December 21 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fourth Sunday of Advent
Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Theme: Something about the Annunciation would be a good option. "The Lord's Servant", or "Assenting to God". The rather strange choice of the first lesson might invite a contrast between David's plan for God and God's plan for Mary – "Pride and Humility", or something along those lines. I can't think of anything that would capture our second lesson, except, perhaps, "The Sentence That Got Away" (from St Paul, that is). But with this week's ghastly events in mind I suggest that we borrow a phrase from the Premier of New South Wales – "We Are Being Tested"; or, from a similar source, the more contestable phrase "When Everything Changed for Ever".
Introduction. We start with King David at his complex best. Secure and comfortable in his family home, he decides to turn his attention to what he perceives to be the serious lack of good housing facing God; and the usually sharp-witted prophet Nathan seems convinced that the king is onto a winner here. Even by St Paul's record for overly-complex sentences this week's reading is a stunner! (The perils of dictation, and the absence of a good editor, have never been more obvious.) However, St Luke restores linguistic clarity to its rightful place, with his beautifully constructed story of the coming together of heaven and earth, of spirit and matter, as he gives us his rather more earthly take on the incarnation than the one St John gave us last week.
Background. As this Season of Advent ticks rather rapidly away the contrast between what has been happening in our churches and what has been happening outside them could hardly be more stark. One by one the Candles of Advent have been lit, and we have reflected on, and prayed for, hope, peace, joy and now love. And day by day we have witnessed through our news media horror and brutality of a kind that seems to be getting nearer home, more deadly, and more common throughout the world. From a coffee bar in Sydney to an army-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, evil takes centre stage, but with a backdrop stretching from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, through to Gaza and the rest of Palestine. Meanwhile the struggle in parts of Africa with Ebola continues unabated; the suffering of the people caught up in the power play between Russia and the Ukraine shows no sign of ending well or soon; and all our political leaders around the world resort to ever more desperate rhetoric to hide their powerlessness from one another, their nations, and perhaps even themselves.
We are being tested.
What do our Candles of Advent mean in a world that seems to be getting darker by the day? How can we speak the words of hope, peace, joy and love without choking on them? How, as we prepare to echo the message that Samuel Marsden first brought to this land 200 years ago, can we continue to believe that, because a young Palestinian girl called Mary said yes to God, we do have Good News to proclaim to this world – that there are grounds for hope, that peace is possible, that all people can rejoice, and that love is more powerful than any bomb? We start by reminding ourselves that, however many times we have to re-light our Advent Candles, the Christ Light is already lit and will never be extinguished. And we take strength from the fact that in every place of darkness there is a flicker of light born by someone who, like Mary, says yes to God. In the blackness of the death camps women comforted children even as they entered the gas chambers, and men like Fr Max Kolbe followed their Master's supreme example.
When we contemplate the utter horror of the massacre of the Pakistani schoolchildren, we may draw strength from Malala Yousafzai, who shows us so clearly that the way to defeat the Taliban does not involve the sort of massive military response the Pakistan government is already promising (or should that be threatening?). When we stare into the wreckage of the Lindt Cafe in Sydney let us see the light of heroism shining back at us from a man who tried to disarm the gunman, and the woman who died sheltering a pregnant friend. And let us draw strength from the words and actions of one woman on a train who said to a frightened stranger, "Do not be afraid: I will ride with you."
We are being tested.
In this Advent Season we are being tested on our understanding of the coming of God in Christ. Do we yet understand that the Divine Advent is not some historical event that we celebrate annually (if at all); nor is it some far-off Future Event in which we profess to believe but privately do not, or at least neither expect it to happen, nor want it to happen, in our lifetime or that of our children or grandchildren? Rather the Divine Advent began about 2,000 years ago, and has been continuing ever since. Isaiah (who else!) gives us the words that describe it best: "I am about to do a new thing: now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" Through the incarnation God is doing a new thing, and our challenge is to perceive it. The Light is coming into the world, can we not see it?
As I prepare these notes I have on my desk the latest edition of Time Magazine. On the cover is a striking photograph of the head of an African man: only his eyes are visible as he looks straight at the camera through a large, purple-framed visor. His mouth and nose are covered by a white mask, and his head is covered by the hood of white protective overalls. His name is Dr Jerry Brown: he is a 46-yerar-old Liberian surgeon, and he is just one of those whom the magazine has collectively called "The Ebola Fighters" and has honoured with its award of "Person of the Year. The stories of Dr Brown, and many of the others involved in the fight against Ebola, are told in the magazine. They are all volunteers, and they all know the great risks they are running. Many have already lost friends and colleagues to this terrible disease. Some have been ostracised by those who are overcome by fear. But the candles of their humanity continue to shine, beacons of hope, peace, joy and love n the midst of a darkness that will not overcome them.
