Fourth Sunday in Advent

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
  who are one of the little clans of Judah,
 from you shall come forth for me
  one who is to rule in Israel,
 whose origin is from of old,
  from ancient days.
3Therefore he shall give them up until the time
  when she who is in labor has brought forth;
 then the rest of his kindred shall return
  to the people of Israel.
4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
  in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
 And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
  to the ends of the earth;
5aand he shall be the one of peace.

Psalm: Luke 1:46b-55

46bMy soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
  47my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for you, Lord, have looked with favor on your lowly servant.
  From this day all generations will call me blessed:
49you, the Almighty, have done great things for me
  and holy  is your name.
50You have mercy on those who fear you,
  from generation to generation. 
51You have shown strength with your arm
  and scattered the proud in their conceit,
52casting down the mighty from their thrones
  and lifting up the lowly.
53You have filled the hungry with good things
  and sent the rich away empty.
54You have come to the aid of your servant Israel,
  to remember the promise of mercy,
55the promise made to our forebears,
  to Abraham and his children forever.

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

5Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
 “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
  but a body you have prepared for me;
6in burnt offerings and sin offerings
  you have taken no pleasure.
7Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’
  (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).”
8When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), 9then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. 10And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

39In 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.” [
  46And Mary said,
 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
  47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
  and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
  from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
  he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
  and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
  and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
  in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
  to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

CHILDREN’S SERMON:  Let’s take a moment and share various goodbye blessings we know from whatever language to wish someone a safe journey. (Bon voyage, Kwa Heri, Vaya con Dios, Ta Ta, Stay safe – is common today)  

PRAYER:  Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.

SERMON

Today’s readings focus on different aspects of the Christmas story.  I know it is still Advent and our theme for today is “love” but I also know that we will not get to Luke 2, the actual Christmas narrative until Christmas Eve.  Many women will be home cooking and will not be able to attend services around the dinner hour.  Travelers will be arriving.  Young hearts will be focused on presents under the tree.  So much is going on this week.  And there is so much to unpack in the Christmas story!  Lord, HELP!

         I have chosen this old familiar Irish travelers’ blessing to focus our sermon today.  In Advent Mary and Joseph were traveling to Bethlehem.  We are traveling to Christmas.  Our world is traveling to the Lord’s return.

Let us pray:

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind be always at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

As I read about this blessing, the writer said that

  • “the wind be always at your back” refers to the Holy Spirit nudging us forward and guiding us. 
  • “The sun shine warm on your face” is the warmth of God’s mercy that blesses us daily.
  •  “The rains fall soft upon your fields” refers to God’s provisions that sustain our life as nothing grows without rain. 

Wind, sun, and rain are the blessings from God and which we find in Advent and the Christmas story.  Guidance, mercy and strength are needed by us all.   We see in these in our passages and I pray them for each of you as we finish the Advent season and enter Christmas.  This week our candle is “Love.”  Let’s dig in.

“May the wind be always at your back,”

Our Old Testament, or first reading for this morning comes from Micah and possibly sounds very familiar.  The wise men, who have not even entered our narrative yet and will not be talked about until Epiphany, have probably started their journey from the East.  When they arrive at Herod’s palace the priests quote Micah that says that the “new king” will be born in Bethlehem.  Centuries before, Micah not only names the town of Bethlehem but also uses the motif of Jesus as the “Good Shepherd.”  “(v.6) And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.”  Jesus does not just pop onto the stage of history to die on the cross because of some convergence of events but he is the appearance of a loving God who has been preparing history for then and for now.  God, the Holy Spirit, is the loving wind at our backs directing the flow of our lives.

         Our Psalm reading and our Gospel reading tell of Mary, filled with the Holy Spirit, bursting forth singing the Magnificat praises. God sees his people, the mighty and the humble.  God does not just see from his heavens above but is involved like the wind we cannot see, directing our paths and guiding our ways and the events of life.  Maybe our personal life is not foretold specifically in the Bible as are all the prophecies alluding to Jesus but we know our names are written in the book of life and on the palms of his hands.  Mary praises a God who loves her, not in abstract, but in the messy details of her life that is about to unfold.  She is pregnant, facing possible stoning, having to explain to a fiancée how this is all possible AND she is a powerless, poor, female.  Her credentials could join any of our causes today and any of the “woe is me” moments we wallow in. But Mary sees the wind of the Holy Spirit at her back and chooses to praise and love a God who walks with her into the mess of this world.

         The New Testament reading understands Jesus as coming “to do God’s will.”  He is not an independent entity, one of the three-musketeer-team, but united, driven by the Holy Spirit doing God’s will – the Trinity.

         So how are we doing today?  Are we caught in a hurricane or a tornado like Mary?  Perhaps we are just wondering if we can get the meal on the table, all warm and tasty.  Then again we might be grieving the empty seats at the table or the scattering of families that can’t join for Christmas. Sigh, there are many things that would like to distract us from love and praise as we head into Week 4 of Advent.  Taking time this week to read Luke 2 and pondering the lives of those people helps focus our hearts on the wind of the Holy Spirit gently blowing us from behind and always guiding us forward.  “May the wind always be at your back!”

May the sun shine warm upon your face;

The warmth of the sunshine reminds me of feeling the sun on my face on a snowy morning or while through the windshield while sitting in the car.  As a young adult, newly married, I had a last “fling” with my single friends and went skiing in the Los Angeles foothills.  Skiing automatically conjures up snow, heavy jackets, and warm underwear.  I came home with third degree sunburns on my face.  The juvenile delinquents I was working with were not kind in their exclamations.  I share this to point out the truth that feeling the warmth of the sun is not dependent on the condition of the environment around us.  We can be at the beach or on a snowy slope.  We can be at the equator of Africa or at one of the poles. God’s mercy and love bless our lives, not because of our goodness, but because he is loving all the time.

         I also note that the shinning of the sun is totally beyond our control.  It is true that gas emissions from our cars corrupts the atmosphere and contort the sunshine but it is also true that our sins and the focus of our attention distorts and contorts our ability to appreciate the daily blessings of God’s love and mercy.  The sun is not diminished by smog, only our perception of it.  God unfolds the Christmas story in a very “environmentally challenged” situation.

         In Luke we read that God prepared the way by allowing old Zechariah and his barren wife Elizabeth to become pregnant with a son who would become known as John the Baptist.  God sends an angel to Mary and explains to her what is going to happen and tells her about Elizabeth with whom she can find comradery.  God sends an angel to Joseph so he does not need to worry about taking Mary as his wife.  God sends angels to the shepherd so the poor are included in the story.  A compassionate innkeeper allows the couple to use his stable.  In a chaotic world mixed up with foreign rulers and a census, God lovingly directs the Christmas narrative.  His sunshine warms on their faces and ours.

         I also note that the shining of the sun does not negate the reality of nighttime when we navigate by the reflection of the sun onto the moon.  The nighttime does not mean there is no sun but only that God is working in our lives in different ways.  It was at night that the angels came to the shepherds with the good news of the birth.  It was the political disruption of a census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem and fulfilled prophecy.  Traveling by donkey, nine months pregnant, was probably a challenge.  It was in the social upheaval of the census that limited housing also challenged the young couple that night.  Having a first child is hard enough without doing it in a strange place with a man Mary was only growing to know and away from the comforts of family.  We do not know Mary and Joseph’s feelings that night but we know that despite of everything God’s love was shining warm on their faces, carrying them.  God was smiling.  Angels went to shepherds.  They visited to worship and confirm God’s presence.  Anna and Simeon in the Temple shone God’s love warm on the young couple and their baby.  An angel warned Joseph of impending danger and to flee to Egypt.  The Christmas story is a story of God’s sunshine in the midst of a cloudy world.

         So I am challenged to ask us how we are focusing today.  Are we looking at the clouds, the fog, the smog, the problems that make life difficult or can we focus on the God who is blowing the wind of the Holy Spirit to carry us and smiling on us with mercies every day?  In the midst of the complications of our daily lives this Christmas, the warmth of God’s love is shining into our lives as we turn our faces toward him  May we join Mary ins singing praises of the Magnificaat.  “May the sun shine warm on your face” this Christmas as you experience God’s presence.

 May the rains fall soft upon your fields…

This Irish blessing and our texts today remind us that God works in real times and places. God works in our fields.  Without rain, there is no growth.

Without trials and challenges we would not grow.  If we continued carrying our babies until they become adults and did not allow them to learn to walk for fear they might fall, then we would have done them a disservice.  So the key word here is “soft.”  I suspect we often do not realize how much God cushions the bumps in the road that rises before us.  Yes there are pothole, “no room in the inn,” and yes there are rainy days, “everyone must go and be enrolled in their home town,” and we may even doubt we have enough money for the journey but God is walking with us.  The Magnificat reminds us that God advocates for the humble, the poor, the hungry, the lowly, the fearful, and keeps his promises to generations. It does not deny the existence of the proud and the unfair, the fields in which we labor.  The Christmas story reminds us of that.  God allowed the rain in Joseph and Mary’s lives but he protected them so it rained softly.

         I sat in the Wal-Mart parking lot this week with a dead car battery as I had walked all over the store looking for a lighter to light my Advent candles while my husband listened to the radio with the engine turned off.  It drained the battery and my cell phone!  What to do?  The rain was actually misting.  We decided to call AAA and they would come.  They traced my number to Indianapolis, expired card.  I found a different card that said I was in Florida and paid up.  As we waited, the driver of the car nose to us came and offered to help.  Then the guy on our right came and he was a mechanic with tools in his car and offered to help.  Minutes later AAA came and jumped us in about 5 minutes.  It did rain but I would like to think it rained softly.  God had plan A, plan B, and plan C working and did not abandon us.

         So as we go through the Christmas story this week and with Mary in the Magnificat focus on just how deeply God loves us in the midst of the challenges of our sin contorted world.  May we focus on the Holy Spirit guiding us like the wind at our back, the warmth of God’s love shining on our faces in daily mercies, and on the softness of the rain as God protects us in our daily challenges.

and until we meet again,

may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

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