Readings for the Fourth Week of Advent

Monday, December 21, 2020Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 1:1-18; Hebrews 9:1-14

Luke 1.46b-55: In place of a Psalm during the week leading up to Christmas the Lectionary gives us the Song of Mary.  Note the footnote in Biblegateway that this song may have originally been attributed to Elizabeth. Luke has taken the Song and placed in clearly in Mary’s mouth, perhaps adding vs 48b to affirm Mary’s precedence over Elizabeth. In the time of the early church followers of John the Baptist were also active and (in some ways) ‘in competition’ with the followers of Jesus (see Acts 19.1-7) so there may also have been respect attributed to the mothers of both John and Jesus. While Elizabeth has blessed Mary in the preceding verses, here Mary is responding not to Elizabeth but to God.

Vss 46b -49a express the personal experience of Mary in the first person. Vss 49b-53 describe the universal experience of God expressed in the third person. Vss 54-55 describe the experience of God in  history through the third person plural (his servant Israel …. our ancestors…).

In the first section as Mary ‘exults’ in God, the description of the lowliness of his servant is more applicable to Elizabeth (see vs 6, and he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people vs 25) than to Mary. In vs 49 God’s great act cannot be overlooked and Mary acknowledges this act and praises God.

Vss 51-53 point to a future in which fortunes are radically reversed through the direct action of God, and vss 54 and 55 anchor these actions of reversal in the hopes and expectations of Israel.

There are strong connections between Mary’s Song and Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel. As Mary’s Song is read over each of the next three days, the story of Hannah (mother of Samuel) and her Song unfolds alongside.

1 Samuel 1.1-18 is the background story to tomorrow’s Old Testament Lesson. Tomorrow we hear further of Hannah before on Wednesday we read the Song of Hannah, another godly woman who experienced barrenness and prayed to the Lord. Reading this story one can see more similarities between the story of Hannah and Elizabeth (Luke 1.5-25) than Hannah and Mary. 

In a polygamous culture where Elkanah had two wives Hannah was the childless one (vs 2), a source of shame (vs 6) even though her husband loved her (vs 5). The encounter with the old priest Eli described in vss 12-18, turns from rebuke (vs 14) to promise (vs 17) and Hannah’s countenance was sad no longer (vs 18).

The whole setting of the Psalm and the OT in this early part of the week of Christmas is about barrenness and promise. In these days of IVF and other forms of medical diagnosis and intervention, it is hard for us to reconnect with the sense of hopelessness, failure and even despair that women like Elizabeth and Hannah experienced. We live in a society where fertility is largely controlled through contraception, intra-uterine foetal testing, abortion, medical diagnosis of the causes of infertility, fertility treatments and IVF. Prior to the middle of the last century there was far less ‘technology of control’: for a married, sexually active woman, pregnancy and bearing children were a ‘social norm’. The number of women who choose not to have children in our society means that an involuntarily childless woman is not so socially visible today, but we know from women experiencing IVF or other treatments how much their experience is a source of great personal anxiety and stress. 

When we consider that children in 1st century Palestine were the safety net for a woman’s old age, we can see just how much was riding on being able to bear a child. All of these factors are the background to Hannah’s song, which is the model for Mary’s Song – which as we saw above may have originally been Elizabeth’s Song. While Mary was not expecting to have a child, she had no reason to doubt that she was not able to have a child, which does suggest that the Song may have originally been Elizabeth’s.

Hebrews 9.1-14: this week we have two readings from Hebrews. Why?  Both readings speak about Jesus in his role as high priest. They speak of the cosmic role of Jesus in redemption, as the fulfilment and completion of God’s plan prefigured in both Tabernacle and Temple of Jewish history. Just as Mary’s Song sees the coming birth as the fulfilment of the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever (Luke 1.55), so Hebrews links the cosmic resurrected Christ to the fulfilment of that ancient pattern of worship and faithfulness prefigured in the worship of Israel.

Vss 1-5 are a description of the setup of the tent (vs 2) although vs 5b acknowledges Of these things we cannot speak in detail because what is described belongs to the ancient history of Israel.

Vss 6-11 then interpret this cultic practice and see it as a symbol of the present time (vs 9) which has various limitations and inadequacies until the time comes to set things right (vs 10b).

Vss 11-14 present Christ as the one who came as a high priest of the good things that have come (vs 11), the promised fulfilment of the practice and hope of Israel.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 1:19-28; Hebrews 8:1-13

For the Psalm, see Monday.

1 Samuel 1.19-28 tells of the conception and birth of Samuel, and of Hannah’s decision, and Elkanah’s agreement, to dedicate Samuel as a Nazirite to the Lord (vs 22 – see also yesterday’s reading at vs 11 for a description of the life of a Nazirite). Vs 21 makes clear the trip was an annual observance, but Hannah defers her trip until Samuel is weaned. We are not told the age of the boy at the time he is left in the shrine (Eli was serving at the shrine at Shiloh, not the Temple in Jerusalem) but the three-year-old bull as a sacrifice in lieu of the boy might suggest he was three years old. We are told and the child was young (vs 24c).

Hebrews 8.1-13 is an extended contrast between a pattern of worship that is earthly, based on a pattern that was shown you on the mountain (vs 5b) and worship in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up (vs 2).  Vs 6-7 make clear the superiority of Jesus over Moses, and of the latter covenant over the earlier.

Vss 8-12 anchor this superiority in the Old Testament prophets who are quoted here. Vs 13 makes crystal clear that the ‘old covenant’ is not only obsolete but will soon disappear.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020Luke 1:46b-55; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Mark 11:1-11

For the Psalm, see Monday.

