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Readings: 4th Sunday of Advent

12 December 2014


4th Sunday of Advent

2 Samuel 7.1-11; 16 Romans 16.25-end; Luke 1.26-38

God our redeemer, who prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son: grant that, as she looked for his coming as our saviour, so we may be ready to greet him when he comes again as our judge; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

AMONG the rewards of the Old Testament's anthropomorphic portrayal of God are occasional glimpses of a divine sense of humour. Even at solemn moments, God is able to play gently with the creatures who bear his image. So it is that, in the Second Book of Samuel, a promise with eternal consequences comes about through a turning of the tables.

David, now ruler of the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah, is at last able to pause for reflection after subduing his enemies. Very properly, he notices the disparity between the permanence of the house built for him in Jerusalem through the generosity of King Hiram of Tyre (2 Samuel 5.11) and the temporary nature of the tent sheltering the ark of the Lord (2 Samuel 7.2). But the plans he has discussed with the prophet Nathan to house the ark properly are disrupted by God himself, who sends the prophet back to the king with a firm message.

Whatever David may think, he is not a self-made man, and, in his progress from shepherd boy to prince over God's people (2 Samuel 7.8), it has always been God who took the initiative. The scene is set for a tremendous put-down. Instead, God makes a promise that re-establishes correct proportions in terms of immeasurable generosity. God will make David a house - not a grander version of the kind he currently occupies, but a dynasty that will last for ever (7.16).

It is this promise that Luke echoes so closely in his account of the angel's visit to Mary. Gabriel's set of proposals begins with the surprising greeting that puzzles Mary (Luke 1.28-29) and ends with the extraordinary idea that her son will inherit David's throne (Luke 1.31-32; 2 Samuel 7.16). Mary points out the logical flaw - that she is a virgin - only to be told that this child will be born through the power of the Spirit (Luke 1.35). The God who built David's house is now preparing to allow a human being to house him in her womb.

The Prologue to John's Gospel alludes to this paradox in another way, explaining that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1.14). Many commentators have noted that the Greek verb used here has its roots in the word for "tent" and suggests impermanence: the Word of God camping out among his people. George Herbert found a way to draw the Lucan and Johannine versions of the incarnation together in this witty, epigrammatic two-liner, "AnaMaryArmygram":

How well her name an Army doth present,
In whom the Lord of hosts did pitch his tent!

The military images Herbert uses reflect one of the important biblical titles for God, recollected in the Sanctus at every celebration of the eucharist. It is harder to discern whether he is hinting at the battle Mary might have waged with herself in agreeing to a proposal that would radically alter the expected course of her life, and probably jeopardise her forthcoming marriage. I was once part of a congregation left momentarily stunned when the evening preacher considered her words (Luke 1.38) and then continued, "We are usually encouraged to marvel that Mary said 'Yes'. Before we do that, however, we should think of all the others who said 'No'."

That advice made a lasting impact. Somehow, it gave a grown-up character to the uniqueness of Mary's readiness to make herself available when God needed her co-operation. On those terms, her obedience gains a new dimension and becomes even more of a reason for wonder. Unlike Paul's audience of Roman Christians, who would come to the "obedience of faith" (Romans 16.26) after the mystery of redemption had been revealed to the Gentiles by the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 16.25), Mary obeys without any such evidence. She responds to a God who is promising something that lies years ahead and guarantees no personal advantages. More than that, she enters into the mystery of which Paul speaks, and participates in bringing it to fulfilment.

If God is glorified in the faith of those who have believed the testimony of witnesses, how much more is he glorified in the self-giving, risk-taking answer of Mary?

Dr Bridget Nichols is Lay Chaplain and Research Assistant to the Bishop of Ely, and a Visiting Scholar of Sarum College.

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