“The House of God” Reflections by the Rev. Joe Summers given at The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation on December 24th, 2017. (Readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent: 2nd Samuel 7:1-11,16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38)
The King David we hear about in our scriptures today seems sweet, but a little foolish. He tells the prophet Nathan he wants to build a fancier place for the ark of the covenant to be put in. He’s apparently embarrassed that he’s living in a cedar house, but the ark of God is still in a tent. One wonders if perhaps subconsciously he wasn’t looking for reason to justify his fancy house, or maybe even build a palace for himself in the future.
Nathan tells him that sounds good, but that night God comes to Nathan and Nathan hears the Lord say: “I’ve never asked you for a house” (which I take to mean it’s not something God’s ever needed). “Instead I will build you a house, a nation where my people will be protected and evil doers will afflict them no more and this kingdom will last forever.”
It’s a striking prophecy. David’s son Solomon will build the temple God has not asked for and not a temple of wood but a massive stone temple–one of the great wonders of the ancient world. According to 2nd Samuel Solomon becomes like a new Pharaoh building this temple as part of his attempt to make Israel a glorious empire. Under Solomon the prophet Samuel’s warnings about what would happen if Israel chose to have a King are all fulfilled. The people of Israel will lose their freedom and end up serving a King, not God. Like Pharaoh, Solomon uses slave labor and conscripted labor to build the Temple. Under his reign you see the growing divide between the wealthy and the poor as reflected in the court around Solomon and all the hundreds of wives and concubines he maintained. Those wives and concubines also reflect Solomon’s love of imperial politics as this was a way of forging political alliances in the ancient world. All that wealth has to come from somewhere and so you know the exploitation of others was increasing greatly. With Solomon as their model the kings of Israel will lead the Kingdom of Israel to its destruction. Throughout this whole period, part of why these kings and rulers of Israel ignored all the warnings of the prophets is that they held onto this prophecy that the Kingdom of Israel would last forever.
If Nathan heard this prophecy correctly, it’s a great example of how what we think God is saying, may not be what God is really saying. To me it’s a credit to the composers of the bible that they leave us with this complex story of a prophecy that seems to promise a kingdom that will last forever while also telling the story of the destruction of that kingdom. As a nation that’s often thinks of itself as exceptional in a similar way, such that we don’t take the wrongs we are doing seriously or listen to our prophets, it is a story we might want to pay attention to.
Now for the writers of the New Testament, the prophecy of a Kingdom that will last forever will be fulfilled in a descendent of David, Jesus of Nazareth. But his Kingdom will be the antithesis of the kingdoms David and Solomon envisioned.
It will be a kingdom built not through military power and conquest and economic exploitation, as the kingdoms of David and Solomon were built, but instead among and through the hearts of the poor.
The upside-down nature of this kingdom is reflected in our gospel today. I can’t think of anytime in the bible up until now that angels came and talked with women, but now, Gabriel comes and addresses Mary saying “Greetings, Favored one. The Lord is with you.” This is particularly significant because at the heart of the Christmas story is the vision of Emmanuel—“God with us.”
Mary is perplexed. What is going on? Why am I being greeted by an angel and why am I being greeted in this way? The angel continues “You shall bear a son who will inherit the throne of his ancestor David and his reign and his kingdom will last forever.” (You could see how a prophecy like this could lead people to think that Jesus would become a new ruler in Israel.)
Mary says: “How can this be for I am a virgin?” Gabriel replies: “the Holy Spirit will come upon you and therefore the child born to you will be called Son of God.” After Gabriel explains that this can happen because with God all things are possible, we then hear Mary embrace this wild vision with the words: “Let it be to me according to your word for I am the servant of the Lord.”
I want to point out how this story is a kind of re-telling of the story we heard in 2nd Samuel. In both you have this discussion about a Kingship and a Kingdom that is everlasting. In both we have this discussion about a house of God. As part of Luke’s story of the new temple of God we need to understand that the Temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Romans not long before Luke wrote his Gospel. Luke’s gospel presents the vision that the new temple of God is not a building, but a temple of human flesh.
Mary’s body will literally be the temple of God, the temple which will house God’s spirit and God’s son. “Ave Maria (Hail Mary) full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” Mary is the image, the revelation, of God dwelling in us.
The central mystery of Christmas is the Incarnation and its vision of God revealed in and through human flesh. As it says in “Mary Did you know?” that wonderful song Edie sang last week:
“Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God
Mary did you know,
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I Am.”
When you kissed your little baby—you kissed the face of God. The revelation of Jesus as a reflection of God opens the door to us being able to see God in every human face, every human body. Like Mary, Jesus will house God’s spirit opening up a vision of how God seeks to dwell in all humanity, all human flesh. As Paul will say again and again, you are the temple of God.
The interaction between Gabriel and Mary is the story of the always incarnating God who comes not overpowering us, not as a king or warrior who would force us or coerce us, but rather knocking on the doors of our hearts—seeking our permission to come and be born in us and dwell with us as a child, or an idea, or a vision, whose dependent on our love and care to live and thrive and come into fullness. May we like Mary have the courage to let the Incarnation happen in and through us.
The revelation of God in human bodies—God in impermanent human flesh—turned the heavens upside down. It is a vision so much more powerful and beautiful than all the wealth of every empire combined. It bestows every human being and creation itself with a heavenly dignity that we are still trying to figure out how to honor through things like human rights and popular democracy and the environmental movement. It also means that those of us who have experienced God in and through loved ones who have died, or who we are now separated from, can understand why we are so bereft. At the same time it encourages us to know that the goodness we have known through them is at the heart of everything, is the beginning and the end. For two thousand years this insight has given sight to the blind and had the power to calm the storms of our hearts, and given us the courage to go where angels dare not go.
May we open ourselves to this vision of heaven and earth united in human flesh that it may live in us and through us. For if we are willing God is able and if we are ready God has already gone ahead to prepare a way for us.