Advent4C: Coming


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OLD TESTAMENT: Micah 5: 2-5a

Read the Old Testament passage

On this last Sunday of Advent, we come to another familiar prophetic passage; familiar, at least in part, because it plays a prominent role in Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus. (When the magi from the East come to Jerusalem expecting to find the king of the Jews, King Herod’s scribes quote this passage as evidence that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem.) The writings known as Micah were probably written, as the superscription implies, during the reigns of three kings of Judah: The first, Jotham (742-735 BCE) ruled during a time of growing fear and unrest; the second one, Ahaz (735-715 BCE) came when Israel (the Northern Kingdom) was experiencing internal rebellions and rapid turnover of kings; and the last, Hezekiah, (715-687 BCE) was the time when Sennacherib marched on and destroyed most of Judah and Jerusalem barely survived.

Micah is associated with Moresheth, a small town about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem and probably did most of his writing during the reign of Ahaz, when there was great oppression from the upper class. His message is assurance that this time of oppression would end and a new ruler would come from Bethlehem, ushering in a time of salvation. The prophet is claiming a coming new Davidic king, one that would rule relying on the strength of God. Keep in mind that in this time of exile, it appeared that the Davidic line would be ending. The Assyrian threat is as real as it ever could be. Darkness is everywhere. The prophecy was a reminder that God would keep the promises that God had made, offering new hope to the people in despair.

But also keep in mind that the original prophecy and the current-day Jewish interpretation does not associate this promise with Jesus. Remember that the Old Testament should stand within the context in which it was written and be understood in this way. But for the Gospel writers (and, in particular, the writer of Matthew), this understanding was illumined through Jesus Christ and we as those with Christian lenses see it that way. Neither is the “right way” and neither is the “wrong way” to understand it. Either way, God offers hope and a promise of new life.

For the prophet Micah as well as for us, God has promised something new and the writer looks toward that hope. It’s not unlike what we want even in this day. But the world will not look the way it looks. This sleepy little town called Bethlehem is seen by the prophet using different standards. God does not live or act within the understood “rules” of the world. Bethlehem, a small, seemingly poor, sort of “no name” city will produce something wonderful. The mighty in this world will fall. The lowly will be exalted. And the last one that you would imagine will be the one to usher in the peace and vision of God. For it is here in this tiny breath of a town that heaven will soon touch the earth and nothing will ever be the same again. The power of hope changes the boundaries and changes the rules in which we live. God’s vision, a great “reversal” of the expected, has begun.

O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given; so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in. (Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, ca. 1868)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does that hope of “reversal” mean for you?
  3. Why is that so hard for us to imagine?
  4. What would have been different if God had come in the way that was “expected”?



NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 5-10

Read the Hebrews passage

This passage forms part of the author’s argument against the “old order” and for the “new order”. (This is, of course, often interpreted in a way that would be considered anti-Semitic. That’s not nor never was the intent. Bringing something new does not imply that the “old” was bad. Both are the way they are supposed to be in the time in which they are. And, as has been said before, “it is good.”)

Using the language of several Psalms (2:7, 45: 6-8, 8: 4-6, and 110:1), the writer treats the words as those said by Jesus. But the statement is one about priorities, more than anything else. God in Jesus did not dismiss sacrifice but instead put it in perspective. It is sort of an argument against blind fundamentalism and for a true spiritual life. Sacrifice for merely sacrifice’s sake is indeed pointless. And I would doubt that sacrifice to “prove” something or to get one’s name on some sort of perceived “heavenly list” was really what God intended for us. Doing something in the “name of religion” is not the way. But doing anything that brings one closer to God is indeed a righteous thing.

The starting point is always God’s goodness and holiness, a gift for all those who seek it. That is the “new order”. It is centered on the cross of Christ. But this sometimes seems an odd lection to read when we’re about to approach the manger and all. Maybe it’s a reminder that Christmas is about more than mangers and babies, shepherds and wisemen. Instead, Christmas is our entrance into something relevant, into our life of faith. But this Christian faith never for one second was intended to supersede the Abrahamic faith; it was intended, rather, to illuminate it into being. In other words, Jesus took up the first order to transform it into a new order. In the same way, we are called to take up ourselves and offer them up to be transformed in this new order. It’s called sanctification. We United Methodists describe it as a journey of “going on to perfection”. In this way, maybe Christmas is as much our birth-day as it is that of Jesus.

So as we light candles and begin the chords of “Silent Night”, remember that it is more than a celebration of Jesus’ birth; it is the day that we begin to come to be, the very dawn of redeeming grace has spilled into the earth.


