A Reading from the Book of 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.
1 Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; *
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
2 In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, *
stir up your strength and come to help us.
3 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
4 O LORD God of hosts, *
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears; *
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
6 You have made us the derision of our neighbors, *
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; *
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the 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.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (1:39–55)
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.”
by the Rev. Deacon George Snyder
May the words of my mouth and the meditation in all of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord! You are our Strength! You are our Redeemer! AMEN!
Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 23. By this time, we have been seeing the preparations for Christmas since September—at least in a commercial sense. You can be inundated with Christmas on the radio and television—buy, buy, buy. We have seen lights in our neighborhoods probably since Thanksgiving. By now, I imagine most of us—including me—have finished the purchasing of gifts; many even have them wrapped and under the tree. Most of you women have finished the baking of your holiday cookies. The homemade candy is probably tucked away somewhere that the kids in your household—even those forty, fifty or sixty years old—will not find it. We see Christmas everywhere. Many churches have been singing the hymns for weeks and have their sanctuaries decorated for Christmas. However, there are a few churches that still show no vestige of Christmas.
I used to lament the fact that the Episcopal Church didn’t allow Christmas to show until today, the 4th Sunday of Advent. I wanted to see the decorations; I want to hear the carols. Oh, how wrong I was to want that! So wrong! If we stop and think about it, this church gives us the only respite from the frantic life of pre-Christmas ritual, mostly developed by the economic powerhouse, that has totally absorbed so much of the world. When we come into this sacred place, we are able to put all of that aside and concentrate on Advent, the season of waiting, the season of hoping, and the season of watching. Being in this undecorated sanctuary gives us the freedom of abandoning all of that which the world foists upon us and we eagerly embrace. It allows us to concentrate on the spiritual dimension of the season. Thanks be to God for that!
Today’s reading from Micah takes us far away from our preparation for the celebration of Christmas in all of its expensive glitziness. Micah was an Old Testament prophet who lived 800 years before that first Advent. He is one of a group of prophets whose prophecies attempt to bring Israel back to its root—back to where God wanted them to be. He speaks of common values—about righteousness and justice—particularly righteousness and justice for the poor. The Rev. Ben Helmer, an Episcopal priest in Eureka Springs, Arkansas suggests, “This passage today should not be understood in any other context. It is not to be viewed as a prediction of the birth of Jesus, though Christians often interpret it that way. It is rather a vision of restoration, of righteousness with kingship that cares for the values of a nation that have been lost.” Micah is concerned about political history and its future, and how God will deliver God’s people. Micah is not necessarily, says Helmer, prophesying a Messiah in the way many have chosen to interpret this passage. Micah’s longing for the restoration of God’s creation with rulers who are righteous is still something that we of the 21st century long for.
The psalm that George just read so beautifully—so poignantly—also speaks of the restoration of God’s world after man has twisted it. “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Both Micah and the psalmist offer a hope that is answered in the birth of Jesus, the Christ.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Mary’s visit to her older cousin Elizabeth shows a deep connection between the two. There is the connection of kinship; that is obvious. However, the more important connection is the remarkable experiences surrounding their pregnancies. Elizabeth, apparently childless and beyond the age of conceiving, does conceive after her husband, the priest Zechariah, has a dream in which he is told that Elizabeth will bear a child in her old age. A little later then, Mary is told by God’s angel that she will conceive God’s child. Mary and Elizabeth have the miraculous connection of being two women of different generations conceiving a child that will lead to the restoration of God’s world. The common connection for the two women is the intervention of the Divine in both pregnancies.
In biblical times, it was extremely uncommon for a pregnant woman to leave her home and travel. But, Mary did. Unwed mothers often went into hiding; in some cities, such women would often be stoned to death. But, Mary left her village and went “with haste to a Judean town in the hill country.” As I read and reread this passage over the last ten days, I wondered why it was so important for Mary to go to her cousin Elizabeth. Could it have been just a friendly, family visit to see her pregnant cousin? The passage does not suggest a reason at all.
Mary must have been going through a lonely period in her life. There had to have been some friction between her and Joseph. There is a carol from the 15th century introduced to me by Peter, Paul, and Mary; it sings of Joseph’s anger. “The Cherry-tree Carol” tells of Joseph and Mary traveling to Bethlehem for the census when they stop in a cherry orchard to rest. Mary, very close to delivering her child, asks Joseph to pick her some cherries since she is not able. Joseph’s response is to let the father of the baby pick her some cherries. At this point, a branch bends over and touches the ground so that Mary could pick them herself. Even though Joseph had been told and understood that Mary’s child was the son of God, he must have had moments of anger. Most human would. His anger could create loneliness for Mary.
Mary’s parents—I suspect, and I do not believe there is any biblical text to support me—must have had some misgivings that got in the way of their relationship and separated these parents from their daughter. Parents don’t like it when their teenage daughter apparently goes against the customs of the culture. And, can you imagine the loneliness for Mary that was created because of the attitude of the others who lived in her village. I can’t imagine that any of them took any stock in Mary’s story that God was the father of her baby. Consequently, Mary may have gone to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth for some company, for some support, and for some time away from those who drove her into being alone.
Mary knew that she was part of a miracle of God’s making, but I wonder if she had moments of doubt. Maybe Mary needed to see another miracle of God: Elizabeth being pregnant at such an old age. Maybe seeing that miracle would affirm Mary’s being part of God’s miraculous plan. All of this is speculation; it may be accurate, but there is no support in the text because we are not told everything.
What we are told is wonderful enough for us: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. If Elizabeth did not know before, she then knew to the depth of her soul that both Mary and Elizabeth were part of God’s plans. Both of their children, Elizabeth’s son who would be known as John the Baptist and Mary’s son who was the Christ, would change the course of mankind.
When Mary approaches Elizabeth and greets her, the child within Elizabeth made a giant leap. “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” From that encounters comes one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible. The words, which have become known as “The Magnificat, serves as an Advent message to the world to prepare itself for the coming of the Son of Man who will lead us to God’s kingdom. God, through the birth of his Son, will restore to mankind righteousness and justice which will occur by giving the lowers rungs of society a lift up his people to a position of honor; and, those who held their self-made position of honor and privilege will be dashed to the ground. God gives to his people all those things that He promised in previous generations. God fulfills His promise…
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
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The words of “The Magnificat” reflect the hopes and prophecies of Micah and the Psalmist. These words do not praise Mary at all; rather, they are a reflection of the covenant that God created with His people back at the time of Abraham. The hopes of centuries of God’s love for His people has been fulfilled. That is the promise of the season of Advent. That is what we Christians should be readying ourselves for.
The season of Advent is a season of waiting, hoping, and watching. We are quickly coming to the end of Advent. We await the coming of the Christ—waiting for the changes in our world that shows us that the rest of the world is waiting, too. We are hopeful that the world awaits the new creation that God has promised us with the gift of His incarnate Son. We are hopeful that the teachings of the Son of God will bloom in this world that so desperately needs the promises that the ancient prophets told us would be ours. We watch, praying that the world responds to the Christ, praying that it will show his teachings of love in its daily lives.
But, as we wait, hope, and watch, we do not do so idly. If we wait idly, the promise has been wasted. Instead, we live the life that the Christ asks us to live—spreading his word, responding to the world out of the love that He gives to us, and waiting for His coming, for his advent. To wait idly is to waste opportunities to help bring about his world; God gives us the privilege of helping Him create that new world. To wait idly is to waste a promise to wait idly is to waste a life time. Wait! Hope! Watch! But, live the life that the Christ calls us to live as we wait, hope, and watch. Let us go forth into God’s world loving Him by serving His children!