Advent 4: A BODY YOU PREPARED FOR ME

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SET READINGS

  • Micah 5:2-5a
  • Luke 1:39-45
  • Hebrews 10:5-10
  • Canticle: Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)

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ACCIDENTS (?) OF BIRTH

So-called “accidents” of birth have a significant effect on our future lives, for good or for bad. Though of course our own personal choices, and God’s work in our lives, can and should have a transforming effect on the way we live.

Our family traits.

  • We inherit many aspects of our character, and our skills and abilities (as well as our looks) from our parents and grandparents. What family traits did you inherit?

The time of our birth.

  • The early years of our lives especially shape our character. My father grew up in World War II, and in the post-war days of rationing and make-do habits. As a result he would never throw anything away. How did the time you were born affect your outlook on life?

Our place of birth.

  • My maternal grandfather was a sail-maker in the quiet seaside town of Brightlingsea on the Essex coast. Ulverston where we now live has the same small-town friendly atmosphere, as well as being close to the sea. Our place of birth – rural, small town, big city, farming or industrial, rich or poor – can heavily influences our choice of lifestyle and career. How do you think the environment in which you grew up affected your future life choices?

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GATHERING OF THE CLANS (Micah 5:2-5a)

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”

Similar in many ways to the Scottish clan system, each tribe of Israel and Judah was divided into clans – kinship groups that descended from a specific ancestral family head. Like many of the Scottish clans, each clan was usually associated with a particular geographical area, and had a traditional ancestral home.

This clan system in Israel would be supported by the practice of celebrating the year of Jubilee. Every 50 years, descendants of the family, wherever they lived or worked, would return to the family home, and property that had been sold (or rather leased) to outsiders was returned to its original family ownership (or at least that was the intention according to the Mosaic Law). So, provided that the political circumstances allowed, all those who belonged to the clan of Jesse (David’s father) would return to Bethlehem in Judea to celebrate the year of Jubilee together.

So Micah’s prophecy doesn’t just pull a name out of the hat, so to speak. The coming Messiah will come from Bethlehem because he will be a descendant of David, and David’s ancestral home is in Bethlehem, where he grew up and tended his father’s sheep – even though he spent his later years reigning as king in Jerusalem (which came to be known as the City of David).

The special and unique insight that Micah’s prophecy brings is in associating David’s strength in God not with the days of his kingship and political/military power in Jerusalem, but with his humble upbringing as a shepherd boy in Bethlehem. The coming Messiah is associated with Bethlehem, rather than Jerusalem, because that is the environment in which David learned his simple trust and obedience, and came to know God as his shepherd.

If we need any further confirmation that it is David the shepherd boy whom Micah has in mind, we need to look no further than Micah 5:4. Micah’s prophecy continues: “He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD”. Jesus the Messiah perfectly displays those early qualities of trust, obedience and faithfulness which commended David to God as “a man after God’s own heart”.

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THE PROMISE FULFILLED (Luke 1:39-45)

“…until the time when she who is in labour gives birth”

So we have come to the time when God carries out the prophecy given to Micah some 400 years earlier. As the angel tells the shepherds (here comes the shepherd theme again!): “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11 NIV)

Probably nothing better portrays the flesh and blood reality of Jesus birth than Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Both women have become pregnant through the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit, Both women have reason to praise God for choosing them to be involved in his plan of salvation in a most intimate manner. Both babies have been created and shaped by God for a divine purpose. Psalm 139:13 tells us:

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

  • Although the interaction between Mary and Elizabeth is usually what we focus on, what does the response of Elizabeth’s unborn baby tell us?
  • How does this first interaction between John and Jesus foreshadow later events in their lives? (Notice that it’s John who is acknowledging the presence of Jesus, not the other way round.)

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A BODY PREPARED – A PURPOSE TO BE FULFILLED (Hebrews 10:5-10)

The Hebrews passage set for today picks up the physical, flesh and blood character of Jesus’ birth. But it goes on to look at the purpose for which this human body was prepared – a very specific purpose that goes to the heart of God’s plan of salvation.

  1. The background to God’s plan.

The Hebrews passage unusually contains three repetitions of the same truth – any repetition is important to note, but rarely do we find almost the same choice of words three times in the same passage.

verse 5 —  sacrifice and offering you did not desire

verse 6 —  with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased

verse 8 —  sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them (although the law required them to be made)

The Old Testament sacrificial system was not the final intention – God has a purpose for his Son which makes the OT sacrifices obsolete, and solve the sin problem for eternity.

  1. Obedience rather than sacrifice

Hebrews 10:5-7 includes material taken from Psalm 40, though there are some interesting differences:

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but my ears you have pierced; burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require. Then I said, “Here I am, I have come– it is written about me in the scroll.  I desire to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8 NIV)

The author of the book of Hebrews may have omitted the phrase “my ears you have pierced” because the custom was archaic and would not have been immediately understood by his 1st century audience. Exodus 21:1-6 describes how, if a slave is offered his freedom, but prefers to remain a servant of his master, his ear will be pierced (and will presumably have an ear ring inserted) as a sign that he has voluntarily given his life to serve the master that he loves.

The meaning of the Hebrews passage is consistent with the quotation in Psalms. Jesus has voluntarily left his exalted position in heaven to take on the role of a servant – to live a life of obedience to the will of the Father.

  1. Once and for all

The first few verses of Hebrews 10 emphasizes the point that the Old Testament sacrifices had to be offered continually, year after year, They were never enough to deal completely with the problem of sin, but were rather an annual reminder of how much his people fell short of God’s righteous standards.

  • What was the ultimate purpose for the body God prepared for Jesus, according to verse 10?
  • How does the sacrifice of Jesus human mortal body differ from the sacrifice of bulls and goats?

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For discussion …

Both Mary and Elizabeth offered their physical bodies to serve God’s purposes. But their services did not end with the births of Jesus and John. Mary and Joseph had the awesome responsibility of bringing up God’s chosen Messiah, which involved very real trauma and heartache along the way. Mary and Joseph had to flee from Herod and lived as refugees in Egypt for a number of years, and Mary watched Jesus suffer opposition and scorn during his earthly ministry, and eventual death on the cross. Remember Simeon’s prophecy:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”  (Luke 2:34-35 NIV)

And imagine the physical and emotional stresses for Elizabeth and Zechariah as they adjusted to bringing up a son in their old age. We can assume (God being kind to them) that they were no longer alive to see their beloved son imprisoned by Herod and executed in such a bloodthirsty manner.

The manner in which Mary and Elizabeth accepted God’s will for them and gave themselves as servants for God’s purpose should be an example to us also. Paul encourages us:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1 NIV)

  • How can we learn from the example of Mary and Elizabeth?
  • God has given each of us a unique body: you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13 NIV). What special qualities do you think God gave you that you can use to serve him?
  • How does the fact that Jesus was born in a human body help us to cope with our own human problems and frailties? (see Hebrews 4:15-16)

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For meditation and prayer …

The canticle set for today, appropriately, is the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise that concludes the story of her visit to Elizabeth.

As we reach the conclusion of our Advent time, and prepare for the close arrival of Jesus’ birth, use this song of praise to God as a way to focus your thoughts on what God has done in your own life, and in the community of God’s people, as a consequence of Jesus’ incarnation – of taking on the form of a servant and being obedient, even to death on a cross.

Let’s not forget that the purpose of Christ’s sacrificial death is part and parcel of the story of his birth. Let’s rejoice, with Mary, in God our Saviour.

 

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

From now on all generations will call me blessed,

for the Mighty One has done great things for me– holy is his name.

His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.

He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.

He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.

(Luke 1:46-55 NIV)