Lectionary Commentaries for December 20, 2009
Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C)

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

David Lose

Traditionally, preachers move in one of two trajectories when reading this gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Advent: emphasizing either Mary or the One she magnifies.

Either choice is justifiable and opens up excellent preaching opportunities.

Mary, after all, is a model of faith. If her son will later function as the “second Adam” in the temptation in the wilderness, Mary appears here as something of a “second Eve,” representing all humanity in her faithful embrace of her role in God’s plan of salvation. Luke constructs his scenes with care, contrasting this poor (“lowly” does not simply denote humility), unknown, and unremarkable teenage girl with Zechariah the priest, in that though also struck with wonder, Mary trusts rather than doubts the angel’s prophecy. Hence, and somewhat ironically, the child in Elizabeth’s womb — Zechariah’s son — leaps in joy, recognizing the onset of salvation in Mary’s faith in God’s promises. Mary, with her mixture of wonder, faith and courage, is surely worthy of our attention and imitation.

At the same time, one might move in the direction of emphasizing the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, who chooses ordinary Mary though whom to do extraordinary things. This is the God of reversals, the one who regularly shows up where we least expect God to be — manger, cross, vulnerability, suffering — in order to scatter the proud, exalt the lowly, satisfy the hungry, and send the rich away empty. Mary’s God is a God of justice and compassion, the One who hears the cry of the oppressed and despondent of all generations and responds, and so also deserves our attention.

But, this Advent, what tugs at my imagination is neither the singer nor the subject, but rather the song itself. That is, I think it matters that Luke recounts this portion of his gospel story in verse. By transcending the rubrics of prose narrative, poetry, such as Mary’s Magnificat, pierces the veil of the ordinary and opens a window by which to perceive afresh the extraordinary and unexpected goodness of God. In doing so, Mary, through her song, promises that the Holy One of Israel may also encounter us amid the ordinary, mundane, and even difficult activities of daily life.

Luke’s infancy narratives are suffused with singing. After Mary, Zechariah will take the stage to praise God’s fidelity to Israel through the birth of John the Baptist, the angels will offer their canticle of peace and good will at the birth of Jesus, and Simeon will croon of God’s mercy being extended to all the world. Why so much verse? Because Luke understands, as did the Psalmists of Israel, that songs are powerful. Laments express our grief and fear so as to honor these deep and difficult emotions and simultaneously strip them of their power to incapacitate us. Songs of praise and thanksgiving unite us with the One to whom we lift our voices. And canticles of courage and promise not only name our hopes but also contribute to bringing them into being.

Songs are power; this one, especially so. Notice that the verbs in Mary’s song are in the past (aorist) tense. Mary recognizes that she has been drawn into relationship with the God of Israel, the one who has been siding with the oppressed and downtrodden since the days of Egypt, the one who has been making and keeping promises since the time of Abraham. The past tense in this case, we should be clear, does not signify that all Mary sings of has been accomplished, but rather describes God’s characteristic activity and acknowledges that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that whereas Luke has on several occasions in these opening chapters located God’s activity among the historically powerful (1:5, 2:1, 3:1), they are noticeably absent in this scene, replaced by two pregnant cousins. Similarly, the politically or prophetically significant cities of Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth are not the locale for this action, but rather the hill country of Judea. Already, at least in this scene, the proud have been scattered and the lowly uplifted; all this occasioned by two women greeting each other in love and wonder. How much more we will see, Luke intimates, when the children these cousins bear come of age.

Songs are powerful. Last month we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But while the breaching of that monument to division took most of the world by surprise, it is important to remember that it had been preceded for several months by the peaceful protests of the citizens of Leipzig. Gathering on Monday evenings by candlelight around St. Nikolai church — the church where Bach composed so many of his cantatas — they would sing. Over two months their numbers grew from fewer than a thousand voices to more than three hundred thousand, over half the citizens of the city, singing songs of hope and protest and justice, until their song shook the powers of their nation and changed the world.

Songs are powerful. Perhaps we should therefore take our cue on this day from Elizabeth and Mary and keep our preached words to a minimum to make ample room for singing. Traditional advent hymns like “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” as well as newer ones like the “Canticle of the Turning,” give us the chance to voice our confident and courageous hope alongside Mary, and in doing so actually become more confident and courageous. As the Fourth Sunday of Advent serves as the bridge to Christmas, we might also consider leaning into the treasury of Christmas carols and include “Joy to the World” or “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” to begin celebrating — and thereby participating in — Christ’s advent in the flesh.

Whatever your decisions regarding hymnody, know that when we gather together and sing to God, the hope and consolation of Israel and the world, we, like Mary, are swept into God’s divine activity to save and redeem that world. A few voices drawn together in song in late December may seem a small thing in the face of the wars and worries of the age, but surely no smaller than those voices joined in Leipzig twenty years ago or those two voices joined in the Judean hill country twenty centuries ago. Mary’s God, we should remember, delights in taking what is small and insignificant in the eyes of the world to do extraordinary and unexpected things. So it has been, is, and ever shall be “according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

First Reading

Commentary on Micah 5:2-5a

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

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 from Micah as evidence that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5-6):

“But 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” (Micah 5:2).

The allusions to David are clear. Bethlehem is David’s birthplace. David is the preeminent “ruler” of Israel in the biblical imagination, and by the time Micah was prophesying, David’s reign was long past, “from of old.” Later in the passage, using a metaphor common in the ancient Near East, the coming ruler is pictured as a shepherd, in the image of his famous ancestor (Micah 5:4).

In spite of the obvious allusions to David, this passage from Micah is mysterious. It is difficult to know what exactly is being described, especially in verse 3. Who are the “he” and the “them” mentioned in the verse? What does it mean to “give them”? (The word “up” is not in the Hebrew text.) Who is the woman in labor? And who are “his kindred”?

Commentators are not agreed on the answers to these questions, but it seems clear that the oracle tells of a time when a ruler, a new David, will gather the children of Israel and will rule over them in the name of the LORD, bringing them security and peace.

It may be helpful to link this passage with an earlier one in the book, Micah 4:8-10. Both passages begin with the words “and you.” Both passages are addressed to cities; the first to Jerusalem/Zion; the second to Bethlehem. Both passages, too, speak of a woman in labor. In 4:9-10, the “woman” is Zion. The labor pains she experiences are the pangs of exile, but she is promised deliverance.

In the second passage, then, perhaps the “woman” in question is again Zion/Jerusalem, and the “birth” is again a metaphor to speak of deliverance from enemies. The “kindred” (or, more literally, “brothers”) who return to the children of Israel are perhaps exiles (whether the 8th century exiles of Israel, from Micah’s own time, or the later sixth century Judean exiles to Babylon is not clear).

The passage is indeed mysterious. What is clear, however, is that it was understood by the Gospel writers as a messianic prophecy and has continued through the centuries to be understood as such. The “ruler” whose coming Micah foretells is the One whose birth we will soon celebrate: of the line of David, from Bethlehem, a king who will shepherd his flock in the power of the LORD.

What more can be said? Well, perhaps it is worth noting that this passage continues a deep-rooted biblical theme. That is, Bethlehem is one of the “little clans.” The Hebrew word might better be translated “least” or even “insignificant.” It is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe one who is younger, or one who is lesser in social status and power.

We know this story well. Jacob, Joseph, David himself–these are the younger brothers, the ones not supposed to be chosen. In fact, biblical law commands that the older brother gets the birthright, no matter the feelings of the father (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

And yet, it happens again and again. The youngest is chosen. Jacob gets the birthright and the blessing. Joseph is exalted over his brothers. David is overlooked until all of his brothers have been paraded before Samuel. Then, finally, he is called in from the pastures surrounding Bethlehem to stand before the prophet and be anointed king (1 Samuel 16).

The most unlikely, the most insignificant, are exalted. “But 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” (Micah 5:2).

The village is a backwater, and the one who comes from it cannot be expected to amount to much. One thinks of Nathanael’s statement when he hears about Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Can anything good come out of Nazareth, or Bethlehem, or Dekalb, or Topeka? It is a judgment both on the town and on those who live there. And yet, in the case of Bethlehem and those who come from her, the old biblical pattern holds true: the insignificant are exalted. The tables are turned, and the most unlikely of people are instruments of God’s salvation. From this insignificant little village, a young shepherd boy grows up to become the most beloved king in Israel’s history. And a descendant of that king fulfills God’s long-awaited promises of deliverance, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.

It is not the way of the world, this exaltation of the lowliest. But it is the way God works, over and over and over again. An insignificant village. A child born to a young unmarried girl, and that girl’s song, heard today: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52). And the one who comes from that little village and that young girl becomes the one Micah proclaims as “the one of peace” (5:5). It is a proclamation we will soon hear echoed from the pastures surrounding Bethlehem.


Commentary on Psalm 80:1-7

Jerome Creach

Psalm 80 is a communal lament in which the worshipping community calls upon God to rescue them from trouble.

The psalm features a refrain that expresses its central theme: “Restore us, O God (of hosts); let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verses 3, 7, 19). The plea for help is based upon God’s leadership in the past and the belief that God at present reigns supreme over the whole world. But the prayer is offered in the midst of trouble when God’s help and salvation seem distant and unsure.

The historical circumstances that prompted the prayer in Psalm 80 are not certain. References to Joseph (verse 1) along with Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh (verse 2) may suggest the psalm originated in northern Israel. Hence, the background of the psalm’s pleas for salvation is perhaps the northern kingdom’s suffering at the hand of Assyria in the late eighth century and concerns for the future of the northern tribes that persisted for two centuries more (Assyria destroyed the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E.).

Regardless of the exact experience that gave rise to Psalm 80, the psalm is appropriate for the people of God who suffer at any time. Read in the Advent season, Psalm 80:1-7 acknowledges the need for God’s saving presence and aids the church in waiting for it. The desperate plea for mercy (verses 4-6) recognizes that forgiveness ultimately relies on God’s willingness to forgive, to turn from God’s anger and be gracious (see especially verse 14). 

The first section of the psalm (verses 1-2) begins and ends with petitions: “give ear” (verse 1); “stir up your might, and come to save us!” (verse 2). The petitions appeal to God on the basis of God’s identity as “Shepherd of Israel” (verse 1), as one who has responsibility for the welfare of God’s people.

“Shepherd” denotes God’s role as caregiver and protector. The image is perhaps best known from Psalm 23 which fills out this metaphor more than any other psalm (see especially Psalm 23:1-4). Psalm 80:1-2 shows, however, that the shepherd image is a royal metaphor. God as shepherd is one who leads and protects as a monarch. The expression “enthroned on the cherubim” (verse 1b) indicates the royal nature of the figure of speech. The particular image of being enthroned on the cherubim probably has in mind the imaginary throne of God on the Ark of the Covenant. The ark was decorated with cherubim, mythical figures thought to surround and/or support God’s throne (Exodus 25:18-22).

Such imagery has important implications for the community of faith. To call on God as shepherd is to recognize that God lays claim to the community just as a sovereign ruler has ownership over his or her subjects. Hence, to seek the comfort of the divine shepherd carries demands. This is not simply a feel-good understanding of who God is and what God does.

The petition for God to “shine forth” means that the people experienced God as absent despite the confident assertion of God’s reign. This language is reminiscent of Old Testament theophanies. In Deuteronomy 33:2 Moses recalls that God “shone forth” on a mountain associated with the revelation of the Law.

Verse 3 (and verse 7), which contains the psalm’s refrain, continues the tone and theme of verses 1-2. “Restore” in some other contexts refers to the return from exile (Jeremiah 27:22); in still other texts it has to do with repentance (Nehemiah 9:26); the expression may also refer to coming back to life (2 Samuel 12:23). Any or all of these meanings are possible and appropriate for Psalm 80.

The plea “let your face shine” uses a different word than “shine forth” in verse 1. Nevertheless, the implications of the two expressions are similar. Although the exact experience of seeing God’s face shine is uncertain, it is clearly associated with being saved, with knowing God’s blessings. Perhaps the most famous occurrence of this language is Numbers 6:22-24 in which Aaron and his sons are told to bless the people with such words. Parallel terms are “bless,” “keep,” “be gracious,” and “give peace.” 

The petition in verse 3 for God’s face to shine upon the people sets the stage for the complaint in verses 4-6. God is angry with the people and God does not heed their prayers. The people are experiencing the opposite of the blessings such prayers request. The expression “bread of tears” appears only here in the Old Testament (but see Psalm 42:3, “my tears have been my food”). A consideration of the Jerusalem temple, however, may clarify the reference. The temple, where one might experience the shining of God’s face, contained a special bread knows as the “bread of the presence” (literally, the “bread of the face;” Exodus 25:30). Instead of that bread, however, the community now is fed with the “bread of tears” (verse 5). It is perhaps not accidental that the expression “you make us the scorn of our neighbors” includes the same Hebrew word that is used in Numbers 6:25 (“make your face to shine”). The people who pray Psalm 80 are at present experiencing the opposite of the blessing pronounced in Numbers 6:22-24. That is the heart of their complaint.1 

The question “how long” (verse 4) is a key to understanding the situation behind Psalm 80. It is not clear that God is angry at the people’s prayers (as NRSV translates). The verb translated “be angry” (ashneth) literally means “to smoke.” “Anger” is sometimes the subject of this verb (as in Psalm 74:1b), but the expression here is unusual. An alternative translation is, “how long will you be angry during your people’s prayers?”

The point seems to be that the people’s prayers do not help their situation. Hence, Psalm 80:1-7 ultimately helps the church prepare for the coming of Christ by reminding believers that salvation depends completely on God. Although we come to God believing God will hear and answer, not even our prayers can bring God’s favor. That is God’s gift.

