Preaching Notes for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B (December 21, 2014)
I mentioned in these notes last year around this time that every year for twenty-five years my father wrote a Christmas Sonnet. Each sonnet was based on the one of the lectionary readings for the fourth Sunday in Advent. So he has several sonnets for Year B of the lectionary, including one I will share in this post. The poem is about this text in which Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and learns that she is pregnant and about to give birth to a baby boy, and that she is to name him Jesus.
For my father, writing poetry was a whole lot like what writing sermons is like for me. That is, what happens in the creation of a piece of creative writing, be it a sermon or a sonnet, is not really our work. Rather, it is a gift that each of us receives from God. The real “work” of writing a sermon is the opening yourself up to allow the grace of God to flow through you.
Whether a preacher engages that process while in the quiet of her home, in front of a computer screen, and tries to capture it on paper in advance of Sunday, or she allows that to happen live on Sunday morning in a more extemporaneous way doesn’t really matter. The process is pretty much the same for all of us, I think. Each one of us is really just a vessel through which the Holy Spirit is somehow revealed.
This sonnet is interesting to me in how it talks about Mary having a personal relationship with God. But before I make any further comments, let me share it with you. (Please note that you are welcome to read this poem in your worship service, but if you wish to print it please contact me ([email protected]) for permission, so I can tell you how to credit it to my father.)
(Based on Luke 1:26-38)
For Mary, the personal relationship
With God was harder by far than preachers tell.
Just twelve, her dreamy adolescence eclipsed
By the startling appearance of Gabriel
And her bonded future with its prearranged
Gold-bordered betrothal contract
Summarily sullied and shortchanged
By the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing act,
Mary, more than anybody on earth,
Knew God’s relationship was personal.
She didn’t know her son’s calling, birth
Through death, would be sacrificial.
Consider her cross when you hang your tree.
God’s love alone is our security.
© 2014 Lewis Chesser, Used by Permission.
It was those first couple of lines that really caught me: “For Mary, the personal relationship with God was harder by far than preachers tell.” I think that is so true. People throw around those words so easily: “I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” or “I have a personal relationship with the Lord.” Or we sing lyrics that suggest that the nature of our relationship with God is intimate and very personal: “I am a friend of God,” “What a friend we have in Jesus,” “He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”
We make it seem as if having a personal relationship with the creator of the universe is an easy and expected thing. As if all we have to do is SAY the words and they become true. I must confess, I’ve always struggled with this idea. Because I do think that having a personal relationship with God is “harder by far than preachers tell.”
What does it mean, after all, to be in a personal relationship with the Lord God? Does it mean that we talk to Jesus as if he is our best buddy, our closest confidant, our most cherished personal friend? Does it mean that we imagine Jesus as being a lot like us, only better?
Mary of all people in history knew what it was to have a personal relationship with God. And can you imagine?
Just like last week when I suggested you invite your congregation to try to picture John the Baptist, this week you might ask them to try to picture Mary. In all likelihood she was a very young girl. Scholars think Mary was only 12 or 13 years old when she became pregnant with Jesus.
Picture a young and innocent girl who has been betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. According to ancient customs, Mary’s marriage to Joseph would have been arranged by her father. Betrothal was a legal contract, so even though Mary was still living at home until the period of betrothal ended with the marriage ceremony, if Joseph had died during the time of betrothal, Mary would have been considered a widow.
Picture her sleeping, there in the home of her parents where she lived, in the town of Nazareth, when suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared in her room. And the angel greets her and tells her the Lord had found favor with her.
Clearly Mary was shocked and frightened by the angel, because Luke reports that the angel told her not to be afraid. And as if fear itself were not enough to shake her world, the angel Gabriel delivered his even more shocking news. She would become pregnant and would soon bear a son, and she was to name her baby Jesus. He would be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David, and he would reign over his kingdom forever.
Well, Mary must have been quite a confident young woman, because even in the midst of this alarming situation she was able to maintain enough composure to ask the most obvious question: How can it be that I will become pregnant since Joseph and I are not yet married?
So the news goes from bad to worse. Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and overshadow her, and that is how her baby will be conceived in her womb. Talk about a personal relationship with God! I can’t imagine anything more intimate and personal than what is described here in Luke.
The interesting thing about this whole story that has been revealed for me as a result of my father’s Christmas poem is that in response to the overwhelming and deeply frightening prospect of being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and becoming pregnant, Mary becomes strangely calm.
She isn’t more frightened. On the contrary, she seems to be less so!
The prospect of being in a personal relationship with God seems to make her feel more secure than she did before. So she says, “Okay God. Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your Word.”
Then, according to Luke, she begins to sing. She sings the most beautiful song to her Lord God. She sings that gorgeous love poem that we call 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.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He 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: 47-55, NRSV).
