4th Sunday of
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.
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
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,
How well her name an Army doth
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 cooperation.
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
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