The Fourth Sunday of Advent, 21 December 2014
II Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
St. Luke 1:26-38
Background: Readings in Advent
Perhaps this is my own little rant, but I miss the readings that used to be used during the Sundays of Advent – or to put it better I miss the consistency of the season as being distinct from Christmas proper. I was comparing the readings from the old Service Book and Hymnal (Lutheran) and the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and they appear to be the same. Advent I – was the classic Palm Sunday gospel from Matthew (21:1-9) with an optional reading from Luke on John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-6) (not a reading in the 1928 Lectionary). Advent II – Lucan apocalyptic (21:25-33), Advent III – The question of John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-10), and Advent IV – Questions about the role of John the Baptist (John 1:19-28).
The “Palm Sunday” reading pictures for us the inexorable nature of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and the promise of his return. The apocalypse from Luke follows the patterns of readings in the “Advent Shadow” from the last readings of the church year. The question of John the Baptist ought to be our own question as we await the coming Christ. Whom do we expect? Finally, the reading from John (which already appears in the RCL) gives us a chance to look at the forerunner, and his message and to understand who he is vis a vis Jesus.
I love the broad depth of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), but I dislike its watering down of the Advent season with the reading concerning the Annunciation on Advent IV year B. Year A is Matthew’s “Birth of Christ”, and Year C is the Visitation. It seems an accommodation to the world’s insistence on “rushing the season” and not allowing for one last week of holy waiting. Perhaps this would be allowable if Advent returned to its original six weeks, but now it seems we are down to three.
II Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."
But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
We sit on two cusps here. The first is the divide with Michal, namely the leaving behind of David’s relationship with the house of Saul. The other cusp is the move toward Temple-centered worship, which will fall to Solomon, not to David. The reasons given are several, ranging from David’s spilling of blood, and therefore ineligible and or that it was an act of presumption. More likely is that David did not have the time for such a grand enterprise, being concerned with succession battles in his own house. The author, however, cleverly makes an exchange between the house that David would build for God, and God’s promise of building the House of David, and ensuring its continuity. Thus it will be the son in David’s dynasty that will accomplish the Temple, but not David.
It is that latter point that connects this reading with the Advent series. The focus is on the son (Solomon) who is and will build the house – dynasty and temple. And it is this succession into which Jesus will fall, as a son of David. Thus the lineage is founded, and the expectations are drawn out. If the Temple was the presence of God for Israel, then Jesus, Immanuel, would be God’s presence for a later people.
Breaking open II Samuel:
1. Has God every denied you a wish or a goal?
3. Why do you think David was denied his wish?
The Song of Mary Magnificat
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.
Like Hannah’s song (see I Samuel 2), Luke’s Magnificat is a collection of phrases and themes from other sources. The reader may want to consult Psalm 111, especially verse 9 as well. It is also similar to Psalm 126 (above) in its picture of the reversal of fortunes. Here God is seen as the One who does not take what the world gives as given, but stands against it and its harsh truths and realities. It is a theme that Luke rejoices in as he constantly pictures God’s interventions into the lives of the lowly. Mary does not stand outside the song as an observer, but as a significant contributor, “for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Mary not only sings about the lowly and those that are servants, but also embodies that role in what she has taken on, “be it unto me according to your will.” She is not the only one who lives the life of this psalm – Abraham and Sarah are remembered as well. Mary in her role as the theotokos is the reality of the promise made to them. Thus generations from Abraham on – into the future – can remember God’s gracious promise.
Breaking open Canticle 15:
1. How have you been a “lowly servant”?
2. In what way are you one of “the proud”?
3. Will other generations call you blessed? Why?
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 Misericordias Domini
Your love, O LORD, for ever will I sing; *
from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness.
For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever; *
you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.
"I have made a covenant with my chosen one; *
I have sworn an oath to David my servant:
'I will establish your line for ever, *
and preserve your throne for all generations.'"
You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: *
"I have set the crown upon a warrior
and have exalted one chosen out of the people.
I have found David my servant; *
with my holy oil have I anointed him.
My hand will hold him fast *
and my arm will make him strong.
No enemy shall deceive him, *
nor any wicked man bring him down.
I will crush his foes before him *
and strike down those who hate him.
My faithfulness and love shall be with him, *
and he shall be victorious through my Name.
I shall make his dominion extend *
from the Great Sea to the River.
He will say to me, 'You are my Father, *
my God, and the rock of my salvation.'"
