I wonder if once again the First Reading is the place to launch a message in this pandemic period. As we fret about whether online worship is “enough,” we get a word from the Lord. David didn’t think the frumpy tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant were quite “enough” now that he was settled in his reign. So, he proposed building a structure commensurate with the dignity and stature of his God.
Let me take a brief detour here and think about King David’s personality as reported in the Hebrew Bible. Here we read that the Lord has given David “rest from all his enemies around him…” David is clearly a man of action (and of bloodshed), and it would seem that he finds this respite from warfare a bit, well, boring.
So, he begins thinking. I would only point out that the other time he has leisure to think, he accosts, assaults, and impregnates the wife of his best general. He then commits bureaucratic murder to cover up his offense. Perhaps one of the lessons is that it’s best to keep kings busy.
Back to the main thoughts here. Let’s begin by wondering whose dignity was really David’s concern at this moment. Was David genuinely worried about the glory of majesty of the Lord? Or was he more concerned that a wilderness tent and a portable wooden box did not convey the dignity and power he wanted associated with his throne?
Perhaps we should wonder whose needs are at stake when we think that a particular worship technology, location, or style are not up to snuff. Are we worried about God’s needs or ours? Are we responding to divine anxiety or to the human variety? The answer is obvious.
“Maybe what we need to overhear in this pericope during this pandemic, with pressure to take Advent and Christmas to the next level for God, are these words to David and the reminder that God does not need us to take anything to the next level when we have so little energy, time, or technological know-how to give,” writes Casey Thornburgh Sigmon in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Rather,” she continues, “we need to slow down and let God build us—dwell in us— [be born in us, I might add] in humble, simple, quotidian ways. God takes the covenant to the next level (not us). That’s the awe of Christmas.”
It’s interesting to observe the behavior of the prophet, Nathan, as well. Initially, he functions as would any good, right-thinking court prophet. If the king thinks a thing, then it must be good. “Go, do all that you have in mind,” Nathan says, “for the LORD is with you.” Having the LORD with you, and having the LORD agree with you, however, are two separate things. God communicates clearly to Nathan that temple-building is not going to be on David’s personal to-do list. David has gotten things upside down on the organizational chart.
David will not build a house for the LORD. Instead, the LORD will turn David into a “house,” that is, a dynasty. This dynasty is promised to last “forever.” That’s all well and good, except it didn’t really turn out that way. The House of David goes off the tracks pretty quickly, and things generally go from bad to worse. In terms of historical reality, David’s house ceases to exist in the Babylonian exile. It becomes more of an ideal than an objective fact.
So, the question down the line becomes, “Does God keep God’s promises?” Will the House of David be restored and rule forever? This is the Messianic question. If you use the alternate psalm, Psalm 89, you can hear this question in the background of the psalm. “For I am persuaded that your steadfast love is established forever,” the psalmist writes in verse 2, “you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens.” Why does the psalmist need persuading? Because real facts on the ground seem to contradict God’s promise.
The psalmist repeats and expands upon the promise in 2 Samuel 7. This can help us to see the expectation for a Davidic Messiah in Second Temple Judaism and beyond. What’s at stake in that expectation is God’s faithfulness to God’s promises. The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is that this promise has been kept and fulfilled. It has not, however, been kept and fulfilled in the way people expected. Instead, the Son of God and Son of David is “born in a manger and come for to die.”
“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,” Gabriel declares to Mary, “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This child to be born will be the sign that God keeps God’s promise and the instrument by which the promise is kept. Mary’s question, “How can this be?” is not just about her own physical state. It is about the surprising way that God chooses to keep the promise. We didn’t see this one coming.
This is another way, perhaps, to take this text if one were to preach on it in Advent. How often do we say that about the Spirit’s acting in our lives – we didn’t see this one coming? God’s work is often mysterious and even inscrutable, not visible until after it is accomplished. Kierkegaard was right when he said that we live life forward but can only understand it by looking backward.
But often we are not looking, or not looking in the right places, or not wanting to look in the right places, for God’s working and wonders. It is worth asking ourselves, “Am I trying to build something for God, when in fact God longs to build something in me?” What happens to my approach to faith and life this week if I flip the perspective, if I reverse the question?
What happens, I think, is that Mary’s response becomes our prayer. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That takes us to the second reading for this Sunday.
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Lewis, Karoline, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/marys-response.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Metger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.