And a Little Christmas Shall Lead Them 

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
(A line-by-line textual commentary is at the end. It's a little dense, but I think you're up to it.)
     Micah 5:(1-)2-5a
     Psalm. 80:1-7 (or Luke 1:46-55, the Magnificat)
     Hebrews 10:5-10

     Luke 1: 39-45

Background on Micah:
Of the two readings above that we are focussing on, the moneymaker this week is the passage from Luke, the one that most of your people will mistakenly believe is a sweet Christmasy heart warmer (though you can dissuade them of that later). But before we get to it, we have to spend at least a little time with the words of Micah, who, while calling for a standard militarist messianic solution for a major military crisis of Israel, nonetheless drops some critical lines about the coming of king who was later identified with Jesus.
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
  who are one of the little clans of Judah,
  from you shall come forth for me
  one who is to rule in Israel,
-- Mic 5:2.
Micah was written during one of the many sieges of Israel, and it’s not at all clear which one this is referring to. One guess is Sennacherib’s attack on Israel in 701 bce, and Micah in 5:1 sound like that: “Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.” However, the word used, “siege,” sounds like words of a century later, when it was Babylonia doing the attacking (cf. 2 Kings 24:10; 25:21; Jer. 52:5), so that could be the one.
More important morally and theologically is that while this crisis is happening, there is great turmoil within the city of Jerusalem. Crime, corruption, stealing. The rich have taken all of the good land squeezing the poor onto smaller and smaller plots on which to live. One will come, he says, who is a shepherd; he will bring peace to this mess and will feed the sheep in the midst of them. Luke (and others) will later say that that “shepherd” is the little guy born in the manger in Bethlehem.

The obscurity of the characters:
These two passages (Micah and Luke) are nicely paired with one another. The first one, from a little obscure prophet named Micah, highlights a little obscure town that no one had heard of called “Bethlehem,” and he says that one of these days someone great is going to come from there and rule over all the land. He even references, briefly, the mother, saying that he will appear “when she who is in labor has brought forth.”
Then in the New Testament, there are these two equally obscure women—one quite old and barren, the other little more than a child (by today’s standards) around thirteen—who are both nobodies and both chosen by God to bear great children. “He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
And mary is “betrothed” (as we used to say) to this other little kid named Joseph, who is just as unknown and obscure as she is. And when he finds out that she’s pregnant, he plans to cut and run (not really a great moral giant for the church today), but an angel comes to him and says, “whoa, stop, the baby in Mary is not yours,” and he says, well, um, I kinda knew that part,” and the angel says, “no no, what I mean is that the baby came from the Holy Spirit (a.k.a., “God”). The little guy in Mary’s womb there is the son of God, so go on back to her now and play like you’re the daddy because that’s what God wants you to do,” and to give Joseph credit, the story says he does that.
When Mary hears from an angel that she is to give birth to a child, what she does is to run away. Quite possibly she ran for her life, because there is some historical evidence that when unmarried women were found to be pregnant they were stoned to death. She runs to Judah to another obscure town (which we don’t even hear the name of) to talk to her cousin, Elizabeth, about the whole mysterious and strange occurrence. Elizabeth is evidently pretty old and had been barren for a good many years, and thought she’d never have a baby of her own. But as it happens (that pesky Holy Spirit?) now she’s gotten pregnant herself with a little baby she’ll name John who, as it turns out, will later baptize a gaggle of people (including Jesus), threaten the state, and get himself killed for it, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

When Mary gets there and the two of them greet each other, John jumps up and down in Elizabeth’s belly and Mary breaks into song (don’t mothers always?), with this incredible and magnificent and political and radical, song, about what her coming son is going to be doing to this messed up world. (Let’s just be glad that our politicians don’t know their Bible, or else they would turn against their high-rolling benefactors and change our immoral tax laws forever.)
52   He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
         and lifted up the lowly;
53   he has filled the hungry with good things,
          and sent the rich away empty.

Preaching thoughts[1]
What caught my eye about this is that this story in Micah is of a Shepherd who will come from the most bland, obscure, “nobody” location, Bethlehem, and wind up feeding the sheep and standing for global peace.
There are lots of examples of this. Homiletics.com cites the story of an equally obscure Susan Boyle who looked and dressed plain and dumpy and was way passed her prime, but had a voice that angels would be jealous of. Simon Cowl, the host of the show sneered at her in the beginning, but then later publicly apologized for his behavior.

We often overlook the most important things in life. And the Christmas Season (I didn’t say “Christmas,” but the “Christmas season”) encourages us to do that. It encourages us to put everything we’ve got into fake smiles and fake rejoicing (and fake presents) so that the true meaning of Christmas gets lost. It forces us to look the other way.
It does that in two ways:
First, the commercialization of the Christmas season works very hard to keep us from realizing that there really is supposed to be something important going on inside this season. We get a lot from the media about how this is a season of caring or giving, but very little about what that is so (with the exception of Fox news, which in the interests of being fair and balanced, gets full-bore CHRISTIAN during this season).
Second, the Hustle and bustle of Christmas. We get so tied up in the many tasks of Christmas, that we forget to experience Christmas. The writing of our Christmas letter, the gathering together of all of our addresses (you pull them together from all of the cards from last year. You got about eighty cards last year from people you barely know, but they wrote you, so this year you need to be nice and “Christmasy” and write back to
them.
(And how do you write something personal about the daughter of your son-in-law’s cousin?). 
So, you pulled off the corners of all of their cards from last year…didn’t you, I know you did that…and you saved them for this year. And then you have to take them all out and make this big huge database of all of their addresses. And last year about twenty of them bounced and came back because some of these suckers move so often that you’d think they’re in a witness protection program, so you go online, one at a time, and look them up on “addresses.com,” and write them down one at a time. 
And then you have to sit down and write that Christmas letter that is supposed to go in it. And if you have a family, you know what kind of nightmare that is. You say, “well, little Johnny was a hit singing in that school play,” and Johnny says, “don’t’ tell them about that, that was embarrassing,” and Sally says “don’t tell them I have a boyfriend, because he’s such a dweeb and I just broke up with him,” so by the time you get it finished it’s a letter written by a committee with veto power and nobody likes it, but you’re in a hurry and you have to get it done, so you do it anyway, and you run it off on your home printer and when it comes out, you see that the paper was in crooked and all of them lean to one side, but you say, I have GOT to get this done, so you use them anyway, and you have to write little personal notes on each one of them, saying, “Hi there Bob and Alice, and how’s that little Bobby doing ?” So you fold each and every one of them one at a time and you stuff them into the envelopes and haul three boxes of them down to the Post Office, but you did it on a Saturday and you get there at 2:30 and the post office closes at 2:00 and you have to drive all the way across the state to the UPS store to get them to take your cards. And when you get home you remember that Bob and Alice’s little boy is actually named “Ralph,” and Larry and Sally broke up two years ago because Larry was seeing Alice, and none of them will probably never speak to you again, but you don’t care because it’s late and you want this to be the “right” Christmas.
Did you hear about the woman a couple of years ago –true story—who forgot to do her cards until the last minute and rushed out to buy three boxes of cards and brought them home and filled them all out and addressed them and sent them off and when she got home she was exhausted and she relaxed in her chair with a glass of wine and listened to a little Dana Pelkie jazz CD, and she picked up one of her cards and said, that’s nice, I’ll actually get a chance to read what I sent to people, so she picked up the first one and it said: “Just a little card to say…a special gift is on its way.”
I once got so stressed out in shopping at the last minute that when I had finished the day (rushing from store to store, beating back other purchasers, and fighting for elevators and escalators in the malls), and had gone out to my car, I put my presents on top of the car and drove away and left them behind…(Perhaps it’s because “God looks out after preachers and fools” but someone I knew saw what happened and called me later to tell me he had my gifts.)
Do we occasionally forget why we are here on earth? Have we forgotten the meaning of Christmas? Have we forgotten who was at the end of the star the Wise Men were chasing?
Sometimes a little child will lead us to “know” the important parts of the season. There is a story of the parents who were in a big rush to get Christmas all done up, and they told the kids that under no uncertain terms were they to get out of bed until daybreak on Christmas morning. Then they snuck around and placed baseball bats, and bicycles, etc. under the tree, and went to bed. About four in the morning their little seven year old rushed into their room saying “mommie, I saw it. Quick come quick.” The parents grumbled but got up, deciding that the surprise was ruined, so they might as well get all of the kids up so that some could see their toys since one had already done so. So they hustled all the others up and brought them down stairs. But the little boy ran right passed the tree and went over to a window and said, “see, see, there it is in the east. It’s the star. I saw it.”

For a possible sermon conclusion:
A friend of mine down on the North Coast tells about the time last December when he and some others were in a meeting in Boston that ran over time, and they weren’t going to be able to get back to their homes in time for supper. They ran down to the Park Street Station (right in the center of the city, next to Boston Commons) and rushed down the stairs to the train but knocked over a fruit stand in their way. There are dozens of little stands like that around the station, and it’s sometimes hard to navigate through them when you are running. All of them ran on but one man who disgustedly stopped and helped pick up some of the fruit. He saw that some of it was bruised, so he gave the boy behind the counter money for it. Then he saw that the boy was about ten years old and blind. He could have gotten away without being seen. He paid the boy and said, “here, take this ten dollars for the damage, and I hope we didn’t spoil your day” and he wished him a Merry Christmas. The Boy was dumfounded. Said, “Mister, are you Jesus?” He stopped in his tracks, and wondered if he was. (Adapted from Homiletics.com, which took it from, Janet Ruffing, Uncovering Stories of Faith: Spiritual Direction and Narrative [Paulist Press, 1989], p. 95.)

