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The Lord will make you a house

The Lord will make you a house

Sermon preached at Enmore, 4th Sunday in Advent, 24th December 2017

Readings: 2 Samuel 7.1-11.16; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1. 26-38

You may be wondering, what on earth, is the relevance of today’s Old Testament reading for this final Sunday in Advent. Over the past three weeks our O.T. readings have been from the prophet Isaiah. Each of these readings has carried an Advent theme-they have all looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and the new era he will usher in. But today we find ourselves back in 2 Samuel and we have read about King David’s desire to build a house for God. What are we to make of this?

First, some context. In a stunning political move King David has established himself as the King not just of the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin but of all the tribes of Israel. He has consolidated his position by making Jerusalem his capital. Furthermore he has brought the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with his people, into the city. Jerusalem is now the religious and political heart of the nation. Having crushed the hostile surrounding nations by his military prowess he has had time to build a handsome palace for himself and the royal entourage. Having settled himself in some luxury he looks around and notices that The Ark of the covenant is housed in a tent. He then hits on the idea of building a temple where the Ark can become the focus of worship. David’s decision to build a temple is doubtless a mixture of genuine piety and his self- serving desire to increase his legitimacy as ruler of all Israel. He shares his thoughts with the Prophet Nathan who gives rapid assent to the idea.

But at this point God intervenes. Through Nathan, God reminds David that everything he has achieved has been made possible by God’s help and provision. David owes everything to the God who took him from following sheep to being prince over his people, Israel. Having put David in his place God then tells David that he doesn’t need a temple. A residence limits God’s freedom-hitherto God has been happy to travel with his people and even though they are now settled God refuses to be tied down. Later, of course God does allow Solomon to build a temple but it is arguable whether in the end the temple was a help or a hindrance to God’s people.

God rejects the idea of David building him a house but he then does something completely unexpected. God tells David that he, God, will build him a house. This oracle is built around a play on the Hebrew word ‘house’ which can mean a temple or a dynasty. YHWH goes on to make the extraordinary declaration that the house or dynasty of David will be established for ever. One Old Testament commentator (Walter Brueggemann) describes this oracle “with its unconditional promise to David to be the most crucial theological statement in the Old Testament” God’s promise to David is not without its problems. The line of David did not continue for ever. From the time of David to the 6th Century B.C. Israel had a succession of kings many of whom did not worship YHWH faithfully but allowed the worship of the gods of the surrounding nations. Several times God rescued them, ‘for the sake of my servant David’ but finally the Davidic line of kings was extinguished when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE and took the last King, Zedekiah, into captivity and put his sons to the sword.

However, there always remained in Israel a faithful remnant of people who remembered God’s promise to David and looked for the day when that royal line might be re-established and a new era begin. So we leap forward six centuries and read again the words from our Gospel for the day: “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.” So 2 Samuel chapter 7 provides a basis for understanding the concept of the royal Davidic house and God’s extraordinary promise of a kingdom which will last forever. Despite the many shortcomings of the historical Davidic dynasty, the Lord remains faithful to his word. In light of the incarnation and the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God’s promise given to David is reinterpreted. This is made clear when the Angelic messenger tells Mary that the child she will give birth to “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.” As a faithful Israelite Mary would have known about God’s promise to David made centuries before and would have understood that what was being presented to her was a very unexpected fulfilment.

Through the centuries the church has struggled to understand Mary. In some traditions she has been exalted to a status approaching that of a deity and described as the Queen of heaven. In sharp contrast, many Protestants have tended to ignore Mary’s role in the drama of salvation history.  (In our own diocese the singing of Ave Maria at weddings has been banned in many churches.) Mary gets some recognition at Christmas time, of course, and has been often seen as a model of motherhood. In more recent times she has been a role model for feminist identification: Mary the Virgin who produces a son without the involvement of a man, and remains her own person, making her own choices. But if we want to understand Mary, Luke is our best guide. The other three evangelists give little space to her.

In Mark’s gospel her most memorable appearance is when she and her other sons arrive on the scene, to take Jesus home thinking that he has lost his mind. Mary doesn’t fare much better in Matthew, although he has her with some other women at the empty tomb. John never calls Mary by her name-she is always described as the Mother of Jesus and her role is limited. Luke gives us the most complete picture of Mary and his portrayal is the most sympathetic. Luke does not extol Mary as a mother and certainly not as a goddess but he sees her as a model of discipleship. She is not just the mother of Jesus she is his faithful follower. Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel’s announcement is to say, “Here I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The Greek word, doule, that we translate as servant or slave is actually a rich word. In the modern world we see it as a demeaning term. But in the ancient world it was also used of the person closest to the sovereign, a person so loyal, that they were able to speak for their master. So Mary is making a statement of great commitment but also acknowledging her power of acceptance and decision. It is worth noting that Mary’s words to the angel are very like the words Jesus will later pray in the garden, “Not my will but yours be done.” In both cases the response to God is presented as a combination of humble trust and obedient service.

When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth soon after the angel’s visit, her cousin exclaims “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” and then adds “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke wants us to know why Mary is favoured and blessed. It is not just that she is to be the physical mother of Jesus, but because she believed God’s word.

The point is emphasised again years later when Jesus is engaged in his ministry of healing and preaching. A woman in the crowd calls out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” A rather colourful way of saying, “How blessed to be your mother.” Jesus’ response to the woman is to say, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it.” In effect Jesus is saying, ‘My mother is blessed, but not because her womb bore me or her breasts nursed me: she is blessed because of her devotion and obedience to the word of God.’

So today we remember Mary not simply because she was the mother of Jesus but because she is a role model to all followers of Jesus because of her faith, faithfulness and obedience to God’s call. May we follow in her footsteps.

Philip Bradford