This morning, for the first time in a while, the 7.am radio news opened on a good note. President Obama had just announced that he was ending the madness of his country's Cuban policy, which dated back to 1961. It is time, he said, for a new beginning. Another candle has been lit. Alleluia!
And so to that other potent phrase that came across the Tasman this week – "Everything has changed for ever." Hyperbole, of course, however understandable, in the limited context of the cafe assault. But applied to the Divine Advent – applied to the Incarnation? Only the tense needs changing. Our message to a dark and frightened world (and to ourselves) is this: "Fear Not: God is coming into the world and changing it for ever."
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16. I have considerable sympathy for King David in this episode of his somewhat chequered early career. In the space of a fairly short time he has been anointed as king, established Jerusalem as his capital city, moved into a new, rather swanky house built for him from the finest of materials, taken to himself quite a few trophy wives and trophy concubines, fought off the marauding Philistines, and recovered and brought back to Jerusalem the sacred ark of the covenant. It would be hard to remain humble with a list of achievements like that. Stillness, silence and Sudoku were not his thing, so once he had caught up with his washing and so on he needed another project to get his teeth into. His thoughts turned to building a suitable house for God to live in. He ran his idea past the prophet Nathan, who encouraged him to go for it. Neither, it seems, recognised that the King was getting ideas above his station – they probably didn't recognise there was anywhere or anything (including ideas) above the king's station. God disabused the king of his presumption.
Taking It Personally.
- How do you feel about King David's plan? Are you surprised by God's response?
- Can you recall a time when you wanted to "do something for God" – perhaps in response to something God had done for you? How did that work out?
- When was the last time you did something for someone else, otherwise than in response to that person asking for help? What was your motivation? Have you ever had your help rebuffed in that sort of situation?
- How do you respond to unsolicited offers of help from others? Why?
Romans 16:25-27. No doubt these verses vary from one translation to another; but in the NSRV they do not make sense! St Paul twice diverts himself from what he is trying to say, without ever quite saying it. Yes he does! Try re-writing it in short, clear statements. Then try this question: in verse 27 to whom is the glory for ever, God or Jesus Christ? And if your answer is Jesus Christ, then what has St Paul been trying to give to God from the beginning of verse 25?
Taking It Personally.
- Help Paul out here. Remember this is doxology – it does not have to be strictly logical. Offer your own doxology to God. Praise God for changing the world for ever!
Luke 1: 26-38. I have often wondered why the gospel writers worried about Jesus' birth – at least, why Matthew and Luke worried about Jesus' birth. It never bothered Mark or John, so what was at stake for those other two? Why not follow Mark's example and take up Jesus' story from his baptism at the age of 30? The more I ponder Luke's birth narratives the more I suspect that Luke is responding to the need in the infant church to establish Jesus' credentials over against those of John the Baptist. Suppose that the story recounted by Luke concerning the birth of John (including its foretelling by an angel to Zechariah) was already well-established. Even today, much of that story does not seem too far-fetched. Elizabeth is said to be "getting on in years" and was thought to be barren. But such cases of sudden childbirth are not unknown, and there is no suggestion that Elizabeth conceived otherwise than through intercourse with Zechariah. A shock to the system, no doubt, but not beyond the bounds of possibility. Was it then necessary to find an even more impressive conception and birth story for Jesus? It certainly seems possible that this is what Luke was trying to do with his parallel accounts in the first chapter and a half of his gospel. The distinction between Zechariah's response and Mary's, for example, is the sort that gets lawyers and Jesuits a bad name, yet look at the theology that has grown out of it! Today, perhaps, the main focus of the passage set for this week may be said to have shifted from Jesus' biological origins to God's choice of Mary to be his mother, and her response to that choice.
Taking It Personally.
- What would be lost, in your view, if we had no birth narratives relating to Jesus? Is Mark's gospel diminished by commencing with the Lord's baptism?
- Have you ever experienced an angelic visitation? Do you know of anyone who has done so? If you had such an experience, would you tell anyone about it? Would you like to have such an experience?
- Pray with your imagination over this scene. What does Mary look like? What does she sound like? Does she strike you as a typical teenager, or does she seem measured and mature for her age? How would you describe her reaction to Gabriel?
- What do you make of Gabriel? How tall is he, relative to Mary? How would you describe his stature, manner, and bearing? Are you afraid of him? Is there anything you would like to ask him?