4th Sunday of Advent Micah 5:1–4; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–45
Hilltop experience Advent is a time for disposing ourselves for Christ’s coming: in faith in this life, face-to-face in the life to come.
The world-famous psychologist William James tells this true story in his book Varieties of Religious Experience.
One night a man stood all alone on a deserted hilltop. It was one of those beautiful nights when stars fill the sky, love fills the heart, and peace fills the soul.
As the man stood there, waves of joy began to sweep over him. He felt like someone who was listening to a magnificent symphony. All the notes were harmonizing in a way that made his heart burst with emotion.
Suddenly the man began to feel that another person was present on the hilltop with him.
Then a remarkable thing happened. The other person’s presence grew so intense that it became more real to him than his own presence.
Later the man said,“My faith in God was born that night on that hilltop.’’
Psychologists refer to such an experience as a “peak moment.’’ It’s a moment when, for a brief instant, we glimpse another world that is infinitely bigger, infinitely more beautiful, and infinitely more real than the one we live in.
The man’s hilltop experience helps us appreciate better the story in today’s gospel. Specifically, it helps us appreciate what Elizabeth meant when she said to Mary, “The moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.’’
It’s not unusual for a baby to stir in a mother’s womb. And so Luke, who tells this story, intends the baby’s movement to be caused by something else than what ordinarily makes a baby move in its mother’s womb.
Luke intends the movement to be a response to the presence of Jesus in Mary’s own womb. Elizabeth’s baby, even in its unborn state, sensed Jesus’ presence and leaped for joy.
The leaping of John in Elizabeth’s womb previews something that will happen again and again in Jesus’ lifetime. It previews the powerful impact Jesus will have on people.
Two examples will illustrate.
The first took place on the Sea of Galilee early in the ministry of Jesus. Simon Peter and Andrew had just returned from a night of fishing. Jesus stepped into their boat and told them to push out into deeper water. Then he told them to lower their net.
“Master,” Simon answered, “we worked hard all night long and caught nothing. But if you say so,I will let down the nets.” They let them down and caught such a large number of fish that the nets were about to break.
When Simon Peter saw what had happened, he fell on his knees before Jesus and said, “Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!” Luke 5:5–6, 8
In other words, in that brief moment, Peter sensed the holiness of Jesus in a way that he’d never experienced it before.
The second example took place one day when Jesus went up a mountain to pray. He took Peter, James, and John with him. Suddenly Jesus’ face began to shine like the sun, and a cloud covered him. Matthew describes what happened next:
. . . A voice from the cloud said,“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased listen to him!” When the disciples heard the voice, they were so terrified that they threw themselves face downward on the ground. Matthew 17:5–6
For a brief moment, Peter, James, and John experienced a dimension of Jesus they had never experienced before. It was a moment they would never forget. Years later Peter said of it:
“With our own eyes we saw his greatness. We ourselves heard this voice coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.” 2 Peter 1:16, 18
Many people still experience today what John experienced in Elizabeth’s womb, what Peter experienced on the seashore, and what the three disciples experienced on the mountain.
In his biography The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton, the great author and convert to Catholicism, describes an experience of Jesus he had in his late teens.
After graduating from high school, Thomas traveled around Europe on his own. During these travels he discovered Europe’s magnificent cathedrals, with their inspiring statues and stained-glass windows. He writes:
“This discovery was tremendous. . . . I began to haunt the churches. . . . For the first time in my life I began to find out something of who the person was that men called Christ.’’
But more importantly,Merton says, “[I began to experience] Christ himself present in those churches.’’
An experience of the presence of Jesus cannot be engineered. It cannot be programmed. It cannot be wished into existence. Nothing can make it happen.
It can happen only of its own accord. It’s a gift from God himself.All we can do is to dispose ourselves to receive the gift.
That’s what Advent is for. It’s a time when we dispose ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our lives.
We may never experience Jesus with the same intensity John did in Elizabeth’s womb, or Peter did on the seashore, or the three disciples did on the mountain, or Merton did in the cathedrals of Europe.
But we do know this much. If we dispose ourselves for the coming of Jesus, if we continue to try to open ourselves to Jesus in our lives, the day will come when we will indeed experience his presence. It won’t be a faint, fleeting experience. It will be an intense, lasting experience. It will be a face-to-face experience in heaven.
