Fourth Sunday of Advent

The last Sunday of Advent marks a transition from anticipating God’s restoration of God’s people to confidence that this restoration is actually under way. Today’s first reading, from the book of Micah, looks forward to the birth of a child in Bethlehem, the birthplace of King David. In the New Testament, Jesus’ Davidic lineage supports his messianic identity. Both options for today’s psalm emphasize God’s exaltation of those who are weak and not highly regarded by others. Today’s second reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews pursues the theme of God’s choice of unlikely vehicles of grace, arguing that, in the world to come, Jesus’ crucified body serves just as offerings in the Temple do in this world. Finally, today’s Gospel reading sets out the intimate, prophetic connection between the births of John the Baptist and Jesus.

The First Reading
Micah 5:2-5a
A Davidic King for an Ideal Age

Watching the tumultuous fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, the Judean prophet Micah envisions a period of peace under a new King David who will emerge from Bethlehem—David’s birthplace—and rule in an ideal age. The image of a woman in labor (verse 3) is a common metaphor for the hardships that will befall the people of Israel in immediate anticipation of the messianic age of restoration and peace.

  1. But you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, insignificant among the families of Judah—
         from you will emerge for me one to rule in Israel,
         whose ancestry is of old, from ancient times.
  2. Indeed, God shall leave them be until the laboring woman has given birth,
         when the remainder of his kin return for the sake of the people of Israel.
  3. He shall stand and shepherd in the strength of the Lord,
         in the splendor of the name of the Lord, his God.
    But they shall endure, for this time the ruler shall be exalted to the ends of the earth.
  4. And this will mean peace.

The Psalm
Luke 1:46b-55
Mary’s Song

Luke’s Gospel attributes this hymn, the Magnificat, to Jesus’ mother, Mary, at the time of her meeting with her cousin, Elizabeth (the mother of John the Baptist). Its title derives from the Latin equivalent of the verb “exalt” in the first line. Anticipating the significance of her child’s birth and her own role, Mary articulates the themes of God’s exaltation of the lowly and rejection of human arrogance. These themes echo those of Hannah’s song, which she sang to celebrate bringing the prophet Samuel into the world (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Thus, the Magnificat appears in the New Testament as a continuation of the psalms and prophecy of the Scriptures of Israel.

  1. Mary said:
  2. 46b. “My soul exalts the Lord,
  1.      and my spirit exults in God my savior,
  2. since God esteemed me, God’s servant, in humble condition.
         So that, look: From this moment, all generations will consider me favored,
  3. because the one who is powerful has done great things for me.
         Indeed, God’s name is holy,
  4. and God’s mercy is for generations and generations
         among those who fear God,
  5. who has acted with a mighty arm:
         scattering the arrogant in their hearts’ purpose,
  6. taking down the powerful from thrones,
         and exalting the humble;
  7. who has filled up the hungry with good
         and dispatched the rich away empty.
  8. God supported Israel as a child, keeping mercy in mind,
  9. just as God spoke to our ancestors,
         to Abraham and to Abraham’s seed forever.”

or Psalm 80:1-7
A Plea for the Renewal of the Kingdom of Israel

The psalmist bemoans the Israelites’ loss of sovereignty over their land, with special reference to the Northern Kingdom (including the tribes of Joseph, Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh), which was conquered by Assyria in 722 BCE. In the face of this loss, the psalmist pleads for and anticipates God’s renewal of the Kingdom of Israel. We read the psalmist’s message today as supporting the confidence—central on the Fourth Sunday of Advent—that God’s restoration of God’s people is truly under way.

To the conductor, according to “lilies,” a testimony of Asaph, an accompanied psalm.

  1. Shepherd of Israel—listen!—
         leading Joseph like a flock,
         astride the cherubim,
    unveil your splendor,
  2.      before Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh!
    Awaken your might,
         and come as deliverance for us!
  3. God, restore us;
         shine your face towards us so that we shall be rescued!
  4. Lord, God of heavenly divisions, for how long will you remain angry at your people’s prayer?
  5. You have fed them the bread of weeping,
         and made them drink a full measure of tears.
  6. You have made us an object of reproach to our neighbors,
         and our enemies snicker to themselves.
  7. God of heavenly divisions, restore us;
         shine your face towards us so that we shall be rescued!

The Second Reading
Hebrews 10:5-10
Jesus as the Fulfillment of Animal Sacrifice

Today’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews argues in detail that the literal requirements of sacrifice set out in the Scriptures of Israel were intended for this world, not for the world to come that Jesus opens up. Even as sacrifices serve effectively to atone for sin in the earthly Temple, they also set the pattern for the offering of Jesus’ body to remove sin entirely for the time that is to come. The word order of Psalm 40, adjusted by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews so as to apply to Jesus, provides scriptural support for the argument.

Coming into the world, the Anointed says:
Sacrifice and offerings you do not desire; yet you provided me a body. You take no
pleasure in burnt-offerings or sin-offerings. Then I said, “Here! I have come! In a
book-scroll, it is written for me: To do your will, God.”
First he states that God does not want or take pleasure in sacrifices, oblations, burnt-offerings, and sin-offerings, although these things are offered according to the Law. Then he asserts, “Here, I have come…to do your will.” He takes the first away in order to establish the second, with the intent that we be sanctified by the offering of the body of Anointed Jesus once for all time.

The Gospel
Luke 1:39-45, [46-55]
Mary’s Declaration of the Grace of Jesus’ Birth

The Gospel reading for today indicates the context in which Mary declared her song of praise, in addition to repeating the song itself. The song is traditionally known as the Magnificat for reasons explained in the introduction to the first option for today’s psalm. The story here begins just after the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she is to bear a son, whom she should name Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel, the angelic declaration concerning Jesus’ birth is similar to the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth, and in this reading the two mothers meet and acknowledge one another.

Mary arose in those days and eagerly traveled into the hills, to a town of Judea; she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby actually jumped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with holy Spirit. She cried out with a great shout and said, “You are blessed among women, and the fruit of your womb is blessed! How can this be, that my Lord’s mother comes to me? Look: As the sound of your greeting came into my ears, the baby in my womb jumped in exultation. The woman is favored who believed that there will be

  • [Mary said:
  • “My soul exalts the Lord,
         and my spirit exults in God my savior,
  • since God esteemed me, God’s servant, in humble condition.
         So that, look: From this moment, all generations will consider me favored,
  • because the one who is powerful has done great things for me.
         Indeed, God’s name is holy,
  • and God’s mercy is for generations and generations
         among those who fear God,
  • who has acted with a mighty arm:
         scattering the arrogant in their hearts’ purpose,
  • taking down the powerful from thrones,
         and exalting the humble;
  • who has filled up the hungry with good
         and dispatched the rich away empty.
  • God supported Israel as a child, keeping mercy in mind,
  • just as God spoke to our ancestors,
         to Abraham and to Abraham’s seed forever.”]

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