Lectionary Commentaries for December 19, 2021
Fourth Sunday of Advent

from WorkingPreacher.org


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

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

Advent, the season of waiting for Christ to come to us (Latin, ad [to] + venire [come]) has a pattern that stretches across its four Sundays. The first Sunday begins at the End (with a capital E): the parousia—we await Jesus’ second coming. The focus of weeks two and three backs up to zoom in on John the Baptist, who prepares for the coming of Jesus’ ministry. And then on Advent 4, we finally back up to the beginning of Christ’s story to turn our focus to preparing for the coming of the nativity of Christ, for the incarnation.

This lection from Luke 1 breaks into two parts. Verses 39–45 is a narrative telling of the encounter of Elizabeth and Mary, both of whom are pregnant. One reason Luke tells this story is christological: it portrays Elizabeth and her yet-to-be-born son John as recognizing the yet-to-be-born child of Mary as messiah, “Lord.” A second reason for the scene is that it provides a narrative setting for the second part of the lection, verses 46–55. 

This canticle spoken by Mary is called the Magnificat, taken from the opening line: “My soul/being magnifies the Lord.” The Revised Common Lectionary makes these verses an optional part of the Gospel lection because they can be read in place of a psalm for the day. If the other option for the psalm of the day is used (Psalm 80:1–7), the verses should definitely be read as part of the Gospel lesson. 

Whether read separately in the place of the psalm or as part of the Gospel reading, preachers should not miss the chance to explore this speech with their congregations. First, it is one of the few texts in the Bible, written in an ancient patriarchal culture, where a woman is presented as the main character, much less as one who speaks prophetically. Second, the Magnificat offers a different understanding of the incarnation than our culture and many congregations usually embrace. And third, Mary’s canticle does the two prior items by announcing a major theme that will unfold across the narrative of Luke-Acts: salvation by reversal.

This reversal begins with Mary herself. God looks upon her lowliness as God’s servant (or better, her humiliation as God’s slave) and calls her blessed (verse 48). But then quickly Mary’s prophetic announcement of salvation extends beyond an individualistic to a cultural, systemic concern. Luke presents her as preaching that God brought judgment on the proud and the powerful, sending the rich away empty, and conversely that God lifted up the lowly and fed the hungry (verses 51–53).

There are two keys to understanding the Magnificat’s proclamation of salvation by reversal to which preachers should attend. First, Mary is responding to her pregnancy. The canticle is a prophetic celebration of the fact that Elizabeth’s declaration confirms the fulfilment of what the angel promised: Her son “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (1:32). So, this ecstatic speech is a prophecy of what God will do through Christ. 

Second, however, Luke shapes the Magnificat by having Mary speak of God’s actions in the past tense: God looked, did great things for me, showed strength, scattered the proud, brought down the powerful, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry, sent the rich away empty, and helped Israel (verses 48–54). Note that modern English translations render the verbs in the perfect tense (for example, “has looked”) implying an action in the past that continues on into the present. But the Greek verbs are all aorist, indicating actions completely completed in the past.

Thus, we see that the Magnificat is a paradoxical prophecy. It speaks of a future God will bring in through the yet-to-be-born messiah using past tense verbs. There is a sense, then, in which Luke is proclaiming that already at the point of awaiting the coming of the messiah, salvation is a done deal.

The paradox of the Magnificat is the paradox of our faith. This is the “already” (past tense verbs) and “not yet” (hope for the future) of biblical eschatology. Already the reign of God has arrived, but when we look around at the world we plead that God’s reign might yet come. Is not this the paradox of Advent itself: Christ already came (born, preached, healed, opposed the powers-that-be, died, resurrected, and ascended) and yet we begin the Christian year waiting, preparing, and hoping for him to come?

At the center of the paradox is the concern for why Jesus came/is coming. We often talk about soteriology in terms of individual redemption. But Mary will not allow us to think of individual salvation apart from Jesus turning the power structures of the world on its head. As the beginning of the Magnificat that focused on the reversal of Mary’s situation cannot be separated from the latter portion that focused on systems of power being reversed, our salvation is part and parcel of the saving of the world. 

Following Luke, the Christian faith is concerned at the ultimate level with the reversal of the systems of oppression that keep some on top by putting others on the bottom. This, says the first prophet in Luke-Acts, is why Jesus came/is coming. This, suggests Mary, is what we are to preach, celebrate, and for which we hope in Advent with Christmas just around the corner.

First Reading

Commentary on Micah 5:2-5a

Margaret Odell

As I read Micah 5:2-5a, the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” comes to mind. The lyrics, written by Phillips Brooks in 1868, were inspired by his nighttime visit on horseback in 1865 to the village of Bethlehem. Although the poem draws primarily on Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth and Brooks’s  own experience, it also resonates with Micah 5:2-5. A birth in Bethlehem, the “hopes and fears of all the years,” and the joyful proclamation of peace to all the earth—all have their roots in this lectionary reading. 

Yet these familiar associations run the risk of smoothing out the rough edges of the fears which Micah 5:2-5 seeks to address. What would happen if we reconsider this text in our present circumstances, during a long-drawn-out pandemic in which it often seems that our fears have only multiplied? Mindful of our own fears, how would we understand this text as a response to fears of a different time and place?1 As we prepare for our own visit to Bethlehem on Christmas day, how can this text direct our focus to that ancient time and place?

The eighth-century prophet Micah famously prophesied that “Zion would be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall be a heap of ruins” (Micah 3:12). Today’s lectionary reading presupposes the fulfillment of that prophecy in Nebuchadnezzar’s siege and destruction of Jerusalem in 588-586 BCE. That siege is graphically presented in a series of poems in Micah 4, all of which begin with the adverb “now”: Now Zion cries aloud (4:9); now enemy nations assemble against her (4:11); now she is hemmed in (5:1). These poetic units chart Jerusalem’s mounting terror as the siege closes in on her; they also attribute the city’s inevitable destruction to the failures of its leaders. “Is there no king in you? Has your counselor perished, that pangs have seized you like a woman in labor?” (Micah 4:9). 

Jerusalem’s helplessness is made complete when even the king is publicly humiliated: “with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek” (Micah 5:1 compare 2 Kgs 25:4-7). Jerusalem, by long tradition regarded as YHWH’s dwelling place and therefore a place of safety and refuge, has become a cauldron of disaster from which there is no escape. Even worse, Jerusalem can no longer expect help from its leaders, who have either abandoned the city or suffered humiliating assault themselves.

Over against Zion’s unendurable present reality, Micah envisions a new future by shifting the gaze to a different place and an ancient time. Addressing the town of Bethlehem, God announces the coming of a new ruler “whose origin is from old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). In the geography of Israel’s memory, Bethlehem was where David came from. According to 1 Samuel 17:12, David was the youngest son of Jesse, a member of the clan of Ephrathah of Bethlehem. The reference in Micah 5:2 to Ephrathah’s smallness may indicate the military insignificance of this clan.2 That the ruler would come from this town and not from the royal city of Jerusalem reflects the biblical theme of God’s unexpected choice of the younger over the older, the defense of the weak against the strong.  

Samuel’s anointing of Jesse’s youngest son David exemplifies this theme. It is an open question whether the poem intended to allude to David as the “once and future king.”3 Many scholars see implicit allusions to David, but the fact that he is never mentioned by name leads Daniel Smith-Christopher to suggest that the text implies a complete rejection of David to start all over again, possibly with another of Jesse’s sons.4  In my view, the logic of Micah’s contrast between Jerusalem’s miserable present circumstances and a glorious new future rooted in ancient times requires us to imagine a known figure. In Zion’s desperate present circumstances, new experiments will not suffice. 

Micah’s vision of a future rooted in the past gives shape and meaning to Zion’s present suffering. Alluding to Micah 4:9, in which the absence of a king leaves Zion writhing in pain like a woman in labor, Micah 5:3 suggests that Zion’s suffering will end, as all labor does, in childbirth. Unlike Isaiah 7:14, which speaks of the birth of a specific person (for example, Isaiah 7:14), the reference to childbirth in Micah 5:3 is metaphorical. But, like the broader context of Isaiah 7, the figure of labor ending in childbirth is intended to suggest a limited period of time. For the present moment, God has consigned Zion to suffering; but even this travail will come to an end.  

The imagery of childbirth also signifies the dawning of a new era, which undoes the leaderless helplessness of Zion’s past. In contrast to Zion’s humiliated ruler and absent counselors, the new ruler “stands and feeds his flock in the strength of the Lord” (Micah 5:4). Not only does the imagery of shepherding evoke memories of David’s humble origins, it also exemplifies the traits of the ideal ruler. In the ancient world, shepherding was a significant metaphor of kingship, which indicated that the king’s proper role was to care for and defend his subjects. Under this new ruler’s care, families are reunited as “brothers” return from exile (verse 3) and settle on the land in security (verse 4). 

