Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2017
The Reverend Mark Birch, Minor Canon and Sacrist
Sunday, 24th December 2017 at 11.15 AM
Imagine the King’s surprise when his chief advisor came back and said ‘No’. I doubt many people ever said No to King David. This was the chief advisor who originally agreed to the whole plan: to celebrate the stability of the kingdom by building a magnificent House for God. Surely this would be the kind of thing that would please God? The King even sounds a wee bit guilty; ‘Here am I living in palatial splendour while God has nothing more than a tent’. ‘Good point your Majesty. Go, do all that you have in mind.’
But the very next morning the trusted advisor was back on the doorstep, looking a little sleep-deprived, and probably a little perplexed. Your Majesty, I’m afraid God says ‘No’—no House, no Temple. On the contrary, God says that he will make you a house—‘your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be stablished for ever.’ If there is any building to be done, it will be done by God, not you; and not with bricks and mortar, nor cedar-wood, but with living stones, with the generations of your ancestors to whom he will show his favour and faithfulness.
There would eventually be a Temple, but it would be the work of David’s son, meanwhile the Promise (capital P) would have an eternal foundation, not beneath any building, but in the very person of David himself. God is faithful to people first, to Abraham and his seed, and so David had to be disabused of his Temple plan, lest any building assume more importance than the people whom God has chosen. So I’m sorry, King David, the answer is No; you will not build God a house, but God will build you a house, which is a bit of a surprise, but actually rather wonderful—a ‘No’, maybe, but, when you think about it, a far more profound ‘Yes’.
God is full of surprises. Ask the young woman minding her own business in Nazareth, centuries later, when King David had receded into the realms of myth, when the realities of life under Roman occupation (taxes, censuses, loss of sovereignty) made any appeal to ‘special status’, to the eternal promise of God to establish and build the House of David, sound like a hollow slogan borrowed from a vanished golden age. In fact it wasn’t so long after King David that things started going awry, when the lustre of his crown started to fade. First the division of Israel, the Northern Kingdom seceding, a hard border set in the midst of God’s people. Then the Assyrians, the Babylonians, exile and return, domination by the Greeks and finally the Romans—the throne of David rocked and jostled by super-powers with bigger agendas, and the current occupant of the throne of David nothing to write home about, ruling only by Roman permission.
What was that promise again?
‘Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.’ The Promise was looking a bit shaky—either God had forgotten (impossible, surely?), or Israel was being punished in some way (would God really do that?). Either way, the relationship between God and his chosen people wasn’t looking good; you could understand a certain cynicism, a non-committal shrug of the shoulders at the mention of God’s promise to David; a slogan for fringey religious extremists to rally around, perhaps, but no longer mainstream.
The Lord is with you—said the angel to Mary.
‘Really?’ She might have asked. Because the throne of David hasn’t been looking so good of late. In fact it hasn’t been looking so good for a while. And why me? Why should my son sit on the throne of our ancestor David? Surely you should be down at the palace, with one of King Herod’s wives? And, by the way, it’s my fiancée Joseph who’s from the House of David, not me.
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. You think you are a nobody in a forgotten land, but you are a daughter of Israel, an heir to the Promise made to David so very long ago—you are the Temple that God has chosen. And out of all the years of waiting, of hope stretched impossibly thin, of national humiliation in exile and foreign domination, out of the long generations who, against all the odds, kept faith with the God of Israel where so many might have slipped into cynicism, fanaticism or amnesia, Mary said yes—‘here am I, the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to thy word.’
It’s not quite the ‘Yes’ that we might say to a glass of champagne at a Christmas party, or the ‘Yes’ we might say to the offer of a dream job. It is more of a—well, you’re the boss—aye-aye Captain—here I am, at your command. But it is still consent; still a yes; and although she could have no idea, it was a ‘yes’ she made on behalf of all Israel. Indeed, given the universal scope of what came into play, it was a ‘yes’ she made on behalf of the cosmos—the whole created order.
By saying yes to God’s promise, however distant and tenuous that promise had become, she then embodied that Promise, she became its Temple; the Promise became a living seed within her, and over the ensuing months that Promise, that Grace, grew and swelled.
And here we stand on the brink of Christmas, with a woman on the brink of child-birth, no doubt full of all-holy fear at the ordeal ahead of her.
Just as her ‘yes’ was on behalf of all creation; just as she represented creation in rare obedience to its Creator; so she represents creation now. The Scriptures, our Lord himself, described creation gripped by the agonies of labour, straining to bring to birth a new creation. We are encouraged to see suffering in those terms—the suffering of nations and individuals—and we are assured that in our response to that suffering, and even when we bear it within our own bodies, we are part of that cosmic labouring, which is shown on the Cross to be none other than God’s work. The Son of Mary is the Son of God who is in labour with us, within us, and we in him, for the redeeming of this world, for the fulfilment of the Promise to David and beyond, to be the King who draws all people to himself.
And we, two thousand years later look back at that Promise, the Promise of a King and a Kingdom—we look through centuries of unrest, nations and churches rising and falling, when the Christ-child has faded for many into cosy myth, where the promises of God seem terribly distant, evoking a sceptical shrug, anger or indifference; where many think little or lightly of their religious heritage, of the great inheritance of faith of which this Temple is an abiding symbol. Culturally, the answer is at best a nuanced ‘No’ to all this.
So as we contemplate this woman, pregnant with promise, full-to-bursting with grace, in a culture in where God’s promise is forgotten or discounted, in a world groaning for something new and hopeful, are we willing to speak against the grain of our culture, yet on its behalf? Are we prepared to carry the burden of grace for the sake of the cosmos? Dare we, like Mary, say yes, Amen, Come, Lord Jesus?