24th December 2017 (Christmas Eve and Advent 4) - Hugh Perry
2 Samuel 7: 1-11, 16
This is one of the important passages that give an example of the place of the prophet as a representation of the divine who mediates the excesses of absolute rulers. David wanted to build ‘a house for God’ and absolute monarchs who build houses for gods become the rulers of heaven and earth. But the prophet Nathan restrains David from such excess and introduces the idea of God with the people.
Nathan therefore introduces the concept of religion as a way of setting ultimate authority beyond the realm of human institutions, including democracies.
When God, through Nathan, promises David that his ‘house’ will be eternal God is using the word house as household or family as in ‘the house of David’ or in our usage ‘the house of Windsor.’ and although the house of David came to an end in history, Christianity sees Jesus Christ as the eternal son of David.
In the last two weeks we have seen both Mark and John give different perspectives of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. Mark tells us that Jesus began his ministry after John was arrested and John’s Gospel has the Baptist passing on disciples to Jesus. Now Luke takes the relationship back to before their births.
Bill Loader writes that:
In one of the most beautiful scenes of Luke’s infancy narratives a heavenly angel meets a young woman, Mary. It almost calls for music and ballet. The ancient world is celebrating not so much a birth as a life, but in doing so transposes the mystery and wonder of that life into its first moments. The Christmas stories are not really about a baby; they are about the person of Christ. To miss that is to miss their point.
This Sunday is both the last Sunday of Advent and the eve of Christmas and so it is perhaps fitting there is a crucial contrast between these two readings this morning but also a similar theme that unites them.
David suggests to Nathan that he build a house for God. Such a construction project would have the effect of bringing God into David’s kingdom and therefore subject to David’s rule. That indeed would have been a cunning plan.
Nathan quite rightly rebuts the suggestion thereby reinforcing the important function of religion as a way of setting ultimate authority beyond the realm of human institutions. Kings, Queens, dictators and even elected presidents and political parties are, and must always be, subject to a higher authority.
Humanity needs an authority we call God that holds humanity’s highest ideals and empathy for other people, our collective ethical ideals and concern for the interdependence of all life.
No matter how handsome, beautiful, intelligent or famous a human leader or potential human leader may seem they all have the unfortunate failing of being human and at some point will see things differently to other humans. Leaders, like other people and other animals, also have a desire for self preservation and most have a drive to reproduce their own kind.
Both those perfectly natural traits were apparent in the Biblical account of David and got him into trouble. The divine promise that his household would rule for ever nearly came unstuck when his family self destructed leaving only Solomon to succeed him. Later descendants eventually succumbed to more powerful empires and the line moved into the mythic past as the ideal leadership for God’s people and the gospel writers exploited that hope.
Luke note’s that Mary was engaged to Joseph who presumably had been on DNA Detectives and discovered that he was a descendant of David. However Luke also makes it clear that Joseph is not Jesus’ father.
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.’ (Luke 1:35)
Not only does that say something special about Jesus but it makes it clear that, regardless who the parents are, or the circumstances of their conception, all children have the potential to be special and it is up to the community to allow them to grow and reach that potential.
However Luke has also made a claim for Jesus’ Davidic heritage in an important previous verse.
‘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 1:32)
In that passage Luke tells us that people will call Jesus son of God and regardless of his DNA God can still make him a descendant of David and can give him David’s throne.
That verse recognises that, in loving circumstances, adoption can be as powerful as DNA and of course the God of Love can make anything happen. In the rest of his Gospel Luke goes on to explain that the throne of David promised by the angel is not necessarily part of the historic Davidic dynasty but the everlasting divine rule of all humanity. The realm Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ which is open to, and empowered by, those loyal followers of Jesus who accept Christ’s leadership.
But the everlasting rule promised to Mary differed from David’s vision in another significant feature. In the realm of Christ everybody has direct access to God.
In our 2nd Samuel reading David decided that he wanted to build a house for God and he talks to Nathan the prophet about it. Nathan then has a vision which tells him God does not want a house and he advises David accordingly.
