On this day we enter into the period of each year in which we celebrate the ongoing activity of God in our lives. The activity of God has a special meaning for us as Christians because of the life of Jesus. The texts appointed for this day, however, are a reminder to us that the activity of God and God’s relationships with people did not begin with the life of Jesus. The activity of God and God’s relationships with people take on new meaning for us because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and for that we are grateful.
Analysis of the Hebrew Bible (the Older Testament for us as Christians) indicates that within those documents various hypostases (words used to represent God, anthropomorphic expressions used in attempts to describe activities of God) were developed. Among the most important and frequently used of these are the Word of God, the Glory of God, the Wisdom of God, the Presence of God, and the Spirit or Breath of God. These words became valuable vehicles for communicating effectively that God is indeed actively involved in the world even though we cannot actually see or touch God. These hypostases are helpful as we endeavor to talk about God and to God. We realize that as we attempt to talk about God we must use words, descriptive word drawn from our human experiences.
On this Day of Pentecost, our attention is focused on one of these hypostases used within the Hebrew Bible, namely the Spirit or Breath of God. The Spirit of God is the principal unifying factor in these five texts. Within the development of specifically Christian theology, the Spirit of God became one of our three most basic hypostases for God, most useful in our struggling attempts to talk about God and about the activities of God in our lives. As an hypostasis for God, the Spirit of God concept did not originate during the 1st century of the common era, nor on the day of creation, nor at any point within recorded history. We believe that the Spirit of God is a God-given means by which we are enabled to talk about God.
Within the Day of Pentecost observance in the Christian calendar, the dominating text is obviously the Lukan playwright’s Pentecost story that we have in Acts 2:1-21. We could hardly celebrate this day in the Church Year without using it. The Lukan writer’ Pentecost story brought the Christian observance of Pentecost into existence. Therefore, let us turn to this text.
Just as in early Christian tradition recorded in the Synoptic Gospels the Last Supper of Jesus was placed within the context of the Israelite-Jewish Passover observance, here in this sequel to the Third Gospel tradition the Lukan writer placed the inception of Christian prophecy within the context of the Israelite-Jewish celebration of Pentecost.
By the time of the 1st century of the common era, the Israelite Feast of Weeks (in the Greek language known as Pentecost) had evolved from an agricultural festival in which groups of Israelites came together to enjoy the first fresh fruits and vegetables of the season and to give portions of these first fruits and vegetables to God by sharing them with those who functioned as priests among them to become for them also a commemoration of the giving of the Torah. Apparently the Lukan writer — or a source utilized by the Lukan writer — took the process of development one step further, taking the Jewish celebration of the giving of the Torah and transforming it for followers of Jesus into the occasion on which Christian prophecy began. This account in Acts 2:1-21, consistent with many others in early Christian traditions, took an Israelite-Jewish custom or ceremony and adapted it for Christian use in a supersessionistic process. By means of this account, early Christianity was able to claim not only to have its own “Torah” in the Synoptic Gospel accounts, but also its own “Prophecy” here in the utterances of these early Christian leaders, all of whom were depicted by the Lukan playwright as gathered together in one place. There are some what we might call “rough edges” in this Acts 2:1-21 account (an indication perhaps of the freshness of the construction). There is a disagreement among those who in the text heard the voices of the disciples as to whether the utterances were incoherent babblings such as might be made by intoxicated persons or whether the utterances were excellent translations of a single message into a variety of languages and dialects such as those provided during sessions of the United Nations General Assembly. Nevertheless, the message intended by the account is clear.
In our Day of Pentecost proclamation, it is the message, not the details of the account that is of primary importance. In the best ways possible for us, we shall certainly want to proclaim that God through the Holy Spirit inspires us also today within the priesthood of all believers, comes over us with mighty power, gives to us the ability to prophesy (that is, to speak forth for God), and fulfills the biblical expectation in our time. Certainly we must claim the Spirit of God as we celebrate our Day of Pentecost. It is not sufficient for us to repeat or to paraphrase this Acts 2:1-21 account only as something that happened in a certain way during the 1st century. We must claim the Spirit of God also for the Church and for us today.
It is the Spirit of the Lord God that leads Ezekiel in this fascinating account and places him into the valley filled with dry bones. It is the Spirit of the Lord God that commands Ezekiel to speak to the wind (the breath of God) and call it back into the bodies of the Israelites who had been rendered lifeless. Spirit/wind/breath comes from God for the restoration of life. This is also our God-given claim as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others today.
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
In this delightful poetic expression of God’s initial and continuing creative activity, it is said that, as in Genesis 1:2, when the Spirit of God is sent forth, all creatures, even the sportive Leviathan, are brought into existence and sustained. We are called to share this message about the power of God today, especially as we continue to be reminded of the destructive powers being marshaled not only by large nations in the world, but also by smaller nations and by terrorist groups.
According to the Apostle Paul in this account, the entire creation has been groaning and in agony like a woman who is suffering with labor pains that never end. Paul wrote that within all of creation, all people have been struggling in agony under the bondage of sin until the time of the death and resurrection of Jesus as the Christ. For Paul, the Spirit of God is now with us at all times to provide the support that we need, because by ourselves, Paul wrote, we do not even know how to pray. The Spirit of God, therefore, intercedes for us with prayers that are so profound that we can neither imagine nor describe them.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
In these texts the Spirit is described as the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father and is to be sent by the Johannine Jesus after he leaves the Johannine community. The Paraclete will glorify Jesus, will take from the things that belong to Jesus and declare them to the Johannine community, will condemn the sinful world and convince the members of the Johannine community that the righteousness of God is fully known within the Johannine Jesus. The Paraclete is described as in some sense the surrogate for Jesus who cannot come unless the Johannine Jesus will go. The Paraclete is a guarantee that there will be more of the grace and truth of God to come, that the revelation will continue for the Johannine community.
In our use of this text, particularly on the Day of Pentecost, it is important that we claim participation in the ongoing revelation of God, that we as pastors, leaders in worship, and congregations as a whole affirm that we are expressions of the work of the Paraclete, the Spirit of Truth, in our time and place. The work of the Johannine Jesus, of the Paraclete, of the Spirit of Truth, did not in any way end during the first few decades in the development of Christianity. The work of the Spirit of Truth continues among us where we are, and among others, even among those who are very different from us.
THEME OF THE DAY: The Holy Spirit Gets Around.
Sermons on the Holy Spirit and the Church are especially appropriate, but the Sunday’s Trinitarian perspective entails that Creation and the Spirit’s Work in the Church and in that Christian life (Sanctification) are also relevant themes.
This is a hymn to God the Creator, with praise for His Providential interventions. It has similarities to the Egyptian Hymn to Aten. The verses considered focus in praise on the multiplicity of creatures that God has created (vv.24-25). God is said to have subdued all the things of the sea, including the monster of chaos, Leviathan (vv.25-26; cf. 79:12-17). This reference to subduing the sea may relate to the Priestly version of Creation in Genesis, which refers to the watery chaos which God is said to have overcame in creating us (Genesis 1:9-10). Providence and the creating role of the Sprit [ruach, also translated “wind”] are stressed in the Psalm (v.30; God as the One Who gives food and other good things with the Spirit and Who also takes away life [vv.27-29]). All living things depend on Him. These themes could also be related to the ecological agenda or to justice. The Lesson concludes with praise of God’s awesomeness (vv.32ff.).
Application: As in the year past on Pentecost Sunday, this Psalm affords several sermon possibilities. Sermons on Creation, Providence, the unity of all living things in the midst of their diversity are legitimate directions. Care for creation and human unity also legitimately emerge as themes (Social Ethics) as well as the Spirit of God’s life-giving and sustaining role – a construal of the Trinity most suggestive of Pentecost and its Word of the Spirit giving life.
