In Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) we meet two women (well, actually three) who, moved by the Spirit, raise their voices in praise of God.
First is Elizabeth, cousin of Mary, wife of Zechariah (a temple priest in Jerusalem), and mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth was, like her foremothers Sarah (from the Genesis cycle) and Hannah (from 1 Samuel), unable to have children; until the unexpected birth of John. Elizabeth is not just important because of her family relationships, however. When she greets her pregnant cousin Mary she is filled with the Holy Spirit, and “exclaimed with a loud cry … ” This phrase in Greek means to shout as though one is using a mega-phone, literally a “big” or “mega” voice. This is how Elizabeth speaks a prophetic word to Mary, and so to us — in her outdoor voice.
Second is Mary (we actually meet her first, but her speech comes second): cousin of Elizabeth, wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus. Like Elizabeth, Mary is important for what she has to say, and not just because of whose mother she is. Mary’s song of praise is familiar enough that we need to go in depth here. What is striking, however, is how similar Mary’s spiritual situation and words are to those of her cousin Elizabeth.
The well-known opening words of the Magnificat are translated in the NRSV as “My soul magnifies the Lord … ” There is a similarity in the Greek with Elizabeth’s greeting above. Mary’s soul will “make mega” the Lord, which is a part of Mary’s spirit rejoicing in God. Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, gets out her megaphone to praise God.
The third woman we meet is, admittedly, not right out in the open, but hidden in, with, and under Mary’s song: Hannah. Hannah is the wife of Elkanah, and the mother of the prophet Samuel. But, again, Hannah is more than simply someone’s mother. She is a prophet in her own right, and sings the promise that her child is not only for her, but for all Israel, and for the cause of the Lord. A comparison of Hannah’s Song with the Magnificat shows the inter-connectedness of the two songs, and
Comparing 1 Samuel 2 and Luke 1:46-55:
Hannah’s Song, 1 Samuel 2:1-10 Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
2“There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
3Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s, and on them he has set the world. 9“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”
the Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Both Hannah and Mary exclaim their joy in their God. Both Hannah and Mary take heart in the promise (here sung as a declaration of that promise) that the Lord considers, cares for, and acts on behalf of the lowly — despite what one might expect (and contrary to how we human beings behave ourselves) it is not for kings or the mighty and powerful that the Lord has regard, rather it is for all the rest that God does great things.
Both Hannah and Mary identify what God is doing as being not just for them, but also through them for the whole people.
Both Hannah and Mary sing a song that can be, should be, our song in this Advent season. As we have prepared for the coming of the Christ Child, now we too can sing in thanksgiving, in celebration, in remembrance, and in proclamation of the promise made to our ancestors. Like Hannah, and Mary, and Elizabeth too, this is the time for us to indulge in unadulterated, celebratory joy in the promises that come to us in Jesus. Let us raise our voices in a great cry, magnifying our God.
In order to understand the benevolent image in today’s reading of the coming ruler who “shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…” (5:4), it is necessary to fill in the landscape in which this savior will bestow nourishment and salvation.
At the outset, it is also important to suspend the notion that this is a foretelling of the coming Jesus of Nazareth. Doing so will help you first to see Micah’s own times and hear his own voice before layering onto it the Christological lens so familiar to Christian preachers.
If we think only in terms of this coming one as Jesus, we miss Micah’s message to his own people. We lose scripture’s assertion — and the proclamation of the prophet — that YHWH speaks in each moment of history to that particular time. If we think of Micah’s words only as foretelling a future savior, YHWH’s concern for the present is lost.1
The speeches of the prophet we know as Micah are believed to refer to events around the eighth century BCE, a time of great unrest and turmoil for the northern kingdom and Jerusalem because of the domineering strength of the Assyrian nation. The people to whom Micah’s words were directed had no chance to match the warring might of their neighbors. Micah insisted that the only hope for them was to trust in YHWH’s power by remaining faithful.
