Friday, December 2, 2011

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes for the Second Sunday in Advent, Year B 
4 December 2011 

 The Three Advents 
We are well used to thinking of the first Advent of our Lord, when he came in humility to be born for us at Bethlehem, and looking ahead to his second coming in glory to judge the world; but as Peter of Blois, who lived from about 1135 to about 1200, said in an Advent Sermon
"There are three Advents of the Lord: the first to take our flesh; the second to our soul; the third to judgment. The first at midnight, the second in the morning, the third at noon.
The first Advent has been; the third is yet to come; the third is in our lives. In the second Advent our Lord comes to us in the Spirit, and if we welcome him, takes possession our souls, and gives us new life. We must keep this in mind when we hear the words of Isaiah : Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
In one sense this means that I must be sure that the way is open for him to me. And this is why in the Gospel today we hear of John’s Baptism for the remission of sins. In sin I turn from the way of God to go my own way. It is not that Christ won’t come to me, but that I block his way, being blind to his coming and deaf to his voice. In another sense, when we hear these words we must ask ourselves whether we are preparing a way for the Lord to come to his people or are blocking him.
  With this in mind, it is clear why the particular Sentence or Alleluia Verse was chosen for today, for it contains a very clear promise and a very clear command: The promise is that “All flesh shall see the salvation of God”, that is to say, the salvation of God comes to all people; it is most obviously fulfilled in the proclaiming of the Gospel in all lands and nations. The command is to prepare the way of the Lord. What crooked ways are there? 

 The Readings 
In each year of the Revised Common Lectionary the Four Sundays of Advent follow the same pattern. The Gospels of the first Sunday all concern the Coming of the Son of Man in glory to judge the world; The Gospels of the Second and Third Sundays concern the John the Baptist, the Forerunner of the Son of Man and his testimony to Jesus. The Gospel of the fourth Sunday concern the annunciation of Jesus’ birth to Joseph (Year A) and Mary (Years B and C).

 Isaiah 40.1-11 
The first reading today is the opening of the second part of the Book of Isaiah. It is a prophecy of the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. The prophet sees it as a new Exodus (which was a journey through the wilderness) and a promise that God himself will be shepherd of his people. This, as we remember was a theme through the last Sundays of the Church year. Another passage of Isaiah which is closely related to this one is Isaiah 35 (which is read on Advent 3 in year A). 
Verse 1 is the theme, not only of this chapter, but of the whole prophecy which it introduces ; compare. 35.3, 4, 41.2. Verse 3-4. “Make straight in the desert a highway”: the ordinary way from Babylon to Jerusalem for the most part went round, and not through, the desert. For the return of the exiles the Lord commands a straight road in defiance of all obstacles. See Isaiah 35.8-10. 
Verses 6-8: It is not clear whether the words from “All flesh is grass” belong to the questioner, or to the voice which said, “Call”. In the former case, the preceding question is one of despondency, and “All flesh is grass” gives the reason of this despondency:—”How can ‘all flesh’ see such a glorious sight as in verse 5, when it is subject to the law of decay and death?” To this implied question, v. 8 may be regarded as the answer. In the last verses proclaim again God’s salvation of his people. The Advent focus of this passage is made clear because it was used by John the Baptist, as seen in today’s Gospel. 

Several parts of this reading are well-known in their settings in Handel’s Messiah. Here are some links to the sections of the Oratorio: 
 At each one there are links to other performances and other parts of Messiah.

 Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13 
The Psalm, like the first lesson, looks to God’s mighty acts of salvation as assurance that he will continue to show loving kindness to his people. 