We could not begin the Pentecost Season without a report of the first Pentecost from the second half of a two-part history of the Church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). We note again that there is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s Martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of The Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case the author’s stress on the universal mission of the Church (1:8) and so an effort to validate Paul’s ministry reflects in this Lesson. The attention given by the Book to recounting of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the faithful (and the origin of the Church) at Pentecost is hardly surprising given the author’s concern to stress the Work of the Holy Spirit ([Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, p.221).
Jewish tradition held that the Law was given on the day that Christians commemorate as Pentecost, fifty days after Passover (Leviticus 23:15-21). Luke often says that all faithful were together in order to underscore unity of the community (2:44; 4:24; 5:12). This theme is emphasized in this Lesson. The gift of the Holy Spirit [pneuma hagion] (baptism of the Holy Spirit) had been promised by John the Baptist (Luke 3:16). Reference to the Spirit’s appearance as of tongues [glossa] of fire (v.3) is reminiscent of references to the tongues/flames [lahab] of fire issued by Old Testament writers to suggest God’s Presence (Isaiah 66:15-16; 5:24; cf. Exodus 19:18). Luke reports that John the Baptist had promised a Baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire [pur] (Luke 3: 16; also see Jesus’ Promise in Luke 24:49). The report of speaking in other languages [dialektos] and the ability to understand each other (vv.4-11) is a reversal of The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and another mark of the unity of the community. This experience of actually understanding foreign language may be different from the Pentecostal experiences reported by Paul about the Corinthian church which seems to have manifested not in foreign languages but ecstatic, incoherent forms of speech [glossa] (I Corinthians 14:1-33). But the skepticism of some who observed the event, accusing those who had the experience of the Spirit of being drunk [full of new wine] (v.13), is a reference suggestive of the Pentecostal experience noted in I Corinthians 12:13. And the fact that the Greek term glossa (as in glossolalia) is also used in this account suggests that the first Pentecost also seems to have been an ecstatic experience.
Peter is reported to stand to defend the validity of the experience that those filled with the Spirit are not drunk (vv.14-16). His sermon, based on Joel 2:28-32, follows (vv.17-21). It teaches that the pouring out of the Spirit on all (even on slaves and women, vv.18) is a mark of the Messianic Age. The sermon based on the Joel text underlines the eschatological nature of the text. Peter then proclaims Justification By Faith (v.21).
Application: The text continues to invite sermons on the Church (its multi-cultural unity which counteracts how The Tower of Babel experience has divided us) and its implications for how the faitful live in harmony (Sanctification) on the Holy Spirit (as a sign of the End Times in which we live [Realized Eschatology]), or about charismatic/pentecostal experience (see the discussion, above of the different kinds of manifestations of tongues in the New Testament).
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 of the oracles pre-date Jerusalem’s fall. The original collection was rewritten and expanded by an editor. The Book includes judgment of Judah for its idolatry and defilement of the sanctuary, the proclamation of God’s abiding Presence among the people, consolation and hope expressed in a proclamation of God’s unconditional care.
This text recounts the famed vision of the reviving of the dry bones. These bones [etsem] represent the Exiles and the hopes of Israel’s resuscitation (vv.11-13). Ezekiel’s response to whether the bones can come back to life bespeaks an affirmation of God’s power (v.3). The Word of the Lord is the means of giving new life (v.4). References to the “breath” to be put in the bones (vv.5,9-10) use the same Hebrew word ruach as is translated “the Lord’s Spirit” (v.14), bringing the bones to life. The Spirit of God gives life. Note that the Hebraic holistic view of persons, not a Greek view of the immortal soul, operates here. The Hebrews will return to the land (v.14). A continuity is posited with the Old Covenant, as reference is made to obedience to the Law/statutes [chuqqah] even after the resuscitation of the people (v.24). The resurrection of Israel is a testimony to God’s act in history.
Application: Sermons on this text can proclaim a fresh start from stagnation or oppression (Justification By Grace and Realized Eschatology). The Spirit’s role in this liberation should be stressed.
This authentically Pauline Epistle was probably written between 54 AD and 58 AD. It is a letter of introduction to a church which Paul had not previously visited, a church which may have been comprised of largely Jewish Christians. This may explain his focus on the different (grace-oriented vision) of the role of the Law in the Christian life.
In this Lesson Paul continues a discussion of the impact of God’s saving act in view of the continuing realities of sin. Nature is thought of as sharing the stress, anxiety, and pain which we ourselves feel as we await redemption. The text proclaims the hope of fulfillment. The faithful and the whole of creation [ktisis] groans [sustenazo] in labor pains. The metaphor of birth pains was used by other early Christian writers to describe the eschatological transition from one era to another (cf. Mark 13:8). Paul notes that, possessing the Spirit’s first fruits, we groan inwardly, but wait for fulfillment (vv.22-23). Reference is made to the hope [elpis] in which we are saved [sozo]. He is not seen; we must wait with patience (vv.24-25). The Spirit [pneuma] helps in our weakness, Paul adds. We do not know how to pray, but the Spirit intercedes [entugchano] (vv.26-27).
Application: This text will inspire sermons which call attention to our sinful condition (how it impacts the whole created order) along with the Good News that the Holy Spirit ushers in a new era, helping us in our weakness and interceding for us (Justification, Sanctification, and Realized Eschatology).
or Acts 2:1–21
See the first option for the First Lesson.
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Again we note that this Book is the last of the four Gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) Gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier Gospels. The Book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the Disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early Church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, p.414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-Biblical Church Historian Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the Book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the Gospel, and so John is a “spiritual Gospel” (presumably one not based on eye-witness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol.1, p.261). More recently, as we have observed, scholars have rediscovered the assessment of another early writer of the Church, Papias, who claimed that John was an eyewitness. This has led such scholars to suggest that this Gospel may have been eyewitness testimony after all ( Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, pp.423ff.; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1, pp.154-155). 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; cf. 16:2).
The Lesson is a continuation of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. It begins with Jesus claiming that He will send the Advocate (parakletos, helper or defense lawyer), the Spirit of truth [pneuma tace aletheias] Who proceeds [ekporeuomai] from the Father (15:26). Jesus claims to reveal new things to His Disciples not previously taught because He was with them. But now He is returning to the One Who sent Him (16:4b-5). Despite sorrow that might emerge as a result of His departure, Jesus notes it is to His followers’ advantage, since then the Advocate will be sent (16:6-7). The Spirit will prove the world wrong about [convict the world of] sin and about righteousness [dikaiosune] and judgment [krisis], for the ruler of the world has been condemned (16:8-11). The Greek term used for world in v.8 is kosmos, which can refer to present human reality.
Jesus proclaims that He has more to say, but His followers cannot bear it now (16:12). Yet the Spirit will guide them into truth and, speaking not on His own, will declare what is to come (16:13). The Spirit will glorify [doxa] Christ, taking what is Christ’s and declare it (16:14). All that the Father has, Jesus claims, is His; this is why the Spirit takes what is His and declares it to the faithful (16:15). Jesus concludes by noting that in a little while He will not be seen [theoreo], but then again a little while longer and He will be seen (16:16). This seems to be an eschatological comment, pointing to Jesus’ ongoing Presence after His Resurrection and eschatological Return.
Application: Sermons on this text can proclaim the gifts of the Holy Spirit, how He reveals new insights (Eschatology), convicts Sin, advocates for the faithful, and gives the faithful all that God has (Justification By Grace). References to the relation of Spirit, Father, and Son open the way to reflections on the Trinity.
The Festival of the Holy Trinity is an occasion on which we are called to speak boldly and as well as is humanly possible about our faith in God and about how we perceive God. The texts selected, the liturgy, and within the liturgy especially the hymns provide resources for our use. Beyond these, there are people, and ultimately there is God.
