FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that would obstruct your mercy, that willingly we may bear your redeeming love to all the world, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Mary’s pregnancy complicates the Christian faith. It would be much simpler to explain ourselves if only we could say that God adopted Jesus in view of his exemplary faith; or that Jesus was simply a visible manifestation of the invisible God and not a separate individual person; or that Jesus is a human being in whom the consciousness of God’s will reached its highest level. Voices within the church have put forth these very teachings in the past. They continue to linger in some quarters today. That isn’t surprising. Trying to explain how God brings about a pregnancy that produces a fully human person who is God’s Son and also God’s self stretches human capacity for reasoning to the breaking point. Yet the church has consistently returned to its seemingly untenable confession that Jesus is the Father’s only begotten Son, incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, thereby rejecting all of the more conceptually palatable understandings of Jesus.
The doctrine of the Incarnation is a messy affair. So are pregnancies generally. Even so-called “planned pregnancies” are disruptive, bringing about fundamental changes in relationships, lifestyles and expectations. No one can foresee the consequences of a new life being inserted into a family, a community or the world. I doubt Mary had a clue about what she was letting herself in for when she replied to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Neither did my wife and me when we got married with the expectation of having children. We learned, as did Mary, that having a baby is a messy and complicated business. We learned that nothing turns out the way you expect. We began with the notion that it was our job to shape our children as they grew and discovered that they wound up shaping us. And ours were planned pregnancies-more or less.
Mary’s was an unplanned pregnancy-at least from her perspective. Yet from God’s perspective, there is no such thing as an unplanned pregnancy. That is the essence of the gospel. God infuses life into places that are not looking for it, don’t want it and frequently reject it. God appears in the darkest corners where he is unlooked for, unwanted and frequently rejected. Through the miracle of the Incarnation, the life of God is inextricably woven into the fabric of human existence to such an extent that we cannot speak of God other than as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot speak of the Holy Spirit other than that Spirit which proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Our lives would be lot less complicated if God did not insist on entering into them so fully and completely. Mary understood that opening herself to the Spirit of God was likely to turn her orderly existence upside down. She also understood that her orderly existence could not compare with the new heaven and the new earth soon to be implanted in her womb. So Mary said yes to God; yes to messiness; yes to loss of control and yes to a new tomorrow. You might quite properly call Advent an invitation to join Mary in saying “yes to the mess.”
Israel was ever ambivalent about the institution of monarchy. The Hebrew Scriptures at times extol the monarchy as God’s instrument of justice and peace. As God’s representative, the king “delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.” Psalm 72:12-13. The prophets took a more critical view of kingship in Israel. Ezekiel criticize the kings of Israel and Judah for looking after their own interests and allowing the “sheep” to be scattered and lost. Ezekiel 34:1-10. So, too, Jeremiah railed against these “shepherds” of Israel whose self-serving ways brought about the destruction of the flock. Jeremiah 23:1-4.
These two divergent views of the monarchy in Israel are woven together throughout the narratives of I & II Samuel. The pro-monarchy view comes to us from an early source probably compiled during the reign of Solomon, David’s son. This writer regards the establishment of kingship in Israel as divinely ordained for Israel’s salvation. Anyone who lived to see the rise of the Israelite empire from a loose confederacy of divided tribes oppressed by the militarily superior Philistines could not fail to be impressed by David, the architect of this great achievement. For the first time ever Israel lived within secure borders. Trade and commerce flourished under the protection of the new central government. Israel was beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with among the other nations. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the monarchy was seen as an instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.
The later source was likely composed during the latter days of the Judean monarchy between 750 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E. This author views Samuel as the true and greatest ruler of Israel. S/He views the monarchy as a sinful rejection of God’s rule over Israel. By this time, Israel had experienced civil war and the succession of ten of its twelve tribes from the house of David. Injustice, corruption and idolatry turned out to be the price of commercial success and military power under monarchy. The prophets gave voice to God’s displeasure with Israel’s kings and to the cries of those crushed under their oppressive yolk. Samuel’s warnings against the consequences of monarchy had come true with a vengeance. I Samuel 8:10-18. Nevertheless, this subsequent writer still views David in a positive light in spite of his having been elected to a disfavored institution.
Most scholars agree that II Samuel 7:1-29 is a late theological commentary inserted into the early source intended to explain why David was not chosen to build the temple in Jerusalem. That purpose is not readily discernable from our reading because verses 12-15 have been omitted. These verses make clear that God has chosen David’s heir to build the temple. I believe that this section also serves to clarify the nature of the Davidic covenant as subordinate to God’s covenant with all Israel at Sinai. Though God’s promise to preserve faithfully the line of David is repeated here, the prophet Nathan warns that iniquity on the part of David’s descendants will meet with punishment. Vss. 14-15.
