Planning - Fourth Sunday of Advent
One of many inscriptions in multiple languages at the Church of the Visitation in Jerusalem recounting the story of the Visitation,
the greeting heard by Elizabeth, and Mary's Song.
Photo by Deror Avi. Used by permission, CC BY-SA 3.0.
See the texts (NRSV), artwork and Revised Common Lectionary Prayers at the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.
Micah proclaims the coming of a "new David" whose reign will be characterized by peace and caring for the needs of the people rather than war.
Canticle of response: Luke 1: 46b-55 (UMH 199).
"My soul magnifies the Lord . . . for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant." Mary's Song is often called "Magnificat" after its opening word in Latin. The lowliness of Mary recapitulates the lowliness of Bethlehem in the prophecy from Micah. The "strength of God's arm" acts as both defender against oppressors (the proud, the mighty, the rich) and provider for the oppressed (the lowly, the hungry). Plan to sing this! Metrical versions are available in The United Methodist Hymnal (198, 200) and in the Upper Room Worshipbook (17-20). If you consider chanting the canticle, use Tone 3 in F major with the canticle and response version (UMH 198). You may also want to consider using this text as the basis of the sermon and/or as a confession of faith on this day.
Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Psalm 40:4-6 (a variant form of the LXX version is quoted) by offering his whole life in obedient service to God. In this way, he both ended and replaced the sacrificial system of the Aaronic priesthood.
Elizabeth, a priest's elderly and miraculously pregnant wife, receives unwed, pregnant Mary and breaks forth in blessing and wonder.
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This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. If you use an Advent wreath, light the fourth candle today. Reserve the Christ candle for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services that follow. You may find Advent Meditations for Year C by Richard Garland and Dean McIntyrehelpful today.
The twelve-day celebration of Christmas and Christmastide (night of December 24 through January 6, Epiphany) begins on Monday evening after this Sunday. Kwanzaa begins in three days and lasts through January 1. Watch Night (New Year's Eve or Day) is celebrated in some of our congregations, as well as services of baptismal reaffirmation or covenant renewal on or around New Year or Baptism of the Lord Sunday (the first Sunday after Epiphany, January 13, 2113).
In short, there are many things that can happen in these days. The question for you and your worship planning team is which of these to give particular attention to this Christmastide. There are so many possible services in such a compressed period of time, and for many a time away from home and the local congregation, that careful attention to fewer services may be better than lesser attention to more.
However you choose to attend to these, place Scripture first in your planning and alongside it how these Scriptures interface with the life of your congregation or worshiping community at this time. Here is a list of links to these readings on the Vanderbilt Lectionary website: Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, The Sunday after Christmas, Holy Name or Watch Night, and Epiphany.
Atmospherics for Readings: The Contrast of Now and Yet to Come
A persistent motif of today's texts is the contrast of the old and the new, the former and the yet to come. Three of the texts (the exception is Hebrews) stand squarely in the "in between time," while leaning on tiptoe at the edge of the coming age. Split screen (if using projection) or split displays (perhaps on two tables or on rows on either side of the worship space) may help the congregation experience the starkness of the contrast during the readings.
For Micah, the contrast is between the historical David, a king notable for his victories in war, with the "new David," a new leader who will be known for making peace and caring for the needs of the people.
In Mary's Song, God (who is the mighty and Holy One) magnifies Mary (who is lowly). God's strength does not strengthen, but scatters the proud, pulls down the mighty from their seats and lifts up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty. If you plan to sing this, "Canticle of the Turning" in the Upper Room Worshipbook (18) brings out these contrasts and the changes they imply more fully than any setting in currently available United Methodist resources.
If you created slides for the readings in Hebrews during Ordinary Time contrasting the Aaronic priesthood with the high priesthood of Jesus, you might reuse some of them this week. The system of sacrifices is out; the system of obedience begun in Jesus is in!
And in the Gospel reading from Luke, young, barely pregnant Mary contrasts with the older, very pregnant Elizabeth visually, while sharing in the same joy about what God was doing in and through each of them.
Atmospherics for Worship and Preaching: "All Ears"
This week's reading from Micah may sound to most Christians as if it is a direct reference to the birth of Jesus known to us through Matthew and Luke. Certainly, both Matthew and Luke had Micah's prophecy in mind. In Matthew's account, the advisors to Herod even quote from it (Matthew 2:6).
