Here is the sermon for Advent 4. The sermon is based on both of the following texts: Micah 5:2-5a and Luke 1:39-55
I want to put it to you this morning that the two Scripture readings that we heard earlier are some of the most exciting passages in the bible.
To quote from one of the commentaries on the Micah reading: “The God of Israel is a God of shimmering surprises, of outlandish innovation and renewal. At precisely that moment when God’s people have determined the shape of the future…God intervenes and…we are forced to begin again.”*
What more could you ask for on Christmas Eve than “outlandish innovation” and “shimmering surprises” from the Lord of the Universe?
Today we are waiting with expectation for Christmas, about 13 hours away. We are waiting for God’s greatest gift to humankind: the Gift of his Son, God incarnate, the one who will save us from our sins and reconcile us with God.
But in addition to the big Gift of his Son, God has another gift to give us in this morning’s readings. In fact that gift is a “little gift”. Or rather, it’s the gift of being little. It’s a gift for the lowly: little people, little places. A gift that has to do with the lifting up of the lowly and the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones.
It is the gift of hope.
Today’s readings proclaim the transformation that God intends to bring to creation through the arrival of his Son. Today’s readings are about hope, but not about small glimmers of hope. Today’s readings are about big hope – about understanding the final transformation of all creation. And we learn that it is the little people, the insignificant of society whom God uses to make that transformation happen.
This is the story about the outlandish innovation and renewal of all things. A shimmering, glorious hope.
Let’s begin with Bethlehem. A small town, an insignificant town. Now the Christian Church has always applied the text from Micah to Jesus and we most certainly want to do that today, but it is also important to know what Micah thought he was prophesying.
For Micah, perhaps the most important thing about Bethlehem is that it is not Jerusalem. It is not the Capital City.
If you can imagine living in a situation of “London versus the rest of the country” magnified about a hundred times, this is what was going on during the reign of King Hezekiah, the king of Judah during the time that Micah prophesized. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen less than ten years earlier and it no longer existed. Judah was under threat from Assyria to the East.
King Hezekiah had a two-fold policy for the country. His first policy was the reform of worship - and that was fine as far as it went. But his second policy was a policy of militarily strengthening Jerusalem and some outlying fortress cities in the event of attack by Assyria.
Literally all of the country’s resources – money, materials and labour - went to Jerusalem and these fortress cities whilst it was intended that the people in country towns like Bethlehem would be left to fend for themselves in the event of the country being attacked.
Even worse, the people of the countryside were conscripted to work on the fortification of Jerusalem. The resources they had in order to feed themselves and their own families were small. So despite King Hezekiah’s concern with making sure that the people engaged in the correct form of worship, many of the people lived in abject poverty and in fear of their very lives, injustices that occupy a great deal of the book of Micah.
You can see what sort of a system this is. It’s a system that says: The King matters. The Capital City matters. The army matters. The average person doesn’t matter and if he and his family happen to starve to death because his resources and labour have been used to fortify the Capital City, then so be it.
This was an ancient form of “I’m alright, Jack” starting from the King on down.
But here is the glorious bit of redemption. Here is the incidence of “shimmering surprises and outlandish innovation and renewal”… God says that the Messiah is going to come from one of these poor country villages! From Bethlehem.
The Messiah is going to come from a lowly place. A place where the people are oppressed and where the king is happy to use them as cannon fodder and abandon them to their deaths. God cares about this little village which humankind mocks.
God’s outlandish innovation is that the Messiah, the saviour of the universe, is going to born amongst the lowest of the low. God’s shimmering surprise is that that the people the world despises are people of infinite worth to God.
Imagine! The world tells you that you are dirt, that you are scum and God’s prophet comes along and says, “Out of you, I will bring a ruler for Israel and people all over the earth will acknowledge his greatness.”
The earthly religious system thought they had it all figured out. The Messiah was going to be born in Jerusalem of a prominent family. He was going to be a great military leader who would ensure a great victory of independence for his people.
