Lectionary Commentary

November 29, 2009
1st Sunday of Advent

Commentary by Paul S. Nancarrow

See also: [Year C Archive]

Hanging of the Greens Service
Advent Candle Liturgy
Lessons and Carols
Preaching Christmas

John Cobb on incarnation
Daniel Day Williams on incarnation


Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
Luke 21:25-36

Jeremiah 33:14-16
These verses come from a larger oracle in which Jeremiah conveys God’s promise that after punishment will come restoration. According to the opening verse of chapter 33, Jeremiah delivers this oracle while he is imprisoned in the court of the guard during the Babylonian invasion of Judah. Jeremiah had already for some time been warning that God would use the Babylonians to punish Judah and Jerusalem for their faithlessness and unrighteousness; it is for that apparently treasonous preaching that he has been imprisoned. But now that the invasion is under way, Jeremiah receives a new oracle, that God will restore the city and the countryside, that after siege and destruction will come rebuilding and repopulation, that after weeping and mourning will come “the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness” (v. 11). It is in that particular context that Jeremiah conveys the promise of the restoration of the Davidic monarchy: “I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” The restored Davidic dynasty will bring peace and safety to Judah and Jerusalem, such that the restored city will be renamed for its faith “The Lord is our righteousness."

Such is the original context. But these verses have a fascinating interpretive trajectory beyond their original context. When the Exile ended and Jerusalem was restored, it didn’t happen quite as Jeremiah had proclaimed: the city was rebuilt and Temple worship reinstituted, but there was no Davidic king, and Judah continued as a province of the Persian empire with a governor answerable to Persian authority. Unrealized in political fact, the promise of an heir of David became part of the complex messianic hope that grew with later prophets and in the intertestamental period. Over time the messianic hope expanded to be not only political but eschatological, such that the promised heir of David was expected to be not simply a king, but a divine battle leader who would command the faithful in the final conflict between good and evil that would break and remake the world. It was that complex of messianic hopes that was attached to Jesus by early disciples. But when that expectation was not fulfilled in Jesus’ earthly life, nor immediately upon the experience of the Resurrection, the promise of the heir of David was reinterpreted again, becoming part of the mythology of the Second Coming, the postponement of the “fulfilling of the promise made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah” to some impossibly unimaginable future date. In the lectionary, assigning this passage to the First Sunday of Advent invokes both historical and eschatological associations, leading us to think of Jesus as the heir of David in his earthly birth and as the fulfillment of the promise of righteousness in his culminating advent to draw all things into himself. It is within our particular context of the promise begun yet still growing toward fulfillment that we must consider how Jesus the Righteous Branch inspires and impels us to execute righteousness and justice in our time.

Psalm 25:1-10
The psalm is a plea for divine guidance and instruction in the proper way of life. “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths,” the Psalmist prays, “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” The emphasis on instruction in the way is paralleled by a humble determination to wait upon the Lord, and both of these are traditional elements of Advent devotion. Advent was in the Middle Ages regarded as the “little Lent,” a season of penitence in preparation for the celebration of the Christmas feast (and, in some places, for baptisms at Epiphany). This penitential aspect is still echoed in prayers for the day, as for instance in the prayer assigned in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice.” The penitential theme of Advent is reflected in the Psalmist’s plea “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions,” as well as in the asking for instruction. In more recent years, the emphasis in Advent has shifted from pure penitence to a more joyful sense of anticipation, building toward the arrival of Christ at Christmas. This is reflected in the psalm’s sense of waiting for deliverance from shame and fulfillment in God’s salvation. The dual themes of Advent are both sounded in this psalm selection.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
While the psalm may stress more the penitential theme of Advent, the Epistle passage turns toward the theme of expectation, and especially joyful expectation at that. Most scholars agree that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul’s letters we have, written at a time when his own expectation of the imminent return of Christ was probably at its highest. (Later letters show Paul addressing the problem of the “delay” of the Parousia.) It is in view of that imminent expectation that we must read the final verse of today’s selection, “that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” The need to be “blameless” sounds a note of judgment, and the possibility of fear at the coming of Jesus. But it is important here to know just what is entailed in being “blameless,” and that is spelled out in the preceding verses. Those who are blameless are those whose hearts God has strengthened in holiness; and having the heart strengthened in holiness is equivalent to “increasing and abounding in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you,” by the Lord’s power. And Paul’s abounding love for the Thessalonians is characterized in the opening verses, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” and “Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.” In other words, being “blameless” is not a matter of strict adherence to a moral code or to rules and regulations, but is a matter of love in community, expressing joy and gratitude for being in relationship with each other, seeing each other face to face, and making up from our own gifts what is lacking in another—and, we might add, allowing our shortcomings to be made up from the gifts of others. The blamelessness that matters is not juridical but relational, as the community together embodies the ideals of Christly life that can strengthen and uplift each and every individual member. The deep affection Paul evidently feels for the Thessalonians is the best indicator of the presence of Christ, and it is the joyful expectation of the fulfillment of such affection that is the mark of anticipating “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” This joyful affection in the community of the church can be part of our Advent observance, as well.

Luke 21:25-36
In keeping with the eschatological dimension of the beginning of Advent, the gospel for this day presents a portion of Jesus’ apocalyptic teaching; in this case, it is the very end of Jesus’ discourse on the End from Luke. But Luke’s version is notably different from the parallel passages in Mark and Matthew. Where Mark and Matthew warn about the “desolating sacrilege” set up in the Temple, Luke warns about Jerusalem being “surrounded by armies”; where Mark and Matthew predict the sun and moon darkened and stars falling from heaven, Luke speaks of “signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars”; where Mark and Matthew have angels dispatched to gather the elect, Luke has the admonition to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” It looks as though Luke is taking his source material from Mark and deliberately toning it down, intentionally directing readers’ attention away from the supernatural elements of the apocalyptic mindset and toward the revelation of God’s work within the phenomena of the world. In fact, there is nothing in Luke’s description that must necessarily be taken as indicating the end of the world; “signs” in astronomical bodies, “distress” among nations, “roaring of the sea,” the existing “powers” in high places being shaken, even the coming of the “Son of Man” in the clouds do not necessarily signify the destruction of earthly phenomena, but only an unusual degree of their activity. Luke seems to be treating the apocalypse not so much in the sense of the end, but in something more like the original meaning of the word, the “unobscuring” of the divine meaning in and behind earthly events. It is sometimes noted by scholars that Luke’s eschatology is not so much otherworldly as it is concerned with the beginning of a new age in world history—Luke is, after all, the only evangelist to write a second volume of the Jesus story—and his treatment of the apocalyptic teaching attributed to Jesus is in keeping with that observation. For the contemporary interpreter, this has the effect of throwing the spotlight off the predictive elements of the passage, and onto the call to “be on guard” against dissipation and distraction and worry, the call to “be alert” and at prayer for the appearance of Christ in any moment. In this understanding, the nearness of the kingdom of God need not be taken as a cataclysmic change in the metaphysical constitution of the world, but as the possibility of the embodiment of godly ideals in any moment of becoming. If Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, if Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ with the kingdom, then Advent can also be a time to prepare for the coming of Christ as the potential to incarnate God’s specific word to us in each occasion of experience. Luke’s eschatological call to “raise our heads” and “be alert” is meant for this moment and this time, the Advent that is now.

Paul S. Nancarrow is the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Staunton, Virginia, where he makes use of process ideas in preaching, worship, pastoral care, and leadership.He is a co-author of The Call of the Spirit: Process Spirituality in a Relational World, and writes a regular column on liturgy for Creative Transformation.

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