Advent 4B: The Edge of Heaven

 

 

 

 

The Cestello Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli (1489-1490)
The Cestello Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli (1489-1490)

OLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

This text wraps up the promise that God made to Abram in Genesis 12. The people have a land that they can claim as their own and they can live in peace. 2 Samuel pretty much tracks the rise to power of King David. This chapter represents sort of the “legitimization” of David’s rule. Up until now, David has been anointed king of Israel, has consolidated power in Jerusalem, and has brought the ark of the Lord to rest in a tent in Jerusalem. Things seem to be going well. And so David envisions now a more permanent structure to house the ark of the Lord. In other words, David now desires to build a temple in Jerusalem.

But that night the Lord intervenes by way of Nathan with a promise not necessarily of a permanent “house” but, rather a permanent dynasty, an everlasting house of the line of David. David has risen from shepherd boy to king and has apparently felt God’s presence through it all. He now sits in his comfortable palace and compares his “house” to the tent that “houses God” in his mind. So he decides that God needs a grand house too. God, through the prophet Nathan responds by asking, in a sense, “Hey! Did you hear me complaining about living in a tent? No, I prefer being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place.” God then turns the tables on David and says, “You think you’re going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I’M going to build YOU a house. A house that will last much longer and be much greater than anything you could build yourself with wood and stone. A house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after ‘you lie down with your ancestors.'” God promises to establish David and his line “forever,” and this is a “no matter what” promise, even if the descendants of David sin, even if “evildoers” threaten. (The Davidic Covenant).

Walter Brueggemann identifies this Scripture as “the dramatic and theological center of the entire Samuel text.” But this also would represent a major upheaval to the way that the people understood God. The permanent temple structure would no longer represent a God who traveled with the people but rather a God who expected the people to come to God.

The truth is, we all desire permanence; we want something on which we can stand, that we can touch, that we can “sink our teeth into”, so to speak. We want to know the plan so that we can plan around it. Well, if this was going to make it easier to understand God, go ahead. The truth is, this is a wandering God of wandering people. This is not a God who desires or can be shut up in a temple or a church or a closed mind. This God is palatial; this God is unlimited; this God will show up in places that we did not build. (and sometimes in places that we really wouldn’t go!) This God does not live in a house; this God dwells with us—wherever we are. This God comes as a traveler, a journeyer, a moveable feast. And this God shows up where we least expect God to be—in a god-forsaken place on the outskirts of acceptable society to a couple of people that had other plans for their lives. This God will be where God will be. And it IS a permanent home.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Are there places that you sense God’s presence more than other places?
  3. What does the change in this understanding of God mean for you?
  4. What does this say about our “model” of church? About our “model” of our faith journey? About our “image” of God?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 16: 25-27

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=285058361

This passage at the very end of Paul’s Letter to the Romans is the doxology. It may have even contained phrases from a familiar doxology that would have been known by its first century readers. The reference to “my gospel” may sound a little odd to us, but remember that Paul was continually disputing and warning his readers of “false gospels” that did not reflect the true essence of Jesus the Christ. But Paul’s gospel is based first of all on the tradition of the Torah and the prophetic writings of the Old Testament. But now it was meant for all—Jew and Gentile alike. Paul’s gospel is rooted in a faith that is bigger than itself; it is rooted in centuries of God’s relationship with God’s people.

In this Fourth week of Advent, we read this doxology along with the imminence of Jesus’ birth. Read alongside the story of Mary as God-bearer, we have the sense that the full Gospel is starting to unfold. This is in no way a “replacement” for the Law of Moses; it is that Law seen to its fulfillment in the new humanity, the new Adam, in Jesus Christ. Gentiles have been “grafted” into a story that was already taking place. For Paul, his gospel was the “unveiling” of something that had been around from the very beginning.

Scholars think that it is quite possible that Paul did not write these verses but that they were attached to the end of the letter perhaps AS a doxology, a statement of praise and proclamation. But regardless of who wrote it, this is a statement of response. It is, to use Paul’s words, an “obedience of faith.” The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ invokes our response; otherwise it is virtually meaningless. In Feasting on the Word, Cathy F. Young quotes Helmut Thielicke when he says, “Faith can be described only as a movement of flight, flight away from myself and toward the great possibilities of God.” The whole gospel in its fullness is about our response. It is our faith that moves it and opens up the possibilities that God envisioned.

Advent is about letting ourselves envision what God envisions. Because into this world that often seems random and meaningless, full of pain and despair; into this society that is often callous and lacking of compassion, directionless and confused; into our lives that many times are wrought with grief and a sense that it is all for naught; into all of it is born a baby that holds the hope of the world for the taking. The great illustrator and writer, Tasha Tudor said, “the gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. Take joy!”

This is what this doxology says: All of this that has been laid out for you, all of this that has been created; all of this that has for so long been moving toward your life, take it. Take joy! Tomorrow will be your dancing day!

 

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day; I would my true love did so chance

To see the legend of my play, to call my true love to my dance;

 

Sing, oh! My love, oh! My love, my love, my love, this have I done for my true love.

 

Then was I born of a virgin pure, of her I took fleshly substance

Thus was I knit to man’s nature, to call my true love to my dance.

 

In a manger laid, and wrapped I was, so very poor, this was my chance

Betwixt and ox and a silly poor ass, to call my true love to my dance.

Traditional English Carol

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why do we struggle with the notion of true, unconditional joy?
  3. What is it that stands in our way?
  4. What does this Season of Advent say about our response?
  5. What would it mean to live our lives as if tomorrow truly was our dancing day?

