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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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