Advent 4B. This is “Mary’s Sunday.” The 4th Sunday of the Advent season when we pause to reflect on the enormous role played by a teen-aged, Jewish peasant girl in God’s ultimate plan for history and for this world. With what Anglicans sometimes perceive as Roman Catholic over-emphasis and Protestant under-emphasis on the Mother of Jesus, we sometimes fail to say much about her at all!
Yet, the Gospel accounts are full of Mary in the Christmas story, she is referred to a number of times in the subsequent accounts of Jesus’ life, she is there at the foot of the cross and again in the Upper Room at Pentecost. The Prayer Book has four major holy days specifically celebrating Mary’s life – The Annunciation (which we also had as our Gospel story today), the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth when both were carrying their first-born sons, the Presentation of the young Jesus in the Temple when the days of Mary’s Purification after childbirth was complete, and the Feast St. Mary the Virgin on August 15th when Roman Catholics believe she was taken back into heaven in a special way.
Mary’s story begins, in a sense, with our Old Testament Reading today from the Second Book of Samuel. While the Hebrew people believed that their awesome God could never be seen face to face and that God did not live in a house made with hands, yet they had sensed the Divine Presence in the pillars of fire and cloud and on Mt. Sinai. They had preserved the tablets of the 10 Commandments in a “tent” called “the Ark of the Covenant” and carried it with them wherever they went, even sometimes into battle.
There was a great debate about whether eventually a Temple should be built where the Ark could find a permanent home and where the people of Israel could come to offer sacrifice and to worship and to pray and to sense the almost-physical presence of their God whenever they wished and could get there. The great King David, quite understandably, began to believe that he was the one to build God’s great House, his great Temple.
Especially when David himself was living in very comfortable surroundings – he said, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” But the prophet, Nathan, like most of the prophets down through the ages, was a bit suspicious of this heavenly building program. He, and the other prophets, were concerned that a beautiful Temple could become an idol for the Jewish people; that something even though built to point beyond itself to the God of heaven and earth, could almost become an object of worship in and of itself.
It’s something we Christians have to be concerned about as well. Our great Cathedrals and Gothic churches can, and do, provide the space and the context for the worship of God. I cannot walk into places like this without sensing the beauty and majesty of God, that peace of God which passes all understanding. But, if we are not careful, we can find ourselves worshipping a building rather than the God the building was erected to glorify. That is now, and was then, idolatry!
So, Nathan heard God saying, “Go and tell my servant David…are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day…Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took YOU from the pasture…to be prince over my people…Moreover the Lord declares to you and the Lord will make YOU a house…your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7 passim)
In other words, God was not interested in dwelling in a house made with hands. God was interested in dwelling in the midst of a people – the house of David was not to be a Temple. The house of David was to be a family….an inheritance…a people!
That story would have been well known to a young, Jewish girl in first century Palestine. She would have heard it read in the synagogue and would doubtless have sung these words from today’s Psalm countless times in her growing up, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn an oath to David my servant: I will establish your line for ever, and preserve your throne for all generations” (Psalm 126).
Those texts must have come crashing down upon her when she heard these words spoken to her as in the voice of an angel: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 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.” (Luke 1)
The throne of his ancestor David! David’s descendent! The Anointed One! The Messiah! And she was to bring him into the world! Truly, she was the “favored one.” Surely “the Lord was with her.” Yet it would not be so easy.
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary was not concerned here with having Gabriel explain a Doctrine called the Virgin Birth. Mary was concerned about being laughed at, scorned, cast out, perhaps even stoned as an unwed mother from a strict Jewish family and community. For them, there could be no other explanation but that, at the very least, she had become pregnant before her marriage vows to Joseph. And, at the worst, the father was someone other than Joseph.
“How can this be?” she asked. “How can I do this?” The only answer that came? God will be with you. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” How many of us would have said “Yes,” considering the cost, on that vaguest of promises? Yet Mary did. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
No, dear friends, the Lord God does not dwell in a temple made with hands. Even so beautiful a temple as the one we are privileged to worship in here today. The Lord dwells in a midst of a people. A people who trace their history to a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. A people who trace their history to rugged tablets of stone carried through the desert in a rustic tent. But,for us, a people who have discovered the true dwelling place of God.
In the womb of a pregnant teenager. In a wooden manger and on a wooden cross. And, finally, in the hearts of his faithful people. Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with YOU!