Year C — The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Commentary for December 23, 2012
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for today’s readings

Micah 5:2-5a
Deum obscuramGod of the obscure. 

Among the many names for Israel’s God, I sometimes wonder if this title shouldn’t be included. This little passage from Micah, tucked away in all of the other “messianic” prophecy scriptures, points toward Bethlehem as the birthplace of something big — a new ruler for Israel. 

Bethlehem is anything but big — a sleepy little hamlet that had, at most, a few hundred residents during the time of Jesus. (Today, Bethlehem’s “Old City” contains about 5,000 residents.)

God seems to have a propensity, however, for doing “big” things with “small” packages — witness another Bethlehemite king — none other than David himself. It was he who burst onto the national stage with his victory over the “big” opponent, Goliath, when he was but a wet-behind-the-ears kid with a sling. (see 1 Samuel 17 for a refresher on that story…)

Feeling a little small, under-noticed, isolated or obscure as Christmas approaches this week? You’re in good company — God does good things in those obscure places of our lives.

Laudate deum obscuram.

Luke 1:46b-55
This portion from the gospel can serve, of course, as the psalm text in Advent worship for this Sunday. See the commentary below for further comments.

Psalm 80:1-7
Perhaps the most notable imagery of the psalm reading is its repeated emphasis on the light from God’s face that shines upon us. Certainly, many of us will hold services celebrating the light of Christ shining into the world on Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day. 

The psalm also continues a theme we have seen consistently throughout Advent, as well; God is with us through the rough times, even when it appears that God may be “angry” with our foibles and failings. 

Many of our parishioners know what it means to eat “the bread of tears” and to drink “tears…in full measure.” The holiday season makes grief seem more acute. But, over time and in compassion, the light of God’s presence does shine again in the dark places of our hearts. God restores, thank God!

Hebrews 10:5-10
The writer of Hebrews can be a little difficult to follow sometimes, especially if you are attempting to follow his line of reasoning by jumping in to the middle of things. (In other words, it can be a little dangerous to lift quotes from this biblical text out of their context — maybe more so than in most other biblical passages.)

Here, in chapter 10, he is bringing to a grand conclusion his argument that Christ has come, has sacrificed his life (and, necessarily, his body) — and that this sacrifice is far superior to any other sacrifice that has been or ever will be offered. 

It’s a bit sticky that he writes, “when Christ came into the world, he said…” and then begins to quote Psalm 40:6-8. While, in the mind of the preacher of Hebrews this psalm well should and ought to be connected to Jesus, we never have a record of Jesus actually saying it (I don’t think!)

Well, pesky textual details aside, most likely we have this reading today for the connection it offers to the “body” of Christ — his humanity, as well as his “assignment” from God to bring salvation for the world “once for all.”

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)
We have in the gospel what I call “The First Christmas Carols.” Elizabeth and Mary, pregnant cousins — both by rather extraordinary means — sing the praises of God and look forward to what their respective sons will accomplish in the world. 

(Okay, okay, it doesn’t actually say that they sing — they “cry aloud” and “say” — but go with me here on this one, will ya’? It’s almost Christmas, for Christ’s sake, and everybody wants to sing!)

I, along with millions of other Bach fans, love Mary’s Magnificat — from the Latin text of this passage. (A very nice recording of the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus performing the opening movement of the piece– with herald trumpets! — can be found here.)

I wonder if it’s not a fruitful exercise to think for a few moments on what it means for each of us to “magnify” the Lord during these final days of Advent and into the Christmas season?

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

One of my mother’s favorite stories is about the year I was supposed to sing at the Slate Mountain Baptist Church Christmas program.  My mother was the director and some of us were too young to be in the play and she wanted every child to do something so she had all the little kids pick a Christmas song to sing as a sort of prelude to the rest of the program.

I picked “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and, over many objections, practiced it day and night around the house.  I also faithfully went to church for play practice and sang it to the empty pews.  The night of the play came and I walked out to sing and I looked at a hundred or so faces staring back at me and I sang “Rudolph the red-nosed . . . “ and then I stopped.  I started again, ”Rudolph, the red-nosed . . . “and then I quit again.  Finally I ran off the stage screaming “Mama!” and fell into my mother’s arms.  I was four and I have seldom sung in public since.

In our Gospel lesson, Mary finds her voice and sings a song for the ages.  Tied up with her story is another story about a man who first loses, and then later finds, his voice.

Elizabeth was the mother of John the Baptist and the wife of Zechariah, a priest of the temple.  Their story is also told in the first chapter of Luke.  It is a story that Luke weaves in and out of the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. It is important to hear both stories together.

Like Abraham and Sarah before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and childless.  Zechariah went to work at the temple one day and while he was alone in the inner sanctuary, burning incense while the people prayed, an angel appeared at the right side of the altar, scaring poor Zechariah half to death.

The angel said, “Do not be afraid Zechariah, your wife will bear you a son and you are to call him John.” The angel then proceeded to tell Zechariah what wonderful things his son would do.

Zechariah had some doubts which, personally, I find both understandable and amusing. On the one hand, he is old and his wife is old and though it is the first century these people do understand basic reproductive biology.  It is a legitimate objection.  On the other hand, he’s arguing with an angel that something is not reasonable.  I think we’re already outside the realm of empirical reason and into the mysterious area of miracle.

The angel was not as amused as I am and got very stern with Zechariah, “I am the angel Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent out to speak to you and tell you the Good News.  Because you do not believe what I have said, you shall live in silence, and you shall be unable to speak a word until the day it happens.”

And so it was that Zechariah lost his voice.  He was unable to tell anyone, even his wife what had happened to him at the altar that day.  After his time of service in the temple was over he went home to his wife and she was soon pregnant, but he could say nothing to her about what the angel had told him.

The story then shifts to a time six months later when the same angel Gabriel visits a young peasant girl named Mary.  He tells her equally unbelievable news; that she will bear a child.

Mary may be young, but she too knows her basic biology. She is stunned, “How can this be?  I don’t understand?”  The angel reassures her that it is true and offers the proof that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant, even though she is beyond her child-bearing years.

Then comes the part of the story contained in our Gospel reading.  As soon Gabriel left her, Mary went “with haste” to visit with Elizabeth.  In one of the more charming incidents in the Bible, Luke shows John the Baptist “leaping in the womb,” when Mary arrives; presumably excited over the presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb.

Immediately after this encounter, Luke shows Mary bursting into song with the words that have come to be known as “The Magnificat” – a poem rich with images from the Hebrew Scriptures about God rescuing the poor, the lonely and downtrodden from their distress.

After Mary’s song is sung, the text turns back to the story of John’s birth.  When the Baby was born, the kinfolk wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father.  Elizabeth said, “No, his name is John.”  They protested, “But no one in your family is named John.”   (Hmm, they must have been from southern Israel.)

So the kinfolk stopped arguing with Elizabeth and turned to Zechariah.  He took up a tablet and wrote, “His name is John,” and when he made that confession of faith in the promise of God, his tongue was loosed, he found his voice, and he burst into song, the song of Zechariah, a song of prophecy and joy.

It is not by accident that Christmas is a time filled with music and singing. When our hearts are full of hope, our mouths are naturally full of joyful praise.

When we embrace fully God’s promise to be with us in the world, when we give ourselves over completely to the miracle that is God’s intrusive love in the world, then we find ourselves with a story to tell and a song to sing.

The Word of God comes to us again this year.  God makes promises to come into the world through us, to bless the world through us, to save the world through us.

We can make excuses.  We can be like Zechariah was at first, saying, “We’re too old.  We’ve already tried that, we know it won’t work.”  We can stutter and stumble and run off life’s stage, unable to sing.

Or we can say with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

And when we do, we will, like mary and Zechariah, burst forth with words of hope, joy and prophecy; and we will commit ourselves anew to lives of servanthood and love.

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