We speak about God from within the context of this world and of our experiences. In many ways, we ourselves are limited to this world, speaking about God whom we believe is not limited to this world. Nevertheless, we are inspired by God to speak within the limits of this world about God whom we believe is not limited to this world.
As Christians, we believe that God is totally transcendent, totally beyond, all powerful, all knowing, perfect in every way. We also believe that God is also always here among us as pervasive Spirit, like the air, the wind, always necessary for us, that we might breathe in and breath out, permitting us to do evil as well as good, though guiding us to do only that which is good. Finally, we believe that God is active in our lives, coming to us most of all in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, whom we believe to be the Risen Christ, here among us, but also ascended to the Father. We believe in God perceived as God the Father, as God the Son, and as God the Holy Spirit.
Within the texts appointed for this day in Series B, there is no explicit expression of our Christian concept of the Holy Trinity such as we have it in the post-biblical ecumenical creeds and in the writings of post-biblical Christian theologians. We do not have the explicit reference to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit such as we have this in Matthew 28:19 appointed for Trinity Sunday in Series A. It is surprising that the benediction “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit of God be with all of you” (2 Corinthians 13:14) was not selected for use anywhere in The Revised Common Lectionary. 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 is used on Trinity Sunday Series C in The Revised Common Lectionary, but not 2 Corinthians 13:14. Unless we are strictly bound to use The Revised Common Lectionary with no variations, I think that we should include 2 Corinthians 13:14 in Series C on Trinity Sunday next year.
In this magnificent “call of Isaiah” text we have the threefold acclamation of the Lord of hosts in Hebrew as kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, in Greek hagios, hagios, hagios, and in English “Holy, Holy, Holy.” In Hebrew and for the Israelites and Jews the repetition of this word that means “Most Awesome” or “Totally Set Apart” is a way to indicate emphasis on and great respect for the Lord God as they perceived and continue to perceive God. We as Christians see in this text an indication, even a prophecy for some, of the threefold being of God and proclaim our understanding of this most notably in the words of Reginald Heber, combined with music provided by John B. Dykes, in one of our favorite hymns: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” with lines one and four concluding with the words that have been perhaps more influential than the Isaiah 6:1-8 biblical text itself, “… God in three persons, blessed Trinity!”
We should note in our study of these concepts that in the Greek language in which most of the earliest development of our Christian theology was developed and expressed the Trinity concept was depicted by using the Greek word, in plural form hypostases, by which they meant three ways of perceiving God. The Latin writers used the Latin word personae to express this, and English translators rendered this word as “persons,” as we see it in the favorite Trinity Sunday hymn mentioned in the previous paragraph.
In terms of belief in one God, it is better that we speak about God on Trinity Sunday and throughout the year as “one in three” rather than as “three in one,” one God whom we perceive in three principal ways rather than as three whom we perceive as one. In dialogue with people who are Jews and Muslims, this is especially important. We as Christians are monotheists, not tri-theists.
Within the context of these Holy Trinity Sunday texts, the Lord God is revealed in Psalm 29 as the God of the storm, with powerful and frightful winds, as “the voice of the Lord” sweeping over the land from the Mediterranean Sea to the desert to the east, with the elements of a storm of lightning and thunder, strong winds, and heavy rain. The phenomenon of nature is used very effectively in this ancient hymn to the Lord as the Lord of the storm. It is appropriate also for us.
The Aramaic “Abba” in this text can be translated as “Daddy!” here rather than retained in a transliteration. In either case, it provides one of the closest links through the liturgical practices of the earliest followers of Jesus between the Jesus of history and the Apostle Paul. Paul’s use of the words Father, Christ, and Spirit of God in this text provide additional materials for us in our teaching and in our proclamation on this Festival of Trinity Sunday.
The key verses for us for our use next Sunday are John 3:5-8 and John 3:16-17. They also are the portions of John 3:1-17 that most likely were the first portions of John 3:1-17 developed within the Johannine community, prior to the addition of the anti-Jewish segments that surround them in this text.
We have elements in John 3:5-8, 16-17 with which to speak from our hearts about God as God is revealed to us. Our Christian traditions depict God as the Father of Jesus and consequently as “Our Father.” Through our use of John 3:1-17 and Romans 8:12-17 next Sunday, we shall certainly proclaim that the Risen Christ is God for us. We believe that the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Jesus, is blowing among us wherever God wishes. We cannot see God, but we can feel God — just as we cannot see the wind but we can hear it and we can feel it – and we can see the effects of what God does. We believe that God certainly is revealed also in other ways, but for us as Christians these three are by far the most important. Throughout all of this, we remember that God is, after all, “One,” actually most significantly “Number One,” as indicated in the theology of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and other theists.
The dispute about exorcism and the charge that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebul in Mark 3:22-30 are particularly interesting because of the context into which these verses are placed in the Markan account. Instead of the exorcism that is included in the parallel accounts in Luke 11:14-23 and Matthew 12:22-32 and 9:32-34, we read in Mark 3:20-21 the statement peculiar to Mark that “those from him,” that is, Jesus’ own family or his own relatives – probably defined more fully in Mark 3:31-35 as Jesus’ mother and his brothers and perhaps his sisters — having heard about what he was doing, had gone out from Nazareth to bring him back to Nazareth, for they were saying that he had lost his senses by speaking openly about the time soon when the Lord God would be coming to rule over them instead of the oppressive Romans. In the Markan context of this account, therefore, Jesus is presented as facing conflict on two fronts, one with the scribes who had come down from Jerusalem and the other with his own mother and closest relatives.
An analysis of the Synoptic interrelationships that would see no more than a simple progression of development from Mark and “Q” material to Matthew and to Luke would probably lead to the conclusion that Jesus’ mother and siblings did not understand what Jesus was doing and tried to stop him. Later Synoptic traditions, with their greater interest in Jesus’ parents as God the Father and by the power of the Spirit of God the Virgin Mary as his mother, the conception and birth of Jesus as the divine Son of God, and their much higher Christology than the Christology in Mark, with correspondingly diminishing emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, suppressed the Markan tradition of misunderstanding on the part of Jesus’ mother and brothers, retaining only Mark 3:31-35 in their renditions and rejecting Mark 3:20-21 outright.
Such an analysis may be a fairly accurate representation of what had occurred, but it is also possible that behind Mark 3:20-21 lies something more than — or other than – an historical reminiscence by Peter or by someone else within the tradition. If community self-consciousness was an important factor in the shaping of the Markan account, it is possible that the complete controversy dialogue here includes not only the central portion (Mark 3:22-30), but the entire text of Mark 3:20-35 selected for our use next Sunday. If the complete controversy dialogue includes all of Mark 3:20-35, the Markan community may have been polemicizing not only against the scribes from Jerusalem, its principal antagonists in the Markan account, but also against those from Jesus’ background who did not understand what the Jesus of the Markan community was doing and as “his mother and brothers” were attempting to suppress him. According to Mark 3:20-35, neither “the scribes from Jerusalem” nor “those from Jesus’ own family background” were truly Jesus’ mother and Jesus’ brothers. Instead, whoever does the will of God (the Markan community gathered around Jesus as they perceived him) is Jesus’ brother and sister and mother (Mark 3:33-35).
