Friday, November 13, 2009

Fourth Sunday of Advent Year C

Fourth Sunday of Advent C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Micah 5:2-5a; "Magnificat" (Luke 1:46-55); OR Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45(46-55)

Like his contemporary, Isaiah, the prophet Micah sees in current events a day of God's judgment fast approaching. The fall of the Northern Kingdom to her enemies was a dire warning to Judah/Jerusalem. Given his harsh judgments, the prophets promise of God's renewal is more striking. He invokes the memory of the glory days of King David, when Israel was united, peaceful and secure, by referring to David's origins: "You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth one of old, from ancient days." This one, like David, will "feed his sheep in the strength of the Lord...." And like the victorious King David will bring security and peace again.

Whether originally composed or adapted from other sources by Luke, the songs he inserts in his birth narratives, which rely on the major themes and rich imagination of Hebrew scriptures and inter-testimental writings, serve to confirm his intentions to show that the births of John and Jesus fulfilled ancient promises. He has just told his reader (in today's appointed gospel) of the joy shared by Elizabeth and Mary caused by their miraculous pregnancies. The song he inserts opens with a doxology for the "greatness of the Lord" who has seen fit to honor/"regard" such impossibly unlikely candidates for divine purposes. All future generations will have cause to call her "blessed"/fortunate/favored. The song recalls the traditional traits by which God's people have come to know and trust God-at-work in the world-- pure, absolute, fair justice, even to the most needy. This marks the fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham and Sarah (other impossibly, unlikely but willing instruments) "and all generations."


Written in response to an imminent treat to the security of the nation/people, this psalm calls on the Lord as "the Shepherd of Israel...." She laments the woes that God's people have endured and pleads, "Restore us, O God of Host's/ show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved."

The writer who has assigned himself a "letter" to "Hebrews" sustains his theme of Christ as fulfillment. In this excerpt he quotes from psalm 40:7ff, which devalues hollow ritual sacrifice and instead embraces embodiment of God's teaching and God's justice. Christ, he writes, "abolishes the first in order to establish the second...." Which means, "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."

Luke's narrative, which intertwines the miraculous pregnancies and births of John the Baptizer and Jesus continues. Mary goes to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. As soon as Elizabeth hears Mary's voice, "the child leaped in her womb." Under the authority of the Holy Spirit-- an always reliable sign in Luke/Acts of God's direct participation-- Elizabeth addresses Mary, "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb." Luke crafts his narrative so that Elizabeth presciently asks why "the maker of my Lord" should visit me?" And she tells Mary of the movement she felt in her womb when she heard Mary's voice. Luke caps the scene with a song (vv46-55, see comments above).

By Micah's time the nation was deeply anxious about its future. External threats were vague but persistent. A growing loss of confidence in internal leaders and institutions exacerbated the spreading sense of uncertainty about where the nation was headed. Micah cast a gimlet-eye on the dire situation and wasted few words in a grim assessment unless there were certain changes. Even more startling then is the turn in his narrative we read this Sunday. Pressed against the wall, the narrative finds something to say about the current situation and provide hope for the future by remembering certain words from the past. In the same spirit of fragments from Samuel (book II chapter 7), the Psalms (89), Isaiah (11:3b-9), Jeremiah (23:5-7 and 33:14-16 ) and even Ezekiel (34:1-16), Micah's narrative remembers in lines from old songs a new song to sing--what God had done through David and discovered hope in the renewed lineage of David through one who will "feed his flock" and return peace and security.

Luke's narrative discovers songs to sing in another time of crisis. In his masterful analysis of the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke in
The Birth of the Messiah, (1979) Raymond Brown carefully lays bare the strands that inspire Luke's rich composition. In the song (vv 46-55) from that touching scene when the two women marvel at their miraculous pregnancies, Brown cites Psalm 35:9, I Samuel 2:1-2, Habakkuk 3:18, Genesis 29:32, Psalm 103:17 among the many memes and even verbatim quotes that Luke uses to find his own voice. "My soul magnifies the Lord..." [H]e has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty."

In a section entitled "Song is Existence," from
Poetry, Language, Thought, Martin Heidegger elevates the vital role of the one who finds the right song to sing at just the right occasion: "those who are more daring by a breath dare the venture with language. They are the sayers who more sayingly say. For this one breath by which they are more daring is not just a saying of any sort; rather, this one breath is another breath, a saying other than the rest of human saying." "The singer's saying says the sound whole of worldly existence, which invisibly offers its space within the world's inner space of the heart." "...[T]hese poets sing the healing whole in the midst of the unholy." (p. 137) What is so striking about Micah is that out of his stark, brutal depiction of the actual and possible threats that the nation faced from outside enemies and its own internal weaknesses comes poetry: "You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah... from you shall comes forth for me one who is to rule...." "...[W]hen she who is in labor has brought forth." "...[A]nd he shall bring peace." Luke always places his narrative precisely in the continuing, roiling crises as the heel of Rome bares down on the neck of Jerusalem and his response is a story filled with songs!

In his wonderful little book,
Finally Comes the Poet: Daring Speech for Proclamation, Walter Brueggemann summarizes: "the fundamental hope of the Bible is that the disproportion will be overcome. Prophetic hope is about lion and lamb together (Isa 11:6-9), about swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks (Mic 4:3-4), about new covenant in which all will know the torah and all will be forgiven (Jer 31-31-34), about a new shepard king who will do justice (Ezek 34:11-16), about planting and building and enjoying the produce (Isa 65:21-22). Israel's hope and God's promise characteristically concern a transformation of the world of disproportion." (p. 87)

What must
someone say in times in which those without hope are vexed, confused, and angry? "The art of preaching is not instruction, rational discourse, or moral suasion. It is the invitation and permit to practice a life of doxology and obedience...." (p. 68) ...[R]age is turned to praise, isolation is turned to community, fear becomes trust, hurt permits healing, anxiety becomes adoration." "Our lives are gvien back to us in the oddness of praise." (p. 77)

"The healing whole in the midst of the unholy," again in Heidegger's
succinct phrase, is the song to be sung now.