4th Sunday of Advent

20th December 2015

Although the prophet Micah operated at the time of Isaiah and others in the 8th century BC, some of the material reads as though it is from a later time – either as addition or alteration – and there are similarities between his time and that of the exile in the 6th century. The reading we have is part of a prophecy preceded by others of a similar format, namely the present time of disasters to be followed by a much better situation. But our reading has only the upbeat part, the one verse before is about the bad times. There is promise of a new ruler to come; one who will be like the ideal king David, who was the most unlikely choice and the youngest in the family. The new ‘ruler’ (not the same word as for the disappointing kings) will be from David’s lineage and even from his insignificant town of Bethlehem. At that time the northern kingdom of Israel had broken away from the jurisdiction of the southern king in Jerusalem, and in the passage they are probably what the ‘rest of the kingdom’ (the remnant) refers to, whom the new ruler will restore to the whole. The pregnant young maiden referred to who will produce the new ruler, may be the nation personified as (daughter of) Jerusalem, or the unknown girl in the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. This new ruler will deservedly take on the image of shepherd, so often used of kings and their attitude to the people – or even of God as the psalm of David sings – “the Lord is my shepherd…” in psalm 23.   It will be the Lord who will support this new ruler and his reign, we naturally apply this to the celebration of the birth of Jesus at Christmas.

In the reading from Hebrews, the writer is interpreting verses 6 – 8 from Psalm 40, to make a point about the unwanted Temple sacrifices and the unique achievements for us of Jesus who lived his whole life for others – for us and for God (the Father). It is clear that this is a quite different order of sacrifice when the connotation of the word ‘body’ is realised to be the whole of human life from birth to its completion; Jesus’ whole life in accord with the will of God is portrayed in the gospels; there it is seen by others as a radical stance, with challenging words and actions so much so that the authorities, both secular and religious, brought it to an end with his execution on the cross. It is the start of this life that we celebrate at Christmas.

Some of the early Christians preferred the dramatic nature and extravert style of the Baptist to the simple, selfless and generally forgiving nature of the humble Christ. Of all the gospel writers, Luke has found a delightful story to illustrate the superiority of the Christian way, in what we call the Visitation and have today for our gospel. Mary has just responded to the message from God that she would conceive and bear a son named Jesus, saying “Be it done to me according to your word.” This young unmarried girl is the first person to have the life of Christ in her (and that literally) and her first thought is concern for her cousin who is also unexpectedly pregnant because of her age. It is a lesson for us who try to live good Christian lives about quiet concern for others. Luke is not writing history or a biography of Jesus, nor is he writing a delightful fable that is untrue; his Gospel is written to tell the important truth about Jesus who is the Son of God, and as part of the New Testament his writing is the Word of God to us today as we contemplate these events and prepare in Advent to celebrate the presence of Christ in our world.

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