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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)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What does that hope of “reversal” mean for you?
- Why is that so hard for us to imagine?
- What would have been different if God had come in the way that was “expected”?
NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 10: 5-10
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)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What “legalistic” things do we or does our society require that is not really in perspective?
- 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
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).
- What meaning does this hold for you?
- What does it mean to enter this Christmas “spiritually virgin”?
- 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.)