?
         What if our saint standards weren’t based on the Platonic ideal of perfection but looked more to our scriptures for guidance? What does Jesus say about what makes one great? Who will be exalted in the kin-dom Jesus is creating? Who will be qualified to be called blessed and known as saints? Who will be rewarded with God’s mercy and called children of God?
         It’s not who we might think.
         Join us this week as we uncover some hidden and perhaps surprising saints whose work often goes unseen, unappreciated, and unrewarded. Just as Jesus warned his followers it would, this saintly work brings with it persecution and great personal risk. This All Saints Day we should all be paying attention, because despite our flaws and imperfections, God through grace is busy making us this kind of saint as well.
         Be ready. Next stop... sainthood.

    ...more
    The Lamb
    Have you ever heard of a man named Polycarp? Don't feel badly if you haven't. Polycarp's not exactly a household name, at least in most houses.
         Yes, it's an odd name, to our ears anyway. The name conjures up for most people today a product that's manufactured from something made of plastic that tastes like freshwater fish. In the history of the church, the name lived through one century after another, and the person who bore it gave good reason for people to keep on mentioning the name....more
    Ron Love
    White grave markers -- white robes
    The Arlington House was a mansion built as a living memorial to George Washington by the first president's adopted grandson. The estate was built on a 1,100-acre tract of land across the Potomac River from Washington DC. Decades later a distant cousin, Robert E. Lee, became the resident of the home. Between 1841 and 1857, Lee was away from Arlington House for several extended periods while serving in the Mexican War and then as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, his alma mater. In 1857 Lee returned to Arlington to join his family and to serve as executor of the estate. Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna, lived at Arlington House until 1861, when Virginia ratified an alliance with the Confederacy and seceded from the Union. Lee, who had been named a major general for the Virginia military forces in April 1861, feared for his wife's safety and anticipated the loss of their family inheritance, so he moved to a new residence. Following the ratification of secession by Virginia, federal troops crossed the Potomac and took up positions around Arlington. Following the occupation, military installations were erected. In punishment for his allegiance to the South, the land was then made into a cemetery so Robert E. Lee would never be able to claim the Arlington House as a residency again. The Arlington National Cemetery was established on June 15, 1864....more
    John Fitzgerald
    Wearing Masks
    Revelation 7:9-17

    A lady went to the local post office on trick-or-treat day and by chance saw a little girl from her neighborhood. The girl happened to be wearing a ghost costume for Halloween. The lady pretended to be frightened upon this encounter and let forth with, "Oh my, I see a ghost." Upon hearing this, the little girl took off her mask and exclaimed, "Don't be afraid there is just a little girl under this mask."...more
    Janice Scott
    Priorities, energy and work
    When my father was dying. he started to give away all his possessions. None of us, including him, knew at the time that he was dying. In fact although we knew he was ill, we didn't realise quite how ill he was. He was always a tidy and methodical person, but around that time he began to sort out all his business and to give things away with a wild abandon which I found quite refreshing to witness....more
    Cynthia Cowen
    True Happiness
    The Point: Happy and blessed are the children of God.

    The Lesson: Welcome, girls and boys. I am happy that you came up to share this time together.
         I brought some pictures of people. You don't know them. But they all have something in common....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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