Today is both Christmas Eve and the Fourth Sunday of Advent. We begin with a conversation between King David and the prophet Nathan in the 2nd book of Samuel. At this point David is doing well, settled in his house. In a conversation with Nathan, David spoke about building a house for the ark of God. That night God came to Nathan in a dream and reminded him that God plucked David “from following the sheep, to be leader of my people Israel.” God then tells Nathan that God will instead will exceed David’s expectations. “I will give you fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth.” God further promises a future where they will never be disturbed or oppressed by the wicked. And after David dies God promised to send one of David’s offspring to “make his sovereignty secure.” David’s House and sovereignty will last forever. Luke’s Gospel speaks of what we call the Annunciation. The angel Gabriel came to Mary (who was engaged to Joseph) and told her that God chose her. Because “[t]he Lord is with you” she will conceive and bear a child who will be called Jesus. Disturbed, Mary asked how this can happen as she was a virgin. Gabriel told her that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and that this miracle could be believed because her kinswoman Elizabeth (who was thought to be infertile) was six months pregnant. Mary responded with this: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let what you have said be done to me.”
Nearly all religions have places for followers to go, places where they can feel closer to God. Catholics have cathedrals, Mormons have temples, Buddhists have monasteries, etc. While these places are thought of as holy and even opportunities to feel closer to God, that’s all they are.
I’m struck with David’s desire for a place not only for worshippers to gather but a place for God to live. This happened at a point where David’s life was going well: he had consolidated power and was recognized as the only king of Israel (if you think the transition from Saul to David was smooth, take a good look at the first few chapters of the 2nd Book of Samuel). He recognized while he lived well the “ark of God” dwelt in a tent. By way of explanation the ark of God was a chest containing the stone tablets that contained the 10 Commandments. God carved these stones and gave them to Moses and we can all imagine how important these tablets were.
With all due respect to the Indiana Jones movies it’s assumed that the ark was destroyed in 586 BCE when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple. This Temple was built by David’s son Solomon to house the Ark, and (to David’s and Solomon’s thinking) God. The Israelites gathered there for worship but the center of the Temple was reserved for only a few. It was called the “Holy of Holies” and it was thought that it was God’s dwelling place.
When David first proposed this Temple I’m sure he expected God to be pleased: after all why should David live in a palace while God lived in a tent? David spoke with the prophet Nathan about his plan and that night God spoke to Nathan. As I read this, it’s almost as if God was amused by this, as if to find humor in the idea that David, or any human, could build a structure that was good enough for God.
Instead God reminded Nathan of what he had done for David, how David was plucked from his life as a shepherd to now ruling Israel. But God went further than that. God spoke not only of what he had done, but what he will do in the future. Not only will God make David famous in the history of the world, he will raise an heir who will lead a nation without peer or fear.
As Christians we look to Jesus as the heir that Samuel spoke of. When most of think of this foreshadowing we don’t think of 2 Samuel 7 but instead we think of Isaiah 7:14 that speaks of a virgin who will bear a child. This is tricky. Jews of that time (and ours) believe Samuel predicted a Messiah who will make all things right.
And if all we had was this reading from 2nd Samuel we would have no idea that the Messiah was anything more than a really good guy descended from David who would unify everyone. But that’s not all we have.
We have today’s Gospel from Luke. God didn’t come to Mary to tell her that she was carrying a really good guy who would unify everyone. God’s dreams always overwhelm ours. The angel asked Mary not to carry not a good guy who would become the Messiah. She was asked to carry the Incarnate God.
So here’s the thing: David and his son Solomon built a Temple that would house God, but when God came to us he came to us in the womb of an ordinarily woman. I don’t think any of us can imagine Mary’s reaction to the angel but we can all agree that our history turns on her decision to say yes.
God came to us not in the Holy of Holies. God came to us not in a palace. I know I’m foreshadowing my Christmas homily, but God came to us not where we would have expected him, but in a place most people would overlook. A single mother who was shut out of places fit for humans and instead trudged to a place fit for cattle.
So many of us think about how we should live our lives to please God. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but perhaps these readings call us to do something else. These readings tell us that God’s generosity knows no bounds. What if our discipleship does not attempt to repay God for what he has done for us? Instead, what if our discipleship calls us to recognize what God has done for us and challenges us to be just as generous to others?
I find this incredibly freeing. Like many of us, I can see how God has blessed me. And as much as I try, any attempt to repay God will fall short, if only because I am human and he is divine. Simply put, nothing I can do will sufficiently please God for all he has given me.
But if I can’t pay God back for his blessings, maybe I can pay God forward. I pray God does not find joy in my prayers to him as much as he finds joy when I join with another person who needs what I find as surplus.
Today we find single mothers as women who we think have made bad choices, who have found men who chose attraction over fidelity. We find people who flee oppression because they are guilty of being born in a place where powerful people scorch the earth in an attempt to gain more power. And we find people whose hunger stems from living where the rain didn’t fall this year.
But the call to love calls all of us to ignore the “how” and to choose “what now.” Clearly God’s generosity to me isn’t based on a reward for what I have done any more than suffering isn’t a punishment.
We read this on the eve of our celebration of the day God chose to love us so much he couldn’t watch us from afar. Let us make this the day we chose to please God by loving others, especially those who we previously thought unlovable.