The Hebrew text and the gospel for the fourth Sunday of Advent weave together poetically and offer contrasts and constancy.
In the first reading, (2 Samuel 7) David was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him. He said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” David then decided that he would build a proper dwelling for the ark of God, which represented God’s presence to the Israelites.
It may have been generously intended, but it was not a decision for David to make, as God reminds him through the mouth of Nathan: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’
The text does not record David’s reaction to this upbraiding, but he must have been chastened by the words and recognized that he had stepped out of line.
Now, contrast David’s well-intended but arrogant initiative with Mary’s humble response to the angel Gabriel in this morning’s gospel (Luke 1:26-38): God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
God took the initiative and sent his angel. Unlike David, Mary did not presume to suggest to God what should happen.
The angel’s greeting distressed Mary. (She may not have seen him approach and may have been startled by the sound of his voice in addition to his words.)
She was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Mary’s humble reply to these words modeled the attitude that David should have had, “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
The second theme of the readings arises from the promise, and the promise-fulfilled. It shows the constancy of God.
Speaking on God’s behalf, after he has reminded David of his place, Nathan tells him, The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: … Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.
To someone like David, intent on leaving a legacy, this promise of a house and kingdom which will endure forever, infinitely exceeds David’s puny plan for a home for God.
God’s promise to David was about to be fulfilled with the angel’s words to Mary, You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Roughly a thousand years had passed since the promise had been made to David, yet it lived on in the hopes and teachings of the Jewish people up to this Annunciation day. The awesome promise was to be fulfilled in Mary, a person who lived at the opposite end of the spectrum of gender, honour, power and wealth from David. (Among God’s other titles, the God of Paradox seems appropriate.)
Mary showed the kind of attitude towards God, “I am the Lord’s servant…May your word to me be fulfilled, that would become the way her son would also respond to him.
· Are there things that you think that God should do? End war, disease, hunger? These would be good things, don’t we all agree? We live with the tension of being God’s humble servants even while we pray and work for change in the world he has created and runs. Sometimes, perhaps, our attitudes resemble David’s and sometimes Mary’s.
· If you were in Nathan’s shoes when David was musing about building a house for God’s ark, what might you have said to him? ‘Whatever you wish?’ ‘Why not ask God for a sign that this is what he wishes?’ or, ‘Maybe you should take this idea to God in humble prayer?’ Something else?
· After the angel had left Mary what do you think she thought and felt? Did she wonder if the experience was real? Did she wonder, ‘What have I done?’ Did she savour the words and turn them over in her mind? Did she sense the change within her? Was she moved to a prayer of gratitude? Something else? All of the above?