Silent Night, holy night, all is calm all is bright round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light; radiant beams from thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace, Jesus, Lord at thy birth, Jesus Lord at thy birth. (Joseph Mohr, 1818)


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What “legalistic” things do we or does our society require that is not really in perspective?
  3. What does it mean to understand this “new order” that God has offered? What does that mean for our lives?



GOSPEL: Luke 1: 39-45

Read the Gospel passage

What Mary has been asked to do is nothing short of staggering: to carry, nurture, and birth the Son of God. She has been charged with birthing the salvation of the world. Annunciation literally means “the announcement”. The word by itself probably holds no real mystery. But it is the beginning of the central tenet of our entire Christian faith—The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. For us, it begins the mystery of Christ Jesus. For us, the fog lifts and there before us is the bridge between the human and the Divine. Now we Protestants really don’t tend to give it much credence. We sort of speed through this passage we read as some sort of precursor to “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” This, for us, is the beginning of the birth story.

But think back. Something happened nine months before. This human Jesus, like all of us, had to be grown and nurtured in the womb before the miracles started. March 25th—The Feast of the Annunciation—is for some the turning point of human history. It is in this moment that God steps through the fog into humanity and, just like every human that came before, must wait to be fully birthed into this world.

And as she waits, Mary goes to her cousin’s house. Elizabeth was probably surprised. After all, it wasn’t like Mary could call ahead or text her to tell her of the coming birth. As the young girl enters the house, Elizabeth, also pregnant after so many years of trying, feels her womb move, as if the tiny fetus somehow felt a presence that she could not. And at that moment, Elizabeth got it. Mary, her young cousin, the girl with no important name and no real pedigree, was part of something bigger than herself. Mary’s life up until now was nothing. She was young, poor, female. In her mind, her life really did not amount to anything. But now she is blessed. Now she is named “oh favored one”. She must look at life differently and find that part of the mystery of God that is within her and that she is called to live.

Our Psalter this week is her becoming, her song, her Magnificat (Luke 1: 47-55)


46 And Mary* said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,    and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him    from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm;    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,    and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things,    and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel,    in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,    to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’


When I first went to a Benedictine abbey fifteen years ago, I wasn’t looking for Mary at all. But, over time, as I kept returning to the monks’ choir, I found that I was greatly comforted by the presence of Mary in the daily liturgy and also in the church year. I hadn’t been to church since high school, and I doubt that I had ever been to a vespers service. So, at first I had no idea where the lovely Magnificat we sang every night was from: “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” When I eventually found it in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, I was startled but glad to see that it was one pregnant woman’s response to a blessing from another. It is the song Mary sings after she has walked to her cousin Elizabeth’s village, and on greeting Mary, Elizabeth, who is bearing John the Baptist, recognizes that Mary bears the Messiah.

The song is praise of the God who has blessed two insignificant women in an insignificant region of ancient Judea, and in so doing “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly: [who] has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” I later learned that these words echo the song of Hannah in First Samuel, as well as the anguish of the prophets. They are a poetic rendering of a theme that pervades the entire biblical narrative—when God comes into our midst, it is to upset the status quo.

The Magnificat’s message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980’s, the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation (a sanction that I’m sure the monasteries of that country violated daily). But when I came to its words knowing so little about them, I found that all too often they were words I could sing with ease at evening prayer, with a facile (and sometimes sleepy) acceptance. On other nights, however they were a mother’s words, probing uncomfortably into my life. How rich had I been that day, how full of myself? Too full to recognize need and hunger, my own or anyone else’s? So, powerfully providing for myself that I couldn’t admit my need for the help of others? Too busy to know a blessing when it came to me?


…When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés, the popular but false wisdom of what ‘we all know’? Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “yes” that will change me forever? (Kathleen Norris, Meditations on Mary (New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1999), 13-14, 35).



  1. What meaning does this hold for you?
  2. What does it mean to enter this Christmas “spiritually virgin”?
  3. What would that change in the world?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


If God’s incomprehensibility does not grip us in a word, if it does not draw us into [God’s] superluminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of our homely, close-hugged truths…we have misunderstood the words of Christianity. (Karl Rahner)


Light looked down and beheld Darkness. “Thither will I go,” said Light.  

Peace looked down and beheld War. “Thither will I go,” said Peace.

Love looked down and beheld Hatred. “Thither will I go,” said Love.

So Light came, and shone.

So Peace came, and gave rest.

So Love came, and brought Life.

And the Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us. (Lawrence Housman)                                                                                                                                                                        


God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great. In the mystery of the Word made flesh, the maker of the Stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, or to share our grief, to touch our pain. God came with Love. Rejoice! Rejoice! And go into the Light of God. (“First Coming”, by Madeleine L’Engle)


Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are. (Alfred Delp)




I wonder if God comes to the edge of heaven each Advent and flings the Star into the December sky, laughing with joy as it lights the darkness of the earth; and the angels, hearing the laughter of God, begin to congregate in some celestial chamber to practice their alleluias. I wonder if there is some ordering of rank among the angels as they move into procession, the seraphim bumping into the cherubim from top spot, the new inhabitants of heaven standing in the back until they get the knack of it. (After all, treading air over a stable and annunciating at the same time can’t be all that easy!)