Maybe that’s just what it is to have a personal relationship with God. Maybe it is simply to feel less afraid and more secure. Maybe it is to trust and to be filled with a sense of great calm and to be able to find enormous strength in the face of that which we might otherwise have feared.
My dad was exactly right when he wrote this poem. Mary, more than anybody on earth, knew God’s relationship was personal.
It surely wasn’t easy, but because of her trust in God’s overwhelming love for her, she hung in there. She didn’t run. She didn’t try to hide from what God was asking of her. She stayed right where she was and she welcomed the Holy Spirit into her heart and soul. And because of her strength and her trust, she became the one to give birth to our Savior Jesus Christ, the one through whom our own relationship with God becomes very personal. She gave birth to our Lord, Jesus, who is our friend and our Savior and the one in whom we put our greatest hope and trust, not just for ourselves, but for the whole world.
I’m sure that this amazing young woman didn’t know, as my father’s poem suggests, what her son’s calling would end up being. She didn’t know the sacrifice that she would have to make, or that he would make. What she did know, and that was enough, was that God’s love for her was very real and very present and very, very personal. What she did know is that God’s love alone was not just her security, but the security of us all.
The books of First and Second Samuel describe the reigns of Israel’s first two kings: Saul and David. The stories contained here mark the high point in Israel’s history, when the northern and the southern portions of the kingdom became united into one strong nation. Israel has seized the Promised Land from invaders and managed to defeat any Philistines that remained within her borders. The Ark of the Covenant, which houses the presence of the Lord, has come home to Jerusalem. And King David has built himself a nice, comfortable house in which to live. Life is good!
Oddly, however, David finds himself a little uncomfortable with the situation. He has, after all, spent much of his life as a nomad, traveling around from place to place and moving his home with him. Now, all of a sudden, he’s got it all: a kingdom, a palace to live in, peace and prosperity. What do you do next, when you have it all and life finally settles down? Apparently what David was bothered by it.
We can understand this a little bit, right? As ministers serving in an itinerant system, we’ve all lived somewhat nomadic lives. We’ve all been on the move. And we’ve all realized that the nomadic lifestyle creates some peculiar tendencies after a while that may make it hard to truly settle in anywhere.
I can’t speak for all of you, but I can say that I became overly attached to my furniture over my years of itinerating. Most people are very attached to their houses. I had never had any control over the houses I live in, because I lived in parsonages for most of my life. But the things that moved with me endured from one place to the next. So my furnishings became marks of my identity, the things that I knew meant “home.”
I also became dependent on regular moves to clean and purge. When you move every three or four years, a move is an opportunity to really sort through and get rid of stuff, organize everything, put things in order. The nomadic life helps some of us stay uncluttered.
A third thing that has happened to me as a nomad is that I start to get a little stir-crazy after a certain period in time. I begin feeling like I need to make a change. Do any of you reading my words identify with this?
The need for a change can sometimes be relieved by buying something new, or rearranging the furniture, or painting a room. Sometimes it requires something more, such as taking on some new huge project such as a doctoral degree, or a massive effort to get in shape, or a trip to the Middle East. All of these examples represent ways I have dealt with my need as a basically nomadic person to try to imagine myself and my future in a different way or in a new place. Because as a nomad, I just can’t be comfortable staying in one spot for too long. Moving around all the time is the way I live, the way I dream.
And of course, there are variations on this theme. Some people do what I do in a slightly different form. They remodel or redecorate, or they move up, to a larger or fancier house in the same community. Or they make some other kind of life change: they find a new church, find a new spouse, have another baby, get a vacation property, or buy a motorcycle.
Of course, there are those who don’t have this problem and who are perfectly content to stay in one place for a lifetime. I used to have these women in the first church I served—three sisters who were all in their eighties—who had lived in that town and attended that church since they were children. I admired that they had this long consistency to their lives that I knew I would never have.
Like itinerant preachers and many people today, the people of the ancient world were always on the move. They were nomads, constantly moving from place to place in order to find a little green grass to feed their flocks, a little water to grow some wheat, and a little land on which to pitch their tents. The Israelites, the Philistines, the Edomites, and the Canaanites were all nomadic people. So for them, the whole idea of having a kingdom, of owning a portion of land and calling it their nation, and committing to settle there for a long, long time, just wasn’t part of their experience.
It’s no wonder that David was a little uncomfortable. If I start to get squirmy after a few years years, I can’t imagine what David must have felt! So what does he do? He says to himself, “Okay, I’ve got it all. What to do now?”
And his first thought is, “Wow. I’m settled. I’m comfortable. I’ve got this really nice home to live in, and the Lord God is still in a tent. I should build a really nice, big house—a TEMPLE—for God to live in! I’ve moved up. God needs to move up too.”
What a great idea!
