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Advent 4

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

Readings: Micah 5:2–5a; Hebrews 10:5–10 & Luke 1:39–45

The prophet Micah was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah, and he prophesied during the late 8th century BC. He prophesied at a time when the kingdom of Judah, and its capital Jerusalem, lived under the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, which had already conquered the northern tribes of Israel and threatened to do the same to Judah.

In our first reading this morning, Micah delivers a prophecy about the Jewish Messiah. Micah tells us the Messiah will come from the town of Bethlehem, which was of course the town where King David was from, and that the origins of the Messiah will be “from of old, from ancient days”. We can interpret this as yet another reference to David, because the phrase “ancient days” refers to Israel’s early history, which obviously includes the time of King David.

And just as David was a shepherd, Micah describes the Messiah also as a shepherd; a shepherd who will protect and provide for his flock, with the backing and support of God Himself. And Micah tells the people of Israel that a time is coming when, unlike the experience of their own time, they will no longer be threatened by powerful, hostile nations, such as Assyria. Micah’s description of the Messiah as a shepherd, is very different to the expectation that most Jewish people had of the Messiah. They indeed thought he would be like David, but that he would be like David the warrior king, not David the shepherd.

Christians believe that Micah’s prophecy about the Messiah is of course fulfilled with the birth of Jesus. There are several clues in the gospels that point to this fact. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary the mother of Jesus gives birth to him in the town of Bethlehem, the town that David was from, and the genealogies of Jesus, in both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, tell us that Joseph (the father who raises Jesus as his own son) is descended from King David. And Jesus is of course more like a shepherd that protects and provides for his flock, and is nothing like a warrior king.

Another thing we learn from the Gospel of Luke is that Jesus and John the Baptist were cousins. Our reading this morning describes the visit of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, who is heavily pregnant with her son (John the Baptist). Luke tells us that when Elizabeth is greeted by Mary, her unborn son leaps in her womb, an action that releases within her a power of prophecy. And then, prompted by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth announces a series of blessings on Mary. One of these is a blessing on Mary for her faith, because Mary believed, without question, that what the angel Gabriel had told her about her own pregnancy would come to pass. Mary’s faith can perhaps be compared to the faith of Abraham who, on God’s word, leaves his own country behind and sets off on a journey to an as yet undisclosed destination, and who is also prepared to offer his only son to God as a form of sacrifice, in complete, faithful commitment to God.

Which is a nice segue into our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. In this passage the author tells us that we, by the grace of God, have been cleansed of our sins through the sacrifice of Jesus. Unlike the offerings for sin, which were made on behalf of the people by the High Priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and which needed to be repeated each year, so that the people would be purified of their sins, the offering of Jesus does not need to be repeated in order for subsequent generations to be cleansed of their sins. The effect of the sacrifice of Jesus is lasting. The passage tells us that the need for ongoing sacrifices for sin, as prescribed by Jewish law, has been abolished by the “perfect and sufficient” sacrifice of Jesus.

Our readings this morning are once again a reminder to us of the importance, and relevance, of the Old Testament to the Bible as a whole. As I’ve said on several occasions previously, I like to think of the Bible as a ‘record of the history of God’s relationship with humankind’. That history began with the Book of Genesis, and continued right on through the Old Testament, telling the story of God’s relationship with His chosen people, the people of Israel. What we call the Old Testament, is also known as the Hebrew Bible, and it’s a collection of sacred Jewish Scriptures. 

We can’t forget the fact that Jesus was a Jew. And as the various books and letters of the New Testament tell us: Jesus was the Messiah. He was the fulfilment of the Jewish scriptures. Those same scriptures which told us that God would return to reconcile humankind to Himself. And that action that has taken place through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

God has revealed Himself to humankind through Jesus, and through Jesus the time that was prophesied about by the ancient prophets like Micah and Isaiah has now been ushered in. It will be brought to fulfilment when Jesus returns, and until then we must wait patiently. But, as we have been discussing in our Advent Study in recent weeks, to ‘wait patiently’ in Old Testament terms does not mean to sit and idle the time away while we wait. Rather it suggests an active waiting. 

As Jesus himself tells us in the gospels, nobody but God the Father knows the day and hour when Jesus will return. So until then, as we wait, we are encouraged to be active, that is, we are encouraged to make sure that we have fully prepared ourselves for His return by living our lives as close as we possibly can to the teaching that He has given us. By loving God with all of our being, and by loving others as we love ourselves.

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