The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, 2017 – Psalm 80; Luke 1:39-45
“Let it be with me according to your word.”
The word of God is a curious thing. Almost always it is not what we expect. Take King David, for instance. Here is the great king, fresh from his successful conquest. He has wrested the kingdom from Saul and been acclaimed king by the gathered tribes of Israel and defeated the Philistines, finishing finally what he started with five stones and a slingshot against Goliath when he was just a teenager. He has driven the Jebusites out of Jerusalem and established his royal house in that city, and he has come dancing into Jerusalem with joy and abandon before the Ark of God. David is God’s own king, chosen by God and anointed king over all Israel. Now sitting on his royal throne in his royal house he says to the prophet Nathan, “Here I am in a palace, thanks be to God, and our God has only a tent. I should build God a house.”
It sounds like a good plan—does it not?—an act of honour for the Lord. Certainly Nathan the prophet thinks so. “Go ahead,” Nathan says to David. “Good idea. God is with you.” Even to the prophet, it sounds like a good plan. But the prophet has not reckoned with the Word of the Lord. That very night the word of the Lord comes to the prophet Nathan, and God says, “What are you thinking? Go and say to my servant David, “Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” [[It is not just that I have never asked for a house, that I have chosen to be with Israel in a tent and a tabernacle all the days of their wandering, all the days of the Judges.]] It is that you have got things backwards. You have forgotten who you are…you have forgotten who I am. You have forgotten that I am the Lord your God. It is I who have made you and not you yourself; I took you from the pasture, from chasing after sheep to be prince over my people Israel. This house in which you now sit, this royal throne, I gave to you. I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. I am the Lord your God. And will you make me a house? This is the Word of the Lord. It slices into David’s good intentions like a sword, slices into the purpose he has found for God in his new-found power, and it reveals David’s purpose for what it is: his purpose, his word and not the word of God. “Say to David my servant,” God says rather pointedly to the prophet Nathan. David has forgotten who is in fact the Lord.
When David was a shepherd chasing the sheep he knew who was Lord. He faced Goliath with five stones and a slingshot when he was just a boy because he knew who was Lord. This is what David said.
When the Philistine looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance…The Philistine said to David, “Come to me and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.” But David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head…so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel…, that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand” (1 Sam 17: 42-47).
The battle is the Lord’s. David’s battle, our battle, every battle is the Lord’s.
The battle is the Lord’s, and the glory thereof; kingdom and power and glory, these belong to God. Therefore there is hope when the battle is impossible—not only hope but confidence, the assurance of the young David facing down the Philistine’s greatest war hero, sword and spear and javelin, with a few stones: the Lord does not save by sword and spear, for the battle is the Lord’s. Now David has won the battle—the impossible battle, vanquished not only Goliath but the armies of Saul. The shepherd boy is king. David has won the battle by the grace of God, and he has forgotten that the battle is the Lord’s. Sitting on his throne in the pleasure of his new power he says to the prophet Nathan, “I will build God a house.”
Enter the Word of the Lord. It is a word to call David back to himself, to call him back to God, to help him remember, here on his new throne, why it is that he is sitting there. “Are you the one to build me a house?” God says to his servant David. “I brought you up from the pasture and I have cut off all your enemies before you.” I will tell you if I want a house. It is a word of rebuke to the man who has forgotten that all that he is and was and will be rests upon the word of the Lord, forgotten to wait for this word and listen for this word and find in this word his hope and all his fresh springs.
The word of the Lord comes to call David back to who he is, and who God is.
And this word comes also as promise. Such unfathomable mercy there is in this word of God for which we wait. “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?… The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.” The word of the Lord explodes David’s good intentions, his self-constructed purpose, to call him back to the purpose of God. I will make you a house. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me, and your throne shall be established forever.”
Say to my servant David, God says to the prophet Nathan. David is the servant of the Lord. There is something going on here that is much bigger than his own kingship, his own power—even power to build a house for the Lord. There is the good purpose of almighty God. There is the ancient and present and infinite / world-without-end good purpose of God, in which David by the call and choosing of God, by God’s remarkable grace, is a player. This good purpose encompasses David’s own throne. But it reaches beyond David’s throne, too, behind and before, drawing into that throne all the promises to God’s people in Egypt, all their wandering in the wilderness, their long hope for a time and a place of salvation. The Word of God comes to David on his throne and sums up the long hope of Israel and draws hope forward through David, to a Son. “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” The word of God is so much bigger than any word that is ours alone—than even our best and most well-meaning word.
The Word of the Lord comes to David on his throne and points him forward, beyond David’s own power, David’s own word, beyond any house he might build, to another and greater Word.
And the angel said to Mary, “Greetings, highly-favoured one; theLord is with you.” And Mary was startled at this word and wondered what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not fear, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you shall conceive and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 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 father David…and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
To the young woman Mary, the word of the Lord comes at last, the same word spoken long ago to David on his throne: word of promise, word of God’s grace, word of an eternal good purpose spanning the times, God’s love for his people from exodus through exile and back again, God’s word spoken to Moses from the burning bush and to David on his throne and to the grieving prophets in the days of Israel’s suffering and sin. The Lord will make you a house. The Lord will make you a place where you may seek him, where you may worship him in spirit and in truth, where you may find your purpose and your joy in him,; the Lord will make his dwelling place among you.
In the Word spoken to Mary this day we hear the beginning of salvation. In the time of our need, in the time of our wandering, in the time of our servitude to gods that are no God, God’s ancient word this day sounds: the Lord will make you a home. This day the promise is conceived; this night it comes to birth, in the word spoken to the young woman Mary.
The word of the Lord comes to Mary, announcing the fulfilment of hope, God with us in our wandering, even now.
It is not an easy word; Mary thinks it impossible: “How shall this be, seeing that I do not know a man?” And what will this mean for me, in the eyes of the world? Not yet married, and no longer a virgin. It is not an easy word. But Mary’s word is “yes.” “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.” And in that yes, she found a joy that rings still down the ages. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Mary’s Magnificat. We still sing it, all over the world, at every Evensong. We sing Mary’s “yes” to the word of God, the difficult, the impossible word; the word above all others full of hope. “For the Lord has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
Mary was on all counts a person of no particular account. She was no king like David. And yet it was in her that God’s Word came to fruition. Why? Because she waited upon the Word, and when it came she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” She did not set out to build God a house. It was God who reached out and touched her, who claimed her in his Word and for his Word, who made his dwelling place in her. One small person; no king. But in her obedience, in the power of the Word that overshadowed her, an explosion of light – the night sky over Bethlehem filled with angels and a star shining in the East. In her “yes” to the Word of God, God’s Word let loose upon the world in the child, for the hope of the world.
This is the moment of promise, a promise offered to each one of us in God’s word today, good tidings of a great joy that may be born in us. God even now holds out his hand; on this day his Word comes to us. He speaks in the child who will be born, and asks if we will hear.
And Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”