Micah’s prophecy rails against the social and moral abuse rampant in the land. We know the situation by looking at the book of Micah as a whole. Those with power have taken away from the poor their land and inheritances (2:1-5), evicted widows from their homes (2:9), fixed the scales and weights to cheat customers (6:10-11), taken bribes (7:3), and more. The language is as graphic (3:1-3) as the butchery of Sweeney Todd, so horribly do the “haves” treat those who have less. Baal worship is officially endorsed by the rulers (6:16). YHWH will not tolerate this disobedience.
But YHWH’s wrath is not just against the political rulers and the wealthy, it is also against the prophets and religious authorities whose words serve only themselves: “who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (3:5). There is no hope for them, for “the sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them…” (3:6). Micah declares the ruin of the holy city Jerusalem.
From out of the devastation, however, the day will come when righteousness and peace will be restored. Micah’s familiar image of swords being beaten into plowshares forms part of this portrait of a coming peace when, once again, everyone will sit under vines and fig trees on land they own (4:3).
The seven chapters in Micah can be outlined as collections of speeches containing oracles of punishment and then prophecies of salvation. Chapter 5 includes the first promise of restoration. The people will have their land back. Because land is vital to survival, identity, and a future, retrieving a place on which to fashion a life means salvation. Much of the language here is about protecting the land from the Assyrians, the great power menacing the little nations around it.
The reading for today proclaims that out of one of those little nations will come the one who brings security. That savior is, of course, interpreted in the Christian scriptures as Jesus, making it natural that we should immediately think of him. Matthew 2:5-6 gives us the scene in which the wise men ask King Herod how they are to find the child who is the king of the Jews. The suddenly alarmed king calls his advisors into the situation room and asks where this Messiah was to be born. The advisors remind Herod of the scripture that addresses Bethlehem: “for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (2:6b)
The verses from Micah are also recalled in John 7:32-43: “Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?” (7:42)2 Another interpretation might see the promised salvation as a social, political, or economic arrangement that creates justice for all and whose origin is not known for dominance over others.
The great rhetorical summation of Micah’s preaching — “[W]hat does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6:8) — permeates both Micah’s prophetic word, and in truth, the teachings of Jesus. Keep this vision of life lived in the divine presence in your thoughts as you work with the lectionary for this last Sunday of Advent, because we also hear these qualities in Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement. She sings of the savior who is filled with justice, mercy, and care for the least among people.
By pondering the image that Micah sets out rather than leaping to the assumption that this coming savior is the Christian Christ, the preacher can look for the correspondence between disparate ages of human history with divergent needs, all being saved by a God who is justice, kindness, and humility itself. Faith in God and joy in the coming incarnation is not dependent on the prophet’s accurate future predictions. That would be proving a point. The power of Micah’s image is not in its foretelling but in its truthfulness. The God who cared for “the little clans of Judah” still cares for the faithful needy ones. And we are everywhere.
1Timothy M. Pierce, “Micah as a Case Study for Preaching and Teaching the Prophets,” in Southwestern Journal of Theology 46:1 (Fall 2003), 81. 2See also 2 Samuel 7:12-13, Ps. 89:3-4, and Ps. 132:11-12.
On the last Sunday in Advent, we end where we began: with lament.
Psalm 80 offers a profound description of suffering, particularly the suffering of God’s apparent absence. This Psalm expresses our longing for God’s face to turn toward us rather than away, and to shine upon us with the light of grace.
The first two verses of this Psalm emphasize the power of God, especially the power of God to save God’s people. The image of God as a Shepherd here (verse 1a) is not that of the gentle Shepherd whom we associate with texts like Psalm 23, although certainly God’s care and protection are implied here. Coupled with other images and allusions in these verses, we see “Shepherd” operating here as a royal image; God guides and protects God’s people with the power of a monarch. Indeed, God is “enthroned upon the cherubim,” (verse 1b), referring most likely to God’s throne, formed by the wings of cherubim, on top of the Ark of the Covenant.
The call upon God to “shine forth” (verse 1b) is also a reference to the power — indeed the military might — of God (see Psalm 50:1-2 and 94:1). God is being called upon to show the full power of divine radiance and thus to defeat Israel’s enemies. The likely context for this Psalm is that of the Northern Kingdom after its fall to Assyria in 722 BCE. The Psalmist cries, “Stir up your might, and come to save us!” (verse 2b), with a desire for God to rain down vengeance upon the those who have consumed God’s people.
The plea to God to “let your face shine,” however, which is heard three times in this Psalm, has a different connotation. The desire expressed here is not for revenge, but for the very presence of God with God’s people. The familiar prayer from Numbers 6 makes this clear: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-26).
The Psalmist is crying out for God’s grace, God’s peace, and God’s love (see also Psalm 31:16) to be present there with the people in their distress. It is a plea for the restoration of relationship with God, who seems so distant from their suffering as to appear angry (verse 4). The intensification of this plea each time it is repeated (verses 7 and 19) demonstrates the Psalmist’s increasing anxiety at God’s distance from the people.
Rather than the bread of the presence (literally “bread of the face”), which held a sacred place in the tabernacle and the Temple, the people have been forced to consume only the bread of tears (verse 5). In their profound suffering, the people feel that God is absent, simply not there with them in their pain, and they long for God’s presence to be restored.
Beyond the scope of today’s appointed text but crucial for understanding the people’s desperation is the Psalmist’s portrayal of Israel as a vine. This is not an uncommon metaphor in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the Prophets (Isaiah 5:7 and 27:2-6; Jeremiah 2:21 and 12:10; Ezekiel 15:1-8; Hosea 10:1). In most uses of the metaphor the vine that is Israel has become useless, wild, producing only bad fruit. Here, however, the Psalmist uses the metaphor to demonstrate God’s loving care for God’s people, as well as to dramatize the destruction that their enemies have wrought upon them. God brought this vine from its captivity in Egypt, and planted it in the place that God chose (verse 8). The vine, the people of Israel, took deep root in the land, and those roots spread, from mountain to river to sea (verses 10-11). God cared for the people of Israel and planted them in a place where they thrived.
But now, again, God’s care seems to have been removed. The walls protecting the vine have broken down, and the vine stands unprotected and vulnerable: its fruit has been plucked; the vine has been ravaged, fed upon, burned, and cut down (verses 12-16). This is a devastating portrayal of the people at their most desperate. They are bereft of all that was once theirs, of their stability and their strength, even of life (verse 18b).
Most horribly, they are bereft of God. God seems to have abandoned them to destruction, and that absence is the final affront. Their suffering is acute and seemingly endless; “How long?” the Psalmist cries in verse 4. This is a profound description of affliction, either individual or communal, and of how in human being’s deepest affliction the absence of God is heartrendingly real.
So many people suffer such affliction. So many have been laid waste by destruction, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, or some combination. And so many experience in that destruction the utter absence of God. Psalm 80 is the lament of scores of those outside our churches’ walls, and of scores of us sitting right in our churches’ pews. Thus it is a lament that the church must take up. All that is ravaged, fed upon, burned, and cut down in the world is crying out for the return of God’s presence, for God’s countenance to shine once more. The church sings this lament in solidarity with all who are afflicted, and tenderly points to the Incarnation.
“How long?” Not long now. God’s face will be here soon.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eminent eighteenth century Genevan philosopher and writer, argued in several of his most influential works that some aspects of “natural” life need to be supplemented by human intervention.
Children, for instance, require the supplement of education on the way to maturity. Education thus becomes something that nature does not supply by itself, but is nevertheless necessary for human flourishing. The problem that Rousseau recognized, and which troubles his own writing, is that supplements have a tendency to take over — supplant — those very things they are meant to complement. In other words, while intended as additions supplements can become usurpations, taking the place of the original.
An example Rousseau offers in his work, Émile, is that of masturbation. He calls it “that most dangerous supplement” because it can supplant the role that sexual intercourse is meant to play toward procreation. With masturbation, Rousseau observes, the act can so profoundly supplement that of intercourse that one can do away with the latter altogether.
In his Confessions, Rousseau admits that he himself was far better at offering this advice than keeping it.
A similar problem abides in this week’s lection. Hebrews 10:5-10 can suggest a supersessionistic relationship between the old and new covenants. Supersessionism is the view that the Christian faith supersedes the Abrahamic faith, making the latter an empty shell of ritualistic adherence that no longer signifies anything salvific for humankind.
A recent volume, The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Eerdmans, 2009), takes up this issue in earnest, offering essays by a number of prominent scholars on how we are to understand the relationship between the theology of Hebrews and the Levitical cult. This entire lection is predicated on a supplement: Greek for Hebrew.
Let me explain. Scholars are united in their view that the writer of Hebrews relied upon the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint or LXX). In our scripture lesson, the writer quotes directly from Psalm 40:6-8. The original Hebrew version of 40:6 reads, “but my ears you have opened.” The LXX version (39:7) renders the Hebrew very differently in Greek. It reads, “but a body you have prepared for me.” Some scholars argue that this need not be viewed as a corruption of the text, but as synecdoche. Even if this is the case, it seems doubtful that the author of Hebrews would have connected the supplement of Christ’s body for the sacrificial temple economy had s/he found “ears” rather than “body” in the Greek translation. We can rightly ask if this difference is supplementing or supplanting the original Hebrew and the preacher will have to decide.
When the author of Hebrews reads this text in the LXX s/he sees a prophetic foreshadowing of a body (Christ’s body) being prepared for the New Covenant according to God’s will (10:10). The Greek supplements the Hebrew — a necessary feature for Jews scattered throughout the Mediterranean diaspora. And, at the same time, the risk of usurpation abides. Hebrews 10:9b presents a tricky translation problem of its own. The NRSV translates the verse, “He abolishes the first in order to establish the second.” The NIV expresses the Greek: “He sets aside the first to establish the second.” The new CEB renders the verse, “He puts an end to the first to establish the second.” The difficulty in translating this verse into English arises from how to render the Greek word anaireó and a great theological decision hangs in the balance with its proper translation.
If you aren’t sufficiently troubled by this pericope then you aren’t reading it closely enough. There is a high degree of semantic disparity between abolish, set aside, and put an end to. When we consider that the writer of Hebrews is talking about the sacrificial economy necessary for the purgation of sins, our translation decision becomes much more dire. It is clear that Jesus’ sacrifice, in some way, supplements the Levitical sacrificial system: “We have been made holy once and for all through the offering of Jesus Christ’s body according to God’s will” (10:10).
But how, precisely, does this supplement work? The Greek word anaireó is a compound word (ana +haireó) that can mean “to take away,” “to abolish,” or “to claim (for oneself).”1 As a preposition preceding a noun or adjective in the accusative case (“the first”/to proton) ana can signify “up” or “up to.” The verb haireó, when in the active voice, means “to take” in English. The word connotes very different meanings according to the various decisions translators make.
But, like a supplement, I think it better to render the word in such a way that its ambivalence is retained. I would preach this verse as “He took up the first in order that he might establish a foundation for the second” for it allows the ambiguity — ana-haireó — to remain; it does not submit itself to a logic of supersessionism. The specter of anti-Semitism haunts this text and it is imperative that we acknowledge what the text is doing and what it is not doing. As we proclaim these words, I believe the troubling logic of the supplement — simultaneously addition and replacement — lends itself as a third way between two divergent paths: either Hebrews is asserted to be of value and therefore not supersessionist, or supersessionist and therefore to be rejected as a theological resource.
These verses need not suggest a Christian polemic against Judaism, nor even, an impassioned plea to Christian ex-Jews not to fall back into Judaism. Rather, here we find an intra-Jewish debate about the nature of the covenant and the meaning of the promise, found within the Old Testament, that the covenant will be renewed.
To be faithful to the text we must allow the logic of the supplement to resonate through our interpretation as well as our preaching.
1See BAGD, 64. The translation “to choose” is used of the baby Moses, whom Pharaoh’s daughter rescued from the river after his exposure (Exodus 2:5, 10) and it carries a notion of rescue as its used in Acts 7:21.