The Fourth Sunday in Advent, 23 December 2018

TheFourth Sunday in Advent, 23 December 2018

Micah 5:2-5a
Canticle 15 Magnificat, or Psalm 80:1-7
Hebrews 10:5-10
St. Luke 1:39-45, [46-55]

Background: Bethlehem

We first hear of Bethlehem in the Amarna letters dated around 1400 BCE, from Ebdi-Heba, the Egyptian governor of Jerusalem writes to the Pharaoh, “Now even a town near Jerusalem, Bit-Lahmi by name, a village which once belonged to the king has fallen to the enemy.” It appears that this Canaanite village had fallen to Apiru forces, a people who shared a Semitic language and cultural life. Lahmu, the later part of the ancient name, was an Akkadian god of fertility. An ancient temple existed where the Church of the Nativity now stands. Although the name did not change, the understandings of its meaning did, from “The House of Lehem (the Canaanite god) to “The House of Bread” in Hebrew and Aramaic.

An eighth century BCE bulla (seal impression) was found in the City of David that reads: From the town of Bethlehem to the King.” Some scholars equate Bethlehem with the biblical Ephrathah, which we see in the first reading for this day. We also know it as the burial place of Rachel, and as the birthplace of David. It is well to remember that Mark gives no place of Jesus’ birth, only saying that he came from Nazareth. Matthew and Luke, however, connecting Jesus to David, see his birth happening in Bethlehem. The town was destroyed during the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 CE), and the Christian shrine was converted by Hadrian into a holy site honoring his lover Antinous. It was also the place in which St. Jerome did his work, and where St. Helen, in 326 had a church erected which stands to this day.

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

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.

Scholars see the first three chapters of Micah as being original with him (A Superscription, God’s appearance in judgment, the future destruction of Samaria, the prophet’s lament over Samaria, the disaster approaching Jerusalem, Opposition to the prophet, the goal of YHWH’s action, the ruin of Zion). The chapters that follow take into account what happened subsequently to the Babylonians Exile, and the eventual release and return of the people. Our reading falls within this latter edited collection. 

The material in chapter four promises a return of a remnant to Zion, and the continuing rule of YHWH over them, along with a hoped-for restoration of the Davidic throne. (A brief warning: the versification of the Revised Standard Version takes the last verse of Chapter 4 and places it as the first verse of Chapter 5). The whole point of this pericope is the restoration of the Davidic kingship, and thus we begin at Bethlehem, the place of David’s birth. There is an attempt at purity here. The kings who followed David and Solomon in Jerusalem were not faithful, and thus, the prophet goes back to Bethlehem to properly set his hope. We can see this in the words, “from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from old, from ancient days.” Everything, however, will not come to fruition immediately – there will be in intermediate period, a waiting for the woman to give birth. Thus, the exile is seen as a period of “Advent”, a waiting for the coming one the new Davidic king.

This new rule is seen as a shepherd. You may want to go back and read the following verses from chapter 4:6-8, in which God is seen as the shepherd of Israel. As a shepherd guides and guards his flock so does this new anointed one. The notion of king as shepherd was common in the Ancient Near East and is common in the prophetic writing about David.

Breaking open Micah:
  1. What in your life or faith is requiring restoration?
  2. What in your life comes from ancient times?
  3. How is God your shepherd?

The Response: Canticle 15 The Song of Mary MagnificatLuke 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.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

There is something in me that wishes these selections (The Magnificat and the Gospel of the Visitation) were not used for this Sunday. They have their own feast day on 31 May. I would have appreciated more anticipation. However, those mothers and fathers who have formed the lectionary have different thoughts than mine. 

As a way of preparing to read Mary’s song, one might want to turn to I Samuel 2:1-10and read Hannah’s song - a precursor and perhaps inspiration for Mary’s words. Mary’s song is one of reversals, and thanksgiving to God for the change of things. In some manuscripts it is Elizabeth who sings these words. Regardless, the words are divided into two strophes (vv. 46-50, and vv. 51-55). The first verses focus on God’s graciousness to the individual singing the words, and the second collection of verses gives witness to God’s favor and help to Israel. So, Mary knows a reversal – “for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” “The Almighty has done great things for me.” When the vision expands to the whole of society, we see similar reversals, “He has cast down the mighty…has lifted up the lowly.” 

All of this is connected to the common history of Israel, to the “promise he had to our fathers (and mothers.)” What comes in Mary and Elizabeth’s lives is something promised of old and is the promise of a godly future. For it is the promise that has been made forever.

Breaking open the Magnificat:
  1. What have been the reversals in your life?
  2. Have they been a blessing? How?
  3. What changes would you like to see in society?


Psalm 80:1-7Qui regis Israel

      Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
      In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
      Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
      Lord God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
      You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
      You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
      Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

The ascription of this psalm is interesting, “For the lead player, on the shoshanim, an eduth, an Asaph psalm.” Normally the Hebrew word “eduth” indicates a pact or treaty obligation. Aside from some other literary or musical use, perhaps this psalm is a testimony to the covenant between YHWH and Israel.

Our focus on this psalm is on the Northern Kingdom, “leading Joseph like a flock.” It may be a psalm written about the on-going threat of the Assyrians who finally did conquer and disperse the peoples of the Northern Kingdom.  This emphasis is made even more clear with the mention of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh. The verses here mirror the thoughts of the prophets who sought to convince the northerners of their faithlessness. The phrase, “O Shepherd of Israel” reminds us of the words of Micah. The prayer is for salvation and restoration, in place of the “bread of tears.”

Breaking open Psalm 80:
  1. Who is your flock?
  2. Who leads your flock?
  3. For whom are you a shepherd?

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

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.

If Mary’s song is a collection of reversals, so the author of Hebrews defines his own sense of reversals that come with the priesthood of Christ. The old system did not work, according to Hebrews. The whole cultus seemed not to please God, and this not a current notion but one from the past as he quotes Psalm 40. God does away with the old order and establishes a new order in Christ Jesus.

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What do you think displeases God in worship?
  2. What should be changed?
  3. What is new in your worship?

The Gospel: St. Luke 1:39-45(46-55)

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."

[And Mary said,

"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."]

As I mentioned earlier, this is the Gospel for the Feast of the Visitation, 31 May. Here we have two women who are honored by God and given children of promise. Whether it is Elizabeth who sings the song, or Mary, it is not important. The song provides the context of grace that surrounds both women in their pregnancy. Luke clues us in that this is a new time – “In those days”. Mary journeys to bind her joy with that of Elizabeth – and the connection is underscored with the notion – “the child in my womb leaped for joy.” The meeting of these two women is the nexus of two different social states. Is Mary the humbler, and Elizabeth the more prominent because of her husband’s status as priest, and her age? Or, is Mary the greater being the mother of Elizabeth’s Lord? Elizabeth gives way to Mary, “and blessed is she…” Mary does not accept the honor but gives it instead to God in her song.

See commentary on the Magnificat at the Response above.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. How were these women blessed?
  2. How are you blessed?
  3. How are you blessed in your children.

Initial Idea:                 Rejoicing in humility

First Voice:                  The humility of Bethlehem (Micah)

Second Voice:             The humility of Mary (Magnificat)

Third Voice:                The humility of Worship (Hebrews)

Fourth Voice:              The humility of Elizabeth (Luke)

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller


Popular posts from this blog

The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 5, 6 June 2021

The Day of Pentecost, Whitsunday, 23 May 2021

The Second Sunday of Advent, 6 December 2020