4th Sunday of Advent, December 21 2014
2 Samuel 7.1-14, Psalm 89.1-4, 19-26, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Advent is a time of waiting, four long weeks of expectation; and a great deal turns on how we wait.
According to ancient Christian writers, God waits for Mary’s yes; creation waits; Adam and Eve wait, the dead in the underworld wait; the angels wait; and so do we.
On the first Sunday of Advent, as part of this waiting, I put on the St Andrew’s website one of my favourite poems. Written by the great Cornish poet Charles Causley, it’s called The Ballad of the Bread Man.
It retells the story of Jesus of Nazareth in folksong form and colloquial style. But lying beneath its surface is a deep and dark theology: a theology in which God sings to us and we do not dance.
Here is how Charles Causley retells the story of the annunciation Heather read this morning:
Mary stood in the kitchen
Baking a loaf of bread.
An angel flew in the window
‘We’ve a job for you,’ he said.
‘God in his big gold heaven
Sitting in his big blue chair,
Wanted a mother for his little son.
Suddenly saw you there.’
Mary shook and trembled,
‘It isn’t true what you say.’
‘Don’t say that,’ said the angel.
‘The baby’s on its way.’
Joseph was in the workshop
Planing a piece of wood.
‘The old man’s past it,’ the neighbours said.
‘That girl’s been up to no good.’
‘And who was that elegant fellow,’
They said, ‘in the shiny gear?’
The things they said about Gabriel
Were hardly fit to hear.
Mary never answered,
Mary never replied.
She kept the information,
Like the baby, safe inside.
Our readings this morning raise two closely related questions: Where does God find a home? And where do we find a home?
In our reading from the book of Samuel, David is embarrassed. He has built himself a fine palace, panelled with cedar, while the Lord God, like a refugee or a displaced person, lives in a tent. So he has in mind to build God a fine temple, and at first the prophet Nathan gives him a green light.
But that same night the word of the Lord comes to Nathan, in the annoying way prophets are familiar with; and Nathan now must tell the king that it is not David but David’s son who will build the Lord a house for his name.
The prosaic, historically minded, interpretation of this oracle is that it is David’s son Solomon who will build the temple – a house in which the Lord dwells happily for several centuries until the Babylonians huff and puff and knock it down.
But there is some evidence that by the time of Jesus, this word was being interpreted in messianic terms. And there is a great deal of evidence that this is how Jesus and his followers understood it.
It is the son of David in the sense of the messiah who will build the final temple; and this house of God will not be an affair of stone, made by human hands, but a living temple, built by the Holy Spirit.
The first letter of Peter in these words urges its hearers and it urges us:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture:
‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone,
a cornerstone chosen and precious;
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’
But for Charles Causley, such belief is not common but rare. This is how he describes the ministry of Jesus:
He went round to all the people
A paper crown on his head.
‘Here is some bread from my father.
Take, eat,’ he said.
Nobody seemed very hungry.
Nobody seemed to care.
Nobody saw the God in himself
Quietly standing there.
He finished up in the papers,
He came to a very bad end.
He was charged with bringing the living to life.
No man was that prisoner’s friend.
It is, I hope, impossible to hear Luke’s story of Mary and the angel without asking, “Now, where have I heard that before?” The short, short answer is, earlier in the chapter. Luke, who is no slouch as a story teller, parallels the annunciation to Mary of the birth of Jesus with the earlier annunciation to Zechariah of the birth of John.
But turn to what we call the Old Testament, and we find a longer answer, one that goes back to the dawn of salvation history, an answer in which we are told of special births: the birth of Ishmael to Hagar and the birth of Isaac to Sarah in the book of Genesis; the birth of Samson to Manoah in Judges; the birth of Samuel to Hannah in the book that bears his name.
Focus on the birth, and what is important is the one who is to be born. In this climactic case, “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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
But there is in Luke’s story a double focus, a focus also on the young woman to whom the birth is announced:
The angel Gabriel from heaven came,
his wings as drifted snow, his eyes as flame,
“All hail,” said he, “thou lowly maiden Mary,
most highly favoured lady.”
In this strange and startling announcement, Mary is called, just as Moses or Isaiah is called; and in her response, we are reminded again of Samuel: “Here I am.”
Mary had a choice and so do we. Mary’s choice was whether to take hold of the unknown life the angel held out to her or to defend herself against it however she could. Our choice is similar: we can say yes to the life that is being held out to us or we can say no. Like the people of God on the other bank of the Jordan, we are always faced with a choice of life or death.
Say no, and no angels will ever trouble us again. Say yes, and we can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script that we know of and no guarantees. We can agree to smuggle God into the world inside our own bodies. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
The question Luke asks in the opening chapters of his gospel runs through the whole text. Where will God find room in our world? Where will God find a home?
There is no room in the inn:
When Mary found her time had come
The hotels let her down.
The baby was born in an annexe
Next to the local pub.
As in birth, so in life. The way of Jesus is the way of a God who is given no room in the world. This is what Jesus says in Luke 9: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.”
And as in life, so in death and after death.
They stored him safe as water
Under seven rocks.
One Sunday morning he burst out
Like a jack-in-the-box.
Through the town he went walking.
He showed them the holes in his head.
‘Now do you want any loaves?’ He cried.
‘Not today’ they said.
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is the story of the God who comes to us but finds no room and no welcome, save on the margins of society among shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. There is no room for God – save in Mary’s womb and in the hearts of the humble.
That is what Mary’s yes means: “I shall give you room, God! I shall give you a home.”
With Mary’s yes, hope is enlivened and history is changed. Salvation comes among us, with a future that comes from God. With David we await it, with the nations we long for it, and with Mary we behold it.
For the question “Where can God find a home?” is closely linked to the question “Where can we find a home?” It is in fact one and the same question. As Augustine confesses: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord; and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
And so we wait.
And yet, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth? Will he find room in our hearts? Or will he find himself squeezed out by the false gods of the world?
Will he find us dead, fit only to be buried by the dead? Or will he find in us living stones, letting ourselves be built into a living temple in which God may happily dwell?
Dianne Bergant, CSA, with Richard N Fragomeni, Preaching the New Lectionary: Year B (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999)
Sabine Baring-Gould, “The Angel Gabriel from heaven came“, CH4 285. YouTube versions here and here
Otto Betz, What Do We Know about Jesus? (London: SCM Press, 1968)
Charles Causley, “The Ballad of the Bread Man“. You can hear Causley read the poem, in his soft Cornish burr, here
Kathryn Matthews Huey, “God with Us/Great Reversals”, Sermon Seeds, UCC 2014
Ben F Meyer, The Aims of Jesus (London: SCM Press, 1979)
Lawrence Moore, Advent 4B, commentary and reflections, Disclosing New Worlds
Mark Allan Powell, “Luke 1.26-38 Commentary“, Preaching This Week
Hubert J Richards, The First Christmas: What Really Happened? (Glasgow: Collins, 1973)