And when that face-to-face experience happens, we’ll also experience the exciting truth of which Paul wrote:
“What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen, is the very thing God prepared for those who love him.” But it was to us that God made known his secret by means of his Spirit. 1 Corinthians 2:9–10
Series II 4th Sunday of Advent Micah 5:1–4; Hebrews 10:5–10; Luke 1:39–45
The Little Prince Advent is a time of joyful anticipation of Jesus’ first coming and his final coming.
There’s a story called The Little Prince. It’s a delightful story, simple enough to be enjoyed by children, yet profound enough to be appreciated by adults.
The Little Prince is an alien from another planet. One day he finds himself stranded on earth. Naturally, he’s lost and confused.
One inhabitant on earth who helps him very much is an animal, a fox. Eventually, a deep friendship develops between the two.
At one point the Little Prince and the fox must go their separate ways. Just before they do, the fox insists on setting the exact time for their next meeting. They agree on four o’clock of a certain day.
When the Little Prince asks the fox why he wants to set the time so exactly, the fox says, “If I know you’re coming at four o’clock, then I’ll begin to be happy at three o’clock.’’
The Fourth Sunday of Advent is like that. It begins a week of special anticipation. Christmas is only a few days away. And like the fox, we are already beginning to feel happy as we prepare for the arrival of another “little prince,’’ the Prince of Peace.
Our hearts are already beginning to fill up with joy. And the joy that fills them is the same joy that filled the heart of John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading.
It’s the joy that made him jump inside his mother’s womb when he experienced the approach of Mary.
What John experienced and made him jump was a powerful magnetic presence.
It was a presence so powerful that he could feel it with his whole being.
It was a presence so magnetic that he was drawn to it with every fiber of his existence.
It was a presence that we have all experienced at rare moments in our lives. It was the presence of Jesus himself.
There’s a famous old hymn by John Peterson. It describes the joy of heaven. A portion of the lyrics reads:
“Over the sunset mountains, Heaven awaits for me; Over the sunset mountains, Jesus my Savior I’ll see.’’
When Peterson tried to market the hymn, the publishers told him to take Jesus out of the fourth line and expand the idea of heaven, using ordinary images to illustrate what its joy will be like. Peterson refused, saying that the joy of heaven consists in the presence of Jesus.
“If you take Jesus away from heaven,’’ he said, “you take away the joy of heaven.’’ You take away the joy that made John the Baptist jump in his mother’s womb.
The difference between the presence of Jesus and the absence of Jesus is illustrated by a novel called The Apostle. The story takes place in early Rome about the time the Apostle Paul was martyred.
A striking scene occurs toward the end of the novel. Hundreds of Christians are condemned to death for their faith.
They are lowered into a dark dungeon through a tiny trapdoor.
They will not see the light of day again until they are hauled back up through the trapdoor and taken to the arena to be destroyed by wild beasts, for the amusement of Roman spectators.
Meanwhile, they wait in total darkness.
The atmosphere in the dungeon is one of profound sadness. Everyone in it is doomed to die a terrible death.
Suddenly the trapdoor opens. A shaft of daylight pierces the darkness. The prisoners below grow deathly silent. As they do, they can’t believe what they see and hear.
A new prisoner is being lowered into the dungeon to await death with them. But, unlike them, he is not sad. He is singing and praising God at the top of his voice.
“Who is this man?’’ everyone asks.
Then the word spreads like wildfire. The new prisoner is the Apostle Paul.
Paul’s joy and happiness are so contagious that everyone in the dungeon begins to join him in singing and praising God.
In a matter of seconds, the coming and presence of Paul transform the dungeon from a place of sadness and despair into a place of joy and hope.
This striking scene gives us a faint idea of how the coming and presence of Jesus on the first Christmas transformed our world from a place of sadness to a place of joy.
It also gives us a faint idea of how Jesus’ coming and presence will transform the world at the end of time.
It is these two comings that we prepare for in the season of Advent.
It is the anticipation of these two comings that begins to fill us with joy today.
In brief, then, the joy of anticipation that we are beginning to experience today is not only the joy of anticipating Jesus’ first coming on Christmas, but also and especially the joy of anticipating his second coming at the end of time. It is the joy of anticipating that day when, in the words of the Book of Revelation, “[God] will wipe away all tears from their eyes. There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain.” Revelation 21:4
It is the joy of anticipating the day when we will discover for ourselves what Paul describes so beautifully, saying:
“What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen,is the very thing God prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9
This is what we celebrate today. This is what is beginning to fill our hearts with joy. This is what is beginning to excite our imaginations. This is what is beginning to stir our souls.
