The story from second Samuel this morning is one of great hope and anticipation.
As the text says, the Lord has just helped King David defeat all of his enemies, and Israel is now at peace. David is so glad for the victory he is ready to do something happy, something fun! He wants to go and build a house for the ark of the covenant, for God. He’s tired of the symbol of God being housed in this shabby old tent and carried around to and fro.
But the Lord- who never asked for a house- has a word for David, spoken through the prophet Nathan. “Who are you to box me in to a house?” says God. I’ve been out here working since long before you, and I’ll be out here long after you’re gone, continuing to do what I’ve always done, working out salvation history.” Most scholars agree that this text is about David’s desire to claim the glory for the house-building, about human desire to claim God’s power as one’s own. It’s about getting busy doing what we want to do, but doing it in the name of God.
This text really grabbed my attention this last Sunday of Advent, this last day of waiting– when hope is so ripe– when the coming joy, especially in this particular year, is so full we almost had to put up a screen over there as if to say, “pay no attention to the tree behind the curtain.”
We have ideas. I have ideas. I know what I want. I know what I’m waiting for. This advent, I’ve been particularly mindful of that idea of waiting because there are so many things I can name that I would like to see put right, that I can say I am tangibly waiting for. But the opening of the lectionary for this year’s lectionary in advent has, at least for me, underscored something… unsettling about waiting and its nature:
“Be awake.” “Get ready.” “About that day or hour no one knows.” “Prepare the way.”
Advent opens with an urgency that almost seems to exhort us to get busy with this thing we are waiting for, and to get busy now. It’s up to us, it seems.
So David thought, too.
But not so fast, says the Lord. The main point of this passage is that God responds with grace and freedom even when humanity still tries to use this gift for personal gain.
How often, at least in my life, I fall into the same trap David does. I get ready to work hard, I’m so sure I know what direction to go, and… well, it may just turn out that I have put God in a box.
One wonderful commentator on this passage noted that it likely came about during the Babylonian exile. That means this passage was probably not written for an audience rejoicing from victorious war, but many years later for a fallen and defeated nation of Judah who was living in captivity to Babylon.
What would such a broken people have to gain from such a story as this? What might we have to learn about God from their relationship to this text?
I wonder, what it would be like to be exiled from home and to hear this story about a God who refused to be limited to a physical space?
They believed in many ways that their exile was the result of the arrogance of their leaders. Stay with me here- we’re talking about then, not now. What might this story say about a God who did not punish the arrogance of David and his kingdom but instead reminded them how God’s love for them could never be broken, and of a hope that was yet to come?
And of course that makes me wonder what it is like for you and for me to hear this story today, and to be waiting– maybe even waiting a little like David assuming we know God’s purpose for the world and urgently going out to prepare the way for it? Or what it might be like to hope beyond hope in a God that is not in a box but somehow works for our benefit even through exile and diaspora, not in simplistic ways that instantly fix pain and suffering with a magic wand but in deep ways that heal from the inside out, not bound by physical space.
The gospel story tells of an excessively graceful God as well.
In this story, the first thing that happens is that Mary– who has done nothing, who is lowly, who is undeserving– finds favor. Unlike David, she had nothing to offer God. The fact that God found favor on her was perplexing to her. Why would God favor one who had nothing to offer? But God does favor her. And that is where the story begins. God favors Mary, who hasn’t done anything, doesn’t have anything, but is favored nonetheless.
Like us, she struggles to understand why she can be in favor in such a one-sided relationship. She questions it. And what came of that questioning- that intrigue– was something she never could have dreamed of herself. Mary, after hearing a somewhat astonishing description from Gabriel of God’s desired plan for her, says yes to this plan. This whole new enterprise- this incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus– is this partnership that comes about because Mary was able to hear a perplexing new thing, to consider it, and then to say yes. Somehow, despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that she had nothing to offer, that she was vulnerable, that she was at risk in this proposition with God: she consented. She found the courage to agree to this partnership with God that began with God’s favor, and a new thing happened.
So on this last Sunday of Advent, these two stories stand out to me for a couple of reasons.
First, both Mary and David are blessed or favored by God not because of what they did or didn’t do. God just loves them. They didn’t earn it first. David didn’t have to build a house to earn favor– in fact, quite the opposite. Mary didn’t have to say yes– she found favor without having anything to offer. They didn’t have to be baptized, or profess their love of Jesus Christ, or even wear the right liturgical colors during advent. Mary was favored. And so are you. And so is everybody. God just loves us. David tried to earn it in some way, but that doesn’t work. Grace just comes.
And the second thing is that David and Mary had very different responses to that grace. They both had their own wilderness experiences, their own places of being outcast, of struggle. But David emerged and forgot. He forgot that he didn’t get through the struggle on his own. He emerged in a privileged place and came up with his own plan. And he planned a course to keep going without remembering that he wasn’t alone in it.
But Mary– Mary listened. And Mary forged a collaboration by listening. And she was amazed to find she was favored by God. She learned who she was in the process. She stepped into her very identity, her most authentic self, theotokos, God-bearer. She became a partner in the creation of something new and wonderful. I wonder how we respond, knowing we, you, all of us, are God’s favored? Can we bear to know we are loved so unequally by God that we won’t ever be able to earn it? Mary found freedom not in being able to choose herself from an unlimited number of choices, not in being able to work for it, but by hearing what she was made for and consenting to it.
So here we are, in the wilderness. The anticipation is high, and we are so ready to leave it that the tree has already sprouted up from out of the desert.
But my hope for us is this: Don’t forget to linger a little, still. God favors you. Don’t stop waiting around here and there, open to being truly, deeply amazed- even perplexed at how much you are favored by God, and to hearing a new way to participate with God in birthing a whole new creation, should you trust enough to say yes. It may just change everything.
Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1. Ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 2010.