Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday 21 December 2014 - Advent 4

Theme(s): Promise and fulfilment / Mary's faithful obedience / Mary as model disciple / God's power and persistence

Sentence: Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1:38)


God of all hope and joy,
open our hearts in welcome,
that your Son Jesus Christ at his coming
may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God now and for ever. Amen.


2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm = Luke 1:47-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38


We are getting towards the "business end" of Advent. Christmas is a few days away and these readings draw us closer to the "advent" of Jesus Christ as a baby born to be king.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

It is all but impossible to imagine what it would have been like to be an Israelite on the original Christmas eve, pondering this reading from the Israelite scriptures, trying to make sense of this promise in a land ruled by the Roman emperor via dodgy governors with some power delegated to a locally derived king, Herod, of whom many things could be said, but not the declaration "Herod is in the Davidic royal line."

Had God made a false promise to Israel in 2 Samuel 7:16? In what sense could anything about contemporary Israel be said to fulfil this promise? Of such questions without obvious answers was fervent expectation about the coming Messiah born - the expectation which would dog Jesus' ministry as people sensed he was the Messiah and pressed him to conform to their expectations!

We, today, can ask another kind of question of 2 Samuel 7: what kind of God says one thing in one passage and does another thing according to another passage? That is, what kind of God says - according to a plain reading of 2 Samuel - "there will always be a physical succession of kings descended from David" and then presides over a history of Israel which loses that succession and works through that unfolding history to bring a king into being who will forever be king, but not as a physical person seated on a human throne in a palace in Jerusalem?

First, the God of Israel is the God who takes human sin - rebellion against the will of God - seriously and treats it consequentially. Israel temporarily loses its Davidic line of kings because of its rebellion, partially expressed through David's kingly descendants who sinned as much if not more than their citizens and partially expressed through the Israelites themselves who continued after David to compromise their worship of the one true God with worship of false gods. (Yet this observation is itself complicated in respect of the Old Testament. The consequences of sin on the Davidic line is a major theme through the history told from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings, but an alternative history, told in 1 and 2 Chronicles consistently underplays the consequences of sin).

Secondly, the God of Israel reserves the right to fulfil the promises he makes to Israel on his own terms. God remains God over his promises and is not bound by how we have heard the promises. Thus God, in the long term of history, does fulfil his promise in 2 Samuel 7:16, but converts the succession of Davidic kings into a single but successful Davidic king, i.e. Jesus Christ, who will live forever.

Thirdly, we then see that the God of Israel is a God who never gives up on his people. The constant straying of God's people from the will of God aligned with the promises of God does not make God give up on his people, but it does mean God works in a new way to make his promises come true.

Psalm = Luke 1:47-55

Quite rightly today our psalm is not drawn from the Book of Psalms but from the lips of Mary the mother of our Lord as she bursts into joyful song as a response to what God is doing in her.

Note the way in which the opening line, "My soul magnifies the Lord" (46) sets the tone and the theme for the rest of the song. It is a magnificent magnifying of the greatness and goodness of the Lord.

Note also, in terms of the discussion above about God's promise to David (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16), that Mary here reaches even further back in the promises of God concerning God's people to the "promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever" (55).

All the promises of God find their fulfilment in Jesus Christ!

Romans 16:25-27

What is God up to? Generally? Eternally? Through Christmas? On the cross? In the garden with the empty tomb? In the past of Israel in its history, from Abraham to the present time when Paul wrote these words?

Here Paul nails the answer to all these questions!

God has been working out a purpose for the whole of humanity (Jews and Gentiles) which for a period has been "kept secret". That purpose "is now disclosed." The disclosure is described by Paul in two ways. First it is the content of "my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ." Secondly it is revealed "through the prophetic writings [] made known to all the Gentiles." This second description must mean that the exposition of the prophetic writings of Israel in the light of Jesus Christ is the unveiling of the secret hidden there until the coming of Jesus Christ brought out the true meaning of these writings.

What is God's purpose for Jews and for Gentiles? Paul says it is "to bring about the obedience of faith." The phrase "the obedience of faith" has already occurred in Romans 1:5. When we find things said at the beginning and at the end of a biblical writing, they are very important! What God wants is a people in a relationship to God which goes beyond lip service and outward signs of compliance to an inward trust and heartfelt following of God's will.

