Friday, December 18, 2009

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Scripture Notes
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This week is the fourth Sunday in Advent and you can connect with the Textweek resources here: The passage can be found electronically at Oremus here:

Thoughts on Scripture
In this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel lesson (Luke 1:39-56) offers us the story of Mary's visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah's home. We cannot read this lesson without reflecting on the passage before--wherein Gabriel visited and announced the coming of the "Son of God"--and that this child is to be born in the lineage of the great Hebrew King, David. We learned that this new royal son is to bring into creation a new reign, an eternal reign of God.

Our doubts rise at the miraculous news, just as Mary's must have, wondering and pondering the meaning of this message. The angel puts her heart and mind at rest, reminding her that this is the God of the Hebrews who had done miraculous things, things that cannot be believed, things that are told from parent to child. This is the God who sent Abraham wandering. This is the God who gave Sarah a child in her old age. This is the God who brought Joseph into Egypt and protected him there. This is the God who frees them from slavery and provides for them in the desert. This is the God who returned his people to their land and built up a great city and temple, Jerusalem. This is the God of both the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. This is the God who loves his people. He is inaugurating a new heavenly reign in which all the world will be invited to participate and to dwell within.

You may have doubts but our ancestral faith story tells us that nothing is impossible with this God. We might remember these words from Genesis 18:14: “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son."

Chris Haslam writes: For redemption through God’s might in the Old Testament, see Exodus 6:6 (delivery from slavery in Egypt); Deuteronomy 4:34 (“by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt”); Jeremiah 27:5 (“It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth”); Isaiah 40:10; 51:9. (find more comments like this one from Haslam at:

For Luke, the author of these passages, Gabriel's news is the inauguration of the final stage in salvation history. So then, we see these very first words of Luke's Gospel--his good news to his readers--is that their salvation is deeply rooted in the story of their ancient faith ancestors.

This is true for us just as it was for the first readers of the Gospel of Luke. Do we in this moment begin to meet and know Jesus again for the first time, renewing in this, the fourth Sunday of Advent, our relationship with Jesus -- bringing our final act of preparation for Christ's birth on Christmas to a close and opening for us a way to enter into God's eternal reign?

If this happened to me, I would rush to my closest relative's side -- and that is what Mary does -- bringing us to the Gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent. When she arrives and tells Elizabeth, the child in her womb leaps. This reminds us of the ancient story of the leaping children in Rebecca's womb, brothers Esau and Jacob. Perhaps this is even a foretelling of their relationship and the shifting of power from prophet to savior?

Elizabeth's response is faithful as she wonders how she might be so blessed as to receive the visitation of Mary. And Mary is portrayed as a model believer, having faith and hope in God's promises to her. This is the meaning of "blessed" in Luke's Gospel, that she is portrayed as a faithful follower of God. Sometimes we believe the word blessed in the scriptures refers to God's blessings, here and throughout Luke, blessed refers to the idea that the person who receives the blessing is a good steward, faithful follower and believer. It is in their actions, not God's, that show forth and invite the acclamation from those who witness their faith that they are blessed.

I wonder what it would be like to go through the rest of the days between now and Christmas and, where we witness faithful people following Jesus and helping and aiding the less fortunate, doing kind work on behalf of others, working to heal those who are infirmed … what if we mentally and prayerfully marked them as blessed people in our lives? What if we actually verbalized, as does Elizabeth in our Gospel, their giftedness and told them they were blessed?

It is in this moment that Mary offers the words of the Magnificat. I imagine Mary reflecting on the story of her people and the immense sense of collision with her life this news from Gabriel, the leaping of the child in Elizabeth's womb, and the words Elizabeth offer. I cannot describe the potential of this moment. But Mary does describe it and speaks out proclaiming God's greatness and her willingness to serve the Lord and be obedient in all things. She will be a steward and disciple because of all that God has provided for her. In remembering her people's story she proclaims and glorifies God because God is compassionate. Mary knows and calls out that this God keeps his promises and is faithful to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses, and all the patriarchs and matriarchs.

Mary is rehearsing Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. We see that the past work of God is begun anew in the conception of Jesus. Mighty work is done from the lowliest of people. God is continuing salvation history and fulfilling his promises made to Abraham. But the message of Jesus is a reconstituted reign and a diversified Israel where by all those who have called their father Abraham (remember John the Baptist's words from last week) are joined by all those whose baptism with the Holy Spirit by Jesus may now find their home in Jerusalem. This is not simply an ethnic heritage, but one open to the adoption of God's children not in the fold of Abraham's family.

As we meditate upon the meaning of the words of Luke's Gospel it would be too easy to see this as a past event. Yet this is our story. It is certainly my story. From my parents and faith family I inherit the story of Jesus and the ever widening circles of his reign and his grace-filled embrace. Like Elizabeth I have the opportunity to bear witness to visions of blessed people who faithfully follow Jesus and aid those who are without, in accordance with John the Baptist's proclamation.

I also have the opportunity to thank God in this the fourth Sunday of Advent for my inheritance and the gift given to me in Jesus. Still more opportunity lies before me though, recognizing that my heart leaps at the news of my relationship with the about-to-be-born Jesus. But I also have work to do. So may my words and your words be as Mary's … “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

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  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball