Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2011

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,

7:2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."

7:3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."

7:4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:

7:5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?

7:6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.

7:7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"

7:8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;

7:9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.

7:10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,

7:11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.

7:16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

Luke 1:46b-55
1:46b "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Romans 16:25-27
16:25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages

16:26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith --

16:27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.

Luke 1:26-38
1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

1:28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

1:30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

1:32 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.

1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

1:34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

1:35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

1:36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God."

1:38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

The arrogance of David; the humility of Mary. That is the obvious place to start.

Advent is about preparation. "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," the famous words say. How do we prepare? By making a highway in the desert, a straight road the procession of the Lord can travel down, so all can see it long before it arrives? And to we prepare it so we can praise our perceptiveness, our perspicuity, or insight? Or do we prepare ourselves so we can be a handmaiden to the Lord? That way lies all kinds of trouble, not least of which is: who wants to be a handmaiden?

We don't "do" humility. Mary's song is taken as a hymn of praise and power. Her response to the angel is taken, at best, as sly; at worst, as demeaning. None of these are quite right. Mary is humble because she has no power. She knows her position in the world, and what she can do with it. In Matthew's version, the visitation on an angel in a dream (which marks Matthew as more Jewish than Luke; for Luke, incarnation and ephemeral touch at all points. Matthew prefers the more traditional visitation in sleep.), and the power of decision lies with Joseph. Zechariah has just made a decision, a manly decision by a decision maker: "How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man and my wife is well along in years." (Luke 1:18, SV). It is the question of one used to being responsible, who knows the burden for declaring this vision to the community will rest on him. It's also the wrong question: "Listen to me: you will be struck silent and speechless until the day these things happen, because you did not trust my words, which will come true at the appropriate time." (Luke 1:20, SV). Mary asks only how this can be; not how she can possibly trust it. And of course, here's where the question of faith, of knowing God and the mind of God, comes in: because the angel is a messenger, is an agent of God. The angel is not God, but the angel speaks for God, literally speaks as God. But how can you be sure the angel is true and can be trusted? How can you be sure this is not a delusion?

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

And by the way, something comes up to underline the importance, the radical nature, the raw challenge, of the Magnificat. It seems that ancient Rome, at the height of its economic inequality, saw the top 1% of Roman society controlling only 20% of the empire's wealth. That, as compared to today in America, where the 1% controls 40% of the nation's wealth. Of course the ptochoi, of whom Jesus was one from birth, would see some strong differences between the Roman Empire and modern America, in favor of America. Do we imagine, though, that the 1% in America today hear Mary's song and tremble? Any more than Rome did when Luke first penned the words?

When will those words come true? How can we know the mind of God, and see those words finally come true? So long, of course, as we are not the ones toppled from our thrones, or sent away empty-handed and hungry. Justice is a terrible price to pay for mercy. And it is mercy Mary is singing about. It is also mercy that she expects from the messenger of God, and so she offers humility. The two are joined, like hand and glove. Mercy is the greatest act of humility, because there is no pride in it. And humility makes mercy possible, because pride will never stand for anything merciful when punishment and the exacting of payment will do.

What do we do with this idea, that we are now, in some ways, less equitable than ancient Rome? Do we look to laws to correct this error, so we can return to fuller employment and richer earnings and go back to storing up our treasures on earth with frantic passion and near-wild abandon? Well, when I put it that way, it seems almost as foolish and panicking in a crowded store and spraying pepper spray on anyone near you. We would never do that, so surely we aren't pursuing the goods of the world quite so manically as...well, as others are. If we just had a bit more, and some to put by, then we could calm down. We could relax. We could rest secure in what we own. If we just had enough, then we could think about taking care of others. We might even be able to afford to be merciful; if only our pride would let us.

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." But only if you let it be with me according to my desires. After all, what am I, a servant? A handmaid? A slave?

How can you be sure that what the angel says is true, and can be trusted? "A Miracle on 34th Street" deals brilliantly with this problem. Is "Kris Kringle" truly Santa Claus? Or is he just a kindly but demented old man? We never find out, and the question is never settled. The courtroom scene turns on a simple cheat to avoid taking responsibility for an answer. The final scene, in either version, winks at the thought that the old man was really a right jolly old elf; but again, who can be sure? How, then, would you ever know that you were speaking to God, unless you already believed it was God speaking to you? How would you ever be sure? What proof would you find satisfactory? The proof to the little girl that the old man is indeed the myth incarnate is easily explained away with other reasons; it is not a final proof, except to her. And perhaps, at the end, the rest of us are humbled, a bit; humbled in our pretensions that life is not wonderful, that what seems like magic cannot happen, that love cannot transform us and bring out the angels of our better nature.

And is that God? And how do you know, one way or the other?

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

There's that blasted humility again! And what do we do with it? Do we accept it, and lower ourselves? Do we ignore it, and wonder how anyone can ever contemplate being merciful (except, of course, to us!)? Do we reject it, and harden our hearts against all entreaties to turn around. to change, to come and hear the angels sing, or at least see the oxen kneel? Which to choose, and how to choose it? If God has already scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; if God has already brought the powerful down from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; if God has already filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty, and already helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; have we simply not seen it? Is it possible this is true, and we keep rejecting the truth of it? Is it possible the truth is not bitter, but sweet; not sorrowful, but joyful; not despairing, but full of hope? Is it possible this truth is so simple, we simply have to humble ourselves to see it?

"Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

Let it truly be unto you, according to your faith. Amen.

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