The key to this interchange between the word of the Lord, delivered through Nathan, and David is found in the various meanings of the Hebrew word for “house.” Initially, David intends to build a “house” for the Ark of the Covenant. So used, the term means “shrine” or “temple.” God responds by promising to build David a “house,” clearly meaning a dynasty. If you were to read on to verses 18-20, you would discover that the same term is used again to describe family status, i.e., “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house that thou hast brought me thus far?” Vs. 18. This is clearly a reference to the former insignificance of the family of Jesse and David’s status as the youngest of Jesse’s sons. The different shades of meaning for this one word serve to illuminate the depth and complexity of the Davidic covenant and the significance of the temple. Both are subordinate to the Sinai covenant and flow from the faithfulness of God to Israel expressed in that covenant. The temple is not to be a shrine to the Ark, but the place where God’s name dwells. Vs. 13. Though established “forever,” the dynasty of David is answerable to Torah and subject to God’s punishment for violating it. Vss 13-14.
This scripture invites us to contemplate our response to expectations that fail to materialize. It is evident that the line of David did in fact come to an end following the Babylonian conquest of 587 B.C.E. Either God’s promise failed or its fulfilment lies beyond the scope of the Judean monarchy. Second Isaiah deals with this problem by suggesting that God’s “steadfast, sure love for David” now embraces all Israel rather than any one individual descendent of David. Isaiah 55:3-5. Later Judaism saw in the Davidic covenant the promise of a messianic deliverer. This hope, in all of its many permutations, was very much alive in Jesus’ day. Jesus himself appears to have invited his hearers to consider in what sense the promised messiah could be considered “the son of David.” See Mark 12:35-40; Matthew 22:41-46; Luke 20:41-44. So also, both Judaism as a whole and the early church struggled with the meaning of the temple’s destruction by Rome in 70 C.E. As I have often said before, I believe the Letter to the Hebrews is in large part a response to this crisis.
Promise/fulfilment is a common theme throughout the Advent season. Now as throughout history, the people of God are called upon to discern how the ancient promises are working themselves out in our midst. For Christians, the challenge is to discover the layers of meaning and the richness given to the gospel narratives by the Hebrew Scriptures out of which they grew. Care must be taken, however, to respect the witness to these scriptures given by the Jewish people in all ages. There is no place for a theology of supersessionism in which Christianity is seen to “replace” or “supersede” Judaism. As Paul points out in the latter half of his Letter to the Romans, both Israel and the church play a critical role in God’s redemptive purpose for the world.
Although it focuses on the rise of the Davidic monarchy as God’s saving act, the psalm begins with an acknowledgement that the true sovereign of all the earth is God. Vss. 1-2. God makes a “covenant” with David. Vs. 3. A covenant is more than a mere contract. In the ancient near east, covenants were usually made between kings-and generally not between equals. It was common for a dominant king to enter into a covenant with the king of a subservient nation. Under the terms of the covenant, the stronger king would promise to provide military protection from common enemies (and a promise that he himself would not attack!). In return, the weaker king would pay tribute and promise undivided allegiance to the stronger king. The weaker king would often give his daughters in marriage to the stronger. (The fact that one’s daughter is at the mercy of a foreign king would naturally make one think twice about commencing hostilities!).
In the covenant with David, God is the dominant partner. Yet, oddly enough, God promises both protection and eternal faithfulness. God’s love for and support of David is not contingent on David’s past accomplishments or on his promise to be loyal to the Lord. It is a one way covenant in which all of the promises flow from God to David and his line.
Although the image of parenthood is used (vs. 26), David is every inch a human being and there is no suggestion that his being anointed king confers divinity on him. This is one feature setting the Israelite concept of kingship apart from Canaanite ideas. There is no suggestion in this psalm that David is chosen on the basis of merit. Nothing is said about David’s character or his good deeds that might have led God to select him as a covenant partner and king over Israel. We hear plenty, though, about the character of God and God’s determination to stand by the promises made to David. Vss. 20-24. Once again, being king does not set one above the commandments of God. If anything, the king has a greater responsibility to observe justice and righteousness. He stands in God’s place as the representative of God. As such, his failures are not merely his own. They have an impact on the nation for which he is responsible. As Jesus was wont to say, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Luke 12:48.
If you were to read the Psalm 89 in its entirety (which I always recommend) you would discover that the psalm’s tone changes abruptly from a mood of praise to bitter lament at verse 38. Obviously, the situation in which the king now finds himself does not evidence the protection and success promised to the line of David in the “vision” discussed in the earlier part. Vss. 19-26. We do not know the precise historical setting of this psalm. Because the prayer is by or for a king currently (though tenuously) on the throne, it is safe to assume that it was written before the Davidic dynasty came to an end in 587 B.C.E. with the second Babylonian invasion. The prayer might reflect the desperate situation in which David found himself during the rebellion of his son, Absalom. Or it might reflect the invasion by Egypt during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. It could have been composed after the tragic death of the young King Josiah at the hands of Pharaoh Neco or the siege of Jerusalem under Zedekiah. Whatever the historical setting, it must have been a very traumatic and faith shaking experience for Israel to see the Lord’s anointed, the heir of David, God’s covenant partner so thoroughly defeated. What could this mean? Had God abandoned the covenant? Had the Lord forgotten all the promises made to David? Where was God’s salvation in this time of need?