Or is everybody—that is, every “soul”—free to fly wherever the spirit moves? Or do they even think about it? Perhaps when God calls, perhaps they just come, this multitude of heavenly hosts. Perhaps they come, winging through the winds of time, full of expectancy, full of hope that this year…perhaps this year…perhaps…the earth will fall to its knees in a whisper of “Peace”. (Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 39.)


Advent 3C: Wake Up! The Baby is Coming!

Morning SunOLD TESTAMENT: Zephaniah 3: 14-20

Read the Old Testament passage

Most of us have not read a lot of the Book of Zephaniah.  In fact, most of us have yet to find Zephaniah buried in the midst of all of those Minor Prophets. It’s only three short chapters, barely over three pages in my Bible. It’s one of those books that a minister friend of mine who shall remain nameless used to claim that they kept moving around in the Bible because that could be the only reason that he had such a hard time finding it. Yes, to be honest, Zephaniah is not part of our normal everyday lexicon.

But this is Advent. Things are about to change. The world will soon no longer be the way that it is and that may come as quite a shock to some. But remember, God seldom comes in the way that we expect or at the time that we had planned or to the places that we have prepared. God will be where God will be and the world will never be the same.

This short book sets itself in the seventh century BCE, during the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Josiah is many times characterized as the last great king, whose only equal would have been King David. The identity of this prophet is really not very clear. His father’s name is Cushi, which could mean that he was of Ethiopian heritage (Cush being the name for what we call Ethiopia).

This short book is primarily a book of judgment oracles that proclaim and invoke the coming Day of the Lord. The prophet announces what is essentially cosmic destruction and demise and then at the end, the part that we read, unfolds a ninth oracle of salvation and renewal, a promise of some sort of final resolution of judgment and an assurance that the world will finally stop shaking and moving in what oftentimes seems to be an unnatural and even unbearable way. And the Lord, no longer a seemingly inaccessible mover of Creation, is with us. The Scripture, using the present tense (rather than the future), says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.” In other words, it is a reminder that this is not something that will happen “someday”, some other world that is “out there” waiting for us to get our act together enough to get there. This is now. God is in your midst, bearing the shaking and teaching us how to hold together.

In the context of the writing of this virtually unknown prophet, “there is Jerusalem the unfaithful and corrupt placed alongside Jerusalem the city of universal rejoicing and [everlasting] justice; there is the contrast between idolatrous and purified—a city of violence versus a dove, [the city of peace].” (Angela Bauer-Levesque, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 55.)

The word Zephaniah means “Yahweh protects”. And, according to the book, like a good parent, God doesn’t just ignore the wrongs of the children. Instead, God takes them, judges them, and lovingly reforms and transforms them into what God intended for them to be. The Jewish Scripture translation, The Tanakh says that God annuls your judgments and will soothe us with love. “Will soothe us with love”: not wiping out destruction with more destruction but soothing it into something that works, something that fits in with the rest of Creation. The writing known as the Book of Isaiah says that “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:4b) But remember, even though this Scripture that we read is talking about a day in the future, a day when all disaster will be gone, when the lame will be saved and the outcast will be gathered in to the realm of God, a day at some time that is yet to come, the passage says, using present tense, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst.”—not coming, not waiting to appear, but in our midst. The world is still riddled with greed and war, our world community so often lacks compassion and caring, and all of us struggle with our own spiritual identity, our own understanding of God and how God moves in and through our lives. But this passage is a reminder of what our faith is all about: God is in our midst.

Perhaps Advent is about more than just waiting for something else to happen that is not happening now. Maybe it is more about opening our eyes to what God’s coming into our lives truly means. In an essay entitled, “The Coming of Jesus in our Midst”, Dietrich Bonhoeffer claims that “we have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.” (From Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas) God does not wait to come into our world until things are right; God is here, now, in our midst.


  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What does that mean for you that God is in our midst?
  • How does the realization that the passage uses the present tense change the meaning for us?
  • Why is it so hard for us to envision the restoration and renewal that God has promised?



NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 4: 4-7

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage

In many churches on this third Sunday of Advent, the Advent candle is pink, rather than purple or blue, symbolizing joy in this season. It is a call to rejoice in the “peace that surpasses all understanding. The genre of this writing could be characterized as a “friendship letter”. The Philippians are dear to Paul (who is indeed probably the writer of this letter). They have been generous in supporting his ministry. And yet, not everything is great. They have numerous challenges to their faith.

