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Introduction To The Scripture For The First Sunday of Advent - Year A
Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The First Sunday of Advent - Year A

     A new liturgical year and a new cycle of the Revised Common
     Lectionary begin today.   The three year cycle of scripture
     lessons is planned to cover the major themes of our faith as well
     as all the parts of the Old and New Testaments.   See below for a
     more complete analysis of these lessons.


ISAIAH 2:1-5             The ideal of a world at peace based on a common
faith is one of the most important gifts of Israel's prophets.  Here Isaiah
expressed that vision in one of its two very similar versions in the Old
Testament.  It also appears in Micah 4:1-5.  Micah was a contemporary of
Isaiah in the late 7th century BC.  Which prophet first conceived it
remains unknown.


PSALM 122                Many worship services used to begin with a call to
worship from the first verse of this psalm.  The whole psalm is a prayer
that Jerusalem be a city of peace for all nations - a prayer still
fervently offered, but not yet realized.


ROMANS 13:11-14          Paul earnestly believed in the imminent return of
Christ to complete history by bringing in the reign of God.  The present
moment, he urges Christians in Rome, is the time to prepare for that
glorious event.  He tells them to prepare by adopting not just hopeful
anticipation, but a Christ-like moral character.


MATTHEW 24:36-44         In Year A of the lectionary cycle, we shall be
reading primarily from Matthew's Gospel.  The  Season of Advent presents us
with the challenge of preparing for the coming of Christ now and at the end
of history.  This passage is part of Matthew's rendition of the "Little
Apocalypse" first presented in Mark 13.  This vision follows closely the
style of earlier Jewish apocalyptic writings.  It depicts the time when
Christ will come to establish God's reign.  Note also that the emphasis is
placed on the total unexpectedness of the moment when this will happen.

================

ISAIAH 2:1-5   Every good commentary describes the complex structure of the
Book of Isaiah, a fact immediately evident in this passage.   Vss. 2-4 are
almost identical to a passage in Micah 4:1-3.  The alternate version,
however, has an added line which rounds out the poem.  Vs. 5 of this
reading is not part of the same oracle and neither passage seems to fit a
later period than the 8th century when both Micah and Isaiah lived.  The
best guess by scholars is that the final editors of both compilations found
an anonymous poem from a later age and included it in the two works.  
     
That the poem has little or no connection with what preceded it in chapter
1 and in the remainder of chapter two indicates that it is out of place and
somewhat anachronistic.  The exaltation of the temple as a centre of
pilgrimage and instruction for all peoples (vss.2-3) is closer to the
universalism of Third Isaiah (chs.56-66) whom most scholars believe lived
as much as three centuries later.  The late Professor R.B.Y Scott in his
Interpreter's Bible commentary (Abingdon, 1956, vol.5, 180) stated : "If
this oracle is from Isaiah it is from his old age, when, following the
deliverance from Sennacherib's armies, he appears to have seen the future
of Zion as the seat of a new kind of world empire; from all peoples would
its citizens come eagerly to learn the ways of Zion's God and find justice,
peace and, freedom from fear."
     
The promise of peace in vss. 2-4 introduces the theme God's concern for
nations beyond Israel.  Distinctions will be overcome as they make
pilgrimages to the temple and learn the sacred texts.  This is startlingly
similar to the prophecy in 66:3-8.
     
Vs.  5, however, seems to stand alone, although our modern English versions
attach it to the subsequent oracle (vv. 6-11).  Professor Scott points out
how corrupted the Hebrew text is at this point, but also notes that it is
repeated in paraphrased form in Micah 4:5 and "appears to be simply a
variant form of vs.3." The reader would be well advised to stop at the end
of vs.4.

The message of the text needs little elaboration.  It envisions Jerusalem
and its temple as the city of peace and concord for all people.  How
meaningful for our own  time when the whole world looks to the Holy City
for the first glimmers of hope that this prophetic vision will soon be
fulfilled.


PSALM 122   This pilgrimage psalm rings with the special joy of one who had
recently experienced participating in thanksgiving rituals in the temple at
Jerusalem.  The Feast of Tabernacles, a  thanksgiving festival, comes to
mind as the appropriate occasion.  He thinks of the city not only as the
nation's capital and location of its central shrine, but as a place that
offers identity to every Israelite and represents the glories of the past
when the Davidic monarchy reigned in justice, prosperity and peace.  

Whether such a golden age ever existed cannot be identified in the long
centuries that passed after the supposed consolidation of power by David
over all the tribes of Israel ca. 1000  BCE.  Archeological research has
not yet been able to locate any evidence that the cycle of stories about
David's reign recounted in Samuel I & II ever occurred as historical
events.