1See J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck et. al.; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), vol. 4, p. 999.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:5-10

Michael Joseph Brown

Christ was obedient not only in his death, but from the moment of his coming into the world.

This is the message of today’s epistle reading. The author’s declaration here is close to Paul’s statement in Romans 3:25, where he speaks of God putting forward Jesus “as an expiation through faith in his blood.” Yet, it is not Paul that the author of Hebrews has in mind.

What we find here is a positive explanation of Christ’s priestly act. What is said about Christ is in reply to the inability of the priestly or Levitical sacrificial system to perfect the individual’s conscience. The author said in 9:14 that the perfection of conscience was the goal of worship. The speaker here is Christ. In fact, it is only the second time in book that Jesus himself speaks. More importantly, these words are ascribed to Christ “when [he] came into the world” (Hebrews 10:5). Thus, the complete obedience that is the essence of Christ’s priesthood is also expressive of his character. One may clearly see this in his faithful and obedient sacrifice on the cross, but the author wants us to understand that Christ was faithful at the moment of his coming into existence. Jesus is the son who “learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8), and did so from the beginning.

Christ enters the world reciting the words of Psalm 40:6-8. The two statements express Jesus’ priestly role, his mediation between humanity and God. Earlier in Hebrew 2:12-13, Jesus speaks of his complete solidarity with his brothers and sisters. In today’s passage, he declares his utter commitment to God’s will (10:5). The choice of this psalm has been called inspired by some scholars. A psalm of David, which makes it eminently appropriate for the messiah, the psalm expresses confidence and hope in God even in circumstances of persecution. Placed in Hebrews, it expresses the contrast between the sacrifices of the first covenant, which was external, and the response of faithful obedience to God’s will, which is internal. It is this internal transformation that the author regards as the essence of the true worship of God.

The writer of Hebrews also echoes the psalm in his portrayal of Jesus. First, Psalm 40:10-11 is echoed in Hebrews 2:3, 12, where Jesus is described as speaking salvation and proclaiming God’s name in the assembly. Second, Psalm 40:3 (where the psalmist receives a new hymn) is echoed in Hebrews 2:12 where Jesus sings a hymn in the assembly. Third, Psalm 40:2 declares that God “has brought me up out of a pit of misery and from miry clay; and he sat my feet on a rock, and set my goings aright.” This is echoed by Hebrews’ understanding of the resurrection. Most striking, the very first verse of the psalm is echoed in the author’s portrayal of Jesus as the one who was “heard because of his reverent submission.”1 

The actual verses quoted from the psalm come from the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) rather than the Hebrew. This is most evident in the use of the term “body,” which does not appear in the Hebrew rendition. (It has “ear.”) The point appears to be that Jesus was committed entirely to God, including his body.

By contrast, the quotation that appears in 10:7 presents something of a problem. Outside of the grammar, which is challenging, the meaning of “in the scroll of the book” is unclear. Since this is a psalm of David, the author appears to be making a connection between the ideal king, who has the will of God written in his heart, and the messiah’s analogous dedication to the divine will. The messiah is completely and utterly committed to doing what the Lord desires.

The purpose of the priestly sacrificial system was the sanctification of the people. Yet, the author says that it could not accomplish what it desired, setting the people apart as a kingdom of priests mediating God’s will to the nations (see e.g., Exodus 19:6). This is highlighted by the statement, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired . . . in burnt-offerings and sin-offerings you have taken no pleasure” (Hebrews 10:5-6).

Some have taken this language as supersessionist, the idea that the covenant with Israel has been voided by God and replaced by a new one with Christians. It does not appear that the author’s statement is that strong. There is no outright rejection of the Torah here. In fact, the author’s use of “the scroll of the book” mitigates against such an understanding. Nevertheless, Hebrews is saying that the access to God claimed by the proponents of the priestly system is untrue. What God desires is faithful obedience, which places this claim in Hebrews in the same vein as those made by the prophets. The sort of obedience that Hebrews understands as perfecting the conscience is not found in such ritual observances.

Jesus declares, “I have come to do your will, O God” (10:7). It was through a single-minded obedience of Christ’s will and — most pointedly — body, says Hebrews, that our sanctification through God’s will has come about. The author wants us to see that the incarnation is explained by the atonement, but the atonement would never have come about without Christ’s faithful obedience. Moreover, the sacrifice offered up by Jesus was so perfectly complete that no repetition of it is either necessary or possible. It was offered “once for all” (10:10). Although Jesus “learned obedience from the things he suffered,” which implies that he grew in his understanding of the divine will, the reading for today wants us to be certain that even at the moment of the incarnation Jesus was thoroughly committed to carrying it out.

1Hebrews 5:7; see Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006], 251.