In the Luke 11:15-22 parallel, it is merely some people from the multitude who said that it was in the name of Beelzebul, the most prominent of the demons, that Jesus was casting out demons. Mark assigned to these objectors the identity of the scribes from Jerusalem and Matthew the identity of the Pharisees. Those who would try to separate Jesus from the ones who were sitting around Jesus in a circle (the Markan community) are not recognized (Mark 3:33) as Jesus’ mother and brothers. Those who say that Jesus has an unclean spirit are said to be speaking against the Holy Spirit and do not have forgiveness ever. They are guilty of an eternal sin (Mark 3:29-30). The polemic of Mark 3:20-35 is probably directed, therefore, against both of these groups. The polemic is gentle and subtle against “those from Jesus” from Galilee, but it is intense and severe against the “scribes from Jerusalem.” The warning and condemnation included in Mark 3:28-29 are separated by enough space in the account from the mention of the scribes from Jerusalem in Mark 3:22 that most readers of Mark 3:20-35 are probably not aware of how the complete controversy dialogue of Mark 3:20-35 is constructed. For a carefully reasoned discussion of this issue, see Raymond E. Brown, Karl P. Donfried, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and John Reumann, Mary in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, and New York: Paulist, 1978), pages 51-59. Consequently, most readers apply the warning against exclusion from fellowship with Jesus and against anyone who would speak evil of the Holy Spirit to themselves and to each other rather than to 1st century Jewish or to contemporary Jewish groups.
Therefore, we in our expository proclamation based on this text should also apply the warning against exclusion from fellowship with Jesus and against anyone who would speak evil against the Holy Spirit of God to ourselves rather than to Jewish groups of the past or present, even though anti-Jewish polemic was probably intended by the writer of Mark 3:20-35 when the literary “sandwich” of placing Mark 3:22-30 between Mark 3:20-21 and Mark 3:31-35 was formed.
2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1
It is in this text that the confident proclamation of the gospel is seen most clearly in the texts selected for this day. Paul writes that he and his companions have the same spirit of faith as the Israelite psalmist (Psalm 116:10) who is said to have written, “I believed. Therefore, I have spoken.” Since Paul and his companions have believed that God has raised Jesus from the dead, they have also proclaimed that God will raise them after they have died and that God will present them, along with their fellow-believers in Corinth, by the grace of God into a setting that, even though they cannot see it now, is eternal. Certainly that was Paul’s proclamation in this text and certainly it should be our proclamation this coming Sunday. In the words of the Mark 3:20-35 text, it is the acceptance of this proclamation that makes us “Jesus’ mother and Jesus’ brothers.” It is the acceptance of this proclamation that ties the Christian Church and people together within the “Body of Christ” throughout time and space.
In traditional Christian identification of Messianic prophecies within the Hebrew Scriptures (the Older Testament), Genesis 3:15 is said to contain the first glimmer of the Christian gospel in its words regarding the “seed” of the first woman (Eve) bruising the head of the serpent. There can be little doubt that this verse was perceived to be “gospel” by the ancient Israelites, although their perception in the context of their experiences in a climate in which poisonous snakes were a common hazard did not extend beyond the realization that very alert people might be able to bruise or crush the head of a snake and that a snake can and did in many instances strike the heel of a person. (The ancient Israelites obviously did not wear thick, heavy Texas cowboy boots and carry a rifle to protect them against rattlesnakes!) Beyond that, there was likely a prediction or claim in this poetic form that although initially the Canaanites with their snake symbols had been bruising the heels of the nomadic Israelites, eventually the encroaching Israelites would crush the head of the Canaanites and of their religious practices. We as Christians can obviously apply the “gospel” of this text to our time and to our particular situation, as in various Liberation theologies and wherever relevant.
In deep agony caused by the psalmist’s own sin, the psalmist cries out to the Lord for forgiveness. While the psalmist waits for mercy from the Lord, the psalmist calls upon Israel to have this same hope in the Lord. This applies to us as well. We too cry out and wait. For us as Christians, we have, along with psalms such as this, the model of Jesus dying on the cross and the belief that, by dying, Jesus, now perceived as the Risen Christ and as the Son of God, was bearing our sins.
1 Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15) 16-20; 11:14-15
The leaders among the people asked Samuel to appoint for them a king, so that they would be like the other nations around them. Samuel took this to the Lord in prayer and was told by the Lord to do as the people wished, but to let them know what the king would take from them. Samuel responds reluctantly and Saul becomes the first king over the people of Israel.
Unlike earthly kings, the Lord as king has provided the help that the psalmist needed. Therefore, the psalmist acclaims the Lord as God over all of the kings on the earth and praises the Lord God for the steadfast love and mercy of the Lord God, for the love and mercy that will endure forever. This contrasts sharply with the depiction of earthly kings in the 1 Samuel 8:4-11 (12-15) 16-20; 11:14-15 text above. Who do we want to be our “king” over us?
How shall we put together a well constructed worship service based upon Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 and Psalm 126 with their liberation theology for Zion, the Magnificat from Luke 1:47-55 with its emphasis on God bringing down those who are mighty and exalting those who are lowly, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 regarding appropriate behavior for the Thessalonians as they wait for the Day of the Lord, and John 1:6-8, 19-28 with its depiction of John the Baptizer as a man sent from God to be a witness to the Light, one who was much less worthy than was Jesus? How shall we do this when in many congregations the children are already presenting their Christmas program, people want to sing the Christmas carols in church because they have been hearing them in the department stores and discount stores since long before Thanksgiving, and many families are getting ready to leave soon so that will be able to travel to other places to be together with their extended families for Christmas? Our task as worship leaders on the Third Sunday in Advent is never easy.
There is obviously a point of contact with the Second Sunday in Advent through the person of John the Baptizer. One week earlier we heard about John from the perspective of the Markan narrative; now we have John from the vantage point of the Fourth Gospel. (Although we are in the Markan cycle in Series B, we shall not see Markan texts again until the First Sunday after the Epiphany, one month away. Our three year lectionary Series B is constructed in this way because in the Markan narrative there is no annunciation to the Virgin Mary, no virgin birth from the Virgin Mary, and Mary as the human mother of Jesus worries about the safety of her son as he becomes a significant political as well as religious leader. In Mark, Jesus was “adopted” by God as the Son of God when the voice of God announced this as Jesus was being baptized by John.) The Fourth Gospel perspective of John the Baptizer is also different from that of the Markan narrative in important aspects. Unlike Mark and its Synoptic parallels, the Fourth Gospel does not emphasize the Baptizer’s role as one who condemns those who come to him for a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins and baptizes Jesus along with many others. Perhaps this is because the Fourth Gospel tradition with its high Christology could not and would not perceive Jesus as participating in a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, even in order “to fulfill all righteousness.” In the Fourth Gospel Jesus is the exalted “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” If we as worship leaders gently maintain the integrity of the Advent season and utilize Advent hymns and texts within an Advent worship service, we can focus the service primarily on the John 1:6-8, 19-28 text and use the other texts chosen for this day in doing this.
One of the ways in which we can utilize these Advent texts is to use the extended comparison “just as.” We see that just as John the Baptizer was “sent from God” (John 1:6), we too are “sent from God.” Just as John the Baptizer came not as the Light but to bear witness to the Light (John 1:7-8), we have not come as the Light but to bear witness to the Light. Just as John the Baptizer was not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet” (John 1:19-21), we today are not the Christ, not Elijah, nor “the Prophet.” Just as John the Baptizer is presented as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the ways of the Lord’ ” (John 1:23), we too are voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Just as John the Baptizer baptized with water and said that he was not worthy to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet (John 1:26-27), we today baptize with water and are not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.
This extended comparison can and should be continued in a similar manner with the other texts chosen for this day in order to construct a cohesive message that will have an impact and be remembered, while being true to the Advent theme. Just as Mary, according to the Magnificat canticle that the inspired Lukan writer skillfully constructed on the Song of Hannah model of 1 Samuel 2:1-10, sang that her soul (her entire being) magnifies the Lord and her Spirit rejoices in God her Savior (Luke 1:47-55), we also should sing that our soul magnifies the Lord and that our Spirit rejoices in God our Savior. Just as a leader within the Isaiah tradition at the end of the Israelite period of exile in Babylon proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord God was upon that person because the Lord had anointed that person to bring good news to the afflicted (Isaiah 61:1ff.), we too can and should proclaim that the Spirit of the Lord God is upon us. Just as the writer of Psalm 126 rejoiced with shouts of joy, we also should rejoice with shouts of joy on this Third Sunday in Advent. Just as the apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, saying, “Rejoice always, pray, and give thanks as you wait for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24), we can and should say the same.