Like John the Baptist in his mother’s womb, we jump for joy in anticipation of the birth of Jesus.
Like the condemned prisoners in the novel The Apostle, we sing for joy in anticipation of the arrival of one who will wipe away our tears of sadness and replace them with tears of gladness.
Like the fox in the story of the Little Prince, we anticipate with joy the arrival of another little prince, the eternal Prince of Peace.
Series III 4th Sunday of Advent Micah 5:1–4a, Hebrews 10:5–10, Luke 1:39–45
Christian service Advent invites us to serve in the spirit of Jesus and Mary. I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. . . . Soon afterward Mary got ready and hurried off to a town in the hill country. Luke 1:38–39
The first “Superman” cartoon strip appeared some 60 years ago. It began with a brief introduction that went something like this:
Before the planet of Krypton exploded, a scientist placed his tiny son in a rocket and aimed it toward the planet Earth.
His son arrived safely and was found by an elderly couple. They named the boy Clark and brought him up as their own son.
Appropriately, the elderly couple was named Mary and Joseph. When they became aware of Clark’s superhuman strength, they taught him that it was a gift and should be used to make this world a better place in which to live.
The strip concluded with the deaths of Mary and Joseph. Clark stands at their graves, pledging to devote his strength to help people, especially those in need. The caption reads:
And so was created Superman: Champion of the Oppressed, the physical marvel who had sworn to devote his existence to helping those in need. This first “Superman” cartoon strip is a kind of modern parable of the entrance of Jesus into human history.
It is more. It is a kind of modern parable of what being a follower of Jesus is all about. It’s about showing love and concern for everyone, especially the poor and the needy.
This brings us to today’s Gospel. There we find Mary, the mother of Jesus, in a role of service. We see her living out her words to the angel Gabriel, when she said, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Luke 1:38
Later her son would echo her words, saying, “[T]he Son of Man did not come to be served; he came to serve.” Mark 10:45
Mary’s life of service was not easy. Consider a few examples.
Her trip to help her pregnant cousin Elizabeth required Mary to travel for days over hilly terrain. The trip was made even more difficult because she herself was in the early stages of pregnancy.
Mary experienced even greater pain a few months later, when Joseph learned of her pregnancy and was tempted,at first, to break off their engagement because he had no idea how the pregnancy came about. Still later, in giving birth to Jesus, Mary felt the pain of childbirth even more sharply because it took place in a cold animal shelter with only Joseph present to help her.
Shortly after the birth of Jesus, Mary experienced the pain of being told that a sword would pierce her heart.
She also experienced the sting of being told by Simeon that her son would be rejected by many people.
And when Jesus reached adolescence, Mary felt the fear and anxiety of having him vanish for three days, without knowing where he was.
Later still,Mary felt the pain of seeing Jesus driven out of the synagogue in Nazareth by his own friends and neighbors, because of what he was saying.
Finally,Mary felt the horror and suffering of seeing her son crucified like a criminal before her very eyes.
Mary paid a heavy price to carry out her words to the angel: “I am the Lord’s servant.” Luke 1:38
That brings us to our own call to serve the Lord, which was conferred on us by our baptism and our confirmation.
Not long before her death,Mother Teresa opened a hospice in New York for AIDS patients, using these words: “The AIDS patient is the newest face of the suffering Christ.”
This same spiritual vision of AIDS inspired a young Jesuit,Mark Bosco, to join a thousand bikers on a 564-mile fund-raising ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. During the trip he kept a journal. On the night of the fifth day he wrote the following in his journal:
Tonight in camp I needed help for my sore neck and back. A chiropractor named Christine helped me.
As she did, she told me that she was one of about 60 chiropractors who had volunteered their services to keep us in good riding form. She added that it would probably be her only vacation time this year, but that she wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Christine was just one of the many unsung heroes who served the bikers.
For example, over 50 UPS drivers devoted their vacation to following us in trucks with our tents, gear, and food.
The story of the bikers and of their support team is a beautiful example of Christian service in action.
It is a beautiful example of how so many Christians today including so many of you here reach out in a variety of ways to help those less fortunate than yourself.
It is a reminder to all of us that when Jesus returns in glory he will judge us on just this kind of service: on how well we shared our blessings and reached out to those in need.
Let us close with this suggestion from TV celebrity Art Linkletter.
He directed it, primarily, to his television viewers as a simple guide for those who wanted to begin or expand upon their service to those less fortunate than themselves.
Many of you are probably familiar with it. But it is so practical and down-to-earth that it bears repeating. He said: