Advent 4 – Bringing Christmas to the present

The challenge of Christmas is to be able to bring this past, Christ born long ago, into the present and to keep it present. With the birth of Jesus, God invites us into the mystery and the joy and the wonder of something that happened long ago and yet is happening again for the first time, now and yet paradoxically is already present. Ironically, our mission is not to bring Christ to people, but to help people come to know and embrace Christ already present. That’s the point of our services this week.

David Lose, the president of Luther Seminary, writes of the embrace of Christ for this week – “God is joined to us fully and completely in the flesh of the birth of the Christ child and thereby takes on our life – our hopes and dreams, faults and sins, ups and downs – and gives us Christ’s own righteousness. The sins are ours, but Christ takes them on as if they were his; and while the righteousness is Christ’s, we now can make full use of it.”

Today’s readings on 4th Advent explore the meaning of Jesus’ incarnation, Jesus taking on human flesh. Micah claims that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem, a ruler “from of old,” both a shepherd and a king for God’s people. The Psalm issues a lament for deliverance. The “Shepherd of Israel” (v. 1) (the only occurrence of this phrase in the psalms) is pictured as enthroned over the ark between the wings of the cherubim The author of Hebrews explains how Jesus, through his incarnation, brings reconciliation. In the gospel, Elizabeth witnesses to the special role of Mary and her unborn child, who is the Lord—Savior, Messiah, King.

The Old Testament reading is from Micah. Micah prophesied at about the same time as Isaiah, at the end of the eighth century BCE. He focuses particularly upon the social injustices of a period turbulent with political upheaval. Today’s reading springs from the hope of a restoration of the Davidic monarchy after the exile.

From Bethlehem, David’s city, will come a new ruler, a shepherd-king. His origin is traced to ancient times, to the days of David. Verse 3 explains the delay in the restoration and full return of the exiles. The Messiah will restore the life and well-being of the people. Matthew adapted Micah 5:2 as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

We have an added Canticle this week. Mary’s song of praise, the “Magnificat,” in the Canticle echoes many gospel themes stressed by Luke: the joy of salvation, the reversal of this world’s values, God’s option for the poor and lowly and the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises. This song of God’s lowly handmaid is a foreshadowing of the way in which the Kingdom of God will transform our world. ebrews

In today’s reading from the New Testament, Christ utters Psalm 40:6-8 which serves as a summary about the meaning of his incarnation and its impact on the practice of sacrifice. The Old Testament prophets always reminded Israel that sacrifices were only to be a manifestation of obedience to all of the law. The author interprets the psalm (as spoken by Jesus) as a call for the abolition of the sacrificial system.

The old order, the old covenant, is abolished, and the new is established. The sacrifice that God asks is obedience of one’s own will to God’s will. Jesus offers his body (in Hebrew terms, his whole life) in self-dedication to God’s will. By this self-offering as a sacrificial victim, “we have been sanctified” (v. 10), ceremonially cleansed and made holy. The salvific meaning of Jesus’ incarnation is found in the reconciliation of humanity to God through Jesus.

The Gospel and the Canticle both concern Mary with the Gospel picking up Elizabeth. Luke’s account of the visitation of Mary to her kinswoman Elizabeth connects the parallel stories of Jesus and John. Luke shows John, in the womb, beginning his ministry of witness to Jesus. Characteristic also of Luke is the emphasis upon women and their response to the Lord, and the emphasis upon the work of the Holy Spirit.

The baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, enacting John’s future attitude toward Jesus (3:16), just as Jacob and Esau enacted their struggle in Rebekah’s womb (Genesis 25:22-23), and as Jeremiah was appointed prophet in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5). Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed—by God’s choice of her, by the child she will bear and by her faith in God’s effective word.

Elizabeth recognizes her already as “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43). Luke, unlike the other gospel writers, uses the title “Lord” for Jesus in ordinary narration. Even before his birth, Jesus is “Lord.” The infancy and childhood stories show him becoming what he already is.