We do not get to choose how God will dwell with us

The story of the annunciation may be my favourite story ever – it certainly has played a major role in my own spiritual formation, serving as the basis for many a theological reflection as an expectant and then new mother in seminary and as an expectant and then new priest afterwards.

So when I was assigned this Sunday, I was thrilled – full of things to say about Mary’s strength and courage; her agency and power as God’s partner and as God’s mother.

But then something happened and I found myself unable to shake the lecture God delivers David in the reading from 2nd Samuel. In my head, it sounded something like this:

“Are you the one to build me a house to live in? In all the years of travelling with my people, living in a tent, leading them through danger, have I ever asked anyone for a house? Do you suppose that I, who took you from the pasture to the palace, need you to make me a house?”

“Let me remind you how our relationship works, God says: I’m the one who makes you a house. And, furthermore, if I find I do need a house, I’ll arrange for one.”

David is put firmly back in his place; he may be the newly stable king in a newly taken capital city with a newly built house of cedar to display his power and wealth but that does not give him the right to make assumptions about God’s desires. David’s life is in God’s hands; not the other way around. God is the one with the power, the agency. Not, fundamentally, David.

The house that God promises David is not just a dwelling place of more permanence than a military tent; it is a household, extending into the future; a dynasty of sons to reign over Israel. This is not the kind of house any human, king or otherwise, can provide for himself. And David’s sons do rule over Israel. And God even directs one of them to build a glorious temple in which God dwells.

But things happen – war and intrigue and exile – and in just a few generations David’s line no longer sits on the throne and the temple Solomon built is destroyed. What of God’s promises then?

The theologians of the Old Testament and today wrestle mightily with this vexing question and the designers of the lectionary offer us one answer. God fulfills both of these promises, of the dynasty and of God’s dwelling place, in the womb of Mary, producing a son of David’s line to once again reign as King of the Jews and making an earthly dwelling place for Godself in the process.

Before I explore this theme further, I want to pause a moment and caution against reading the Old Testament prophets as necessarily and only pointing to Jesus. The danger in so doing is that it strips them of any other meaning and so rejects any possibility that an ongoing non-Christian Jewish faith can have any value Not only is such a claim a political and morally dangerous one – as we have seen all too often in the history of Christian-Jewish interactions – it is an intellectually and theologically suspect one. It requires God to operate in as linear and limited a fashion as we do, assuming that

every question can only have one answer; that every past can only have one future; every prophecy only one fulfillment. But God stand outside of these limitations, keeping promises and revealing Godself in myriad ways.

Keeping that in mind, today, in this place, we have come to contemplate the fulfillment of promise and the revelation of God in the pregnancy of a young unwed woman from Nazareth named Mary.

It’s a strange solution to the puzzle of King David’s dynasty and Solomon’s temple – an unsuitable mother from an insignificant town in an inauspicious time. It would seem rather a long fall from the power and glory of kings to young Mary and her inappropriate son.

And yet, as God reminds David, it is not up to us to choose how God will dwell with us.

God chose a powerless woman rather than a king; God chose the risky vulnerability of a human body rather than walls of stone. It is not what anyone expected; not what anyone would have designed; and yet it is precisely what we need. Because God is the one who gets to choose.

This, it seems to me, is a particularly good thing to be reminded of during Advent, season of anticipation for both the return of Christ AND the feast of his birth.

To anticipate means not just to wait eagerly but also to predict. In anticipation, we prepare ourselves for what is coming – and what we do reveals a great deal about what we think is coming.

As we anticipate Christ’s return, we attempt to understand the Bible’s warnings about the catastrophes that will attend the last days, we repent of our sins in preparation for judgement, we proclaim that Christ will come again in power and in glory…unlike last time.

But we do not get to choose how God will dwell with us.

I am certainly not the first preacher to point out that human assumptions regarding the coming of the Son of God were upended once – why would we think they won’t be again? The truth is, we don’t know how God’s promises will be fulfilled any more than we know when they will be fulfilled. We trust they will be fulfilled.

And, as we anticipate Christmas, we prepare our churches and our homes; setting the stage for happy times and meaningful experiences of love and peace and hopefulness. Our nativity scenes are stocked with reverent, prayerful adults gazing at a sweetly, silent baby – all lovely and serene. We prepare to receive the miracle of God-with-us while unconsciously confusing God with Santa, demanding particular gifts from a particular kind of Christ Child.

But we do not get to choose how God dwells with us at Christmas any more than in the last days.

Again, I know I am not the first preacher to point out the contrast between what we try to create for ourselves on the feast of Christmas and the reality of the first Christmas for those who lived it. The angel Gabriel presented Mary with an opportunity not for peace and familial harmony but for danger and pain and conflict and hard, hard work.

And now we return to the question of Mary’s power. I am confident that Mary had the freedom to say no – after all, she did not simply accept Gabriel’s pronouncement without asking her question and Gabriel waited to hear her “yes” before departing. Mary had to be aware of the risk she was taking, the impossibility of what God was asking – but she said yes to the opportunity anyway. Mary recognized God at work even in this surprising, unexpected way and made herself available.

Mary knew that it was not up to her to choose how God would dwell with her or her people but Mary was ready when God showed up.

What about us ? Are we?   Can we recognize God when our Christmas celebrations are not merry? Can we see God in the midst of the suffering – ours and the world’s? Are we prepared for God to come to us in unexpected ways – either more glorious or less glorious than we anticipate?

It is not for us to choose how God will dwell with us. It is for us to be prepared, so that we will be ready to respond with Mary’s yes and take the risk that God will work through us for the salvation of the world.












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