But God had other plans. “At precisely that moment when God’s people have determined the shape of the future…God intervenes…and we are forced to being again.”* The Messiah is born in a lowly town of lowly parents. He is not a great military leader but the Prince of Peace.
Elizabeth & Mary
And what about Elizabeth and Mary? The mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Elizabeth is a shamed woman because she is barren and has never borne children. Mary is very likely a shamed woman for becoming pregnant before her marriage.
Elizabeth is too old to be a mother. Mary is too young to be a mother. The son that elderly Elizabeth will have, John the Baptist, will usher out the former age. The son that too-young Mary will have will usher in the age to come. As with Jacob and Easu, the older of the two will become the servant of the younger. John the Baptist first acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus when he leaps in his mother’s womb. It is his reaction to the unborn Jesus that causes Elizabeth to proclaim her praises to God.
More outlandish innovation on God’s part. He uses two shamed women to be the mothers of the Messiah and the latter-day Elijah, the herald of the Messiah. You’d think God would have been more sensible. If you or I had been told to pick two mothers for these two great men, would we have picked a childless woman beyond her child-bearing years and an unmarried teenager? Common-sense would have suggested that we choose two upstanding women in their twenties with good track-records of raising Godly, healthy, well-adjusted children.
But, once again, rather than using the safe option, rather than using the tried-and-true, God opts instead for shimmering surprises and outlandish renewal. After all, it makes sense that the circumstances of the Redeemer’s birth will also be circumstances of renewal and redemption, doesn’t it?
Both Elizabeth and Mary understand God’s redemptive purposes and Mary then begins to praise and bless God.
Mary’s words are amongst some of the most beautiful and exciting words in the New Testament – the Magnificat. These words indicate a profound understanding of God’s purposes in the salvation of the World.
In her hymn of blessing to God, Luke’s Mary opens up the Old Testament prophecies for us in a way similar to the way the risen Jesus opened up the texts for the Emmaus travellers.
One commentator suggested that we read the Magnificat as a summary of the Old Testament prophecies. The height of the Magnificat comes in verses 51 to 53: “He has stretched out his mighty arm and scattered the proud with all their plans. He has brought down mighty kings from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away with empty hands.” (Luke 1:51-53, GNB)
This is the very same vision proclaimed to us by Micah. It’s the same vision proclaimed to us by Jeremiah, Isaiah, by Malachi and Zephaniah and many other Prophets. God had a plan. I think this is really exciting!
God knew what he was doing and what his plan for salvation would be. The problem isn’t that God wasn’t clear. The problem is that we fail to understand because God does things in ways we don’t expect. We don’t expect him to use the powerless, the little people, those who are unable, to bring about his Kingdom. But that’s exactly what he does.
This is God’s outlandish plan for innovation and renewal: A world that is ruled by the lowly; A Kingdom where everyone is of infinite worth to God, especially those who the world despises.
This isn’t just a little ray of hope. This is hope with a capital H! Redemption is brought into the world by those who are small, feeble and unable. It is when we are small, feeble and unable that we are sometimes tempted to give up hope. But these are precisely the moments that God has chosen as the moments he uses to redeem the world.
The Redemption of Israel and of the world will come through the Messiah hanging on the cross. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“The God of Israel is a God of shimmering surprises, of outlandish innovation and renewal. At precisely that moment when God’s people have determined the shape of the future…God intervenes and…we are forced to begin again.”*
A little, insignificant, town. Two shamed women. A little baby who would become, not a warrior king, but a crucified Messiah.
Just when we are tempted to give up all hope, the power of the love of God bursts into the universe with a shimmering hope that is so glorious, as human beings we are not really able to understand its height and breadth and depth. The coming of this inexpressible Hope into the world in the form of a little baby will require the songs and praises of all the heavenly hosts to do him justice.
Let us wait in Hope for the coming of that baby. Our brother, our Saviour and our Lord. Amen
* Cousar, C. et. al. 1994. Texts for Preaching: a lectionary commentary based on the NRSV – Year C. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press. p. 30.