But the point of the reference is not simply to say "Jesus is the one Micah was talking about." Quoting Micah points us back to Micah's prophecy itself, calling us to understand it in its fullness and context, and then to identify the ways in which Jesus continues to fulfill these things through the church and the Spirit.
So as close to Christmas as we are, our first duty with this text on this day is to take off our "Christmas ears" and put on our "prophetic Judaism ears."
To that end, it will be very helpful for you NOT to sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" today! Christmas Eve, surely. But not today. Why? Because we will miss what Micah was actually talking about, and therefore rob ourselves of the richness of the allusion the gospel writers are making by quoting him.
The first thing important to note is context. Micah is prophesying to people who are about to face destruction at the hands of the Assyrians. They would "become small."
That's the power of Micah's reminder of David, the great King of Israel. David was from the "one of the small clans in Judah." He came to power not because he was impressive, or from an impressive line, but because God had chosen him from this tribe of little account.
What Micah prophesies as hope is not a new David like the old one, who would rule with great military power, but rather a truly new David, one who would stand boldly and solely for YHWH as a shepherd and a bringer of Shalom among the people. These traits -- sole commitment to YHWH and sole attention to the welfare of the people -- would be so different and so remarkable that he and his successors would be known as "great to the ends of the earth."
There was already a candidate for this "new David" in the days of the prophet Isaiah -- Hezekiah, king of Judah. There are striking parallels between Micah's prophecy here and the story of the relationship between Isaiah and Hezekiah as it unfolds in the book of Isaiah. In both, the birth of a child is connected with a promise of deliverance (Micah 5:3, Isaiah 7:14). Hezekiah, advised by Isaiah, steadfastly refused making foreign alliances to try to counterbalance the power of the imminent Assyrian invasion, unlike the leadership in the Northern Kingdom (Israel) that had allied with Syria. And in II Kings 18, Hezekiah is remembered among the very few "good kings" precisely because he not only opposed idolatry but tore down the "high places" where it was practiced. Though Sennacherib (Assyria) did lay siege to Jerusalem during Hezekiah's reign, he failed to take the city, and Jerusalem and Judah fairly quickly recovered, leading the other nations to marvel at how this could have happened.
Of course, after Hezekiah's death, his successors did not follow in this path until Josiah began diligently to restore it during his lifetime. After Josiah, the path to exile was becoming more and more inevitable year by year. In exile in Babylon nearly two centuries later, those who remembered and kept alive the prophecies of Micah looked back at Hezekiah and Josiah as perhaps partial fulfillments, but came to expect God would bring forth yet another, later known as Messiah (Mashiach, "anointed one"), whose reign would fulfill the promise for all time.
Now, perhaps, we might be ready to put back on our "Christmas ears." Christians generally, and the Christian gospels specifically, especially Matthew, claim that Jesus and his line -- the church! -- are the fulfillment of Micah's prophecy. Faithful Jewish people to this day looking at Jesus and at us ask, "How can that be?"
If we as church are called as the successors of Jesus, as it were, to fulfill this prophecy of Micah, how, indeed, are we making that claim credible? Where are we steadfastly standing boldly and solely for the way of God not as conquering warriors, but as bringers of Shalom among the people? How are we, like Hezekiah, relying solely on God and rejecting "foreign alliances" that tempt us to rely instead on human might and prowess in competition? How do we stand credibly against the idolatries of our age and for the welfare of all people?
If these questions sound a bit familiar, they should. Our baptismal vows echo them. So do the prophetic promises in Mary's Song.
So after reviewing this background, ask these questions in your worship planning team: (1) How are you living with the reasonable questions of our Jewish sisters and brothers where you are? (2) How are you living out the baptismal covenant where you are? (3) How is Mary's Song seen not simply as dream but lived reality where you are?
These may not be questions or considerations anyone plans to be hearing today or at this time of year. Christmas ears are firmly on for many folks who will gather this Sunday. So how can you and your team in worship today help folks take them off long enough to hear the biblical and Jewish challenge -- and begin to respond?