The mood of the disciples must have been very similar when they saw their Lord nailed to the tree and crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet just when it seemed that God could not be further away from them, God had drawn near in the most profound way possible. Jesus’ death and resurrection bring to crescendo Israel’s stubborn belief that, however dark the hour, God is at work in history. It is often when we find ourselves with the sea in front of us and a hostile army at our heels-or at the tomb where our last, best hope seems dead and buried-that God works salvation.
This is the conclusion to Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which he has gone to great lengths explaining in some detail how “the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith…” vss. 25-26. This snippet plays nicely into the prophecy/fulfillment theme of Advent, but I cannot imagine how one could preach on it without reaching back into the body of Romans and reconstructing Paul’s argument. Such a project is far too big for any one sermon and best saved for periods in the church year where consecutive readings from the Letter to the Romans are featured in the lectionary. This last summer would have been a good time for that.
Luke’s telling of the nativity narrative is strikingly different from that of Matthew in several respects. Whereas in Matthew Joseph is the recipient of angelic revelation, in Luke he is altogether absent from the scene until the trip to Bethlehem. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel’s messages come through dreams. Luke has the angel Gabriel addressing Zachariah and Mary directly. Derived from the Hebrew words “Gavar” meaning “strong man” and “el,” a word for God, the name Gabriel is best translated “God has shown himself mighty.” Brueggemann, Walter, “Gabriel,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2 (c. 1962 by Abington Press) p. 332. Gabriel first appears in Daniel explaining to the prophet a vision of the end that he has just seen. Daniel 8:15-17. See also Daniel 9:21. Though not otherwise mentioned in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures, Gabriel is frequently portrayed as God’s agent of revelation, punishment and salvation throughout later Jewish writings such as the Books of Enoch. It is important to understand that in Hebraic thought, God is fully present in the person of God’s messenger. Ibid, p. 333.
The impact of Gabriel’s message is very much muted by the later church’s fixation on the “immaculate conception” and our 19th Century prejudice against that which does not fit our empirical world view. Few people in the 1st Century B.C.E. doubted that God (or a god) could bring about a pregnancy miraculously. The remarkable thing here is that Gabriel, God’s chief messenger, should be sent 1) to a woman; 2) to an insignificant town in Galilee; 3) to announce that God’s messiah and David’s heir was to be born to this woman of no particular standing. Luke goes out of his way to let us know that he is well aware of contemporary events and the way in which history appears to be unfolding through the likes of Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus. Yet he would have us know that the true history, the history that matters, the history God is making will unfold not in Jerusalem or Rome, but in the small hamlet of Nazareth. The hope of Israel and the whole world will be born to a homeless couple in a drafty animal shelter. That is the miracle at which Luke would have us marvel.
What, then, shall we say of the “virgin birth”? Though not as pronounced as in Matthew’s gospel, one point seems to be that Jesus’ conception and birth is at the initiation of God and independent from requirements of lineage, status and blood. Something new and different is taking place with the birth of Jesus. How does God initiate that birth? Luke tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Vs. 35. Perhaps the church would have been wise simply to leave it there. Who can explain the workings of the Holy Spirit? We know that the Spirit can work through events that appear to unfold naturally and in accord with what we understand about the processes of nature. Yet the Spirit also introduces novelty that strains our credibility, exceeds our expectations and challenges our imaginative abilities. Who can say how the Spirit worked in this instance? Does it really matter?
It may not have mattered to the first readers of Luke’s gospel, but it became an important question for the church in later years as she struggled to make the gospel intelligible to Mediterranean culture while remaining faithful to her biblical roots. Without rehashing the first six centuries of the church’s history, it is fair to say that the confession of Jesus as the Son of God born of the virgin Mary was part and parcel of the church’s insistence that Jesus was no less human than he was divine; that God as creator took naturally to human flesh created in God’s image; that the Incarnate Word has plumbed the depths of all that it is to be human. At the end of the day, the Incarnation is a mystery that can be contemplated, worshiped and believed, but never fully understood. We cannot insist on any particular metaphysical understanding of virginal conception because this says more than the biblical witness tells us. Neither can we dogmatically maintain that the birth of Jesus must have occurred under purely “natural” circumstances as we think we understand them. Assertion of either position says both too much and too little.
Gabriel’s assurance that “with God nothing will be impossible” and Mary’s response, “let it be to me according to your word” fitly summarize the import of this lesson. To be fully open to God requires belief in God’s willingness and ability to do all things-even the seemingly impossible. Advent beckons us to just such radical openness. It challenges us to suspend our judgments about who we think God is, who our neighbor really is and what are the possibilities for the future, both ours and the world’s. During this holy season we are challenged to expect the impossible!