This is a David psalm – not written by him, but rather about him. In a sense, its tenor is more like that of the prophets who pointed out the unfaithfulness of Israel, and God’s standing to the side, and allowing other nations to realize his wrath. Much of this, however, is in the bulk of the psalm that is elided from the liturgical selection. Here the psalm is used to underscore the Davidic connection to Jesus, who stands in David’s line. More than this connection, if we read the psalm with history’s eyes and understand its message and impact on Israel, this is really a psalm about the covenant. The agreement with Abraham lies in the background, and the agreement with David is in our line of focus. Both are connected, and the psalmist wants Israel to understand that the God who is described in cosmic terms requires its faithfulness. God will protect but only if Israel follows the laws of God. Then will God protect and uphold the House of David. The relationship of the David house to God is described in familial terms, “He will say to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.’” Into such a complex tradition and relationship is the Christ child born.
I cannot leave without commenting on verse 25, “I shall make his dominion extend from the Great Sea to the River.” In 1975, I was a guest of the Israeli government along with other clergy (Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Baptist). We spent ten days in Israel seeing sights and visiting digs that were not open to the general public. We were also guests at several kibbutzim, in particular, the kibbutz at Lavi, near the Sea of Galilee. There, as we talked with the residents about their relationship with Palestinians, we heard and saw how difficult it is to read into the psalms a national policy. A member of the kibbutz, rocking in her chair to side and knitting, when the discussion became heated and difficult about Israel’s role over the Palestinians, turned to us and quoted Psalm 89:25. “He (God) has given us the land from the Great Sea (the Mediterranean) to the River (the Euphrates)” And that was that.
Breaking open Psalm 89:
1. How is David a good example of faith?
2. How is he not?
3. What do people see in you?
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith-- to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
It is disappointing that this reading has not been preceded by a reading from one of the prophets, for in it Paul connects the thread of the prophetic enterprise to the “mystery that was kept secret for long ages.” Like countless others after him, Paul sees in the Isaiahs, in Jeremiah, and others, the connected promise that bears fruit and becomes evident in Jesus. Paul spends no small time in discussing the heritage of the Jews in his letter to the Romans, and now in this concluding comment he ties the knot. What is distinctly Christian, however, is his connection of this ageless prophecy and covenant not to Israel, who already knows it, but to the Gentiles as well. He labors to discuss the difficulties of the Law in this letter, but here he bids those of the New Israel with these words, “to bring about the obedience of faith.” Our times seem to center on belief as a status that exists unto itself, but Paul cautions us that faith leads on to a greater recognition of what it is that God requires. Micah comes to mind. So do the O Antiphons, which could surround the mystery that Paul lifts up. Those verses would give a sense of light and depth to this reading.
Breaking open Romans
- How has God made known the mystery to you?
- How do you explain Jesus to others?
- What do you think is the “obedience of faith?”
St. Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "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 holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." 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.
In this reading, Luke, as he does in the bulk of his Gospel, brings together heaven and earth in a compelling and novel manner. Both lowliness and the heights of heaven come together in a new conjunction. Galilee, in the back water of Palestine, becomes the place where God manifests a new presence with Israel. All of this is announced by the heavens via Gabriel to the lowly Mary, the handmaid (read slave) of the Lord. Mary is lifted up in this annunciation. All of the language that surrounds her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” would be uncommon for a young woman of her station, and yet the promises and proleptic tie her with powerful people in Israel’s history. Gideon hears a similar greeting. And although Luke goes to great lengths to connect Joseph, and thus Jesus, to the line of David, it is the lowliness of Mary and the Shepherds that carries the day for us. Perhaps this greeting in this quiet and hidden situation in Nazareth is similar to Paul’s “mystery that was kept secret for long ages.” Here, however, it is not the separation of time that hides the tremendous announcement but poverty and distance from the elites. God comes to the outcasts and sinners – comes in a manner that is only slowly revealed to us. The connection to the hidden mystery is also revealed in Mary’s relationship with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Elizabeth is in this sense a type of Sarah, and Luke underscores this in his (the angel’s) words about the example of Elizabeth, who has “also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (See Genesis 18:14) In all of this, Mary becomes the model, the unassuming recipient of God’s grace. Laced with both terror, “But she was much perplexed” and duty, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Thus begins Mary’s holy waiting.
Breaking open Gospel:
1. What do you see in the humanity of Mary?
2. Do you see your life reflected in hers? How?
3. What have angels said to you?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
All questions and commentary copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller