Lectionary Commentaries for December 20, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Judith Jones

Having learned from the angel that she will give birth to the Son of God, Mary hurries to visit her pregnant relative Elizabeth in the hill country.

The intimate conversation that follows portrays Jesus as more important than John. It also shows God already at work to overturn the world’s structures and expectations. The spotlight shines on Mary and Elizabeth, two lowly and shamed ones through whom God has chosen to begin the transformation of the world.

Women — so often overlooked or ignored both in society at large and in biblical narratives — have the only speaking roles in this vignette. Mary’s first words prompt an immediate, silent, response from Elizabeth’s unborn child. John leaps, acknowledging both her presence and the significance of the child she carries in her womb. John’s reaction to Mary’s voice fulfills Gabriel’s prophecy, “even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:15). Already John points to the coming one.

Though Luke clearly signals that the unborn child’s leaping is prompted by the Spirit, it is Elizabeth, John’s mother, who takes on the role of prophet by speaking the prophetic word in this scene: she is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims what Mary has not yet told her, and what is not yet visible to the eye: Mary is pregnant. Furthermore, through the Spirit she knows who Mary’s child will be, for she calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” Her prophecy will soon be fulfilled when her own son prepares the way for the Lord.

Elizabeth not only prophesies but blesses. By declaring both Mary and the fruit of Mary’s womb “blessed” she begins a series of blessings that weave through Luke’s birth narrative and intensify its tone of joy, delight, and praise. Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon will all add their blessings to the chain, praising God for what God is doing at this moment in history and recognizing that those who are privileged to be instruments of God’s saving work have been richly blessed.

Mary is blessed not only for her status as the mother of the Lord, but also for her trust in God’s promise. Our English translations obscure the fact that Elizabeth uses more than one word for “blessed.” When she pronounces Mary “blessed … among women” and proclaims that the fruit of Mary’s womb is blessed, she uses the term eulogemene/os, which emphasizes that both present and future generations will praise and speak well of her and her child. But when she says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45), she uses the word makaria, the same term that Jesus uses to bless people in the Beatitudes. We might well translate Elizabeth’s words as “Happy is she who believed … ” Mary is blessed because despite all expectations her social status has been reversed: she will be honored rather than shamed for bearing this child. But she has also been blessed with divine joy — with beatitude — because she has believed that God is able to do what God promises to do.

When Elizabeth says, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” she implicitly contrasts Mary’s trust in God’s power and promise with her own husband Zechariah’s skeptical questioning. Zechariah asked for proof that the angel’s word was true. Mary asked for an explanation of what was going to happen to her, and then gave her willing consent. Zechariah the religious professional doubted God, but Mary the peasant girl believed, and her trust in God’s word opened the door for God to bless her and to bless the whole world through her. Elizabeth celebrates Mary’s willingness to say “yes” to God.

By greeting Mary with honor, Elizabeth overturns social expectations. Mary is an unmarried pregnant woman. She might expect social judgment, shame, even ostracism from her older kinswoman. Yet Elizabeth knows from her own experience the cost of being shamed and excluded. In her culture a woman’s primary purpose in life was to bear children, so as an elderly infertile wife she had endured a lifetime of being treated as a failure. Her response to her miraculous pregnancy emphasizes that God’s grace has reversed her social status: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25). At long last, in her old age, she is an honorable married woman, pregnant with her husband’s son.

Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal by opening her arms and her home to a relative whom her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of shaming Mary, she welcomes, blesses, and celebrates her, treating her as more honorable than herself. Thus the pregnancy that might have brought Mary shame brings joy and honor instead. When Elizabeth welcomes Mary, she practices the same kind of inclusive love that Jesus will show to prostitutes and sinners. She sees beyond the shamefulness of Mary’s situation to the reality of God’s love at work even among those whom society rejects and excludes.

Elizabeth’s words and actions invite us to reflect on our own openness to the ways that God chooses to act in our world. What is God doing through unexpected people in our society today? Where is God at work through people whom our neighbors and fellow church members often exclude or treat as shameful? Will we listen to the Spirit’s prompting when the bearers of God’s new reality show up on our doorstep?

May we, like Elizabeth and Mary, trust that God is coming to save and free us. May we, like them, give thanks that God has taken away our shame and then respond to God’s love by welcoming the shameful. May we, like them, become a community that supports each other as we hope and wait.