The reign of such a one is summarized in the final line, “and he shall be the one of peace” (Micah 5:5a). This line can be translated to emphasize either the ruler (NRSV: “he shall be the one of peace”) or the result of his reign (“He shall bring about peace”). It is open-ended in other ways as well: Does peace consist primarily in domestic security, as suggested by the lectionary text? Or does it extend to victory over Israel’s enemies, as indicated by Micah 5:5b-6? Beyond the context of Micah, reinterpretations yield other possibilities. For example, in Ephesians 2:14, one finds an echo of Micah 5:5a in the identification of Christ as “our peace,” who breaks down the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Greek. However this peace is understood, it is ultimately rooted in the ruler’s service to YHWH, who claims him as his own.

In the face of the utter failure of Judah’s kings and Zion’s certain destruction, Micah returns to Bethlehem to reclaim an ancient model of leadership as care. Emerging in an obscure town from an insignificant clan of Judah, this shepherd-ruler claims no strength of his own but rather rules in the power of God and in ways that make for peace. In Micah, the existential threats were military and political, and as we consider Micah 5:2-5a in its broader literary context, we readily see that the book envisions peace as military victory over Israel’s political oppressors (see especially, Micah 5:5b-6).5 

As Luke tells the story of the birth of a new king, he also must deal with the gritty reality of political and military power. Even in the relatively peaceful story of Jesus’ birth, Rome controls the lives of all Judeans as it requires them to be registered. At the end of the gospel, Rome will claim power over Life itself as it crucifies God’s messiah. Yet, for a brief moment, a birth in Bethlehem draws our attention to an utterly new possibility of a different kind of reign. Angels give glory to God and declare the possibility of a new kind of peace. 

In a more idyllic time when Bethlehem was not disputed political territory as it is today6, Phillips Brooks encountered Bethlehem as a still point on the horizon of the “hopes and fears of all the years.” As we muddle our way through the innumerable fears of our time, Luke and Micah beckon us to gaze on Bethlehem once again, where once again we find the king who is our peace.


  1. Ehud Ben Zvi, Micah (FOTL XXIB; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 88. Other commentaries consulted for this essay include Hans Walter Wolff, Micah: A Commentary, translated by Gary Stansell (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1990); and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, Micah: A Commentary (OTL; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015).
  2. Smith-Christopher, Micah, 165.
  3. The allusion is to T. H. White’s Once and Future King (1958), a study of the legends of King Arthur.
  4. Smith-Christopher, Micah, 167.
  5. Ben Zvi, Micah, 129-130.
  6.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethlehem. Accessed September 30, 2021.


Commentary on Luke 1:46b-55

Rolf Jacobson

Even if you do not preach on Mary’s Psalm, sing it this weekend during Sabbath worship.1

[Find commentaries on Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, by Diane Jacobson (2017) and W. Dennis Tucker Jr. (2011).]

Marys Psalm: A radical Advent carol

The so-called “Magnificat” (somehow that name is too tame) is a radical protest song. The kind of song that the enslaved Israelites might have sung in Egypt. The kind of song you might have heard on the lips of the exiled Judeans in Babylon. The kind of song that has been sung by countless people of faith through the ages in resistance, in defiance of empires, slavers, terrorists, invaders, and the like.

Hear, feel, savor Mary’s cry of resistance:

[The Lord] has shown strength with his arm;
has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
Has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
Has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)

Mary’s Psalm sounded the initial, clear, trumpet call that the event of the Christ’s advent was to be a world-transforming, universe-shaking event.

One example. Professor Lois Malcolm, my colleague at Luther Seminary, grew up the child of missionaries in the Philippine Islands. Growing up among that nation’s poor, Professor Malcolm has reported that when they heard Mary’s Psalm, it was the first time that anyone had told them the good news that God cares about them—the poor, the oppressed.

Think about it. You’re poor. You wonder, “Why? Why are we poor?” “Maybe that is just the way things are,” you think. Or maybe you hear, “The kings and queens rule by ‘divine right’—God wants them to be rich and powerful, and you to be poor.” Or maybe you hear, “The poor are poor because they did something bad in a previous life—they deserve to be poor in this life, and if they suffer their poverty bravely and gladly, they can be born into a better caste in the next life.” Or maybe you just think, “We are poor because we aren’t smart enough to be wealthy.”

Mary’s Psalm announces, “No, Christ has come to challenge the structures of sin, death, the devil, and oppression. Christ has come in the strength of the Lord to do what the Lord has always done: lift up the lowly, free the enslaved, feed the hungry, give justice to the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner.”

A song in tune with the Lord’s songs throughout the ages

Mary’s song of resistance was not completely new. It was a song in harmony with the psalms that other faithful followers of the Lord had sung in past generations. Just three examples.

The once-enslaved Moses and Miriam sang this song of resistance when God delivered the oppressed from the house of bondage in Egypt:

[The Lord] has trumped gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed;
you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. (Exodus 15:1bc, 13)

The once-barren Hannah, afflicted by Peninnah her rival, sang this song of resistance and deliverance:

The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.

Those who were full have hired themselves our for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.

The Lord makes poor and makes rich,
be brings low, he also exalts. (1 Samuel 2:4-5, 7)

And one more song, this one from the anonymous psalmist who composed Psalm 146:

The Lord sets prisoners free;
the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.

The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the strangers;
upholds the orphan and the widow. (146:7c-9b)

Throughout the ages, God’s people have faced oppression. And in the face of that oppression, God’s people have sung God’s songs of resistance.

But God’s people have also been oppressors. We have enslaved others—and each other. We have stolen from, oppressed, and slain others—and each other. And when we have done so, the oppressed, the enslaved, the persecuted have sung God’s songs of resistance against us.

So shall it ever be.

Singing resistance in Advent

So do two things as you plan for worship this Sabbath.

First, sing Mary’s Psalm of resistance. Don’t just read it, sing it.

You can chant it antiphonally. But pick an aggressive psalm tone.

You can sing the version known as “My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness,” set to a tune by Ralph Vaughan Williams (tune: Kingsfold; arr. Williams). See With One Voice (Augsburg Fortress, 1995). You can sing Grayson Warren Brown’s “My Soul Does Magnify the Lord” (tune: Gospel Magnificat).

You can find a version of “Evening Prayer”—almost all will include a version of Mary’s Psalm, which is the traditional canticle for evening prayer worship. Marty Haugen’s version in “Holden Evening Prayer” comes to mind, although the tune is rather tame.

You can find a metrical paraphrase and match it with a tune your congregation can sing.

Second, you can select those rare Advent songs and Christmas carols that follow in Mary’s tradition of resistance. A few come to mind. Most of the references to liberation and resistance in Christmas carols have been spiritualized. For example, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.”

But here are a couple.

“Hark, the Glad Sound” (Philip Doddridge):

He comes the pris’ners to release,
in Satan’s bondage held.
The gates of brass before him burst,
the iron fetters yield.
He comes the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure.

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear” (Edmund Sears):

And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow;
look now, for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing;
oh, rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing.

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”:

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse’s stem,
From ev’ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow’r to save;
Bring them in vict’ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

And, if the Spirit leads you, preach on this song of resistance. Seek the Lord and inquire how it is that we have closed our ears to Mary’s radical song of resistance, even though there is so much oppression and evil in the world. We have turned Christmas into a cattle-lowing, no-crying-he-makes Jesus, Silent Night.

Christ came to stand against sin, death, and the power of the Devil. We can sugarcoat that reality now. But at least one Christmas carol would remind us of the ends to which the son of Mary was willing to go in order to cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplift the lowly:

Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
The cross he borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the word made flesh,
The babe, the son of Mary!


  1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 21, 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:5-10

J.R. Daniel Kirk

Throughout Advent we look back to the past as we reach forward to the future. Advent is the season of waiting, when we join ancient Israel in anticipation of the Christ to come. 

The arrival is surprising.

A Messiah arrives who thwarts every expectation by offering his body for sacrifice rather than sacrificing Romans at the edge of his own sword.

This changes everything.

The kind of Messiah we have changes what kind of people we are. Unlike earlier revolts and victories, this king of Israel does not come to establish the right of Jews to be Jews (keeping Sabbath, eating kosher, circumcising their children). For Jesus, that’s a given. 

His mission, instead, is to blow open the doors for all of humanity to be full participants in the family of God. This means that his people will be known by peace and not violence. Our ethic will be measured by self-giving love rather than keeping the Law. 