When we do this, we proclaim the message of these texts, we identify ourselves with the message of these texts, and we demonstrate audibly and visibly that we today are what John the Baptizer, the Lukan writer, Mary, the Isaiah tradition prophet, the Israelite psalmist, and the apostle Paul were in their times, i.e., instruments of God’s grace, bearers of God’s Word, people being used by God, and, just as they were, joyful to be used by God.
It will be especially effective if we use simple drama, or at least dramatic readings of these texts by a variety of people within the congregation, in presenting this message and in showing that both clergy and lay people are bearers of these messages now as in the past. Biblical storytelling in which various persons memorize and tell the stories dramatically will be especially effective. A bit of sweeping dance as the stories are told will add beauty to the Advent presentation.
If we concentrate on the Luke 1:26-38 Gospel account exclusively or even primarily, we will probably emphasize the person of Mary along with her relationships with God, with the angel Gabriel, and with Elizabeth. On the other hand, if we utilize all of the texts appointed for this day, we will probably in some way apply to our own life situation the Jewish and the Christian “Messianic expectations” regarding the promise of the Lord of an everlasting throne of David, a house, a kingdom that will endure forever.
It would be appropriate to take the latter of these two paths, since we have most likely heard many sermons and homilies, including some of our own, in which Mary’s experiences as developed within the Lukan Gospel’s creative drama were further expounded from the preacher’s own supply of interpersonal relationships, experiences, and inspired imagination. There is, of course, much value in continuing the Lukan Gospel’s process of thorough research of the subject, the gathering of oral and written traditions, and the use of earlier biblical style in the formation of a new literary or homiletical product. The Lukan playwright used effectively the references to the angel figure Gabriel in Daniel 8:15-17 and Daniel 9:21-23 in formulating the scene that we know as Luke 1:26-38, our Gospel text for this occasion. The Lukan writer also used the same type of terminology that is included in the Zoroastrian account of how the “Holy Spirit of God” (Ahura Mazda’s Spirit) had come over the mother of Zoroaster and had caused her to conceive Zoroaster without any interaction with a man. (The concept of the Spirit of God as the agency of conception of the Savior figure was also used in the Matthean tradition. Therefore, both of the Newer Testament traditions that developed a virgin conception explanation of how Jesus could be truly divine and truly human share terminology with the Zoroastrian tradition.)
By using all of the texts appointed for this day, however, we have an opportunity to explore an area with much broader implications for our own faith and lives today than that of the virgin conception accounts and to this we now turn.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
This text is a very important component of the suspense-filled “Succession Document” or “Court History of David” narrative that extends from 2 Samuel 6 through 1 Kings 2. It contains the delightful pun regarding the “house” that David had wanted to build for the Lord God but instead the Lord God would build for David. The “house” that the Lord God will build for David will be a structure made not with timbers and adornments but with the lives of people, for it will be a dynasty, a Davidic dynasty intended to last forever. This is the “Messianic expectation” within the Succession Document, and it became a dominant theme in much of the Older Testament, as well as later within Judaism where it provided a new phase of the promise of land, people, nationhood, and blessing to the patriarchs that had served its purpose and would be continued by being blended into this new Messianic expectation.
We can perceive a measure of how vitally important and relevant this Messianic expectation of continuity on the “throne of David” must have been for the remnant among the exiles from Jerusalem who remained faithful to the Lord God during many decades of relocation in Babylon where many among them accepted the religion and culture of the Babylonians and worshiped Marduk, the Lord of the Babylonians. We note the importance of this Messianic expectation with its Zionist hopes for Jews who were deprived of basic human rights in country after country throughout the centuries. We see also the related use of this Messianic expectation within the developing traditions of many of the followers of Jesus, as in this Luke 1:32-33 text, and continuing for us as Christians since that time. Jews have intensely wanted continuity as a People of God and have struggled valiantly to maintain their identity as a people and as a culture. The striving for continuity of life within the “kingdom of God” has dominated and shaped oral and written traditions within apocalyptic Judaism and within apocalyptic Christianity. As Christians, we ride upon this Jewish Messianic expectations vehicle within a somewhat modified Christian model. Certainly we shall want to acknowledge with great respect the Israelite-Jewish origins of this Christian vehicle in which we ride in accordance with the Word of God in these texts selected for this day. As the Christmas season approaches, what can be more appropriate than to acknowledge this in order to inform and to sensitize our own people and help them and ourselves to appreciate the heritage that we have received from the Jewish people. If we do this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year will be a good time to have Jewish guests within our worship services.
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
In this context we concentrate on these few verses of this fascinating psalm. Psalm 89 should be taken seriously in its own setting, with its expectation that the descendants of David will be established forever, the throne of David built for all generations to come. The best of our Christian theology in harmony with the views of the apostle Paul that he expressed in Romans 11:28b-29 has held that the gift and calling of God are irrevocable for Israel and for the church. For the sake of our Christian covenant, we must respect the irrevocable nature of the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant. We must realize that if we reject the antecedent Israelite-Jewish covenant, it is only right and just that someday our derivative Christian covenant may also be rejected. For more about this, please see, among others, Norbert Lohfink, The Covenant Never Revoked: Biblical Reflections on Christian-Jewish Dialogue (New York: Paulist, 1991); Mary C. Boys, Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (New York: Paulist, 2000); and Mary C. Boys, “The Enduring Covenant,” in Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity’s Sacred Obligation, ed. by Mary C. Boys (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, 17-25).
If this text is used on the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year, the emphasis should be focused on the final summation two verses 54 and 55 of the Magnificat in which the emphasis is on God’s enduring covenant with Israel, an emphasis easily overlooked within Christian Bible studies and worship services. With the texts selected for the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent in Series B, the emphasis is on the enduring covenants of God, which, while they may and indeed often are broken by us as people, are according to these texts, never revoked by God. Our Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, at their best, are always fully aware of this and find comfort in this. What better way than this can we as Christians prepare to celebrate during the coming Christmas season!
May this beautiful benediction with which the apostle Paul concluded his momentous letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome be ours also, together with the entire People of God! And with this benediction, shall we not let God define the extent of “God’s People”?
As followers of Jesus, we have every right to claim that the Lord God has given to Jesus the “throne” of David, so long as we realize that this is a theological throne and not a political or physical throne. Other necessary qualifications are that we understand the process by which some of the followers of Jesus made this theological claim, and that we openly recognize and continue to acknowledge the continuing validity of Jewish spirituality, Jewish life and faith, and of Jewish Messianic expectations. We know that we as Christians have taken the Jewish Messianic expectations into a new extended phase and in doing this we have given to them a somewhat different Christian Messianic expectation meaning through the Christian claim that Jesus in his life fulfilled the Messianic “prophecies” of the Older Testament. But what we have done is alongside the Jewish use of these expectations and in no way replaces or excludes the ongoing and dynamic Jewish use for which Jews have the primary claim. What we as Christians have done and are doing with these Messianic expectations must be seen as in a sense secondary to the Jewish use and in continuity with and congruent to the ongoing Jewish hope and expectations. It would be most appropriate for us as Christians to remember this and to acknowledge it at all times and especially here at the conclusion of our Advent season. Then perhaps we could invite Jews to be our guests in our Christian worship services and to hear our understanding of the Messianic expectations that we share, even as we are invited to be their guests and to hear their understanding of their Messianic expectations. When we have done all of this, we are truly “ready” for Christmas, prepared to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord.