One suggestion: Give everyone "Christmas Ears" to wear as they enter. Invite everyone to put them on before the service begins and have a pre-service carol sing that includes "O Little Town of Bethlehem" before worship proper begins. Then invite folks to take off their Christmas ears and lay them aside for the rest of the service. Let worship begin with a prelude based on an Advent hymn, such as the "Song of Mary," and encourage folks to read the text of the hymn from the hymnal (or the bulletin if you have licensing allowing you to copy the hymn text there) as the prelude is played. If you do something like this, make it a bit fun. Starting with a "fun" action of first enjoying and then removing "Christmas ears" takes some of the threat out of the experience of hearing what may be unexpectedly challenging words this day.
Today's reading from Hebrews picks up more or less from where it had left off in Year B, completing the comparison between the Aaronic sacrificial system with the ministry, message, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Discussions of sacrificial systems may seem completely out of step both with Advent/Christmas and with the other readings today, which seem to focus more on the hope for and meaning of a coming Messiah. But a careful reading of this text, in light of what we have already discussed about the reading from Micah, may help you, your worship planning team, and your congregation see how this is an excellent choice for the epistle reading today.
In particular, look at the quote from Psalm 40:6-8 in verses 5-7. The writer of Hebrews has altered the Psalm text from the Septuagint version (Greek translation of the Hebrew text). In both Hebrew and Septuagint, the Psalmist sings, "But you have prepared ears for me" (Psalm 40:6b). But in Hebrews, Jesus says "You have prepared a body for me."
This is not a trivial change. While the Psalm itself stands as a stark critique of the sacrificial system in its own day, it still posits the speaker at this point as being primarily a "hearer," someone "under the law." Jesus, however, is more than a hearer. He says "You have prepared a body for me." So when he also says, as the Psalmist also does, "I have come to do your will, O God" (Psalm 40:8, Hebrews 10:7), he speaks directly to God, fulfilling the will of God directly rather than the expression of that will mediated through the Torah. This is no diminution of the value of Torah as the expression of God's will. It is rather the radicalization of relationship with God made immediate through the incarnation, life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
With such immediate access to God opened for us in Jesus, the sacrificial system, as Hebrews argues the Psalmist already prophesied, is no longer necessary. It has been superseded in Jesus.
So what? How does this relate to Advent or the other texts today? This same Jesus is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). He has come not simply to be high priest himself, but to make us all priests with him, worthy to stand blameless with him before God's throne. When the writer of Hebrews has Jesus say "a body you have given me," he refers not simply to the physical body of Jesus but, in effect, to the church as well. That he and his action in his body from that time forward have sanctified us (verse 10) does not mean we are simply along for the ride on his "train." He has made us holy to join his mission, not simply to enjoy it.
This takes us straight back to the questions that arise for us from the promises declared by Micah. And here it adds other critical questions as well. Have we, or how have we, joined Jesus' own confession before God, "I have come, as written of me in the scroll of the book, to perform your will, O God"? How are we freely and intentionally offering ourselves, rather than only ritual, to address the real brokenness of the world around us? If Jesus is Messiah, Christ, whether in terms of Micah or the Psalmist (presuming Psalm 40 is interpreted messianically, as it would also have been in some sectors of Judaism in the time of Jesus), and such dedication to God was the hallmark of his earthly life and heavenly reign, where are the signs of our dedication?
How will you and your worship planning team help the Advent ears of your congregation hear and their Advent bodies reply?
The gospel reading from Luke today brings us Elizabeth's bodily elation. She could not contain the joy that filled her when her baby leapt at the sound of Mary's greeting and the Spirit filled her (Luke 1:40-41). "Blessed are you among women! Blessed is the fruit of you womb!" she "voiced with a great cry" (verse 42). This is ecstatic speech, and as such revelatory. It is speech from God's future made present, and in fleshly signs -- the leaping in her womb and the feeling of the Spirit's filling at Mary's greeting. Luke doesn't tell us what Mary said. So it's not about the words. It's about the act of the greeting itself, perhaps its very sound.
