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Advent 3, Cycle B

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

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

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


Luke 1:47-55
This is one of the synoptic gospels, the first installment of a two-part history of the church (which includes the book of Acts) traditionally attributed to Luke, a physician and Gentile associate of Paul (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24). Along with Acts, the author’s intention was to stress the universal mission of the church (Acts 1:8). Addressed to Theophilus (1:1), it is not clear if this means that the work was written for a recent convert or for a Roman official from whom the church sought tolerance. But since Theophilus means “lover of God,” it is possible that the author addressed all the faithful. This text is the famed hymn of praise attributed to Mary, called the Magnificat. It is so named from the first word of the Latin translation [megaluno, in Greek]: To “magnify to Lord” is to declare his greatness.

The song is unique to Luke’s gospel, based on Hannah’s song of praise in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 for God giving her Samuel as a son. After expressing joy in God, the song praises him for his love and mercy/kindness [elos] (vv. 48, 50). He is proclaimed as holy [hagios] and mighty/powerful [dunatos] (v. 49). (The phrase “holy is his name” is a traditional Jewish word of praise [Psalm 111:9].) Reminiscent of God’s preferential option of the poor taught by Liberation Theology, God is said to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful from their thrones, but lift up [hupsoo, literally "raise high" or "elevate"] the poor [tapeinosis, literally "the humble" or those of low estate] and feed the hungry (vv. 51-53). He will also help Israel according to promises made to Abraham and David (vv. 54-55; cf. Genesis 17:6-8; 18:18; 22:17; 2 Samuel 7:11-16).

Application: This text can give rise to sermons on praise of God (what prophets do and what Christmas is all about). These are Sanctification themes. Another alternative, like the additional Psalm of the Day, might be to preach a prophetic word on the possibility that the poor and oppressed will be liberated (a sermon on Social Ethics).

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
It is well-known that this book is actually the product of two or three distinct literary traditions. The first 39 chapters are the work of the historical prophet who proclaimed a message to Jerusalem and the Southern Kingdom of Judah from 742 BC to 701 BC, a period during which the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been annexed by the Assyrian empire. Chapters 40-66 emerged in the later period after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC. A hypothesized third section (chapters 56-66) of the book, perhaps written by Second Isaiah or by one of his disciples in view of the close stylistic similarities to chapters 40 on, begins at the conclusion of the Babylonian captivity and is likely written after the restoration of exiled Judah, expressing some disappointment about what has transpired since the exiles’ return. This lesson is the work of this last section. The speaker is either the prophet or the suffering servant (Messiah) of Deutero-Isaiah (especially 50:4-11). The anointed prophet/servant (note the Spirit’s presence) is sent to bring good news to the oppressed/poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to proclaim freedom /liberty [deror] to the captives, planting them as oaks of righteousness [tsedeq] (vv. 1-3). The agricultural metaphor of Israel as planted by God is common in Isaiah (4:2; 5:7; 60:21). We must keep in mind that to be righteous in Hebraic thinking is not so much a demand for morality as it is the expectation of being in right relation with God (Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 1, p. 371).

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

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

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

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

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

John 1:6-8, 19-28
This book is the last of the four gospels to be written, probably not composed until the last two decades of the first century. It is very different in style in comparison to the other three (so-called synoptic) gospels. In fact it is probably based on these earlier gospels. The book has been identified with John the Son of Zebedee, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and this claim was made as long ago as late in the first century by the famed theologian of the early church Irenaeus (Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, p. 414). It is likely that it was written by a disciple of John. Hints of that possibility are offered by the first post-biblical church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who claimed that the book was written on the basis of the external facts made plain in the gospel and so John is a “spiritual gospel” (presumably one not based on eyewitness accounts of the author) (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, p. 261). Its main agenda was probably to encourage Jewish Christians in conflict with the synagogue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God (20:31).

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

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

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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