2 Kings 2:1-12
This account is evidence that there was a tendency in the direction of the deification of Elijah within some Israelite traditions, just as there may have been with regard to Moses (Deuteronomy 34:1-12) and earlier within some Semitic traditions with respect to Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24). The accounts of the ascension of Jesus within the Luke-Acts corpus provide the most extensive biblical evidence of the more complete theological development of this nature among early Christians with regard to Jesus.
As we look at 2 Kings 2:1-12, we see that according to this account after a certain point in time Elijah was seen no more, but that he was perceived to be alive with God. This was the basis, of course, for the expectation that developed among some of the Israelites — an expectation that is still evident within the Passover liturgy for Jews — that Elijah would return to the earth in a visible form some day. This expectation was used by early followers of Jesus with respect to the person and function of John the Baptizer and it was certainly used in the development of the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus that is the dominating text among the four that are selected for our use on this day.
In 2 Kings 2:1-12 the whirlwind and the chariot of fire were the means of transportation in lifting Elijah from the earth and its gravitational force. In the Luke-Acts account Jesus was taken up within a cloud. A cloud was also the setting for the voice from the cloud in the Markan Transfiguration account.
Reference to God as speaking and summoning the earth, reference to a devouring fire, and most of all reference to the words, “Gather to me my faithful ones!” link this portion of Psalm 50 to the 2 Kings 2:1-12 text.
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
For Paul, the face of Christ was apparently seen more vividly in the good news of the crucified Jesus being raised by God from the dead as Lord and Savior than in the face of the Jesus of history whom Paul had not seen. That is to say that for Paul the Risen Christ was in a sense transfigured perpetually. Paul saw the glory of God in the face of the Christ. This was for Paul the light that shines unceasingly out of the darkness of death. The face of the Christ was seen, however, only by those who would believe. We who live more than nineteen centuries later are basically in the same position as Paul was. For us also Jesus is in a sense perpetually transfigured.
This Transfiguration story, along with its parallels in Matthew and in Luke, is considered by the great majority of Christians to be a record of an event that occurred just as it is recorded here. It is likely, however, that much more is involved in these texts than simply a record of an event. If these are simply records of an important, spectacular event that occurred during the public ministry of Jesus, we may wonder why there is no mention of such an astonishing occurrence within the Fourth Gospel. According to popular understanding, the Fourth Gospel was written by John, and John is said to have been present with Jesus on the mountain at the time of this event. How could the writer of the Fourth Gospel have forgotten this profound experience of seeing and hearing men who had lived and died hundreds of years earlier and who remained prominent in Jewish thought?
Although the Fourth Gospel has no mention of this event, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, who are nowhere said to have been present on the mountain, all include this story.
With our understanding of biblical symbolism, we can see that in these Synoptic Gospel Transfiguration stories Moses and Elijah function as symbols for the Torah and for the Prophetic Traditions respectively. The Torah and the Prophets together constituted the sacred Scriptures for most Jews and for the earliest Christians during the time in which the Synoptic Gospels were written. Symbolically, these Transfiguration stories may have been intended to proclaim that Jesus is in the “same league” with Moses and Elijah. By means of these stories Jesus and the words of Jesus are validated as on the same level of authority as the sacred Scriptures as the Scriptures were known at that time. (The so-called Writings had not yet been canonized.) From the standpoint of those who first heard or read the Transfiguration account in Mark, Jesus’ words and Jesus as a person were validated within these accounts by God God’s self by means of the very impressive voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Beloved Son! Listen to him!” In the story after the cloud moved away, the three awe-stricken disciples are said to have seen no one there except Jesus. Moses and Elijah were gone.
Symbolically, therefore, both the Torah and the Prophetic traditions were also no longer to be seen nor heard. At this point the message intended almost certainly was to indicate vividly that Jesus and the words of Jesus have replaced the Torah and the Prophets as sacred authorities for followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration account in Mark 9:2-9, therefore, served to validate the entire “Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark) much as the “Burning Bush” account in Exodus served as a validation of the entire book of Exodus or even of the entire Torah. When the Matthean and Lukan redactors included the Markan Transfiguration account in their expanded Gospels, the Transfiguration accounts served the same purpose in those documents as validation stories for those documents.
The writers of the Fourth Gospel chose to validate their account also, but not by using the Markan Transfiguration account. Instead, they validated the Fourth Gospel by their use of the great “I Am” statements that they have the Johannine Jesus express in key places in their document.
Thus we have the Four Gospels validated as “words of Jesus” and actually as “Word of God” that God God’s self directly and indirectly is said to have commanded us to hear as we transition from the Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday and to the Lenten season.
The series of passion-resurrection predictions during these Series B Lenten texts continues here with a third text (John 3:14-21), and it is extended further with a fourth text (John 12:20-33) for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. All three of these Johannine Jesus passion-resurrection predictions (John 2:13-22 on Lent 3, John 3:14-21 on Lent 4, and John 12:20-33 on Lent 5) are expressed in similar Johannine style, obscure and symbolic, in contrast to the straightforward Mark 8:31-32a with which this series of passion-resurrection predictions began in the Gospel account for Lent 2.
In typical Fourth Gospel style this passage begins with a setting (in this instance a meeting involving Jesus and Nicodemus) for which is provided an extended dialogue and here eventually changing into a monologue. Nicodemus fades out of the picture somewhere around the place where our 3:14-21 text begins. Within 3:14-21 it is actually the Johannine writers and community who collectively are speaking about Jesus as “the Son of man” being lifted up, as “God’s only-begotten Son,” and as “the Light of the world.” It is virtually impossible to discern where the Johannine Jesus stops speaking here and the Johannine writers and community begin. Red-letter editions of the Newer Testament generally code all of John 3:14-21 as words of Jesus. Actually, throughout the entire Fourth Gospel it is the Johannine writers and community who are speaking. True to the gospel genre, these writers and this community of believers say what they believe about God, about Jesus, and about themselves and others in words of Jesus within a ministry of Jesus vehicle.
What these writers and community have provided for us can become for us to share a three-part message about Jesus as (1) the Son of man being lifted up, (2) God’s only-begotten Son, and (3) the Light of the world. The passion-resurrection prediction about the Son of man being lifted up to provide life for all who believe in him just as Moses was said to have lifted up the serpent in the wilderness to preserve life for all who look at it is largely a vaticinium ex eventu, an interpretation of the significance of the death of Jesus after that death had occurred and an expression of belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead. Is that not what we also do (especially during the Lenten and Easter seasons), i.e., we provide interpretations of the death of Jesus and of the significance of that death for all people, and we proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead and will raise us also with Jesus into a glorious life? John 3:15-18a (especially John 3:16, which is so important to us) is “gospel” in positive, non-judgmental terminology. John 3:18b-21, however, brings in condemnation of all who do not follow this Johannine “one way.” Which of these shall we emphasize next Sunday? What are we called to proclaim, good news, or condemnation, or both?
It is somewhat surprising that this account was incorporated by the Israelites into the Torah, since the serpent was a Canaanite symbol. Perhaps the most satisfactory commentary on this text is provided in Wisdom of Solomon 16:6-12 in the Old Testament Apocrypha, in which the bronze serpent is described as a symbol of salvation, and in which it is said that those who looked at the serpent were saved from the effects of the poisonous snake bites not by the power of the bronze snake but because they were obedient to the word of the Lord given through Moses.
Theologically, the account in Numbers 21:4-9 says that the people had sinned by speaking against God and against Moses. God punished them. The people repented and asked Moses to intercede for them. Moses interceded in behalf of the people. God forgave them and provided a tangible way in which they could now be obedient to God and receive healing benefits from God.
