Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say December 19? Advent 4

    {Winding up this 4-week season, you might still appreciate my generalized “Preaching Advent” blog on the nature of homiletics during this season, with lots of illustrative material that could work any Sunday; and also a general “Preaching Christmas” blog}

   Less than a week until Christmas. I wonder about exploring what it’s like just before a child is born. I remember Lisa feeling profoundly uncomfortable. We were semi-confident, but anxious. New life was almost there, but not quite, well-formed and ready to live but not yet visible to us. An ordeal was coming – yet the promise of wonder. The ordeal had begun, crowded in there, early pangs already squeezing hard. Somehow Advent is like that, the spiritual life is like that. All of life really is like that.

   Micah 5:2-5a isn’t a crystal ball prediction of the location of Jesus’ birth 8 centuries before. Micah was from a village (Moresheth-Gath) much like Bethlehem – lying out in the country not far from the capital city of Jerusalem. The Assyrians rampaged toward Jerusalem and crushed the little villages – because of the idolatry and faithless policies of those in corridors of power in Jerusalem. So Micah is resentful, having fled his hometown, left behind in ruins, to take shelter in the Holy City – which saved its own neck but not theirs. Imagine the welcome when he threatened that “Zion shall be plowed as a field.” Weren’t small town peeps in Bethlehem a little intimidated by yet resentful of the big city power brokers?

    Hope, Micah declared, would come from this other small town, David’s hometown, famous to us, the one we sing about at Christmas, but a backwater in those days. David was the little one, the unlikely choice among Jesse’s sons (1 Sam. 16) – and in the same way, Micah tells the powerful that their only hope is from the small, weak, unlikely place. Gospel logic always works this way. God is ready – indeed, God has always been ready to rectify human power and its foolishness. Micah speaks of this God “whose origin is from old, from ancient days.” William Blake depicted God as “the ancient of days.”

   Francis of Assisi: as his passion for Jesus grew, and as his father’s disgust with his son’s choices grew, Francis eventually had to abandon his earthly father and choose instead his heavenly Father – and a new family of “friars” (meaning “brothers”) in his new family of God with its peculiar but life-giving values and habits.

   Francis is well worth exploring on December 23, as he created history’s first manger scene. In my Conversations with St. Francis, I wrote this: A year before his death he was visiting a friend in Greccio. He asked Giovanni to erect history's first manger scene: a straw crib, oxen, donkeys, and an image of the infant Jesus. The townspeople gathered on Christmas Eve, bearing torches. The friars sang hymns, medieval carols – and how I wish I knew what they sang! I try to imagine their voices echoing from the mountain’s edge down through the valley. I especially try to imagine Francis’s voice, for on that night, overcome with emotion, he preached – and listeners said his voice sounded like the bleating of a lamb.

   He picked up the infant figure, held it in his arms, and some said they thought they saw the child come to life. This little town of Greccio had been transformed into O Little Town of Bethlehem, far away geographically but very present in spirit.

   Francis’s devotion to the humanity of Christ was tender; he understood that God was not aloof. God didn’t show off with overwhelming power. God became small, vulnerable, inviting us to love, and to be as tender as God’s own heart, power redefined as affection and song. On that glorious night in Greccio, Francis ordered that all the animals be given a double portion of food. How odd for Francis, as he was famous for his fasting. Advent should be something of a fast that ends in a festive banquet come Christmas night.

   Hebrews 10:5-10 amazes me. Jesus rarely speaks in the Epistles – but does here, evidently quoting Psalm 40!! The Hebrew says “You have dug ears for me,” whereas the Septuagint/Greek says “You have made a body for me.” Jesus doesn’t just hear God’s Word, but is himself a full-bodied enactment of God. It’s all about God’s will; it’s all about sacrifice. Jesus on his pilgrimages to Jerusalem saw sacrifices in the millions. He knew the frustration. Tom Long points out how we bring our sacrifices to God: “Lord, didn’t I give myself serving with the youth group? Lord, didn’t you notice I hired a minority in my company? Lord, I come to church, Lord I’m doing my best?” It’s never enough, is it?

   Jesus, through the author of Hebrews, says “You have prepared a body for me.” Is it his incarnational body? Or is it Mary’s, through which he comes into the world? I love the blood and sheer sacrifice of Mary’s body to usher Jesus’ body into the world. Rachel Marie Stone (in Birthing Hope: Giving Fear to the Light) we read, “A girl was in labor with God. She groaned and sweated and arched her back, crying out for her deliverance and finally delivering God, God’s head pressing on her cervix, emerging from her vagina, perhaps tearing her flesh a little; God the Son, her Son, covered in vernix and blood, the infant God’s first breath the close air of crowded quarters… God the Son, her Son, pressed to her bare breast… God the Son, her Son, drank deeply from his mother. Drink, my beloved. This is my body, broken for you.”

   I love these thoughts. And! The brokenness, the sacrifice, is of us, the church, the Body of Christ. How? can be explicated for your time and place.

   I love it that our Psalm isn’t in the Psalms, but a song on the lips of Mary after the tender, beautiful visitation with Elizabeth while both were pregnant (Luke 1:46-58). I focused on Mary on Advent 3, and I’m sticking with her in Advent 4 – just days before the birth! My daughter was given a stole depicting Mary. So lovely! Why isn’t she on more stoles?

   Luke 1:39-45. Mary, quite full of God’s tangible grace, visits the other miracle mother bearing John the Baptist. What a moving moment! There’s no moral, not takeaway. The preacher can invite people just to ponder them standing there, embracing, gazing, loving, conversing, just sitting together, waiting, anxiously yet hopefully, together. Elizabeth’s words, of course, have for centuries been repeated zillions of times by Catholics praying the rosary.

   And then Mary sings – our “Psalm.” Luke 1:46-58: We have anthems with the fancy Latin title “The Magnificat.” But I love to reflect on the simple fact that Mary sang a simple song of immense trust in God, and hope for the world. What did her voice sound like? Did Elizabeth join in? Harmonize? Smile? If you have a copy of my little book about Christmas music, Why This Jubilee?, you might look through my sections on Mary and her life, faith and hope just prior to Jesus’ birth.

   Again, a short sermon is in order – and let it be reflective, marveling over Mary, her mood, her steady trust, uncertain but confident in God. No takeaway, no moral, no lesson. We ask folks to get “lost in wonder, love and praise” as we linger over the “round yon virgin.”


  For more on Micah, see my little What Does the Lord Require?

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