If the cross is truly the means by which Emmanuel ransoms captive Israel, then we have to reimagine everything we thought we knew. We have to reread the story that came before and discover the mystery hidden in the scriptures yet too often masked by other, perhaps more obvious, interpretations. 

The whole book of Hebrews is just such an exercise. It shows us how the scriptures of Israel, what we often refer to as the Old Testament, is both the voice heralding Messiah Jesus and subservient to his ultimate mission. His is the story that transforms the biblical narrative, casting everything from a new perspective. 

After sacrifice

Hebrews 10 cites and interprets Psalm 40. The point is to show that the death of Jesus has done what the blood of bulls and goats cannot (Hebrews 10:4). They cannot take away sins. But the “once for all” sacrifice of Jesus’s body does (Hebrews 10:10). 

One offering. Enduring through all time. Making us holy, sanctified (Hebrews 10:10, 14).

This conclusion, set in the context of the Jewish sacrificial system, contains the both/and of a biblical practice that is highlighted and then finds itself taking a back seat to a reinterpretation of the ritual. Jesus fulfills it. He brings something greater. 

The earlier was the shadow. Here is the body that casts it. 

Jesus is not the denial of sacrifice but its substance.

So, about Psalm 40

Psalm 40:6 provides a perfect foil for the sacrificial system. Applying it to Jesus, the first two lines differentiate between the call to sacrifice (“Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,” Psalm 40:6, NRSV) and the gift of a body that Jesus will lay down in a unique act of obedience (“a body you have prepared for me”). 

There’s just one problem.

Psalm 40:6 doesn’t say, “a body you have prepared for me” (Hebrews 10:5, NRSV). Both the Hebrew version and its ancient Greek translation (the Septuagint) say something closer to, “you have opened my ears” (Hebrew) or “you have fashioned ears for me” (Greek). 

The writer of Hebrews has likely changed the wording to bring the prophetic word into closer correspondence with its fulfillment. He is speaking of “when Christ came into the world” (Hebrews 10:5). And so this psalm addresses the moment of Christ’s arrival. The bodily presence of the Messiah itself becomes the vehicle for displacing that earlier form of worship. 

But perhaps the most striking and stark conclusion that Hebrews draws is that Psalm 40 anticipates a division between keeping the Law and obeying the will of God. Even as Paul will relegate the Law to a place of witness to the great act of salvation that comes in Jesus (Romans 3:21), so the writer of Hebrews says that doing the will of God abolishes burnt-offerings and sin-offerings (Hebrews 10:8–10). 

In Psalms 40:8 doing the will of God entailed the law being written in the heart. But for the writer of Hebrews, Jesus does something greater that abolishes the requirements of the Law. Knowing what God has done in Jesus, and its ramifications for human standing before God, the writer of Hebrews reads Psalm 40 as it never could have been read prior. Jesus changes everything. 

Even what scripture means.

Advent body 

Hebrews, like the rest of the New Testament, has a very specific idea of what it means for Jesus to do the will of God. It is not to “keep the Law for us.” It is, instead, the singular act of going to the cross. 

The psalmist speaks of doing the will of God. Hebrews 10:10 tells us that it was by God’s will that Jesus was sacrificed. This is but one reason among many that the Christmas story for which we wait during Advent is so crucial. Jesus needs a body. A human body. More than this, he has to be truly and fully human. 

God makes Jesus the right kind of being to fulfill God’s will, God’s plan to rescue humanity. It has to be an embodied person. Not just for the sacrifice made in the past, but so that the resurrected Jesus can be, as the Sacrificed One, eternally and bodily present at God’s right hand. The sacrifice is eternal because Jesus’s sacrificed body is eternal as well. 

Changing everything

The incarnation we await at Christmas is inseparable not only from Good Friday but also Easter and the advent that yet lies in the future. The first arrival of Jesus transforms not only the trajectory of Israel’s story, but the story itself. At its heart, Jesus’ obedience in going to the cross reshapes for us what it means to do God’s will. 

No longer do we look to the Law. We look to the cross, where self-giving love shows us the heart of God. This is the love of God for the world. It is the love of God that we are to embody in the bodies God has prepared for us. 

If we would say, with Jesus, “See God! I have come to do your will!” (Hebrews 10:7), then we must be prepared to walk in the steps of Jesus. Connect the steps from the incarnation in Bethlehem through the incarnation of Jesus within each of us, to the self-giving, cross-shaped love that shows the world the face of the God whose image is borne by each of us.