Such times are long in the past, however, so the psalmist can only idealize
the memory and pray for the welfare of the city as he now saw it.  Most
likely happened after the reconstruction of the temple had been completed
under Zarubbabel in the 5th century BCE.  His joy in worshipping there was
assumed to have, as in all blessings, the power to bring about its own
fulfillment.  


ROMANS 13:11-14   Paul shared the early Christians' expectation of Christ's
imminent return.  In this passage he urged the Romans to be unceasingly
aware of this and of the new order Jesus came to bring.  They were to
mirror  his life in word and action.  At the same time, as C.H. Dodd
pointed out, the idea of the imminent "Day of the Lord" may have been
fading in Paul's mind because this is the only passage in his Roman letter
where he wrote of it.  Instead he had begun to think those who believe in
and follow Christ  already live in the new Age.  "The ethics of crisis," to
adopt Dodd's phrase, "gave point to his moral exhortations." (Hodder &
Stoughton.  "Moffatt New Testament Commentary, 1932, 209.)
     
The contrast of light and darkness in vss.12-13 reflected the dramatic
change of behavior and character which their newly acquired faith brought
to those early Christians.  There is a hint in this contrast of the passage
in Galatians 5:16-25 where Paul had compared the life of the Spirit and the
life of the flesh.  
     
In vs. 14 the phrase "put on the Lord Jesus Christ" may refer to the new
garments they put on when  baptized as a symbol of the new spiritual life
God had given them through faith in Christ.  Paul used this favorite image
several times in his correspondence.  It meant simply following the moral
example and character of Jesus into whose Body they had been mystically
incorporated by baptism.
     
No less a saint than Augustine of Hippo confessed that this passage brought
about his historic conversion.  Christians still witness to the life-
changing experience of an encounter with Christ, though perhaps some do not
experience it as dramatically as others.


MATTHEW 24:36-44   The apocalyptic tradition in the early church lasted
until well into the second century CE and frequently underwent revivals in
many centuries afterward.  Rightly or wrongly interpreting such passages as
this, many Christians today live in expectation of the imminent return of
Christ in glory.

Matthew has drawn from at least two different sources in his portrayal of
the Parousia or Second Coming.  Vss. 37-39 closely parallel Luke 17:26-30. 
Similarly vss. 40-41 parallel Luke 17:34-35.  One must conclude that both
authors found these statements in that early collection of sayings scholars
have designated as Q (for Quelle, German for Source).  Vs. 42,  however, 
parallels Mark 13:35.  Then too, vss. 43-44 are very similar to Luke 12:39-
40.  
     
Expecting the early return of the Messiah/Christ, Matthew has Jesus speak
words encouragement that the early Christians live faithfully in difficult
times.  Unaware of the time of the Messiah's coming and they are warned not
to be caught unprepared.  This type of warning was typical of Jewish
apocalyptic literature.  It warned believers and unbelievers alike of the
coming of the Messiah and the end of history.  The early church adapted
this message for "end times" to their proclamation of the Gospel.  They
must also have seen validation of their belief in the destruction of the
temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.  Matthew's Gospel probably dates from about a
decade or so later.
          
There is a certain homeliness about the metaphors of the thief in vs. 43
and the women grinding grain.  The metaphor of the thief also appears in 1
Thessalonians 5:4 and Revelation 3:3, so it must have been part of the
common apostolic witness.  Very likely it could have come from Jesus
himself.  Undoubtedly he knew the apocalyptic tradition in Israel and wove
it into his own message.  He also knew the ancient OT stories of Noah and
the flood.

There is a rural proverb from the time before motorized vehicles: "Beware
of locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen."  Like this
passage, it warns  of the unexpected.  An ancient rabbinical proverb quoted
by Sherman E. Johnson in *The Interpreter's Bible,*said: "Three things come
unexpectedly, Messiah, the discovery of a treasure, and a scorpion."
(Abingdon, vol. 7, 554. 1951)  Again, an old Chinese proverb gives much the
same warning: "May you live in interesting times."  Such metaphorical
statements speak to the ordinary life of common people.  No one knows
whether any particular event will bring good or evil consequences.

In this day when terrorists stalk many nations around the globe seeking
opportunities to wreck havoc on modern societies, we need to be aware that
God is ever present and still reigns in love over all of human history.   
This truth enables us to live with the unexpected in what many regard once
more as apocalyptic times.  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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