Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:46-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Narrative Lectionary: Zechariah’s Song, Luke 1:5-13 (15-25), 57-80 (Psalm 113)
On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we begin in the Hebrew scriptures with David’s desire to build a temple for God in 2 Samuel 7:1-11. At first, the prophet Nathan thought this was a great idea and told David that God was with him, but then God spoke to Nathan that night, stating that God never asked to live in a permanent place. God had Moses and the people build a tabernacle so they would know God was present with them wherever they moved. God told Nathan to remind David that God chose him from the pasture, chose him to be shepherd over the sheep, prince over the people. Instead of David making a house for God, God would make a home for the people, a place of rest where they will be disturbed no more. Furthermore, God would make a home for David among the people, a reign established forever in which David would have rest from his enemies.
Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46b-55 was also an alternative reading for the Psalm last week. Echoing Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. God has looked with favor upon her, and she has accepted being the servant of God (read Dr. Wil Gafney’s A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W, Advent I, for more understanding on what it means for Mary to take on this role in Luke 1:26-38). Mary claims that God has done great things for her, but they are indeed for everyone. The mighty are brought down, the lowly lifted up. The hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent empty away. God has helped the servant Israel, for the people are God’s servants, and God remembered them in mercy because of the covenant made with their ancestors.
The alternative to the Magnificat is Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26. The psalm begins with the psalmist singing praise for God’s steadfast love and covenant made with David and to his descendants forever. This longer song sings of God’s reign, and God’s promises made to David. Vs. 19-26 recalls the vision God gave the prophet Nathan, and that God remains faithful to David and his kingdom forever. God will protect David and deliver him from his enemies, and David will call upon God, his Parent, his Rock and his Salvation.
The benediction of Paul’s letter in Romans 16:25-27 is questioned by some scholars in its authenticity, but it is a wonderful statement that summarizes the belief that the mystery of the ages has been revealed. The writings of the prophets are now made known to Gentiles, and this is the command of God—that all people, of all backgrounds may come to believe and obey God through Jesus Christ.
The Gospel lesson for this fourth Sunday of Advent is the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. Like Zechariah in the verses before this, Mary wonders what sort of greeting this might be, that the messenger of God has come to speak to her. Being called “favored one” usually means something great is being asked of the one favored. But unlike Zechariah, whose question is about proof that his wife Elizabeth will conceive, Mary’s question is more of “how can this be possible?” With Zechariah and Elizabeth, the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah would have been known (Note: please be mindful of those who struggle with fertility and for those who are unable or who have lost children when preaching these passages). However, for Mary to conceive without being with a man was impossible. But when Gabriel tells her how she has found favor, how her son will be called Son of the Most High, and that nothing is impossible with God, Mary declares, “I am God’s servant. Let it be with me, according to what you have said.” With Zechariah and Elizabeth, Gabriel was delivering news of a long-prayed-for child. With Mary, this was quite unexpected, but her response is to say yes, to serve God.
The Narrative Lectionary also turns to Luke’s Gospel but to the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest of the line of Abijah and served in the temple. He was married to Elizabeth who was a descendant of Aaron, establishing their lineage as descendants of great priests. Zechariah and Elizabeth had longed for a child but had been unable to conceive. While serving in the temple, Zechariah encounters an angel, who tells Zechariah that Elizabeth will bear a son, and they are to name him John. Their child will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and will turn the hearts of many to God, to help prepare the people. But Zechariah questions the angel because he and Elizabeth were old. The difference in Zechariah’s question verses Mary’s is that there were stories in the Hebrew scriptures, of Sarah and Abraham, the parents of Samson, Hannah and Elkanah, who all were old and thought to be unable to have children, who then conceived (Again, please be mindful of those who struggle with fertility and for those who are unable or who have lost children when preaching these passages). Mary’s predicament has no precedent. She’s allowed to question how it is possible.
The angel reveals that they are Gabriel, and they stand in the presence of God, and were sent to speak to Zechariah and bring good news. But since Zechariah didn’t believe the angel’s words, Zechariah is rendered mute until the day the child is named after birth. Once the child was born, and on the 8th day when he was being circumcised, Elizabeth declared the boy’s name was John. When they questioned Zechariah, because it was unusual to not name a child after the father or someone in the family, Zechariah wrote, “his name is John,” and was finally able to speak, because he fulfilled what Gabriel had told him. Then he sang his great song of praise to God, for his son who was the prophet of the Most High, and for the one who would come, the Mighty Savior, the one in the house of David, who would save the people from their enemies and all who would hate them (an echo back to 2 Samuel 7).
The supplementary passage of Psalm 113 is a psalm of blessing praising God, who is above all nations. There is none like our God, who looks down from on high, and lifts up the poor and needy, making them to “sit with princes.” God is the one who takes notice of those who are unable to have children (see notes of caution above), who brings good news for all, and raises up those who have been left out, bringing in those on the margins, and making them equal to rulers.
I share that note of caution more than once because the easy thing to preach is that nothing is impossible for God, which makes it sound like if you just pray God will answer you. We know faithful people who have prayed and who have been unable to have children, or who are struggling with fertility, or who have lost a child. None of these stories at this time of year can bring comfort, and instead may cause pain. What one might look at, in either story, is that human beings cannot control what God will do. Despite the lineage of priests, John the Baptist became a camel-hair wearing locust-eating prophet, calling the people to the river, not to the temple. Mary, an unknown Galilean young woman, was chosen by God to do something incredible and she said yes, and she sang about God’s vision of justice. David could not build a temple for God because God was the one building a home for him. God is the one who directs our paths. We cannot control what God will do—not even through prayer—and the minute we try we’d better shut up (sorry Zechariah). God’s response, through both Elizabeth and Mary, is on behalf of all people, not themselves as individuals.
Instead, we might need to listen, to be in silence, to look for God’s messengers, for God is about to do a new thing. Not a king in a castle, but a baby in a manger. Not the lineage of priests in the temple, but a voice crying out in the wilderness. Not the army of God coming to conquer, but the heavenly host singing peace on earth, goodwill to all. Listen to what God is doing, and follow God’s ways, not the world’s ways of power, domination, and control, because we cannot control what God will do on behalf of all of God’s people.
Call to Worship (Luke 1:68-70, 78-79)
Blessed be the Lord God of the people,
For God has looked favorably on the people and redeemed them.
God has raised up a mighty savior for us,
As God spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.
By the tender mercy of our God,
The dawn from on high will break upon us,
To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.
Come, let us worship and be ready,
For the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the World, is near.
Prayer of Invocation
Loving God, we gather in Your name as we do every Sunday, but this Sunday we know is special. In all the excitement and anticipation of Christmas, may we slow down and savor this moment of waiting. This moment of wondering what will be. This moment of knowing that You have already entered our hearts and lives long ago, but You are here now, and You will be made known to us in new ways. Help us to breathe deep, to hold on to the wonder and awe, and know You are doing something new, here and now. Amen.
Prayer of Brokenness/Confession:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today. May we hear Your Christmas angels as they declare “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill to all.” May we turn from our sinful ways and instead, be ready for what You are about to do here on earth as it is in heaven. May we open our hearts and minds to be transformed by You, the Word made Flesh, Savior of us all. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel! Amen.
Peace on earth, goodwill to all. The words from the angels ring true for us today. God has not arrived to go to war with us, to punish us, to destroy us. God continually enters our world and our lives because God desires reconciliation, reparation, and restoration. Hear this good news: God so loved the world that God gave the only One, the precious Son, so that whoever believes will have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Christ into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through Christ. Know this in your heart: you are loved. You are redeemed. You are worthy. You are the good news the world needs, because Christ lives in you. Go and share the good news. Amen.
Wondrous God, may our hearts be like child-like today. Not searching for presents or things of this world, but full of joy and wonder and anticipation. May our minds become child-like in our full trust of You. Help us to turn away from our own desire for power and control, and remember that You are the one who calls us into being. You are the one who leads us into life. You are the one who shows us the way. We know we cannot make You do anything, no matter how hard or how much we pray. But we know You can change our hearts, our minds, our lives. Help us to let go, to say yes as Mary did, to trust in You as Elizabeth did, to accept correction like Zechariah, to be okay with the unknown like Joseph. May we follow You, today and every day, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.