Thursday, December 18, 2014

December 21, Advent 4, The Mission #5, God Comes (and Here You Are)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Magnificat, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

In 1889 our consistory relocated our church from downtown to this location. They decided to build a great Gothic edifice with the tallest steeple in Brooklyn and lavish decoration and costly stained glass windows and the fanciest pipe organ available. Not because they thought God needed it, but to make an impression in our new location: “We are not just another new church, we are the powerful, wealthy, and eminently respectable Old First church.”

Had they built a typical Calvinist church, like their former one, with simple classic lines and big clear windows and a normal pipe organ, less impressive and cheaper to maintain, we might be spared the costly building problems we have now.

When I came here thirteen years ago one of my colleague pastors told me that my first job was to get rid of our building, so that we could start doing some real ministry. Two years later a couple of consultants from the denomination came here and told me that our building was an obstacle to our mission and our growth. Our sanctuary was a turn-off and it was keeping people away. Better to rent space in a public school. The church is not a building anyway, the church is a people.

This could be the take-home from Second Samuel. King David wants to build a temple for the Lord, and the Lord says, “Nah. I am quite content to live in a tent. I don’t need a temple, I don’t want it.” We know why David wants it. As much as the Bible loves David, the text always hints at his political ambition and how every good thing that he does he also calculates for his own success. He wants a temple to solidify his claim on God’s endorsement of his rule and to sanctify his dynasty.

But God will work with him. This is John Calvin’s doctrine of Accommodation, that God will adjust to accommodate our weakness — not to our sin but to our weakness. So God accommodates David, and God will sanctify his dynasty anyway. God promises that someone from the house and lineage of David will ever after occupy the throne, no matter what.

This is despite God originally having not allowed a king for Israel. In the Torah, the only king of Israel was God. God warned the Israelites that having a king like other nations was a bad idea. But they begged for a king and God accommodated them, and after the disaster of King Saul, God provided them with David. And later, God even let them have a temple, despite what the prophet Nathan said to David here. God even adopted the temple, God’s glory overshadowed it and God’s spirit entered into it. How humble of God, to adjust to them like this; how generous of God, to accommodate our weaknesses.

These two innovations, which Moses would have opposed, became central symbols of Jewish identity, the house and lineage of David, and the temple in Jerusalem. But this became a problem. Four hundred years after David his dynasty was dethroned and the temple destroyed. What about God’s promises? The house and lineage of David would never sit on any throne again. A second temple was built, but God’s spirit and glory never came back to it, and a generation after Jesus, the temple was destroyed forever. The promises of God to David were problems that were unsolved, and they remain unsolved in Judaism till today.

But for Christians, God solved the problem in the Virgin Mary. That’s what St. Paul implicitly claims in Romans. The problems hid a mystery which was the long-term plan of God, and the promises were fulfilled in a way that no one was expecting. In the pregnancy of Mary the great mystery which God had keep secret for centuries is now wonderfully revealed.

She, by her genealogy, is of the house and lineage of David, and her body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is specific temple language which Gabriel speaks to her, that the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Her womb becomes the Holy of Holies. The gospel claims that this was God’s goal all along. So the temple in Jerusalem the and royal lineage of David were both expedient accommodations which God used to get us to Mary.

Our translation is weak. “Greetings, favored one.” Sounds like aliens on Star Trek. “Hail,  you have been graced, Hail, full of grace, Hail, your grace.” Picture the angel bending down before her, reverencing her, the most exalted creature in God’s universe bending before this ordinary girl.

Why her? That remains a mystery. There is nothing in the Bible about her being without sin, but she is pure in that unlike her ancestor David she has no political ambition, and God’s gift to her will disadvantage her in so many ways, and she will suffer so much more trouble than if she had said No.

This event is called the Annunciation. But we might better call it the Invitation. Because it was not forced on her. The angel waits for her decision and her answer. She is not given time to calculate the consequences. It’s not a choice between a and b, but a choice between a and not a, it’s one of those choices you have to make immediately, to choose for the right thing in itself, no matter what may follow.

She chooses, she answers, and I’ve become convinced, after a life of Bible study, that it’s her answer that causes the conception of the life within her, her decision in the power of the Holy Spirit. “Here I am,” she says, “the servant of the Lord, let it be with me as you have said.” Her "let it be" is when the miracle comes to be.

Here I am. In Hebrew, that’s Hineini, the same thing Abraham says to God, and what Isaiah says, what Jeremiah says. Who is this girl, talking like she’s among the prophets? Hineini, here I am, I am present to you God, I present myself to you, I am open to you God. I know who you are, and I know who I am.

That’s what St. Paul calls the obedience of faith. Not an obedience of action or good works, but the obedience of being. She is the mother of the faithful, she is the Eve of the new humanity, and we bless her through all generations, and we see in her what God wants from us, this same obedience of faith, that you say, Here I am.

Say it, Here I am (here I am), the handmaid of the Lord (the handmaid of the Lord). You are now God’s chosen temple. You are now God’s royalty. Each one of you. Your status is what God intended all along, the secret that was hidden in God’s expedient accommodations in Hebrew history, the secret now revealed in Mary. Now God accommodates to you. Now God submits to you, and you in turn submit to God. This mutual submission, you may understand as love.

What’s the take-home for today? On the one hand, none. Rather than take something home you are to make yourself fully present. Here you are. You are to love this story and admire it. Put yourself into this story, paint the scene with your imagination. How do you imagine this young girl, how young, how old, how rich, how poor, how beautiful, how plain, and how do you imagine the angel, and how do you show the interaction between them, the energy, the closeness, the distance, and at what moment do you freeze the frame, and what emotions do you show in her? Here you are.

On the other hand, you can take home the picture of how God does God’s mission and how you have a part in it, a vision of how God comes to you, at home, when you are alone, when you say, “Here I am, the handmaid of the Lord.”

You might want God to fully come and intervene and fix the world, and end all the misery and suffering, and stop the genocides, stop the violence, stop the hatred and the fear, stop us from ruining the planet. That would be the greatest accommodation of them all, and maybe the worst, that God would intervene and invade and rescue us from what we are responsible for.

That’s what the promises seem to promise, that God will ultimately do this, but in the meantime God accommodates a different way, and that is to your individual belief. God comes not by invasion or intervention but by invitation. God waits for your acceptance. God submits to your personal faith, or lack of it. God comes into you if you will have him – if it’s Jesus, or if you will have her – if it’s the Spirit. How patient of God, how generous, indeed, how humble. How gracious.

God gives you that much discretion. And God does it also with congregations. God gives us that much discretion. If we house our church within a tent or if we build ourselves a cathedral, God will work with us, as much as we see our church not in service to ourselves but as God’s handmaiden for God’s mission.

And that is what you want to be. You came here today to say, "Here we are, the handmaidens of the Lord, let it be with us as you have said."

It was not out of normal human lovemaking that the Lord Jesus was conceived, but it is a greater love, that God should wait on you like this.

Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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