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 2C: Messenger


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John the Baptist


OLD TESTAMENT: Malachi 3: 1-4

To read the text from Malachi

This passage is familiar to most of us thanks to Handel and his use of it in The Messiah. The themes here of judgment and purification may seem a little out of place to us during this season, but we need to remember that Advent is more than a season that readies us for Christmas. Advent is a season in which we are called to prepare ourselves in remembrance of Christ’s coming 2,000 years ago but also for Christ’s coming into our own lives. The writing that we know of as the Book of Malachi is the final one in the collection of the Twelve Prophets. At this point, the temple has been rebuilt, but Judah still remains a minor administrative unit within the vast Persian Empire. In human terms, it is but a shadow of its former self.

The name Malachi literally means “my messenger” and is probably a title, rather than a name. Either way, though, there is very little that is known about the author (or authors). There are no references to specific persons or events that would enable us to situate these words on the larger stage of world history.

The writings known as Malachi seem focused on attempting to reform Judean worship. In the writings, although the accusations sometimes seem a little vague, claim that the priests are not performing the rituals as they should and, in some cases, the writings indict them for being out and out profane. In other words, they are not obeying Judean law and are seen, then, as profaning the temple and the worship itself. It is hard for us sometimes to view these things as important in light of some of the other prophets’ concerns. What has happened to “justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” like we hear in Amos? But it’s important to not dichotomize and make one thing more important than the other—religion as worship and religion as action go hand in hand, as do love of God and love of neighbor, and prayer and action. But there is also a passion for justice, the concern for the widow and orphan and laborer. The two realms are brought together—the temple and the society.

So at this point the exile has ended, the temple has been rebuilt, and worship has been restored. But it is not all that we envisioned. There was no sign of the glory of God coming to fill the new temple. So the prophet is saying that the Lord will come once the temple, the society, the people have been judged and purifed. The Lord is not going to give up on the people, but their impurities and injustices cannot be condoned. God will cleanse them and renew them. Justice and truth and goodness do matter.

There is a strong reference to the “covenant with Levi” (2: 4). Levi was the patriarch of one of the twelve tribes of Israel and was closely identified with priestly functions. Once the Levites WERE those who lived pure and righteous, who actually successfully “purified” themselves. But things had changed. In verse 3 of this passage from Malachi, the writer uses the image of a refiner’s fire that will purify the sons of Levi, the priests. Only when they offer right sacrifices, when they worship the Lord with the right heart, will the people be set right and God’s glory will be revealed. This image of the “refiner’s fire” implies some pain and even, perhaps, despair that the people must go through.

Refining requires intense heat to burn away the impurities and set free the pure metal. To work with the metal, you have to get close to the fire, dangerous as that may be. The image depicts God as a blazing fire that impurities cannot withstand. But getting close means that we have to enter the danger and risk change. We have to endure our own impurities, our own shortcomings, being burned away until we are made new. The people had expected that once the temple was built they would be blessed. But here they were and there was no justice. Things were really just as bad as before. What they did not realize was that part of it was up to them.

This is a great illustration for which the author is unknown, as near as I can tell: “But Sir,” she said, “do you sit while the work of refining is going on?” “Oh, yes madam, “replied the silversmith, “I must sit with my eye steadily fixed on the furnace, for if the time necessary for refining  be exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be injured.” (“He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”) As the lady was leaving the shop, the silversmith  called her back, and said he had still further to mention, that he only knows when the process of purifying was complete, by seeing his own image reflected in the silver.

In a 1928 Advent sermon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:


It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . 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 every one who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. ed., Geffrey B. Kelley and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSan Francisco, 1995), 185-186, available at, accessed 1 December, 2009.)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. In what ways are we called to “purify” or refine ourselves and our own lives?
  3. What does this sense of purifying or preparation have to do with our Advent waiting?
  4. What does it have to do with preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming?



NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 1: 3-11

To read the text from The Letter to the Philippians

The passage that we read today is the formal beginning of a letter in the typical form of first century letters. Philippians is considered one of the seven “undisputed” letters of Paul (along with Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, and Philemon), so the writer Paul begins by reassuring them of his prayers and his pride in them because their faith is continuing. Paul was never interested in winning converts as if the main game was numbers. He was concerned about people entering a new relationship with God that keeps going.

Notice that he is making a real effort to cement the relationship, perhaps in the face of things that his opponents were doing to dissuade people from belief in Christ. Paul equates good relationship with God and Christ with a good relationship among Christians here and now (not least, with himself). Anything that threatens that threatens everything. Paul wants their love to abound more and more. Paul’s understanding of such love relates to God’s love flowing among us and through us into the world – for all. It is wonderfully big and generous.

For Paul, this is a love that is well-informed and able to be critical, to differentiate faith from phony or destructive forms of religion. Paul wants people to be genuine/honest/sincere and faultless/having a clear conscience. Rigid adherence to laws is something Paul would have seen not only as erroneous, but also as destructive and the opposite of everything he would understand as holy and good. That is because for Paul God’s holiness consists in God’s love, not in a kind of self-protective obsession with order and rightness where laws and rules matter more than people. Paul’s image of praising God has to do with real people living changed lives and changing others’ lives in the process.


  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What gets in the way of our living this concept of holiness?
  3. Why is this so difficult for so many people?



GOSPEL: Luke 3: 1-6

To read the Gospel passage

In a way, this seems to be an odd Scripture to read during Advent. This week’s Gospel is not a beautiful canticle, or a visit from an angel promising a birth, or Elizabeth’s child leaping for joy in a womb. Instead we hear from Elizabeth’s child much later as a grown man from the wilderness on an intense mission from God. He announces salvation by proclaiming a message of repentance. In other words, he claims that we need to be ready for what’s coming. Kathy Beach-Verhey says this:


The advent of guests prompts the host not only to straighten up, but also to fix things around the house—a broken doorknob, a loose towel rack, the burned-out lightbulb, the leaky guest toilet. Preparing for company often causes the hosts to look at their home, to examine their surroundings with a whole new perspective. Suddenly the countertops are too messy, the broken chair inadequate, the silverware too tarnished. Preparing for guests demands self-examination as much as it involves a “to do” list. (Kathy Beach-Verhey, From Feasting On the Word, Year C, Volume 1, ed. by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.


John is calling us to do the same with our lives. It’s really not as scary as some make it sound. The time has come for a radical change of heart and mind. For what are we waiting before we renew our spirits and begin to live out our baptism. And even though it may seem a little out of place in the midst of this season of hope and glad tidings, John’s message is no different from the earlier messages of the prophets. The world is about to change. Things will no longer be as they were, and this will 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 place that we have prepared. God will come when and where God will come and the world will never be the same. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote:


All who at the manger finally lay down all power and honor, all prestige, all vanity, all arrogance and self-will; all who take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high; all who see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger: these are the one who will truly celebrate Christmas. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, From Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer,ed. by Manfred Weber (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books ).


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. In light of John’s message, what should our preparation during this season look like?
  3. Why is this message so difficult for so many people to hear?
  4. What will you do this Advent to prepare yourself for Christ’s coming?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside us to get better. It is about getting better inside about what is going on inside. It is about becoming open to the God of newness. It is about allowing ourselves to let go of the present, to believe in the future we cannot see but can trust to God….Hope is fulfilled in the future but it depends on our ability to remember that we have survived everything in life to this point—and have emerged in even better form than we were when these troubles began…Hope is what sits by a window and waits for one more dawn, despite the fact that there isn’t an ounce of proof in tonight’s black, black sky that it can possibly come. (Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope)


The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything. (Julian of Norwich)


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





Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush,

in an angel’s song, in a newborn child.

Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary.

Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability.

Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living.

Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us.

When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem.

Watch…for you know not when God comes.

Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. (Ann Weems, The Coming of God”, in Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 13.