The details of the account were undoubtedly based on experiences with poisonous snakes within the Sinai Peninsula and in the southern Negev region and upon the popular belief that the creature that caused pain and death should also be the creature through which deliverance from pain and death could be accomplished. This is a principle that is similar in some ways to what occurs in medical immunizations.
In this summary of Paul’s message elsewhere, the writer here presents those who will read and hear as already figuratively raised up with Christ by God and caused to sit with Christ Jesus in the heavenly places. What shall we say about this? Was this bordering on Gnostic Christian perceptions? What the writer apparently wanted to stress was the certainty of the salvation that God provides through Christ. In our own ways we too should express this conviction.
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This psalm of thanksgiving to God for the salvation in this life of deliverance from the devastating effects of serious illnesses is an appropriate complement of the other texts selected for this occasion. Together with the Numbers 21:4-9 text, it places its emphasis on salvation within this life here and now, providing for us a balance against the other-worldly emphases in the John 3:14-21 and Ephesians 2:1-10 texts.
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
THEME OF THE DAY
Rejoice: God saves us by his grace! The texts for this Sunday, in accord with the historic emphasis on rejoicing [Laetare Sunday], testify to God’s love and grace (Justification by Grace).
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
This lesson is part of a group thanksgiving for pilgrims who have come to Jerusalem for a festival. The Psalm begins with a call for everyone to give thanks. God is praised for his goodness [tob] and love/
mercy [chesed], gathering together his people (vv. 1-3). These verses may have in mind the exiles who have been freed from Babylonian captivity and returned home. Some of the pilgrims were sick due to sin but were saved [yasha, or given safety] or healed by the Lord; God’s love is extolled (vv. 17-21, 1). The correct response is to offer a sacrifice [zebach, a sacrifice of animals] and to tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy (v. 22).
Application: Sermons on this lesson quite obviously lead us to focus on God’s goodness and love in the tough times of life (Justification by Grace). Understanding salvation in terms of safety, as the Hebrews did could entail developing a Social Ethical viewpoint on salvation, how safety from social evil is God’s will. The proper response to God’s love (Sanctification) is another homiletical alternative. If the reference to sacrifice is read prophetically we might speak of the response to God’s love as a life of joyful praise and self-denial.
The title of this book is related to the census of people reported in chapters 1-4, 26. We have previously noted that like all five books of the Pentateuch, this Book of Origins is probably the product of several distinct literary traditions. This one is just comprised of three strands: 1) J, a ninth/tenth-century BC source, so named for its use of the Jahweh or Yahweh (translated “Lord”); 2) E, an eighth-century BC source named for its use of the divine name Elohim; and 3) P or Priestly source, dated from the sixth century BC. This lesson is the story of Israel’s faithlessness immediately after defeating the Canaanites at the Battle of Hormah (vv. 1-3). Reference to the Red Sea which the Hebrews pass is “Reed Sea” in Hebrews. The people complain of their situation, speaking against God and Moses (vv. 4-5). God punishes them with a plague of poisonous serpents (v. 6). The people repent, and God has Moses build a bronze serpent which when the people look at it can save them (vv. 7-9). (The phrase “serpent of bronze/copper” [nachash nechosheth] is a pun in Hebrew, both words deriving from the same root.) Also from this root is Nehustan, the bronze serpent King Hezekiah destroys because it had become an object of worship (2 Kings 18:4], a reminder how widespread serpent worship was in the Ancient Near East.)The Hebrew word for “repentance” [nacham] also means “comforted” or “eased.” Thus repentance in this Old Testament context does not so much connote sorrow as joyfully finding oneself at ease in the comforting assurance that comes in a relationship with God.
Application: The text opens the way for sermons to help people appreciate God’s ingenuity in saving and caring for us (Justification by Grace and Providence), often in hidden, surprising ways. Sermons in repentance (understood as comfort or ease) could also be proclaimed (Sanctification).
The lesson is drawn from a circular letter either written by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of Paul who had had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristic different from the authentic Pauline corpus. It was likely addressed to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15). The lesson is a discussion of Christ’s benefits. The author notes that we were dead through sins, following the course of the world and Satan (the ruler of the power of the air) (vv. 1-2). He relates the death of sin to passions/lusts [epithumia]of the flesh [sarx] (v. 3). God who is rich in mercy [eleos] is said to out of love have made us alive and by grace [charis] saved [sozo] us and raised up with him (vv. 4-5, 7-8). We are created [ktizo] in Jesus Christ for good works which God prepared beforehand (v. 10).
Application: Several alternatives for sermons emerge from this lesson. The text invites sermons on our bondage to sin, on Christ’s conquest of evil (Classic View of the Atonement), Justification by Grace, or the Spontaneity of Good Works (Sanctification).
Again we read from the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called Synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John.
Recently some scholars have suggested an alternative account of the origins of John’s gospel. Appealing to the writings of a late first and early second-century Bishop Papias, who may have implied that John’s gospel was the result of eyewitness origins, such scholars have argued that the book is in fact an authentic historical testimony to Jesus (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, especially pp. 423ff; cf. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, pp. 154-155). Regardless of the circumstances of its composition, there is agreement that the book’s main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31). This lesson is Jesus’ discourse following his dialogue with the Jewish leader Nicodemus (vv. 1-10). This is uniquely Johannine material.
Jesus claims to be discoursing about heavenly things, as only he (the Son of Man — huios to anthropou) has ascended to the Father (vv. 11-13). The use of this title here by John suggests that the title is employed here and in the Synoptic Gospels as a way to describe Jesus’ present ministry on earth. Jesus proceeds to note that as Moses lifted up a serpent in the desert (reported in the First Lesson, Numbers 21:9) in order to provide a remedy to those made ill by the bites of poisonous snakes, which were sent to punish the Hebrews for their sin, so the Son of Man will be lifted up that whoever believe in him will have eternal life (vv. 14-15). The cross is here foretold.
God’s love [agape] for the world [kosmos] in giving his only Son that all who believe may have eternal life is proclaimed (v. 16). This theme echoes elsewhere in the gospel (5:24; 6:40, 47; 11:25-26). God did not send his Son to judge [krpinai] the world, but those not believing are already condemned because they have not believed (vv. 17-18). The judgment is that the light [phos, who is Christ] has come into the world and people loved darkness/evil [skotos] more than light. Those who do evil [poneros] hate the light, rejecting it so their deeds not be exposed (vv. 19-20). Those who do what is truth [aletheia] come to the light, so it is seen that their deeds have been done in God (v. 21).
Application: The text provides occasions to proclaim God’s love and grace for the world (Justification by Grace). But attention may also be given to the implications of this for living the Christian life (Sanctification).
THEME OF THE DAY: The heavenly power and cosmic presence of Christ.
Like every year, this Festival encourages sermons celebrating the glory of God and His Providential Rule as well as Christ’s conquest over the forces of evil and His Present Rule in our lives (Atonement, Christology, and Justification By Grace).
This is a Korah Psalm, a family of Psalms written for or by a professional musician of that name (see I Chronicles 15:16-22; Nehemiah 12:41-46). These Psalms (42-49) may be attributed to one of Israel’s chief groups of singers (II Chronicles 20:19). This one is an Enthronement Psalm, a group of Psalms used on festival occasions when God was declared King. Our Lesson celebrates God’s Enthronement as King [melek] of all nations. It begins with a summons to all the world to praise God with shouts, loud songs, and the clapping of hands (v.1). Yahweh Elohim is said to be awesome and a great King over all the earth [erets], subduing peoples under the Hebrew nation (vv.2 -4). As we have previously noted, the word Selah appearing in a Psalm as occurs after v.4 in this one, is a liturgical direction which may indicate that there should be an instrumental interlude at that point in the singing of the Psalm. This universal theme is consistent with the theme of God’s Power manifested in The Ascension. The Psalm is likely composed to accompany religious ceremonies associated with The Ark of the Covenant (vv.5-9). The closing call to all peoples to praise refers to many of the themes of the first three verses.