In other terms, and bearing the whole 16 chapters of Romans in mind, the answer to the question of what God is up to is this: God wants a people characterised by "obedience of faith." He has sought this via covenantal relationship with Israel. He now seeks this for the whole world, for Israel and non-Israel. The key even in this being worked out is the coming of Jesus Christ as the crucified one, for through Jesus God is reconciled to the people, both Jew and Gentile, who have broken relationship with him.

Luke 1:26-38

There is at least a sermon, an apologetics essay and an exercise in prophetic correlation to be developed from this passage.

The sermon is about God's work in our lives and how we should respond to God. In this sermon we would draw out the example of Mary responding to the doubly shocking message that she, a virgin, would become pregnant, and the child she would bear would be the Son of God. In this example, Mary is very human (being perplexed and asking questions (29, 34). But she rises above her confusion to declare, as a model disciple, "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (38) Are we available to God? Are we willing to work with God according to his will? Even if it turns our lives upside down?

The apologetics essay ... which I earnestly commend is not confused with the sermon. The Christmas season is not the time to indulge in speculative reasoning about how a virgin birth can (or cannot) take place. We gather in church at Christmas time to celebrate the birth of Jesus not to argue about the circumstances of his conception! Our progress through the season of Advent looks forward to the coming of Jesus and anticipates the celebration of his birth. Speculative thoughts on human biology can be dealt with on another occasion (and, in my view, not through a Sunday sermon but through a midweek parish Bible study).

With those thoughts as constraints as to where our arguments and speculations might be expressed, note what this passage attests to in respect of the conception of Jesus: the conception of Jesus is the work and will of God. God chooses Mary to be the mother of God's Child. The wisdom of God is displayed in choosing a woman who is about to be married and thus about to form a household in which the Child will be humanly brought up in security, stability and love.

That Mary is a virgin means there is no confusion about the father of the baby she will bear: God is the father (biologically) and God is the Father (spiritually, the source of all life in creation). Mary's virginity also enables no confusion about the status of Jesus as both a holy person and as 'Son of God' (35). From conception itself this baby, conceived through God the Holy Spirit 'come upon you' and (the same thought expressed differently, in parallel) 'the power of the Most High will overshadow you' (35), will be divine and human.

It seems terribly modern and up to date to display our scientific knowledge of how babies are conceived and thus to wonder just how such a conception could take place. From such a questioning stance it is then easy to entertain theories about an all too human conception which is conveniently-for-theology-about-Jesus repainted in terms of divine conception. But the passage tells us that Mary, Luke and (no doubt) Joseph knew as much as us about the basics of conception: both a man and a woman are needed for conception to take place. It is biology which informs Mary's question in verse 34, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

Thus the angel moves to assure Mary that the impossible is possible. First Mary is reminded of a nearby miracle of conception: Elizabeth, her relative, who was known to be barren, in old age has conceived a son. But this miracle is not quite what is being talked about with Mary. From earlier in Luke's Gospel we know that the miracle was that Zechariah and Elizabeth together conceived this child - a miracle in keeping with a succession of such conceptions in the Old Testament. So, secondly, the angel assures her that the power of God is even greater, "For nothing is impossible with God" (37).

An exercise in prophetic correlation: again, my suggestion is that this exercise is not confused with the sermon from this passage. It is important that we find in the gospels signs that Jesus Christ, in each and every important part of his life, from conception to resurrection, fulfils God's will foretold long ago. The importance concerns both the power of God's Word (what God says about the future comes into being because God's will is greater than the ordinary course of events in human history) and the meaning of God's Word (when God makes a promise, it is fulfilled - ultimately the promise of God being fulfilled in Jesus Christ is the promise that Israel is and will be God's people). But it is a moot point whether a congregation comes to hear God's Word at a Sunday sermon in terms of "Look over here, this Old Testament verse says X will happen, then look over there, this Gospel verse says X has happened." The danger with such an exercise is that we unwittingly convey the impression that God is a divine magician or manipulator whose impressive achievements consist of making history fit previous prediction.

Our challenge as preachers is to point our congregations to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, that is, to the God who may be trusted to keep his Word, including to fulfil all his promises to us. Further, our challenge is to present Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of those promises rather than to present a series of predictions of which we can say, "Look, these predictions have come true."

With that in mind, our Old Testament reading today lies in the background to this passage from Luke. God's promise to David that "Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16) is specifically invoked in the angelic message to Mary (Luke 1:32-33). Even his family heritage through Joseph is Davidic (27).

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