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Advent 2, Cycle B

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.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen