Reading Ramblings – December 23, 2012

Reading
Ramblings

Date: December 23, 2012,
Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts:
Micah 5:2-5a, Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45(45-56)

Contextual
Notes:
It is the final Sunday of Advent. From here
we can peer forward with anticipation, already seeing the glow of
that marvelous star fixed over Bethlehem, so close enough to
Christmas to touch it. This year especially, as Christmas falls
early in the week, it is important to hold steady in our Advent
meditations, and not skip forward too quickly to the joy we
anticipate and need so desperately in the arrival of our Savior!

Micah 5:2-5a – The
promises of a Savior grow more explicit now that we are so close to
the Nativity of our Lord. In the midst of promises of military
threat and defeat, there is also the promise of a future ruler who
will restore the people of God. Ephrathah in verse 2 is synonymous
with Ephrath, an area very close to Bethlehem. The name occurs
frequently throughout the Old Testament as a place name, and is also
associated with Jesse, the father of David. Verse 1 sets the tone –
the people of God will be or are being attacked militarily, and
almost certain defeat awaits them. But verse 2 begins the promise
that whatever damage is done will one day be undone. The source of
this future hope is a descendant, but one who has his lineage from of
old, from ancient days. Verse 3 could be interpreted as a promise of
the Lord’s prophetic silence from the prophet Malachi until John the
Baptist, a period of 400 years or so. It is a message of hope, but
one that comes in a moment of despair. This is the nature and
purpose of hope – it is not hope if it comes in a moment of
certainty and confidence!

Psalm 80:1-7: Verse 1
draws on imagery associated with the Ark of the Covenant, with two
cherubim who spread their wings to touch and cover the ark. Verse 2
then continues this imagery by referring to three northern tribes who
were to go into battle third for Israel, following the Ark of the
Covenant, encamped to the West of the Ark, “around the sacred tent,
but not close to it” (Leviticus 2:2). This may indicate that the
Psalm was written in response to troubles in the Northern Kingdom
prior to its destruction by the Assyrians. The remaining verses a a
plea for mercy and deliverance. It is a forward looking hope based
firmly in the facts of the past. The author clearly sees that the
one to save them from their present troubles is essentially the
continuation of the one who saved them in the past.

Hebrews 10:5-10 –
This Epistle lesson links clearly the Nativity of our Lord to his
purpose in perfect obedience to God the Father’s will. Though God
the Father instituted the sacrificial system for the Israelites, that
sacrificial system was never intended as the final solution to the
problem of sin. Not only that, the system itself became corrupt –
the letter of the law was observed without the spirit of the law.
Sacrifices became a law in themselves, devoid of the deeper
significance of repentance which they were intended to be bound up
with. So it came to be that the very system God instituted became a
system that no longer pleased God. Jesus demonstrates the true
purpose of the first system – obedience. The sacrifices were
intended to assist God’s people with the issue of obedience – a
function the sacrifices had largely ceased to accomplish. But Jesus’
faithful obedience fulfilled the Father’s desire for his creation.
As such, sacrifices are no longer necessary, whether the blood
sacrifices of the Old Testament, or our modern (incorrect)
equivocations for them, such as tithing. We tithe not out of
obligation to our Lord but out of gratitude. Not based on who we
have been, but who we have been made to be in the waters of baptism.

Luke 1:39-45(46-56):
As
Lutherans we struggle with Mary. Our historical context of conflict
with the Roman Catholic church has made us deeply suspicious and
resistant to much focus on Mary, lest we be misunderstood as
worshiping her. But veneration for the theotokos,
the Mother of God, is only appropriate! Her role in salvation
history and human kind is unprecedented, and yet at the same time
thoroughly human.

The reading this morning picks up with Mary’s departure for her older
cousin Elizabeth. We might well -imagine that this was no different
than our own, not-too-recent practices of bundling off young women
who turn up unexpectedly pregnant to a relatives home in another town
to avoid the daily scandal of the situation. While Matthew provides
a bit more insight into the mind of Joseph and his perspective on the
situation, Luke comes alongside Mary in his narrative. As a
frightened young woman she flees for support and even safety perhaps,
to her cousin Elizabeth.

Mary’s flight is not insubstantial – from Nazareth in Galilee to
the hill country of Judah is a considerable journey requiring
planning and care. Luke does not give us these details, but rather
shows the unique relationship between Mary and Elizabeth as well as
Jesus and John the Baptist, their respective children. Most
important for Luke is the nature of the Christ child that Mary
carries. The angelic messenger Gabriel reveals his nature.
Elizabeth confirms this nature. Mary herself, perhaps in a moment of
prophetic ecstasy, also bursts into song regarding her child. This
three-fold testimony in Luke’s account is intended to dispel any
doubt about the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth. He may be the son
of Mary, but He is also far more, thus making Mary far more than a
frightened unwed mother.

Mary’s song here emphasizes the nature of her child and God’s work
through him in traditionally prophetic terms. It also is in keeping
with the songs of other Biblical women who experienced the miraculous
provision of the Lord (Moses’ sister Miriam – Exodus 15:20ff;
Hannah – 1Samuel 2:1ff). When the Lord delivers us, it is
appropriate to give him thanks and praise! As such, this exultation
of Mary has come to be known as the Magnificat (from the first word
of the song in its Latin translation), and it is used the the
traditional evening Vespers service of the Church.   

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