Application: A sermon on the Psalm joyfully celebrates that God is King Who rules over all the earth, noting how this celebration is a call to everyone. The Power of God celebrated here might be related to the Power of Christ’s Work manifested in His Ascension (Creation, Providence, Christology and Sanctification).
This is another of the Enthronement Psalms, like the one described above, extolling God as King, probably composed for a festival. It is closely related to Psalm 47, above. Yahweh’s Majesty [geuth] and establishment of the world are proclaimed. He has ruled from eternity/everlasting [olam] (vv.1-2). He is said to rule over the waters [mayim, interpreted as chaos] (vv.3-4). Perhaps this image could suggest that the occasion for this Psalm was the annual Fall Festival of Booths or Tabernacles or Booths, when the Lord’s victory over chaos is evident in harvest. It is also possible that the image of water is employed here in view of the fact that Mesopotamian and Canaanite conceptions of divine kingship were understood as established by victory over the sea (74:12-17; 104:7-9). In any case, the powers of the chaos are said to testify to Him, exposing the divine goodness. God is praised for the steadfastness [aman] of His witness/testimonies [edah] and for the holiness [qodesh] of The Temple (v.5).
Application: This Psalm presents another opportunity for a sermon on God’s Providential rule. The stress on God’s rule over chaos provides entrée for sermons on giving hope in the midst of fear or hard times. The stability of God’s witness and His Church in the midst of this chaos is another angle for sermons.
On this Festival we continue to read from the very beginning of the second half of a two-part history of the Church traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). We note again that there is some dispute about the date of composition, whether it was composed before Paul’s Martyrdom (in 65-67 AD) or much later, after the destruction of The Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. In any case the author’s stress on the universal mission of the Church (1:8) and so an effort to validate Paul’s ministry reflects in this Lesson. This Lesson is the introduction to the Book and an account of Jesus’ Ascension in heaven.
Like Luke, the Book begins addressing Theophilus. It is not clear if this means that these works were written for a recent convert or 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. The author notes his earlier book (Luke) in which all Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the Ascension is recorded (vv.1-2). Forty days of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances are noted. Many convincing proofs [sure tokens, tekmerion] are said to be offered (see Luke 24:13-53). Reportedly he spoke of the Kingdom of God [basileia tou Theou], ordering the Apostles to remain in Jerusalem to wait for the Father’s Promise (vv.3-4). As John the Baptist baptized with water, the Apostles will be baptized with the Holy Spirit [pnuema hagios] (v.5; cf. Luke 3:16; Mark 1:8). The Apostles ask if their Lord will restore the kingdom to Israel, presumably a reference to the possibility that God might restore Israel’s political independence (v.6; cf. Luke 1:32). Jesus replies that it is not for them to know the time or periods set by the Father (v.7). It seems that the mission of the Church replaces concern about the Kingdom of God for Luke (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According To Luke, p.326). The Apostles are told that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and will be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, to the ends of the earth [perhaps a reference to ministry to the Gentiles] (v.8). This theme of the Spirit empowering the faithful as well as their universal mission is central to the Book (2:12ff.; Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A literary Interpretation, p.57). Then Jesus begins to Ascend. Reference to a cloud [nephele] into which His Ascends signifies the Presence and activity of God (v.9; cf. Exodus 24:15-18; Luke 9:34). Two men [andres] in white robes then appear. These men (presumably angels, though the Greek term employed does not authorize that interpretation) inform them that Jesus will come again in the same way that they had seen Him ascend into heaven (vv.10-11; cf. Luke 24:50-51).
Application: The text provides an opportunity to reflect on how Jesus’ Ascension makes love in Christ cosmic, so that to think of Jesus’ love for us becomes all the more awesome, majestic, and mysterious, not just a trivial thing to be ignored (Justification By Grace Through Faith). Opportunity is also provided to preach on the Holy Spirit’s role in baptizing the faithful and empowering the faithful to a universal mission which overcomes all that resists Christ. Attention to Christ’s Second Coming is also an appropriate sermon theme.
The Lesson is drawn from a circular letter, either written by Paul from prison late in his career or by a follower of Paul who had had a hand in assembling the collection of his Epistles. These conclusions follow from the fact that the Letter includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristic different from the authentic Pauline corpus. It was likely addressed to a younger, later generation of Christians (1:15).
This Lesson involves the author’s praise of the Ephesians and a thanksgiving for the blessings of God’s cosmic plans. The Ephesian faithful are first praised for their faith and love toward the saints [hagios] (v.15). Paul (the author) prays that they may receive wisdom regarding the greatness of God’s power for the faithful (vv.17-19). God is said to put His power/ authority [exousia] to work in Christ in raising Him and seating Him at the Lord’s right hand [dexios] (in the Ascension) (v.20). This is probably a reference to Psalm 110:1, where Yahweh directs His priest-king to sit at His right hand. To be at one’s right hand was to stand in the place of power and honor of a ruler (see I Kings 2:19). The Ascension then entails that all things are under Christ, including the Church of which He is the Head [kephale]. (This designation is not used in the authentic Pauline Letters.) The Church is then His Body [soma], the fullness [pleroma] of Him Who fills all in all (vv.22-23; cf. Romans 12:5; I Corinthians 12:1-27).
Application: Sermons on this text might explore the impact of Christ’s Ascension for His leadership of the Church and the comfort this Word brings (Justification By Grace and Providence).
We turn to the first installment of a two-part history of the Church traditionally attributed to Luke (see the First Lesson for details on the Book’s origins and the author’s agenda). This text is the conclusion of Jesus’ commissioning of the Disciples during His final Resurrection appearance (vv.44-49), followed by the account of His Ascension (vv.50-53). Only in Acts (in the First Lesson) is express reference to the latter also made. Jesus claims that the words He uttered to the Disciples (that the Messiah should suffer [v.26]) demonstrate that the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and Psalms has been fulfilled (v.44). He opens the minds of the Disciples to understand that His suffering and Resurrection fulfill these Old Testament texts (vv.45-46; cf. Hosea 6:2). This theme is more characteristic of Matthew, and it is interesting that the only parallel account to Luke’s story is found in Matthew (28:16ff.), which does not include this proof from Old Testament Prophecy.
The Risen Lord proceeds to instruct that this Word is to be proclaimed with the word of repentance [metanoia] and forgiveness/remission [aphesis] of sins (v.47). We have previously noted how characteristic it is of Luke to connect repentance and salvation, while not identifying them (Acts 2:38; Hans Conzelman, The Theology of St. Luke, p.228). As witnesses [martus], Jesus notes, the Disciples are to receive what the Father promises (power [dunamis] from on high [ex hupsos]) and remain in Jerusalem until this is received (vv.47-49). No doubt this is another Lukan reference to the faithful’s need for empowerment of the Holy Spirit in doing their mission. (It is interesting to note that the Greek term for witness is similar to the term for Martyr [martur].) Jesus is reported as leading the Disciples to the east of Jerusalem to Bethany, to bless them, and then Ascends to heaven (vv.50-51). The Disciples respond with worship [proskun, literally to kiss the hand], return to Jerusalem with joy, and are continually in The Temple blessing God (vv.52-53).
Application: A sermon on this text affords occasion to examine The Ascension and its significance for daily life, how Jesus’ Ascension was related to the giving of the Holy Spirit Who makes Christ Present to the faithful (Pneumatology, Sanctification, and Mission). The Mission to which the faithful are called includes involves repentance and forgiveness (Justification By Grace and Sanctification).