Advent IV, 20 December 2009

The Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Micah 5:2-5a

Saint Luke 1:46-55 Magnificat

Hebrews 10:5-10

Saint Luke 1:39-45


If there is a focus for the readings for this Sunday, it is on Mary’s response and thoughts about the task to which she has been called. The themes from her story are actually celebrated on two other holy days in the year, The Annunciation, 25 March, and The Visitation, 31 May. Mary’s story is the center of today’s Gospel and of the Responsorial Psalm which used her song, The Magnificat, rather than an Hebrew Psalm. The first reading is from the prophet Micah who flourished around 721 BCE. As a contemporary of Jeremiah, he mirrors, at least in his initial five chapters, Jeremiah’s thought. The final chapters reflect a later point of view. The second reading is from Hebrews, a letter which uses a great deal of Hebrew and Old Testament imagery to explain the character of Jesus. The Gospel is from Luke’s Birth Narrative.

Micah 5:2-5a
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
and he shall be the one of peace.

Micah sees the handwriting on the wall. He is working in southern Judah during that period of time when the Assyrians invade the so-called “Northern Kingdom” (Israel) and deport the majority of the population, and resettle the land with other captured peoples. This is why the Samaritans are despised during the time of Jesus in that they were of “mixed blood”. Micah sees first hand what devastations can be had upon those, who in his opinion, don’t follow the covenant with God. As a prophet, and like his colleague Jeremiah, he warns King Hezekiah of the difficulties that might descend upon them if they ignore their relationship with the God of Israel.

The reading, which is naturally picked up by Christians for use as an Advent/Christmas reading, calls forth the hope that a new leader will come out of Bethlehem, which is incidentally and most importantly the birthplace of David. Micah is looking forward to a time when God’s wrath will have already been served on Judah, and the people are returned from captivity, to live again in the land ruled by an heir of David.

Breaking Open Micah:

1. What does David do before he becomes king of Israel? Which of those images are reflected in the reading?

2. Is this passage heavy on the destruction, or heavy on the hope?

3. What do you hope for at this point in your life?

4. Micah hopes for a “secure” Judah – what kind of security do you hope for, or already enjoy?

The Magnificat, Saint Luke 1:46-55
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

The Birth Narrative in Luke uses older imagery to tell its story. In the case of the reading this morning, we have a story of the visit of two cousins, both extraordinarily pregnant. Mary bursts forth in song, in verses that are modeled on the “Song of Hannah” (the mother of the prophet Samuel) in I Samuel 2:1-10. What is remarkable about this song is that it telegraphs several of Luke’s themes, namely, his attention to women (here Mary), and his concern for the poor, and his disparagement of the rich. A good comparison of this attitude is to read Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12) with Luke’s (6:17-49). The God of the Magnificat is a God of mercy, a God who remembers promises made to generations.

Breaking open the Magnificat

1. Which verses talk about the fate of the poor?

2. Which verses talk about the fate of the rich?

3. What are words and terms that are used to depict these classes of people?

4. Mary says that all generations will call her “blessed”. What does that mean to you? What place does Mary hold in your own personal piety?

5. Does this song have anything to say to you about your attitudes to either the rich or the poor?

Hebrews 10:5-17

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
"Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
but a body you have prepared for me;
in burnt offerings and sin offerings
you have taken no pleasure.

Then I said, 'See, God, I have come to do your will, O God'  (in the scroll of the book it is written of me)."

When he said above,

"You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings" (these are offered according to the law), then he added, "See, I have come to do your will."

He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God's will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes on the notion of sacrifice, and in his thinking has Jesus mirror the theology of Amos and Hosea. These older prophets felt that the whole institution of sacrifice was wrong-headed, that it did not get at the importance of the covenant, the working agreement between God and humankind. So, likewise, Jesus, sets aside the idea of animal sacrifice, and begins to talk about his own body. In this, Hebrews takes on a Pauline notion that the church, we, are the body of Christ. That is were offering must happen. The ideal model of this, then, is the sacrifice on the cross – a sacrifice in which we all participate.

Breaking open Hebrews:

1. What do you think that the phrase “the body of Christ means?”

2. What sacrifices have you made?

3. When you think about the offering of Jesus on the cross, does this become an example for your own living and offering, or is it a background to your own sense of value and self worth?

St. Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

This reading connects the story of John the Baptist with the story of the Birth of Christ. Luke quickly clues us into the fact that both of these women are in unusual circumstances. Elizabeth, married to a high priest of Israel, connects Jesus to the priestly traditions of the Old Testament, as Mary connects him to the Davidic kingship. Both Luke and Matthew provide extensive genealogies that make certain we know who Jesus was by looking at from whom he came. Luke is clear in his intent to inform his readers who Jesus is, for even the not-yet-born John the Baptist “leaps in the womb” in recognition of the Messiah. Elizabeth utters the phrases that become enshrined in the Ave Maria. This is all a theology of status – the priest/king who will come to redeem us. It is in the Magnificat that follow immediately upon this text (see notes above) that outline Luke’s theology of the kingdom of God.

Breaking open the Gospel:

1. Why is the connection with John the Baptist important for Luke?

2. How are the roles of women of faith either enhanced or diminished by this story?

3. What are Luke’s feelings about Mary? About Elizabeth?

4. What special anointing comes upon Elizabeth? Why?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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