by Rev. Priscilla Paris Austin
The fourth Sunday of Advent is one of my favorite and most frustrating Sundays of the liturgical year. In many settings, the lectionary texts will take a backseat to the Children’s Christmas program. As happens during Holy Week, the Sunday before the major festival is laden with the burden of making sure folks hear the whole story, just in case they don’t come back during the week. In some ways I love this opportunity: gathering families, creating memories with them that center on the story of Jesus’ birth. And I get frustrated because in our rush to the manger, we can miss the richness of the day’s texts. Because, truth be told, no one in the pews will hear a thing the preacher says after “little Suzy and Amal” appear as Mary and Joseph. This year, when Christmas programs will be anything from simplified or techni-fied, or from over-produced to non-existent, the burden on the disruptive preacher is: how do we honor the contribution and learning of the children, while still challenging folks to see Jesus in new ways? My encouragement is to embrace the essence of the texts for this Sunday, as they provide a lovely opportunity to move from individualistic worship of God or the way we’ve always done the Christmas program to the communal liberation of God’s kin-dom come and the gift and freedom for the Christmas program to be different. What follows are some connections you can ponder between the text and your Christmas program.
• 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 1 - David wants to build God an opulent cedar temple, and Nathan tells him, God is with you, do what you want. But God sends a different message: Why should you build a temple for me? I didn’t live in a temple when I brought my people out of Egypt, and I don’t live in one now. A tent has always been my home wherever I have gone with them. God doesn’t require extravagant offerings. God is with us, the people. This is what God has always done and will always do, whether in a tent or a manger, in Christmas programs that are pre-recorded or via Zoom, in a live nativity scene in the church parking lot and the simple advent wreath on our kitchen table. Wherever the people of God are, God goes with us.
• Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 - The psalmist sings God’s praise - “God’s love can always be trusted, and his faithfulness lasts as long as the heavens.” While Christmas programs may change format and performers, while our personal preferences of what it will look like will not be met, while technology may or may not cooperate, while the world tests our discernment of what is “Fake News,” the Good News is what the angels declare and the psalmist has said before: God can be trusted, then, now and always.
• Romans 16:25-27 - Paul’s letter to the Romans speaks first to the good news he brings, but moves to the Good News that has been proclaimed through the ages. The eternal God commanded his prophets to write about the Good News, so that all nations would obey and have faith. The message is for ALL nations.
• Luke 1:26-38, 46-57 - The angel appears to Mary with a message that starts with her and points to Jesus but is really about saving the whole nation of Israel. The angel greeted Mary and said, “You are truly blessed! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was confused by the angel’s words and wondered what they meant. Then the angel told Mary, “Don’t be afraid! God is pleased with you, and you will have a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of God Most High. The Lord God will make him king, as his ancestor David was. He will rule the people of Israel forever, and his kingdom will never end.” In Mary’s response, consider including verse 57 to remind people that Mary made this declaration, not in the solitude of her room, but in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth. By being together, they both were affirmed that their individual stories were part of a larger narrative written by God. The Lord has used his powerful arm to scatter those who are proud. God drags strong rulers from their thrones and puts humble people in places of power. God gives the hungry good things to eat, and sends the rich away with nothing. He helps his servant Israel and is always merciful to his people. In Mary’s declaration of thanks to God, she proudly speaks God’s promise that is bigger than herself alone: a promise to turn the world upside down, to defund the police, to restore economic balance through reparations, to bring freedom and liberation to all in need.
May your people come to worship on the Fourth Sunday of Advent expecting it to be all about the cute little sheep, and leave knowing their call to share the good news with the world.
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.