This imagery in the passage shows that even a totalitarian monarch is subject to God which is important and fits the concept that God embodies humanity’s highest ideals. But the downside is that it also suggests that even a king needs a prophet or priest to intercede of their behalf.
As well as giving power to the priesthood that opens the possibility of an unholy alliance between religious authority and secular authority, between chief priest and monarch. This was one of the issues at the time of Jesus where the chief priest in the temple was subject to the Roman Empire. However the power oscillates and organised Christianity quickly adopted priestly power and, at the time of the Reformation, the head of the church wielded more power than the Holy Roman Emperor or the princes of Europe.
David took on board Nathan’s advice but kings were not always comfortable with being told what to do by religious leaders. In 1170 King Henry II of England supposedly issued those fateful words ‘Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest’ and four of his nights obliged by murdering Thomas Becket, the Arch Bishop of Canterbury.
But the gospel writers make it clear that the angel’s promise of ‘the throne of his ancestor David’ was something completely different, even to the Davidic model with excesses of a monarch moderated by the divine influence through prophet or priest. Through the teaching and influence of Jesus everyone would understand they had direct access to God. Mark, Mathew and Luke all report that at the moment of Jesus’ death the curtain of the temple was divided.
In Mark we read ‘And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (Mark 15:38) Luke writes ‘While the sun’s light failed and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:45, 46)
The significance of the curtain of the temple was that it separated off the room where only the presiding priest could go, supposedly to meet with God, and intercede on behalf of the people. The point all three gospel writers make by recording the curtain’s demise is that, with the completion of Jesus’ mission’ all people have a direct relationship with God.
Most of us have difficulty in understanding that. So we pray to a heavenly Jesus to take our prayers to God.
But John’s Gospel has a long farewell speech in which Jesus not only makes it clear that he and the Father are one but as friends of Jesus those who follow Jesus are also part of the oneness.
The doctrine of the Trinity makes that oneness clear in theological language by recognising Creator, Christ and Spirit as different faces or images of One God.
The God everybody is able to pray to and meet with God through the wonder of creation, the stories of Jesus and the inspiration of the Spirit.
The angel’s message to Mary is also a challenge to us to recognise the potential of every child and that is certainly a possibility to confront when we are this close to Christmas.
Luke tells us that Mary was ‘much perplexed by his (the angel’s) words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:29)
Mary lives in the somewhat mystical, magical world of the gospels but since more than fifty women have made allegations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein women all over the world have admitted having unwanted attention from a male. Some of that attention may well have left them much perplexed and fearful of the immediate future.
Mary was engaged to a man who was not the child’s father in an honour/shame society where the penalty for getting pregnant outside marriage was death by stoning. So I can imagine her being very perplexed indeed.
What saved Mary was love, Joseph’s love for Mary, and his recognition that the child born of Mary was Holy and was the Son of God. What the Gospels tell us is that the God we image in Jesus Christ is the parent of all humanity. Therefore as Mary’s child changed human history every child has the potential to transform their world.
As communities we do not have the right to judge the circumstances of a woman’s pregnancy or how she struggles to deal with the perplexity of a situation not of her choosing. We do have the Christ inspired obligation of a love that sees every child as a child of God that deserves every chance to fulfil the full potential the divine spirit will inspire them to.
In our world there is a lot of self-righteous energy directed towards protecting unborn children by people who oppose welfare support to single mothers or their children. Furthermore in the news last week a woman in Auckland, Jamie Deane, was evicted from a bus for breast feeding her baby. Joan Osborn’s song ‘What if God was one of us’ asks what if God was just a stranger on the bus? When the history of art is filled with pictures of Madonna and Child it would seem fair to ask, what if that baby on an Auckland bus was God making his or her way home.
In love we can surely forgive the person who complained and the perplexed bus driver who evicted the mother and child from the bus. But what really disappointed me was that everyone else just sat there. In a caring community I would have expected everyone else to get off the bus too.
In a big city I understand that there would not have been any poor shepherds on that bus but I am surprised there were not even three wise people following a star.
To follow our star to the celebration of the birth of Christ is to lovingly accept that all people are children of God and each child is a rebirth of Christ with the power to transform our world.