Textual comments on the two readings 


Luke 1:39-45
39 In those days Mary set out[1] and went with haste[2] to a Judean town in the hill country,[3] 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.[4] 41 When[5] Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you[6] among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord[7] comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be[8] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”[9]

The Magnificat[10]
46 And Mary[11] said,
     “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47    and my spirit[12] rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
        Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
        and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear[13] him
        from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
        he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful[14] from their thrones,
        and lifted up the lowly;[15]
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
        and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
        in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.

 

Micah 5:2-5a


1[16]     Now you are walled around with a wall[17];
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel
upon the cheek.

A Ruler from Bethlehem
2c    But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
3     Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
4     And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
5     and he shall be the one of peace.




[1] “Arose” (anastaôsa). Luke is very fond of this word, sixty times against twenty-two in the rest of the N.T. Robert Gundry believes that Luke is implying that mary was sitting when the angel came to her and so she had to literally get up to run to see Elizabeth, enhancing the sense that all of this was done in great haste. (Commentary on the New Testament: Verse-by-Verse Explanations with a Literal Translation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), p. 225.)
[2] “Haste.” Often overlooked detail. Why did she run so quickly? The standard interpretation is that she ran because she was excited to share the Good News. Nancy Kraft, however, at “Liberal Lectionary Exegesis,” says, “Luke tells us that Mary was in a hurry when she left Nazareth and headed for the hills. And it’s no wonder. She is pregnant and unwed. She has disgraced her family and her fiancée. No one wants to have a thing to do with her. Some historical evidence tells us that a woman in Mary’s position might well have been stoned to death, or maybe even burned. She has to get away. So she runs.” http://liberallectionaryresources.com/Advent%204%20Year%20C.html
[3] “Judean town in the hill country.” Luke doesn’t give the name of the town, just that it is generally a town of Judah. Judah is about three days walk from Nazareth, so it is at least that far away, and probably a little farther.
[4] “Two women, not only kin but now drawn by a common experience, meet in an unnamed village in the hills of Judea. The one woman is old and her son will end an old era; the other is young and virgin and her son will usher in the new” (Harper’s Bible Commentary, ed. James Luther Mays (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), p. 1016).
[5] “When.” Actually, there is a word here left out of almost all contemporary translations. “The introductory phrase ἐγένετο (egeneto, "it happened that"), common in Luke (69 times) and Acts (54 times), is redundant in contemporary English and has not been translated” (NET).
[6] “Blessed are you” (εὐλογέω, eulogeo). Perfect passive participle. “To ask God to bestow divine favor on, with the implication that the verbal act itself constitutes a significant benefit—‘to bless, blessing.’” Louw/Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), p. 441.) Note that this is the word upon which our English, “eulogy” is based. This is the first Blessing in the NT.
[7] “‘Lord’ is Luke’s most characteristic title for Jesus and his favorite address to him” (Oxford Bible Commentary, ed. John Barton and John Muddiman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), Luke 1:39.
[8] nrsv note: Or believed, for there will be. The word at issue is hoti. It is not certain whether hoti here is “that” or “because.” It makes good sense either way. See also 7:16.
[9] This is the first beatitude (“blessing”) in the New Testament and it is similar to the last one in the Gospels spoken to Thomas to discourage his doubt (John 20:29).
[10] “This psalm (Luke 1:46-55) is one of the few praise psalms in the NT. Mary praises God and then tells why both in terms of his care for her (Luke 1:46-49) and for others, including Israel (Luke 1:50-55). Its traditional name, the "Magnificat," comes from the Latin for the phrase ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’” (NET).
[11] nrsv note: Other ancient authorities read Elizabeth
[12] “My spirit” (to pneuma mou). It’s interesting to wonder if there is a theological distinction between “Spirit” here and “soul” (psucheô) in verse 46. The argument is that the soul is the principle of individuality while the spirit is the point of contact between God and humans. This is known as the “trichotomous” theory of human nature (body, soul, and spirit). It’s not clear, however that Luke (or his sources) had anything that complicated in mind. Even the distinction between intellect, emotions, and will is challenged by some psychologists. It is more probable that they are simply synonyms in parallel clauses, following good Hebrew poetic form.
[13] “Fear” (phoboumenois). Dative of the present middle participle. Here it is a reverential fear, not fear of harm, cf. Acts 10:2; Colossians 3:22. The bad sense of dread appears in Matthew 21:46; Mark 6:20; Luke 12:4.
[14] “Powerful” (dunastas). Our word “dynasty” comes from this word. It comes from dunamai, to have power, to be able.
[15] “Lowly” (tapeinos, ταπεινόομαι). Those of the lower classes. “To live in circumstances regarded as characteristic of low status” (Louw / Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, p. 739.)
[16] Ch 4:14 in Heb
[17] Cn Compare Gk: Meaning of Heb uncertain.
c Ch 5:1 in Heb




[1] Some of the following illustrations were stolen adapted from the very excellent resource, homiletics.com.