By Deacon Timothy Siburg
Revised Common Lectionary reflection for Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmas Eve, Year B
December 24, 2023
Key Verse: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” -Luke 2:20
It is not unheard of, but also not that common, to have Christmas Eve and the Fourth Sunday of Advent to fall on the same day. With that in mind, it does offer a challenge for preaching, teaching, planning, and scheduling.
I myself will not be preaching. I will be behind an organ, piano, and directing a choir. But if I were preaching, I think I would lean into three words: awe, joy, and wonder. For these are words that help articulate the feeling to such rich and familiar stories as we hear on this day. Whether it be from Luke 1 in the morning of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, or from Luke 2 and Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem. These words describe feelings and our response as God’s people for all that God has done and all that only God can do.
Awe, joy, and wonder. Four examples from these two chapters at the beginning of Luke that are brought together on this Holy Day at the intersection of Advent and Christmas:
- “The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30). Mary is greeted by the angel with the familiar words that God so often enters in with. “Do not be afraid.” It calls to holy presence, but also signifies that something important is happening or about to happen. For Mary, her whole life and vocation is about to change forever. How might she respond?
- “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38). Mary responds with trust and faith. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be.…” That kind of faith is grounded in awe and wonder. God is up to something, and it’s far beyond Mary’s or anyone else’s wildest hopes or imaginations as God has come to Mary to fulfill the words of the prophets of old.
- “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). Mary sings her Magnificat as a response to God’s presence and promise. It sounds like a response of awe, wonder, and joy. Her spirit rejoices in God, and she gives words for all disciples and stewards to share and lean into as we come again to these familiar stories of God’s promises for all of God’s beloved.
- “When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:17-20). The conclusion of the usual twenty verses heard on Christmas Eve. It’s not the end of the story but the beginning of God’s people coming to know and believe and share about God’s activity. Words here from these verses that detail the response of the shepherds, Mary, and those first witnesses on that world changing night Bethlehem. Awe, joy, and wonder.
Stewardship admittedly may not be the focus of one’s preaching on such a holy day. And that is okay. But it is present in these stories. It is present in the way one responds to them. In the way we remember and listen and tell the story of God’s promises and love for God’s people. In the way we recall that God has come to dwell with God’s people through the birth of the baby of Jesus. In the way we remember the stories of those who first witnessed this in real-time, and then remember the stories of the years since of how God’s people continue to share this story and lean into it. Making sense of it now. All the while knowing that this at its core might be one of the most well-known stories in the Bible.
Let the story be told. Don’t get in the way of it. Don’t simplify it. It’s complex. It’s full of mystery. Let it breathe. But remember that in these stories that mark the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the Nativity of Our Lord, are invitations to respond. To sense awe. To show and sing with great joy. To think, wonder, and pray about God’s creative, redeeming, reconciling, and saving work for God’s people. To ponder all these things in our hearts like Mary, and to be so moved that we can’t help but give God our thanks and praise and want to join in with God in some of God’s on-going work and now. The work of sharing the story and joining the old spiritual anthem, to “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” To share the story like the shepherds. And to embody this awe, joy, and wonder through all that we are and all that we do. Not just in the great Twelve Days of Christmas to come, but in every day of our lives. To live changed because through God’s work in Jesus, we are all changed. So that together we can join with the angels singing “Hallelujah,” and “Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
Depending on how you are approaching the worship experiences around this day, you might consider with some intentionality how to approach the offering time in worship. Will it be a space for special music? A space for a story about ministry in action to share with the larger congregation or community? What might it look like if the offering time were really shaped to express through words, music, or space, “Awe, Joy, and Wonder?” Because at the heart of the idea of offering is a response to what God has done, will do, and promises to do. And nowhere is the idea of our response clearer than in the Christmas story. To sing with the angels. To proclaim with the shepherds. To ponder with Mary. Maybe such a theme could be crafted around your offering prayer for this day, or in the way you might tie a story of mission and ministry in action into the offering time about how your faith community does this in some ways here and now for the sake of the world God so dearly loves. If you need a song idea, perhaps consider the hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Admittedly this hymn would not make sense to anyone in Florida or Hawaii, for example, but if contextually appropriate, verse 3 is a particularly good offertory response in song:
“What can I give him, poor as I am?
if I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wiseman I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him- I give my heart.”
This hymn by Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst can be found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 294.
With Youth and Children
What better way might there be with such familiar stories as these, to involve children and youth, than to have them help share the story? Whether to break up the gospel readings in a “Lessons and Carols” type format to allow many to partake in reading or telling part of the story, or to invite some activity into the story to act out in some way. Perhaps even to encourage a few youth or younger adults to dress up as the parts of the story and enact it while the story is read? Any of these options might help the story to take on new life and to better reach people with a variety of learning styles. If looking for an opportunity to then reflect on these stories as a sort of Children’s Message, perhaps share the message time after the readings and simply ask the children or young adults the questions: “What do you wonder about with this story?” And “What does it feel like to be a part of this story?” The conversation would be rich and might be just as timely as a sermon could prove to be on Christmas Eve or the Fourth Sunday of Advent this year.
Previous reflections for Advent 4 and/or Nativity of the Lord, Year B
2020 – A very Covid Advent: Possibility
2020 – A very Covid Christmas: Room for Jesus
2017 – Do not be afraid: Bridging Advent and Christmas
2014 – Stewards of Advent Time: Be
2011 – Life beyond the usual
2011 – The gift that keeps on giving