 2 Peter 3.8-15a 
The Epistle reading brings us back to the theme of Christ’s coming in judgement. We must not forget that this, too, is answer to the question “what child is this?” for Christ was not always a child, and he did not come to give only a superficial love and peace. He came to meet the needs of the human race at the very roots of sin and death, and to restore God’s loving and merciful rule. That cannot be without judgement.
 More immediately, this passage says two things to us. The first is that although the promised coming may seem delayed, it is not. All things, and the end of the story, are in the hands of Christ. If we are given time, it is so that we may turn to him and learn his ways. The other thing is that if we are to be his people, knowing that he is to judge, we must ask ourselves, How then shall we live? At Christmas, we may put this another way: our Lord came in humility to become an infant, which is a sign of his giving all he had for our sake. How then shall we live?
I have to confess that I am not sure what is meant by "waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God" (verse 12). Most early modern translations (such as the Authorized Version of 1611) give it as hastening unto; some more recent versions give ‘vehemently desiring’. Hastening seems to be the most literal version, but what does it mean? What can we do to hasten the day of God? This would be an excellent question for a Bible Study Group. Another question that comes from this verse is: what difference is there, if any, between the "day of the Lord" and the "day of God"? Is it possible that we are delaying the day of Lord by failing to repent as John Baptist and Jesus taught repentance? 

 The Gospel according to Mark 1:1-8 
Although the Gospel passage is very straightforward, a few notes might be helpful. 
Verse 1 is the title of the whole book, which is called a ‘Gospel’. This familiar word comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon God-spell, good news (opposite of lath-spell, bad news), but was very early on understood to mean ‘God-story’. The Greek word it translates, evangelion, meant at first a present or reward given for good news and later the good news itself. In the Greek translation of the O. T. it is applied generally to any kind of ‘good news’ (e. g. 2 Sam. 4.10 ; 2 Kings 7.9), and specifically to the prophetic announcement of the coming of the Messianic kingdom (e.g. Isa. 61.1-2). … In this opening verse of Mark we see the transition from the good news brought by Christ to the good news regarding Christ In ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God’ we have a personal name, Jesus, an official name, Christ, and a title, Son of God. ‘Jesus’ is the Greek way of writing ‘Joshua’, a fairly common name at the time; it signifies ‘The Lord saves’. “Christ’ translates the Hebrew ‘Messiah’, which means the anointed. Those who held office in Israel were anointed to it, e. g. the priests. But in the O. T. the king is specially spoken of as anointed (1 Sam. 24.7, 11 ; Ps. 2.2; Isa. 44.1, &c.), and in Daniel (ix. 25) the Messiah is described as prince. So the term ‘Messiah’ came to express the idea that the one who was to come to restore Israel was to come in the character of a king, and as one of David’s line. Although it later came to be used almost as a personal name, in the Gospels , it still has its technical sense, and is best rendered the Christ. 
Unlike the opening verse of Matthew, where Jesus is described as ‘Son of David, son of Abraham’, Mark says simply ‘Son of God’. This important title occurs (not to speak of equivalent forms, ‘the Son’, ‘the only begotten Son’, ‘my beloved Son’, etc.) some nine times in Matthew, four times in Mark, six times in Luke, and ten times in John, It is used of Christ both by others and by himself. As the RCL notes point out, 
 In the Old Testament this term is used to describe angels or divine beings (see Genesis 6:2 and Job 37:7), the Israelite nation (see Hosea 11:1) and an anointed king (see Psalm 2:7). There it usually has moral force: God loves Israel, so Israel should in turn love and obey her Father: see Deuteronomy 32:6. Two of the late apocalyptic books seem to use it of the Messiah (see 1 Enoch 105:2; 2 Esdras 7:28-29; 13:32, 27, 52), as does Mark in 14:61. The Greco-Roman world knew of gods and heroes, usually saviours and healers, who were called sons of god. So it is understandable that the centurion at the foot of the cross remarks: “Truly this man was God's Son” (in 15:39). 
In fact it took the Christian community no little time to come to a true understanding of what it means to call Jesus the Son of God. 
Verses 2-8 act as a sort of prologue, declaring who Jesus is: the awaited Messiah. This is accomplished by Although verse 2 only refers to the Prophet Isaiah, the first quotation is from Malachi 3.1, possibly influenced by Exodus 23.20. The Gospel writer has adapted the words so that the messenger who, according to the prophet, is sent before the Lord himself, is said here to be sent before the Messiah. In Malachi the messenger`s work is to prepare for the sudden coming of the Lord to judge His temple. In the Gospel the work ascribed to the Forerunner is that of religious preparation for the coming of the object of Israel’s hope. In ‘Prepare thy way’, the image comes from the custom which was necessary in times when roads were few and ill kept, of sending on an official (a harbinger) to make the ways passable for a monarch on a journey or a royal progress. As the king`s officers made roads ready for the visits of kings, so God`s messenger was to make spiritual preparation for the coming of the His anointed. 
The second quotation, verse 4, is from Isa. 40.3, which we read in this morning`s first reading. It gives the same idea as the first quotation, though with more fullness. By reading ‘The voice of one crying in the desert, “Prepare ….”’ in place of ‘the voice of one crying, “In the desert prepare …”’ the desert, which in Isaiah is the scene of the preparation, is now the place of the prophecy, and so fulfilled in John the Baptist, who preached and worked in the desert. It is important to understand that Mark is not playing fast and loose with the Old Testament to make it fit his message. The reading he follows was not his own invention, but is found in the ancient Greek translation of the text. It helps to remember that ancient texts had no punctuation, no small letters and no quotation marks—and in ancient Hebrew no vowels—, and did not normally separate words. So the translators and copyists all had to deal with something rather like: 


There is no help at all in knowing where a quotation begins or ends, or even a sentence. 

  The Sources of our English Bible 
In connection with this point, it might be interesting to learn something about the Manuscripts of the Bible. You can look at today’s Gospel passage in one of the most important Greek Manuscripts, the Codex Sinaiticus. At this site you can see a copy of the MS, a transcription in Greek, and an English translation
Go to
 and enter Mark in the box. Our passage is in the first column of text. Notice how the word εὐαγγελίου (euaggeliou,or euangeliou, ‘of the Gospel’) runs over onto the second line: euaggeli-ou

 In the description of John in verses 4-8 we are told only enough to identify him as the one foretold to be the Forerunner or Harbinger of the Messiah. Although Mark clearly knew more about the Baptist, he does not say it here—unlike Luke, who includes a snippet of John’s ethical teaching (Luke 3.7-14). 
In verse 5, note that ‘to baptize’ was a familiar term in ancient Greek. It means literally to dip in or under water, to immerse, but also to wash. The usual form of baptism in ancient times and in these Eastern countries was by immersion. There were Jewish rituals of purification that had some similarity to baptism, in particular the immersion required for converts to Judaism. 
John’s baptism of repentance (v.4) was a baptism characterized by or implying repentance. It was a baptism which befitted the approach of the Messianic kingdom and prepared the people for the Messiah himself (cf. Matt. 3.7-10). It seems to have been held that it was the sin of the people that delayed the Messiah’s advent; and John’s baptism involved the sense and confession of sin and carried with it the obligation to repent. The word metanoia, which is rendered by ‘repentance’ here is neither on the one hand mere grief or regret for sin, nor on the other only an outward change of life, but a change of mind, a change of one’s views of self and God and all things, carrying with it a change of life. It is one of the many words which received a new, deeper, more spiritual significance in Christianity. 
 John’s clothing and way of life (v. 6) reflect the descriptions of the prophets of old, and particularly Elijah (see Zech. 13.4 and 2 Kings 1.8). 
Verses 7-8. For Mark the central element of the Baptist’s work is his preaching and the heart of his preaching is the coming Messiah. D. E. Nineham: 
The first eight verses (of St Mark) might seem to be devoted to John the Baptist, but in fact they have much to say about the credentials of Jesus, For they treat John almost exclusively in his capacity as the forerunner of the Mighty One—or Messiah, though as a matter of fact he was a considerable person in his own right, and St Mark knew a great deal more about him (cf. e.g. 2.18 and 11.32).

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