A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent
Based on 2 Samuel 7:1-7, 8-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
Perplexed, she was. Mary was “perplexed,” and the Christmas story had begun.
Have you ever stood before a Picasso painting and been perplexed, wondering what this meant? All the confines of space and time have been removed. The surface is flat, the image two-dimensional: the face has two eyes, but they are not the same size nor on the same level, and both seem to be staring at you from the same side of the figure's head. And the more you look at it you realize that in one painting the artist has captured all the angles from which you would look at that face, all the perspectives of the viewer -- from right and left, from above and below -- all wrapped into one image. Abstract, cubist, modern, it is called.
And today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, you get to hear an Old Testament reading about a historical figure, David the king. He was also an artist: he had played his harp to quiet the moods of a tense King Saul, Israel’s first king. He composed psalms, and many we have in our hymnbook are attributed to him. He liked art, and today’s lesson tells us that he liked architecture too. So there he is, wanting to do something artistic for God. He wants to build God a house, like the one you're sitting in, a beautiful sanctuary worthy of his God. When David, the story says, "was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies," he went to his pastor, the prophet Nathan. "Look at this grand house of cedar I'm living in," he said to Nathan. I think I'm feeling a bit guilty about that tent that we use for a church; the house of God is a tent. I think I'm going to build God a house, one worthy of God's name."
So Nathan the prophet tossed and turned that night about this proposal from the chairman of his board (2 Samuel 7.4). And he came to David with the answer: "your proposal has God perplexed, so here's what God has to say to you:"
"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 around 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 commended to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why haven't you 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 ... I will make you a house. I will raise up your offspring after you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. Your house and your kingdom shall be established forever.’"
"Think of what I can do for you," David had said to God. And God turns that upside down, and says to David. "You want to do something for me? Good. Here’s what you can do. You can think instead of what I have done, am doing, and will do for you: I’ve taken you, a farm kid, and made you king; I’m giving you rest from your enemies; and I will build you a house, one that will last forever."
Isn't it a good thing to know that there are people around who might think twice about their beautiful homes? Most people don't. Such things are theirs by right: I earned it, they say. And now that I have achieved such success on my own, I'll do something for God: I'll build him a house worthy of him, so that people can say, "Look at the house David the king built for his God." Now won't God be grateful; won't God be able to give thanks to David? And then you get some prophet coming in and spoiling all the fun; you hear some prophet say that God likes the mobile life -- because then God is not limited to spatial and temporal boundaries. And if you are going to build God a house, that house had better function to tell you that it can't be a place where God is trapped, because if he is, then God cannot be God. God's house is the place where stories are told, about how unconventional God can be, not limited to space and time, or to our normal way of doing things.
So, in Luke's story, when Mary sees the angel, she is "perplexed what sort of greeting she has just received." And when she hears the rest of his words, there is something familiar about them:
"You will give him a name which will be a great name; and 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." The words are old, but there is nothing conventional about this visitor. He has just greeted Mary with the words: "favored one." That means favored by God. And then he tells her that she will be give birth to the child of God's promise. Mary is perplexed, as perplexed as if she were looking at a Picasso painting. Had this visitor made a mistake? After all, she is not married; if she is now suddenly to be pregnant, how "favored" can that be? Can't God wait? If she is so favored does God have to put her personal reputation at stake? As a husband-less mother how will she live? How can she be a mother, anyway? "How can this be," she asks, "since I am a virgin?"
We speak so often of the Virgin Birth, when this story clearly tells us about a virginal conception. That is the issue. "Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit," the ancient Creeds say. The plan of God is not conceived by human beings. The target of our worship is not something that human beings have created. The object of our faith is not something built with human hands, a temple in which God is trapped. The object of our worship is not what we have done, but the God who has done things for us. What is ultimately true and authentic and eternal is not what has been conceived in the mind of human beings, but what has been conceived in the mind of God. The Scriptures are always telling us about people who have great plans for God, until they hear that that's not where it's at: where's it at is what God has planned for them. David and Paul and Mary and Joseph don't plan anything; they stand there perplexed. But they do get to ask: "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"
And the answer comes in the simplest of terms: "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." When we hear these words we are perplexed. For those who want to misunderstand them, the possibilities are huge. The sexual immaturity of our society gives them a vantage point from which to misunderstand totally, and therefore to reject out of hand, what Mary has been told. The power of the Most High which will overshadow Mary has been spoken of before, in the opening words of the book of Genesis, when the Spirit hovered over the primeval waters and brought into being the new creation. It is God's initiative to put this plan into being, and the apostle Paul said it again when he was thinking of old Abraham and barren Sarah: it is God "who gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things which do not exist" (Romans 4.17). The Spirit of God which will come upon the husband-less Mary and overshadow her is the Creator by whose creative power the things which do not exist are brought into existence, the One who gives life to the dead. The new creation is always God's initiative.
All God wants is to hear one thing, and when he hears it the story is complete. "Then Mary said, `Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.' And the angel departed from her." -- End of story.
It was not that short a story; in fact, it was fairly long. Longer than most of Jesus' parables. Longer than many of the Psalms. As long as one entire New Testament letter (2 John). But it ends quickly. "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." And the story is over. But the life of Mary is about to begin.
Throughout the Gospels Mary's life is one of perplexity, of pondering in her heart what all this means, of struggle and surprise and sorrow. Not long after the birth of her son she is told by old Simeon that "a sword would pierce her own soul" (Luke 2.35) -- a sword of decision which she would live with, whether in every case she would always want to say, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." But the Gospel writer Luke makes sure that we know what Mary decided: she is there, named among the company of those who waited for the Spirit to move again, there waiting for Pentecost, among the earliest community of believers (Acts 1.14), about to become another new creation of God.
God's answer to David was that there would be a temple built for him, but that David wouldn't do it. His son Solomon would, who said at its dedication: "Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!" (1 Kings 8.27) The house bearing God's name must function as a place where God has his freedom, to come to us from his Beyond and address with words that often perplex and unsettle us, and, when we need it, words that comfort and encourage us. It must be a place where we are reminded constantly of God's coming to us as a human being, but also of God's calling us to where God is, to view our lives from his vantage point.
This back and forth, between our vantage point and God's, means that God's house is always an Advent house. It is the incarnate Son of God, the Word made flesh, who in this place is always coming to us. He did it in the past in the Child of Bethlehem; he does it in the present whenever we stand to one of the Gospels tells us about him. And he is never done coming to us, as the one who is risen and victorious, and who beckons to us from the other side, waiting with open arms for us to come to him. It is the Advent figure, the one who has come, and is to come, waiting for us to come to him. Waiting for us to voice our decisions as Mary did, "Behold, I am your servant, Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
-- Richard L. Jeske