Paul mentions first “opponents”, which have apparently caused them great suffering. Whatever it is, Paul is concerned that the church might divide in the face of this conflict. There is also a concern that the people are being subjected to alternative teachings that would pull them away from the teachings of Jesus. The third struggle in Philippi is a conflict between two female leaders of the congregation named Euodia and Syntyche. (Regardless of the fact that they were in conflict, it should be noted here that there WERE female leaders in the church, putting aside interpretations that would claim otherwise.)

So, Paul’s message pulls the Philippians out of these human conflicts that beset them and toward a future with Christ. Rejoice! While it is clear that Paul never gave up on the idea of the Parousia, the second coming of Christ, there is also a real present tense in the tone of this letter. Paul is reminding the Philippians that God is indeed here and because of that, we should truly rejoice.

Now don’t think that this is some sort of sappy, utopian call to be happy regardless of how bad things are going for you. Bad things happen. It’s alright (normal, I would think) to be sad, melancholy, even angry. (In fact, if you need to throw something, I have a dog that would love to play with you in the backyard!) This is not a call to be happy; it is a call to rejoice. Joy is deep, everlasting, abiding in the deepest part of your being. Joy is what comes from knowing that indeed God is here with you. It is a peace that surpasses any understanding that the world may have of what fills one’s life and makes it whole.


  • How does this passage speak to you?
  • Sometime true, unadulterated joy is difficult for us. Why is that? What stands in the way of our “rejoicing in the Lord always”?
  • What, for you, is the difference between happiness and joy?
  • What does the “peace that surpasses understanding” mean for you?



GOSPEL: Luke 3: 7-18

To read the Gospel passage

Once again, we have another week of John the Baptist. You have to admit that he was passionate. He truly believed in the “good news” and wanted to tell people. Some of us may get a little offended at what seems to be a rather harsh warning in the midst of this lovely season. But the crowds that heard him didn’t respond that way. Instead, they ask a very simple question: “What, should we do?”

After announcing eschatological judgment, John’s answers to each group seem pretty simple. To the crowds, who were probably for the most part lower middle or lower class, he said, “Share”; to the tax collectors, who made their living off of taken advantage of people, he said, “Be fair”; and to the soldiers whose job it was to keep society in line, he said, “Don’t bully.” The point is that there are always opportunities to do God’s work, to be who God calls us to be, and to be a part of ushering in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

This is a sermon on judgment and messianic consummation and yet the crowds hear John speak of a role they can play in our ordinary lives. It is the way that God’s presence is here now. (Notice that it’s in present tense.) Interestingly enough, there is a radical inclusiveness here. Everyone in their own way has a part to play. There is truly an invitation to all. Truth be told, John was not about welcoming the baby in the manger (I mean, remember, he was only six months old or so when that came to be!) John is much more to the point, calling us to repentance, to change, shaking us and yelling at us to WAKE UP! As Alyce McKenzie puts it, “He’s about delivering a ‘Welcome to Advent’ sermon that shakes our nativity snow globe so hard it cracks and all the water flows out along with the little white coconut flakes. The baby has escaped from the hermetically sealed snow globe of our cultural Christmas. John is about welcoming Jesus to the Jordan River and the people standing by it.” (From “Welcome to Our World: Reflections on Luke 3: 7-18, December 16, 2012, available at, accessed 10 December 2012) And the point is that in our repenting, in our entering, in our doing and in our being with God, there is always space to rejoice. It’s called Incarnation—the becoming. So, immerse yourselves in the preparation. It’s time to get ready. The baby is coming! And so are we!


  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does the point about the “inclusiveness” of the message mean to you?
  • So why does John the Baptist get such a negative, “fire and brimstone” reputation?
  • What does it mean to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s coming?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)


Joy has no name. Its very being is lost in the great tide of selfless delight—creation’s response to the infinite loving of God. (Evelyn Underhill)



The announcement is the great joy that the Lord is present and living in the world: that the Lord is with us. Dominus vobiscum, the Lord be with you. This is what we are constantly announcing in the liturgy, that the Lord is present in the world. (Thomas Merton)
Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are. (Alfred Delp)



In each heart lies a Bethlehem, an inn where we must ultimately answer whether there is room or not. When we are Bethlehem-bound we experience our own advent in his. When we are Bethlehem-bound we can no longer look the other way conveniently not seeing stars, not hearing angel voices. We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily tending our sheep or our kingdoms.


This Advent let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that the Lord has made known to us. In the midst of our shopping sprees, let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts. Through the tinsel, let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star. In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos, let’s listen for the brush of angel’s wings. This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem and find our kneeling places.


(Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 19.)