Sermon: "Lowliness and Promises"
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16; Luke 1.46-55 (Canticle of Mary); Romans 16.25-27; Luke 1.26-38
In the previous Advent Sundays, we have considered the role of faith, hope, and joy. Today we focus on love, especially as it relates to the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant.
In 2 Samuel 7, David, while enjoying his new cedar palace, informs Nathan, the prophet, that he desires to build God a temple as opposed to the Ark of the Covenant remaining in a tent, the tabernacle. Nathan tells him to go ahead with his plan for God is with him.
That night, God visits Nathan in a dream and gives him a message for David. In this message, God reminds David that God has traveled with the people of Israel from the time God delivered them from Egypt until the present day. In all that time, God never asked for “a house of cedar. God said, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel, and I have been with you wherever you went … I will make for you a great name … I will give you rest from all your enemies … Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house” (2 Samuel 7.8b-11; NRSV). In other words, God said, “You want to build me a house. No, but I will build you a house.”
God further told David that his offspring would build a house for God’s name and God would establish the throne of David’s kingdom forever. King Solomon built the Temple. Thus, we have traditionally interpreted the reference to offspring to mean Solomon but the words, “Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7.16; NRSV) present a problem: Given the fall of the Davidic monarchy, the end of David’s throne, how are we to understand God’s promise, the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant? One commentator resolves the problem as follows: “After the destruction of the Davidic monarchy, this promise could only take the form of the coming of a Davidic Messiah, and in Christian perspective the promise has been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Christ, whom the New Testament (as in the Lucan Annunciation story that forms the gospel reading today) proclaims as the Son of David” (Fuller: https://liturgy.slu.edu/4AdvB122020/theword_indepth.html).
After receiving God’s message, further reading tells us David sat before the Lord and prayed: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come, May this be instruction for the people, O Lord God” (2 Samuel 7.18-19; NRSV).
Let us now consider the Annunciation story. Luke tells us the angel Gabriel was sent to Mary, a young maiden betrothed to Joseph of the house of David. Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you …Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1.26-28; NRSV). As an aside, I do not like correspondence that begins with “Greetings!” It calls up bad memories of a message I received in 1970. To loosely paraphrase, “Greetings! Uncle Sam is with you, and you have every reason to fear!” I find it ironic that the military appropriated a herald of good news and peace only to use it for purposes of war!
Back to Gabriel! Gabriel continued, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him 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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1.31-33; NRSV). Luke, through the angel Gabriel, tells us of the impending fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant.
Mary asked, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” As you may recall, when Gabriel earlier foretold John the Baptists’s birth, Zachariah registered disbelief (“How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Luke 1.18; NRSV)). In contrast, Mary sought understanding; there was no touch of disbelief. Gabriel answered: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be bornwill be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1.35; NRSV). And how did Mary respond? “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38; NRSV).
The angel Gabriel then departed. A few verses later we have Mary’s Song of Praise, what is now known as Canticle 15, the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (Luke 1.46-47: NRSV). One cannot help but wonder at Mary’s response and her song of praise. Where did this come from? How was she raised? What was her family life like? What gave birth to such humility and finding favor with God?
Mary closed her song of praise by saying, “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1.54-55; NRSV). Here we find a reference to the Abrahamic covenant, and by extension, once again to the Davidic covenant.
St. Paul also touches on the history and mystery associated with these covenants in the closing doxology of Romans: “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 the long ages 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…” (Romans 16.25-26; NRSV).
So what lessons might we draw from our consideration of these readings? What insights can we gain regarding God’s plan of salvation? Two readily come to mind.
First, did you notice the humble beginnings of David and Mary? God, through the prophet Nathan, told David: “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people….” And God selected Mary, a humble peasant girl who found favor with God to give birth to Jesus. In response to Mary’s question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin,” Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Think of the trust Mary must have had. In those days, being pregnant out of wedlock was cause for stoning; in the honor-based Middle East, it still occurs. As John Pilch points out, “Mediterraneans recognize in the angel’s explanation two indications that God is going to play the role of traditional husband for Mary. He will “empower” her (“the spirit will come upon you”) and “protect” her (“overshadow you”), two duties of a Middle Eastern husband. The meaning is not lost on Mary, the Mediterranean maiden” (https://liturgy.slu.edu/4AdvB122020/theword_cultural.html). Pilch further observes that Mary’s concluding remark, “Let it be done to me according to your word,” is equivalent to saying, “As you wish,” “a typical Middle Eastern response when one has lost an argument, or decides to conclude a discussion that is going nowhere” (Ibid.).
But a deeper truth lies behind these humble beginnings … the humble are open to God’s influence and working in their lives. The humble have room for God’s entry. The elite, the proud, the rich – those caught up in their own ego – have no room. Thus, they deny themselves the experience of God’s grace. Humility was the subject of Jesus’ first beatitude for a reason: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5.3). Before God can use us, we must first experience “kenosis,” self-emptying.
Second, in Christmas, in the birth of Jesus, God fulfills the covenantal promises made to Abraham and David. God’s Word, God’s Love comes down, is conceived and born, takes on flesh, lives and dwells among us. As noted previously, in Christian theology, this is the axial point of human history, for God thus reveals a whole new understanding and manner of human existence. Prior to this time, the emphasis of the law had been on obedience and sacrifice; the new emphasis, as seen in the life of Jesus, was on the law of love and forgiveness. Christmas serves to remind us of our deepest existential choice – living in the ways of the world or embracing God’s kingdom of love.
God has acted through the lowly and has lovingly fulfilled promises -- Love has come down! Hallelujah!
As I was writing this sermon, I kept recalling the old hymn written by Charles Wesley. The lyrics serve as a fitting closing:
Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of Heav’n to earth come down; Fix in us thy humble dwelling; All thy faithful mercies crown! Jesus, Thou art all compassion, Pure unbounded love Thou art; Visit us with Thy salvation, Enter every trembling heart.
Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit Into every troubled breast! Let us all in Thee inherit; Let us find that second rest. Take away our bent to sinning; Alpha and Omega be; End of faith, as its beginning, Set our hearts at liberty.
Come, Almighty to deliver, Let us all Thy life receive; Suddenly return, and never, Nevermore Thy temples leave. Thee we would be always blessing, Serve Thee as Thy hosts above, Pray and praise Thee without ceasing, Glory in Thy perfect love.
Finish, then, Thy new creation; Pure and spotless let us be; Let us see Thy great salvation Perfectly restored in Thee; Changed from glory into glory, Till in Heav’n we take our place, Till we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
-- Charles Wesley