1 Samuel 2.1-10: Today’s reading is the Song of Hannah. Comparison with the Song of Mary reveals similar themes. Reversals of fortune are listed here at vs 5 and the Lord’s work in deciding the fortunes of rich and poor is described in vss 7-8. One can see clear similarities, but also some differences. Read the two Songs side by side and see what you can see in common, and where Mary’s song takes Hannah’s song and extends it.

Mark 11.1-11 is Mark’s version of the triumphal entry. The New Testament lessons this week are celebrating Jesus and his central role in the drama of salvation. Central to this reading in the context of this week are vss 9-10 and the affirmation of Jesus as the one who comes in the name of the Lord (vs 9) and also the one who is born in the Davidic line (vs 10).  As the Christmas carol puts it: 

To you, in David’s town this day, is born of David’s line, 

the Saviour who is Christ the Lord and this shall be the sign…

Thursday, December 24 & 25, 2020Nativity of the Lord

The readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are combined. We will read them today and leave Christmas Day free for church and for family!

The Lectionary actually gives three sets of readings for Christmas but I have chosen the first set.  The Psalm is Psalm 96, a communal song of praise. Note that the Psalm calls not just on Israel to praise, but all the earth (vss 1,9) all the peoples (vs 3), families of the peoples (vs 7), the nations (vss 3, 10).

While there is mention of strength and beauty are in his sanctuary (vs 6) this is the only mention of the cult and the temple. The focus is more on the cosmic nature of God (see vss 4-6) which results in all people being called to praise (vss 7-10). Then follows a call for all creation to join in the cosmic praise (vss 11-12) before the final action of God in judging the whole world is proclaimed in vs 13.

Isaiah 9.2-7 is a prophecy of deliverance from warfare and violence through the birth of a son (vs 6). The prophecy is artfully delivered with hints of the suffering of the people described in vss 2,4 and 5, (even as they are declared to be overturned, reversed), together with clearly positive expressions of deliverance and joy in vss 2 and 3. 

Isaiah the prophet was urging King Ahaz to stand firm and not seek alliance with the Assyrians, the great regional power. The promise of a son may have referred in the first instance to Hezekiah, who succeeded his father Ahaz.

In the New Testament this text is quoted not in relation to the birth of Jesus (unless the angel’s announcement in Luke 2.11 is an oblique reference) but in Matthew 4.14-15 to explain why Jesus started his ministry in Galilee. In our minds the association with the birth of Jesus comes more from Handel’s Messiah and the song Unto us a child is born.  The fabric of Christmas is a closely woven tapestry of texts, music and meanings woven over many centuries and it is still evolving.

Titus 2.11-14: This an interesting little Christmas reading in which the Incarnation is referred to in vs 11. Vs 12 describes Christian life in the present and the unfinished nature of salvation in vs 13. The self-giving of Christ and the way his sacrifice has formed a new people is the focus of vs 14. These four verses are like a polished catechism – a doctrinal expression of the gospel message! 

Luke 2.1-14: Is any passage of Scripture as well-known in the Church as Luke chapter 2? Here the popular story of the birth of Jesus is told in vss 5-7, soon followed by the appearance of an angel to the shepherds (vss 8-14). We tend to glide over vss 1-4, seeing only the romantic journey of Joseph and Mary and the lack of room at the inn. 

But Luke has taken great care to locate these events within the arc of imperial politics. Vs 1 declares the imperial edict and the name of the Emperor. Lest this be lost on the locals he then clarifies that This was the first registration and that it occurred while Quirinius was governor of Syria (vs 2). These registrations must have been an impost on the local population by the occupying power Rome, and Luke wants to anchor the birth of Jesus firmly within the experience of occupied people and the time frames of empire.

Saturday, December 26, 2020Psalm 148; Jeremiah 26:1-9, 12-15; Acts 6:8-15; 7:51-60

Psalm 148 is another psalm calling for all creation, all kings and peoples to join in praise. Vss 1-2 call on the heavens and heights and all his angels… all his host! to praise God.

Vss 3-6 call on the heavens and you waters above the heavens to praise God, their creator. This refers to the ancient cosmology where the firmament of the heavens separated the waters above and the waters below (see Genesis 1.7).

Vss 7-10 call on all the earth and everything created in it to praise, before vss 11-12 draw in kings nations, people, young and old, men and women.

Vs 13 focusses all that praise on the Lord and vs 14 gives the reason: he has raised up a horn for his people…   Hence this Psalm in the festival of Christmas when the birth of Jesus is recognised as the one who has been raised up.

The lectionary then delivers a matched pair of readings about the arrest and ill-treatment of two of God’s prophets and preachers.

Jeremiah 26.1-19,12-15 tell of Jeremiah’s preaching (vss 1-6) the hearer’s enraged reaction (note that the hearers are the priests and the prophets and all the people – vs 7). Vss 12 – 15 tell of Jeremiah’s response to the officials to whom his hearers had reported him (see vss 10-11 – deleted from the reading).

Acts 6.8-15, 51-60 tell an almost identical story of strong preaching by Stephen (summarised in vss 51-53) which led to similarly enraged reactions (vs 54) and his death.

The framers of the lectionary have immediately followed Jesus’ birth with two stories from the history of God’s people that clearly show the fate of the prophets and those God calls. Jeremiah was the prophet most attacked and persecuted in the Old Testament. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. By telling their stories immediately after Jesus’ birth, the lectionary is hinting at what the future will be for the One so gloriously prophesied, announced and celebrated this week!

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