Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-45
December 23, 2012
I. The Sunday after September 11, 2001 like many preachers, I tried to explain the greatest destruction and loss of civilian life on American soil since the burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea in the Civil War. Of course, nothing any of us could say would restore a sense of sanity and security in those days when it seemed the world had lost its moorings. I encouraged people to ration their news consumption to one or two brief times a day – just enough to stay informed without letting relentless repetition beat your heart into desolation.
A. Violent mass killings such as took place in Newtown, Connecticut just over a week ago evoke a similar sense of humanity adrift in chaos. By relentlessly rehearsing and analyzing recent similar events on top of the political brinksmanship surrounding the fiscal cliff, commentators contribute to our perception of our world out of control.
B. When studying German in high school, I read Wolfgang Borchert’s 1946 play Drauẞen vor der Tür. Beckmann, the main character, is a German soldier returning home after World War II, only his home and wife and parents are gone. In a rather nightmarish state, he encounters an assortment of dreamlike characters who futilely try to reconnect him with a stable, secure reality. I have frequently thought of Beckmann as I have watched the parents leave funerals in Newtown, Connecticut.
C. Psalm 11:3 asks, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Thankfully, it doesn’t stop there or answer “nothing.” The very next verse assures us that “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven. His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.” This is God’s word to us on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The world may seem chaotic, but God sees and is at work. Both Micah and Mary assure us that when the world seems to have lost its moorings, Jesus appears from apparent insignificance.
II. Today’s call of the Prophet Micah (5:2-5a) is an Advent favorite and the inspiration for O Little Town of Bethlehem, which we sang last week. It is an oracle of encouragement at a time when, to the people of Judah, the world seemed to have lost its moorings. Micah and Isaiah were contemporaries late in the 8th century BCE. The opening of Micah 4 and Isaiah 2 are almost identical. Both of them are filled with messianic hope that the New Testament writers saw as pointing to Jesus, which is why Isaiah and Micah are prominent in Advent.
A. Isaiah was highly educated from a royal family with access to palace and Temple. Micah was from among the subsistence farmers. The kings of Judah imposed a tax on them that cut into what they needed to survive. To pay the tax, farmers moved from food crops to cash crops, which impaired the nutrition of the families. The kings also drafted young adult sons for the army and daughters for palace service. This reduced the labor available to raise crops just when they needed to raise more to pay taxes. In addition, the kings of Judah were not free monarchs but vassals of the Assyrian Empire, which confiscated land and conscripted the brightest and best youth. No wonder Micah and Isaiah cried for justice for the poor.
B. Today’s call of the prophet is from the second half of Micah which turns from pronouncing God’s judgment on the wealthy and powerful to promising that God will bring a better day for the weak and poor. Micah says that their present tribulations were actually the birth pangs of that new day (5:3). The day is coming when God will turn everything upside down. What seems weak and insignificant now will someday be on top with strength.
C. Bethlehem is the sign of that great reversal. Just as God brought the great King David from that little clan of Judah, God will one day bring, from little Bethlehem, the one who is to rule Israel, whose origin is from ancient days. The one of peace who shall feed his flock. That both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels pointedly place Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem affirms that when the world seems to have lost if moorings, Jesus appears from apparent insignificance.
III. Monica sang Mary’s Magnificat this morning. The beautiful poetry and music help us absorb the radical reversal in Mary’s song. Mary and Micah have the same message. The day is coming when God will bring down the wealthy, proud and powerful. The day is coming when God will exalt the lowly, the poor and the hungry. Luke 1:39-45 is clear that Mary did not sing her Magnificat on the stage of a great opera house or concert hall but in the lowly home of her relative Elizabeth. When the Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to be the mother of the Messiah, he told her that her aged, barren relative Elizabeth was also expecting a child.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
A. Mary’s Magnificat came in this private moment between two pregnant women. Some scholars have questioned whether a peasant girl such as Mary could have composed such eloquent poetry on the spot and suggest Luke added it later. Others have reacted to that skepticism by ascribing the Magnificat to a miraculous inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Both of these hypotheses underestimate a young woman without formal education. I have a hypothesis that I think is both more plausible and respectful. I am quite sure Mary knew Hannah’s song from 1 Samuel 2 and saw herself in Hannah. The parallels are obvious and striking. The distance from Mary’s home in Nazareth to Elizabeth’s in the Judean hills would be at least 75 miles. If Mary walked 15 miles a day (which would be optimistic), she would take at least 5 days to walk to Elizabeth’s. To have 5 days of solitary walking to meditate on Hannah’s song after her conversation with the Angel Gabriel, seems plenty of time for the Holy Spirit to have guided Mary in improvising on Hannah’s song to compose the Magnificat, by the time she got to Elizabeth.
B. For scholars to discount this possibility is not only insult Mary, but to also the miss the very point of the Magnificat, that God is working through lowly and unexpected people. Here is the real meaning of Christmas. God intentionally chose to send the long awaited Messiah through a young peasant woman who lived in an obscure village in Galilee to give birth in another tiny town in Judea. God intentionally chose that the Messiah would be identified with the weak, the poor, the broken and the hungry. From her meditation on Hannah’s Song, the Holy Spirit inspired Mary’s exultant praise to the God who scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones and sends the rich away empty. Mary herself was one of the lowly people on whom God had looked with favor, poured out great mercy and filled with good things.
C. Advent is the season of waiting. Tomorrow evening our wait to celebrate the birth of Jesus ends, Christmas begins, and we rejoice that Jesus was born. But even as we come to the conclusion of Advent, we are reminded that we are still waiting for the completion of the great reversal of Mary’s Magnificat that the birth of her son Jesus would set in motion. Mary and Micah both assure us that though we continue to wait, the reversal is already happening among the lowly people and places if we will just look. When the world seems to have lost its moorings, Jesus appears from apparent insignificance.
IV. Fred Rogers had a very special gift of helping children understand difficult things. He was asked what adults can say to children in times of disaster. He replied, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.” (http://www.fci.org/new-site/par-tragic-events.html)
A. Sometimes the helpers are obvious. At the funeral for Sandy Hook Elementary School special education teacher Annie Murphy, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said, “Like Jesus, Annie laid down her life for her friends. Like Jesus, Annie's life and death brings light, truth, goodness and love to a world often shrouded in darkness, evil, selfishness and death.” While I know nothing about Annie Murphy beyond what has been in the news, wherever people devote themselves to bring light, truth, goodness and love to others, Jesus’ great reversal is underway. (http://www.newstimes.com/default/article/Cardinal-compares-slain-teacher-to-Jesus-4135201.php)
B. In this case a tragedy gave us a window into someone who would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Sometimes such people are recognized and honored publically. But more often than not, they do their transforming work in humble obscurity. They are the people of little Bethlehem. They are in the company of Mary and Micah and Jesus.
C. As we make our transition from Advent to Christmastide tomorrow evening, be on the lookout for the lowly, obscure people in whom the transformation of Jesus is underway. When you recognize Jesus’ great reversal, join in with quiet exuberance. You never know when your humble contribution may be God’s sign to someone who is drifting that the Reign of Christ is on the move. When the noise of the season and the chaos of current events suggest the world has lost its moorings, look for Jesus to appear from apparent insignificance.