You know, that’s what churches always do. They get settled, they get comfortable, they get into a groove, and pretty soon the people start to become bored and itchy. They find fault withthe pastor. They get into fights about carpet color or the number and style of the worship services. And all good pastors know exactly what to do when this happens. Start a building campaign! Start raising money! Build an addition or a new sanctuary, add an education wing or a family life center! That’ll get everybody moving along in the same direction!
So David goes to his trusted friend and confidant, the prophet Nathan, and tells him his big idea. And Nathan says, “Great, David! Go for it!”
But then, that night, the Lord comes to Nathan, maybe in a dream, maybe in a vision. It doesn’t exactly say how. It just says the Word of the Lord came to Nathan, that very night. And the Lord says,
Go and tell my servant David, “Hey, what do you think you are doing? Did I ask you to build me a big fancy house? What makes you think I want to settle in one spot? Haven’t I been on the move, present and living among the people of Israel all these years? Have I ever said, “Why don’t you people ever build me a temple to live in? No, no, no, David. This is not for you. Your son can build me a house. You already have a job. You are to build a different kind of house.
You are the one I have chosen to tend my flock, to shepherd my people. I have given you a land on which to live, and you are now enjoying a respite from your enemies, but I am here to tell you that the solution you are seeking isn’t for you to build me a big, fancy house. In fact, I’m going to make YOU a house, but not the kind of house you are thinking of. And what will be important about your house will be the people who live in it, not some fancy building. Your house will not be a physical structure of brick and mortar. Your house will be a dynasty. I want you to bear a line of ancestors. I want to build the house of David, which will be established in my name, and which will endure forever.”
Christians have read the last lines of this Scripture lesson through the particular lens of Jesus Christ. We see him as the one who has a special father-son relationship with the Lord, the one who suffered, the one God has chosen, the one through whom a new kingdom is established, a kingdom that is open to all who believe, and not just to the house of David and the ancestral line of Israel.
So the establishment of the house of David is something really different, not just for David, but for Israel. There is not just a physical shift, but a theological shift, that comes with moving in this way:
- Moving from being a nomadic people to being a people with a promised land
- Moving from being a people bound by covenant to being people bound by place and land
- Moving from being a people wandering with God to a being a powerful kingdom
Laying it out this way helps us see that these are big changes, not just in thinking, but in priorities.
People get awfully attached to their land, their houses, their things, and their places. They may be so attached to things that they really can’t conceive of life without them. Attachments to homelands, resources, power, and kingdoms are so strong that people go to war and are willing to die to keep them.
And yet, God seems to be saying, “Hey, having a particular house, a particular space, a particular land to call your own, isn’t of first and foremost importance. Yes, it is important. And your son can build me a temple. But what really matters, what really counts in this life, isn’t just houses or spaces or land. What is really important is your relationship with God and with God’s people.”
As we spend these final days of Advent preparing to receive the Lord into our homes and sanctuaries, and as our people prepare to receive lots of new things, it would behoove us to find a way to help our people remember what is most important to God.
The truth is, all of us are really just nomads passing through, foreigners, and wayfarers on this earth. All of these lands we fight for and die for—lands we supposedly own and control, and buildings which seem so important, and the houses where we live and work and play and worship, and the trinkets that we possess—all of these things are forever changing hands, being thrown up and torn down, rearranged, repurposed and remodeled. They are really nothing but tents in the long run, temporary dwelling places. Come to think of it, our very bodies are only temporary dwelling places, are they not?
From the time that we are born to the time we die, our bodies are changing. Did you know that every seven years or so, every cell in your body except for bone cells and brain cells, is replaced? None of us is living in the same body we had seven years ago. We are really nomads, even in our own bodies. They are only tabernacles, tents, temporary dwelling places.
As we read these stories, the history of David’s rise, and the rise of Israel from being a group of nomads to becoming a nation, especially in light of what is happening in that very land today, I can’t help but think that the move from understanding ourselves as fundamentally nomads to understanding ourselves as landowners wasn’t really a move UP.
It is this move that has been, after all, at the center of human destruction throughout history. If we didn’t own the land, we wouldn’t think it was ours to even put up a house, and then a bigger house, and then a palace. If we understood that our first priority was to be God’s family, a family that was created by God and that belongs to God, and that never was and never will be ours, then maybe we’d be able to stop all this destruction and killing in the name of God in which we engage.
This Christmas, maybe we could try to hear God saying these words and not think of a physical space to occupy and own, but rather, of the household of the family of God, the heirs of this promise to David:
When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
(1 Samuel 7: 11-16 NRSV)
Paul’s words are believed to have come from an early doxology: a hymn or poem of praise to God. As such, you might employ them on this last Sunday in Advent, as we spend these final days of awaiting the coming of our Lord, as part of the liturgy for the day. Perhaps you could use them as my colleague suggests, as a way to transitioning from Mary’s song of praise (if you are using it or reading it) to another hymn of praise. See the Worship Planning notes for more specific suggestions.