 

GOSPEL: Luke 1: 26-38

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=285058461

Now we Protestants really don’t tend to give this much credence. We sort of speed through this passage we read as some sort of precursor to “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” This, for us, is the beginning of the birth story. But think back. Something happened nine months before. This human Jesus, like all of us, had to be grown and nurtured in the womb before the miracles started. March 25th—The Feast of the Annunciation—is for some the turning point of human history. It is in this moment that God steps through the fog into humanity and, just like every human that came before, must wait to be fully birthed into this world. March 25th is traditionally regarded as the first day of Creation. December 25th falls nine months after it and is right after the winter solstice, when the days start growing longer. So, in this view, the Annunciation is the beginning (or re-beginning, if you will) of Creation and December 25th is the coming of light into the darkest night of the world.

Annunciation literally means “the announcement”. The word by itself probably holds no real mystery. But it is the beginning of the central tenet of our entire Christian faith—The Annunciation, Incarnation, Transfiguration, Resurrection. For us, it begins the mystery of Christ Jesus. For us, the fog lifts and there before is the bridge between the human and the Divine.

The first thing that strikes me is that I think when you hear an angel or some other messenger of God say “Do not be afraid”, you should be very concerned. The central figure in this passage is neither Gabriel nor Mary—it is God. This is the beginning of God coming into the world, a further unfolding of God’s design for the salvation of humanity. After the greeting, it says that Mary was greatly troubled. Well why shouldn’t be? But there is a folktale told in Tobit (in the apocrypha) that tells of a jealous angel who appeared on a bride’s wedding night each time she married and killed her bridegroom. Some think that in light of this popular tale, Mary may have at first misconstrued God’s messenger for an evil spirit threatening to prevent her marriage. So the angel reassures Mary and tells her of the staggering thing that she is being asked to do—to carry and nurture the Son of God, to birth the salvation of the world.

Well, then Mary is confused. Well, of course she is confused. But Gabriel assures that the baby would be born by the power of God. The Annunciation–literally, it marks the impregnating of a young, innocent girl by God. But whether or not we can get past the “how can that be” is not the point. Think about the mystery. Think about what that meant for that world more than 2,000 years ago. Think about what it means for our world. Think about what it means for you.

 

We all need to be told that God loves us, and the mystery of the Annunciation reveals an aspect of that love. But it also suggests that our response to love is critical. A few verses before the angel appears to Mary in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, another annunciation occurs; an angel announces to an old man, Zechariah, that his equally aged wife is to bear a son who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” The couple are to name him John; he is know to us as John the Baptist. Zechariah says to the angel, “How will I know that this is so?” which is a radically different response from the one Mary makes. She says, “How can this be?”

I interpret this to mean that while Zechariah is seeking knowledge and information, Mary contents herself with wisdom, with pondering a state of being…

Mary’s “How can this be?” is a simpler response than Zechariah’s, and also more profound. She does not lose her voice but finds it. Like any of the prophets, she asserts herself before God, saying, “Here am I.” There is no arrogance, however, but only holy fear and wonder. Mary proceeds—as we must do in life—making her commitment without knowing much about what it will entail or where it will lead. I treasure the story because it forces me to ask: When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Do I ask of it what it cannot answer? Shrugging, do I retreat into facile clichés, the popular but false wisdom of what “we all know”? Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say something new, a “yes” that will change me forever? (Excerpt from Meditations on Mary, by Kathleen Norris)

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Why do we Protestants not fully embrace the notion of the Annunciation?
  3. How does that change the meaning of God’s coming into the world if we do?
  4. How would you answer the question of whether or not you are “virgin” enough to respond to God?

 

 

PSALTER: Luke 1: 47-55

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=285058593

We often call this passage “The Song of Mary”, depicting it as a beautiful and idyllic poem. Really? E. Stanley Jones called The Magnificat “the most revolutionary document in the world.” It turns the world on its ear. It is a call to revolution. For those who are comfortable and fed and “on top” of ordered society, it is downright dangerous.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

If God’s incomprehensibility does not grip us in a word, if it does not draw us into [God’s] superluminous darkness, if it does not call us out of the little house of our homely close-hugged truths…we have misunderstood the words of Christianity. (Karl Rahner)

 

God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace. God came when the Heavens were unsteady and prisoners cried out for release. God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great. In the mystery of the Word made flesh, the maker of the Stars was born. We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice, or to share our grief, to touch our pain. God came with Love. Rejoice! Rejoice! And go into the Light of God. (“First Coming”, by Madeleine L’Engle)

 

God is now on earth and [humanity] in heaven; on every side all things comingle. [God] has come on earth, while being fully in heaven; and while complete in heaven, [God] is without diminution on earth…Though being the unchanging word, God become flesh to dwell amongst us. (St. John Chysostom)

 

 

Closing

 

I wonder if God comes to the edge of heaven each Advent and flings the Star into the December sky, laughing with joy as it lights the darkness of the earth; and the angels, hearing the laughter of God, begin to congregate in some celestial chamber to practice their alleluias. I wonder if there some ordering of rank among the angels as they move into procession, the seraphim bumping into the cherubim for top spot, the new inhabitants of heaven standing in the back until they get the knack of it. (After all, treading air over a stable and annunciating as the same time can’t be all that easy!)

 

Or is everybody—that is, every “soul”—free to fly wherever the spirit moves? Or do they even think about it? Perhaps when God calls, perhaps they just come, this multitude of heavenly hosts. Perhaps they come, winging through the winds of time, full of expectancy, full of hope that this year…perhaps this year…perhaps…the earth will fall to its knees in a whisper of “Peace”. (Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem, p. 39)

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