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.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
The gospels according to Mark and Matthew describe no biological relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus; they are related only as teacher and follower. John’s version of the gospel separates them even farther, presenting the Baptist as declaring twice (1:31, 33): “I myself did not know him.” Luke, on the other hand, has fashioned a wonderful series of beautiful stories, constructed around their conceptions and births; and, in those vignettes, he links the two of them biologically, portraying them as having mothers who are somehow related to each other.
Luke begins his gospel with a story about the annunciation of the coming birth of John, followed by a story about the coming birth of Jesus. Then, in the story of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, which we just heard, he brings the two figures together as they recognize and celebrate the way that they have both been blessed by God. And they come to realize that the entire world will be blessed because of the sons that they will bear.
Mary, in her song of praise, declares that all generations will call her blessed. But Luke’s series of stories, carefully woven together in a well-loved narrative, presents us with a series of characters, all of whom have been blessed by God in different ways. First, there are Zechariah and Elizabeth, an aging, childless couple, reminiscent of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Elkanah and Hannah. Then there is the young woman, Mary, and her husband, Joseph. In the scene of Jesus’ birth, there are some unnamed shepherds. Finally, in a story that takes place 40 days after his birth, there are the endearing figures of the elderly prophets, Simeon and Anna, presenting once again the image of faithful people from throughout Israel’s history.
As Luke weaves his account, it is apparent that all of his characters have been blessed by God. But the important thing about them is what they do when they recognize that they have been blessed. None of them simply sits back and glories in the role that they have been privileged to play or in the gifts that they have been given. Each of them responds, in his or her own way, to God’s blessings by being a blessing to others.
Mary, for example, has been given the awesome privilege of being the mother of a son who, Gabriel informs her, “will be called Son of God.” Yet her first thought is not for herself or of the special honor that she has been given, but for her relative, Elizabeth. And Mary’s first action is to set out on a difficult journey to care for the one who, in her old age, has also been blessed by God. She who is blessed will seek to be a blessing to someone else.
This theme of being blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others reaches back to God’s initial call to Abraham in Genesis, chapter 12. After God announces to him the gift of a new land to which God sends him and the promise that he will become “great nation,” God declares to him (vs. 3): “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
That same theme of being blessed by God in order to be a blessing to others is one that reoccurs also throughout the gospels, including the gospel according to Luke. It is what Jesus does, and so it is what Jesus’ faithful followers do as well. Maybe this is one important message that Luke was trying to communicate in fashioning these stories about the births of John and Jesus.
Some people look on themselves as being somehow better than other people because they are so fortunate, because they have been blessed in so many ways. They might be grateful. They might even echo within themselves the gospel story of the Pharisee in the temple who prayed, “I thank you, God, that I am not like other people.” But, as writer Brian McLaren points out, the blessings that we have received do not mean that God favors us over other people. Rather, he asserts: “God doesn’t bless some to the exclusion of others, but rather God blesses some for the benefit of others. So, being blessed isn’t simply a privilege: it’s a responsibility.”
As Luke fashions his beautiful scenes in the stories of this Christmas season, he paints for us portraits of an entire cast of faithful people who have been blessed by God, but who recognize the fact that their blessings are for the benefit of others, that they carry with them a responsibility to be a blessing to others. And in these stories he presents us with a reminder that that is the purpose for which God has blessed us in so many ways; that our blessings are, to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “the opportunities for service which God entrusts to us”; so that we might focus first of all, not on ourselves, but on others; so that we, too, might be a blessing to all God’s people.