First Reading

Commentary on Micah 5:2-5a

Anne Stewart

The prophet Micah was active during a tumultuous period in Israel’s history.

According to the book, Micah prophesied during the reigns of the kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, who reigned during the late eighth and early seventh centuries (759-687 BCE). At this time, Israel and Judah experienced great turmoil as the Assyrians invaded the region. The Assyrians captured Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom, in 722 BCE. The southern kingdom of Judah also witnessed military threat. During Hezekiah’s reign, the Assyrian king Sennacherib carried out a military campaign in 701, attacking several towns in Judah (see 2 Kings 18-19; Micah 1:10-16) before retreating from Jerusalem. As there were threats on the international stage, there were also great changes in the culture. During this era, Judah’s economy expanded and shifted from a barter society to a mercantile society in which money was traded for goods. According to the prophet, corruption and hypocrisy were rampant. Jerusalem’s “rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us’” (Micah 3:11).  

God’s promise enters this perilous and pernicious world in a surprising way. The oracle in chapter 5 vows that God’s ancient covenant with Israel is secure and reliable, even as it may come about in an unexpected manner. The oracle provides assurance that God’s covenant with David — the one “from of old, from ancient days” — is eternal and is still operative, even as Judah is under threat. The covenant will be fulfilled with a new leader in the line of David. Yet this new ruler will rise not from Jerusalem, the royal city, but from Bethlehem, a small village. He will not exercise military might like the Assyrians but will be one of peace who provides for his people as a shepherd. There are several allusions to David in the image of this ruler, including his birthplace in Bethlehem, which was also the birthplace of David, and his pastoral image as shepherd, David’s occupation.

It is a consistent theme through the Bible that God delights in upsetting human expectations. Abraham and Sarah did not expect to bear a child in old age, and yet Isaac, whose name means “he laughs,” was such a preposterous surprise that it prompted Sarah’s laughter (Genesis 20:1-7). David, who was the smallest of his brothers, was anointed as the king (1 Samuel 16). The ruler promised in Micah’s oracle comes from an unexpected place in an unexpected way. This divine habit of eschewing expectations also echoes in the New Testament, as Mary receives a surprise announcement that she will bear a child (Luke 1) and as Jesus enters the world not as a triumphant ruler but as a vulnerable child.

Micah 5 is one of the texts that the gospels reference to interpret who Jesus is. In the Gospel of Matthew, the wise men cite Micah’s oracle to inform King Herod that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:6), and the Gospel of John refers to a group of people who refer to this text in understanding Jesus’ identity (John 7:40-43). In its eighth-century context, Micah’s oracle offers a particular word to a specific community. Yet it takes on new life in God’s ongoing activity of remaining faithful to covenant promises by subverting expectation.

The irony of Advent is that this season of preparation anticipates a hopeful expectation of that which is unexpected. Those who have heard these Scriptures so many times, year after year of Advent celebration, may have trouble fully appreciating their startling logic. Yet perhaps we need look no further than our own lives. Micah calls us to see God’s faithfulness in surprising ways, to look where we might not expect. Micah’s oracle serves as a reminder that the promise of God’s covenant is certain, yet the expression of its fulfillment is not always predictable.

Micah’s oracle speaks to a world that is caught in the bewilderment of violence, uncertainty, and economic disruption. While there is much that separates us from eighth-century Judah, these dynamics are not unlike the world in which we live. We too know terror and fragility on national, international, and personal planes. We too seek hope that the world will be different. We too yearn for security and peace. The promise of Micah is that God will be faithful and will appear in surprising ways. As Advent draws to a close, Micah invites us to look for God’s presence where we least expect and to be attuned to the voices of the small, the powerless, and the vulnerable. Are we prepared to be surprised? Are we prepared to welcome the Holy One into our midst?

Alternate Psalm

Commentary on Luke 1:46-55

Judith Jones

Mary’s beautiful song of praise is commonly called the Magnificat, from the Latin for “magnify.”

Mary magnifies the Lord, proclaiming God’s greatness and rejoicing in God as Savior. She begins with God’s actions in her own life, for in choosing her to be the mother of the messiah, the Mighty One has indeed “done great things for” her. Elizabeth has just welcomed and honored her, saying, “blessed is she who believed.” Now she recognizes with awe that not only Elizabeth but all generations will call her blessed.

In our culture #blessed has become a meme, and “feeling blessed” makes regular appearances in Facebook posts. People tweet images or post pictures of themselves enjoying a delicious meal or an exotic vacation or a shopping spree at their favorite store. “Blessed” has come to mean living a life of privilege and comfort. Using the term has become a way of celebrating those moments when everything is going well and all seems right with the world — or at least one’s own little corner of it.

The blessedness that Mary celebrates stands in stark contrast to our culture’s attitude. By our standards she does not look at all blessed. God has chosen her to be the mother of the messiah, but in practical terms what does that mean for her? She is not from a family that can afford expensive food or clothing. She is a nobody, a peasant girl from a small village. Her friends and neighbors see her as a disgrace because she is unmarried and pregnant (see Joseph’s initial reaction to her pregnancy in Matthew 1:19). Furthermore, as she will soon learn from Simeon if she hasn’t perceived it already, being the mother of the messiah is scarcely an unmixed blessing. She will bear the unspeakable grief of watching as her son is rejected, shamed, and crucified: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35). Despite all this, Mary praises God for honoring her.

Furthermore, she perceives God’s action in her life as consistent with God’s saving action in history. The Mighty One’s agenda differs radically from the plans of human rulers. Mary’s celebration of God’s strong arm recalls Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. Like Mary, Hannah experienced a miraculous pregnancy. Like Mary’s son, Hannah’s son Samuel spoke God’s word. Both Hannah and Mary praise God for overturning society’s structures by bringing down the powerful and lifting up the powerless. Mary’s song does not share Hannah’s militaristic imagery, however, for Mary’s son will bless not the makers of war, but the peacemakers.

Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people. The God she celebrates is not content merely to point people toward heaven; God’s redemptive work begins here on earth. God fills the hungry not only with hope, but with food. Rather than being satisfied with comforting the lowly, Mary’s Lord lifts them up, granting them dignity and honor, a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation. At the same time, God shows strength by disrupting the world’s power structures, dethroning rulers, and humbling the mighty.

Clearly such saving acts are good news for the poor and lowly, but what does Mary’s song mean for the wealthy and the powerful? Is there nothing but judgment for them? Though judgment and salvation may seem like opposites, they go hand in hand. Those who stand in awe only of themselves and their own power will be judged. Yet if the wealthy and powerful can only see it, by bringing them down — by emptying and humbling them — God is saving them. When they turn their gaze from themselves and their own accomplishments, when their awe is directed to God — then there is mercy for them, too.

Both in Mary’s song and in Jesus’ ministry we see the God who loves us as we are but does not leave us as we are. Zacchaeus, for example, shows us God’s saving love in action. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus is wealthy, but he is also a scorned outsider. When Jesus invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s house, the encounter leaves Zacchaeus welcomed into community, emptied of his wealth, and profoundly changed. His gaze is redirected from himself toward Jesus. He no longer sees only his own needs and desires. Now he sees those whom he has harmed in his quest for money and security. Jesus brings Zacchaeus down from his wealth and up from his shame. In the process he frees him. Salvation has come to his house (Luke 19:9).

When God empties the rich of their excess and fills the hungry with good things, the result is not social reversal — with the powerless and the powerful changing places — as much as it is social leveling. The rich and powerful are stripped of their arrogance and taught to love their neighbors as they love themselves. Thus God provides for the poor and honors the humiliated. When the arrogant are scattered and the powerful brought down, then every person has access to enough of the world’s resources, and no one has too much. Every person is treated with dignity and respect, and no one uses power to harm.

Mary’s song magnifies the Savior who loves the whole world with a love that makes creation whole. God’s saving judgment is for all of us, bringing us down from the pride that fills us with ourselves until we can’t see either God or neighbor, bringing us up from the shame that distorts our worldview and convinces us that no one — not even God — could love us. The mother of the Messiah has experienced God’s blessing. She is not #blessed. Her blessing, like ours, is a cross-shaped blessing, “a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)” as T. S. Eliot so memorably said, yet bringing true freedom, the priceless gift of God’s salvation.

[Find commentaries on the psalm for the day, Psalm 80:1-7, by Elizabeth Webb (2012) and Jerome Creach (2009).]

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:5-10

Edward Pillar

During the Advent and Christmas season we have a wonderful opportunity to think through and speak about the meaning and purpose of the life of the Lord Jesus.

And yes of course folk will be expecting preachers to retell the story of the conception, and birth, the stable and the wise men and so on. It’s what people are used to. But, the passage before us today takes us directly to the heart of how the Lord Jesus understood his life and ministry. This passage is at one time both potentially controversial, but also massively encouraging. It can speak to us about our own lives and how we should respond to the incarnation of the Christ.

Jesus: the faithful One

Hebrews is a book that is fundamentally about the Lord Jesus — who he is, what he did and how he did it. Particularly relevant to our passage is the recognition that Hebrews speaks of the Lord Jesus as one who was faithful to God. Hebrews 2:17, “faithful high priest in the service of God”; 3:2, “faithful to the one who appointed him”; 3:6, “Christ, however, was faithful over God’s house as a son.” That this faithfulness to God is at the heart of the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus is seen in the statement in 5:7 that Jesus cried out to “the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” That is: it was faithful submission in the life of the Lord Jesus to the will and purposes of God that gave him the confidence that God would hear his cry and ultimately raise him from death.

Faithful Obedience

This passage speaks to us first, that God’s purpose and pleasure rests in faithful obedience. Our passage has Christ speaking with voice of the Psalmist acknowledging his primary purpose, “I have come to do your will, O God” (Hebrews 10:7). This is then repeated in verse 9, “See, I have come to do your will.” But, our congregations will be left asking, “So, what is the will of God for me?” Perhaps the most succinct, accurate, and also universally applicable answer that can be given to this perennial question is found in the verses immediately preceding the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10. The one who questions Jesus affirms that the Law clearly teaches that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). But then Jesus strikingly responds with, “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). Thus, in one simple statement Jesus reveals his understanding that our key purpose is to love and to love no matter what. This is surely at the heart of our passage: The desire of the Lord Jesus to root his life in love as the key to his life purpose and the answer to what it means to obey God.

Obedience in Action

Second, this obedience takes bodily form in response to the deep desire to obey God. In Hebrews 10:5 the writer has Christ accepting that his life of loving, faithful obedience is to be lived out in a body, “a body you have prepared for me.” Now, we shouldn’t make the mistake of diving straight towards the death of Jesus and an understanding of that death as an atoning sacrifice as the intended destiny of the body. For, as Hebrews 10:7 makes clear (repeated and thus emphasized in 10:9) “I have come to do your will.” Not simply in death, but throughout his whole life we see the willingness of Christ to do the will of God in his body. After all, how else would Christ do the will of God? For us too, our life of obedience must take bodily form. Our acts of love are not merely thoughts and desires, but practical actions that help, serve, and impact the lives of others.

Absorbing the word of God

This may be a minor point, but it is worth noting that obedience to the will of God comes through hearing and absorbing his word to us. Interestingly, the citation in these verses takes us back to Psalm 40:6-8. But, we note there that what has been rendered here as “a body you have prepared for me”, is with a literal translation of the Hebrew text of Psalm 40:6, “you dug ears for me”! What this seems to mean is that God gives the psalmist the power to listen intently and to take into himself the words and thus the will of God. It is necessary for us, as also with Christ, to absorb the whole word of God and to make it part of our being. In this way we can act out of the merciful words of God that we have welcomed into our own hearts.

Offering the Whole of Life

What then should we make of the references in these verses to sacrifice? Well, clearly we are to understand that God is no longer interested in the offering of sacrifice. If we understand this passage rightly God does not desire sacrifices and offerings (Hebrews 10:5), God takes no pleasure in them (verses 6,8), and Christ has abolished them (verse 9). Rather than offer a sacrifice Hebrews 10:9 tells us that Christ came to do the will of God. How then do we square this with verse 10 and the offering of the body of Jesus Christ? We should reflect seriously on the proposition that it is the entirety of Christ’s life of obedience, devotion to God, and commitment to love that is “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10). And this may prove controversial, for it suggests that we cannot focus solely upon the death of the Lord Jesus for our salvation. But rather, and importantly as we reflect on the incarnation during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, Jesus lived his entire life as an offering of faithful obedience to God. And this example calls us to offer own lives, in their entirety, in faithful obedience to God.