Reading Ramblings – December 20, 2015

Reading Ramblings

Date: Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 20, 2015

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

Context: Each of the readings today has prophetic overtones, emphasizing the unique identity and work of Jesus of Nazareth. His birthplace is predicted in the Old Testament by Micah, who is writing roughly 600 years before Jesus’ birth. The Gospel lesson provides Luke’s second prophetic record regarding Jesus’ birth. John the Baptist is foretold as a forerunner of the Messiah, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, and then Mary has additional prophesy from her relative Elizabeth. In the Hebrews reading Paul draws on Psalm 40 as prophetic description of the ministry of Jesus.

Micah 5:2-5a – This prophecy speaks of where God’s ruler will be born. While we’re familiar with the name Bethlehem, we are less so with Ephratha, which might be a description of the larger area of which Bethlehem is a part. Ephratha is first mentioned in Genesis 35 as the birthplace of Benjamin, son of Jacob, and the death place of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. Bethlehem, as it is more commonly referred to, is an unassuming place, certainly small to have both King David and the promised Messiah both born there. The phrase “ancient days” is likely to remind us of Daniel 7, where this is used as a title for God the Father. This is the only other use of this sort of phrase in the Bible, and is surely not accidental. The reference to the woman in labor may relate to popular ideas at the time so that no further explanation is given or expected, though it leaves us today somewhat baffled. Regardless, this promised one will be a source of strength and therefore peace to his people.

Psalm 80:1-7 – Echoing the title of shepherd from the Malachi reading, this psalm is addressed to God’s appointed leader asking him to save his people. It is clear from the second part of verse 1 that this is God himself, as He is the one seated upon the cherubim, meaning the Mercy Seat, the cover of the Ark of the Covenant from Exodus. The details of the situation are not supplied, but what is clear is that only God, who is the one true Shepherd of his people, can save them.

Hebrews 10:5-10 – The bulk of this reading is made up of quotes from Psalm 40:6-8. Paul begins with what appears to be a quote but actually isn’t. God the Father has prepared a body for Jesus, has given him Incarnate form. Jesus has not come to offer other sacrifices, to perform the duties of a High Priest, but rather to be the actual sacrifice, and in the process of so offering himself, to be the great and final and eternal High Priest. Verse 6 is where the quotation of Psalm 40 properly begins. What God wants is not sacrifices for sin but actual, literal, complete obedience, and this is what Jesus comes to offer. It is Jesus’ perfect obedience to God the Father that invalidates the need for further blood offerings. His own blood and death are the perfect final sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. It is his perfection that makes us holy. It is important to remember this, which is why his temptations are a big deal in Scripture. Jesus has the option to be disobedient. He has the equivalent moral freedom of Adam and Eve. If we presume that temptation is not really a big deal for Jesus, we are minimizing his human nature and overemphasizing his divine nature.

Luke 1:39-45 – Having covered the prophetic nature of both John the Baptist and Jesus’ births, we skip ahead to Mary’s visit to her relative, Elizabeth. I always imagine that this trip, which lasts three months, is a way of Mary’s parents getting her out of town, out of public eye during her pregnancy. We are told that Mary returns home after this visit, but perhaps that return home is only brief, just long enough for she and Joseph to pack for their trip to Bethlehem. These are all contingencies that make some level of sense to us. But the emphasis of this visit and Luke’s recounting of it is very different.

Mary receives added confirmation from Elizabeth about the special nature of the baby she carries. John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, which we are intended to understand as John’s recognition of Mary as the mother of God. Then Elizabeth receives a prophetic Word from God, being filled with the Holy Spirit and crying out, (as opposed to speaking normally) a proclamation of blessing upon Mary. Mary is ultimately praised for her faithfulness, for her trust of the angel Gabriel’s strange message to her in 1:26-38.

Someone I talked to recently asserted that everyone follows their religion blindly. Christians would say that this is not true. Our faith in Jesus as the Messiah is grounded in the historical reality of his resurrection from the dead. One can reject this, but to do so one must reject a great deal of human history that is far worse attested to than the resurrection. One must also contend with Biblical prophecy concerning Jesus. Any one of these prophesies might be dismissed as coincidence, but when they are taken together they form an impressive phenomena. These prophesies deal with a broad spectrum of details regarding Jesus’ life, from his birth (timing and location and family heritage) to details of his ministry (healings, etc.), his suffering and death and finally his resurrection.

These are very compelling. They require faith to accept them, but that faith is grounded in more than mere wish fulfillment or fantasy. For those who approach them without a preconceived bias against the idea of prophesy or the miraculous, they become even more compelling.

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