There is a third blessing in Elizabeth's ecstatic outcry. "Blessed is she who believed there would be a completion of the things said to her by the Lord" (1:45). This blessing, too, implies the bodily. When Elizabeth refers to "the things spoken to her by the Lord," the participle "spoken" translates a verb that refers to conversational speaking. It was about God saying things to Mary, not as declarations but more as conversation, and Mary hearing God speak and responding. More ears!
Such intimate, bodily ways of knowing, experiencing, hearing and responding to God may be deeply suspect in the rationalist cultures those of us in North America inhabit. Yet how else but bodily can we come to know an incarnate Lord? Indeed, how else but bodily do we know anyone or, as even rationalists have to admit, anything? All of our perceptive apparatus are fully in our bodies, not "out there" somewhere. So the question is not whether we can know anything through bodily means, but rather whether and how we have disciplined ourselves to perceive, learn, know and respond. How well do our ears work when God is speaking? For Elizabeth, wife of a priest, the leap of an infant and the sound of a greeting said something coherent yet beyond words (hence the ecstatic response). For Mary, as Elizabeth somehow had learned, conversation with God was a palpable experience. And Mary's song, recorded by Luke, reveals a God who acts in palpable, dramatic, bodily ways to up-end the rationalities that think (or at least boastfully claim!) they've got the whole world in their hands.
How schooled are folks in your congregation in perceiving the Spirit in the concrete, bodily ways Elizabeth did? How honed is the vision and hearing of folks where you are to see what Mary saw, hear what Mary heard, believe what Mary believed and confess what Mary confessed about the world in her song? How might worship today encourage and help better honing of our perceptive apparatus -- our "spiritual ears"-- so that we, too, can hear and bodily respond here and now to the Presence and Promise Elizabeth sensed and Mary sang there and then?
Organizing Worship around a Song
Perhaps the fullest expression of Advent for this day is found in Mary's Song. Consider focusing worship and preaching around what the world looks like through the lens of her pregnancy with Jesus. Consider, too, using the Song of Mary in a variety of ways and settings throughout worship -- as a song of praise (opening worship) to a song of examination (preceding a confession of faith or the sermon) to a Confession of Faith (following the sermon), and possibly even as the concluding hymn of sending. But do sing it!
As a song of examination, use the reversals Mary's Song describes to ask yourselves and your congregation how well aligned your lives as individuals and as church are with what this song says God is doing in the world. Here's a specific list:
- How do you and your congregation pay attention and lift up the voices of the "lowly"?
- How do you and your congregation participate in the activities of God's strong arm -- scattering (rather than endorsing or underwriting) the imaginations of those who think they own the world, moving the powerless into the centers of power, and making sure that hungry people get everything they need and the rich are unable to skim anything off of it.
- How do you or will you celebrate and continually give thanks for all that God has done for you, your congregation, the larger body of Christ, and indeed the whole world?
Such an "examination" should not be primarily an occasion for conviction of sin (though it may well have that effect to some degree!), but rather an occasion for reminding ourselves of what we've already known and experienced, naming it as such, and in connection with this Song, unleashing vision and passion for living into it more fully.
As a Confession of Faith after such an examination in sermon, lead the congregation to confess Mary's Song informed by how you have already lived it.
As a song of sending, sing it with commitment to the ways you intend to live into it even more boldly from here.
- Greeting: UMBOW, 245 (Luke)
- Greeting: UMBOW, 246 (Luke)
- Advent Wreath Litany: UMBOW, 208, "Come, Lord Jesus"
- Canticle: United Methodist Hymnal, 199, "Canticle of Mary" ("Magnificat") [Luke]
- Prayer of Confession: UMBOW, 478 (Luke)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 256, "The Annunciation to Mary" (Luke)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 257, "The Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth" (Luke)
- Prayer: UMBOW, 511, "For God's Reign" (Micah, Luke)
- Prayer of Intercession: UMBOW, 546, "For Those Who Suffer" (Luke)
- The Ecumenical Cycle of Prayer: Ghana, Nigeria
- Great Thanksgiving: UMBOW, 54-55
See UMBOW, 263, for "An Advent Service of Lessons and Carols" if you are planning a special music service rather than a Word and Table service.
Other sources and suggestions
- Advent Wreath Meditations by Richard Garland and Dean McIntyre
- Touch Holiness, by Ruth Duck, pp. 14-17, published by Pilgrim Press.
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