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Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: II Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:46b-55 OR Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-38

For some, the wonder of Christmas is in guessing what’s in those colorfully wrapped packages that are under the tree. We may even pick them up and shake them. What’s in them is a mystery and part of the wonder is gone when we have the unwrapped gift in our hands.

Some people have a clear image of what they want to be in that box, down to the details of shape and color and accessories. The people of Israel were a little that way in their hopes for a Messiah. Although many visions of hope were merged into the expectation of Messiah, they thought they had a pretty good idea of what they were waiting for. The “Christmas” child was to be a king. After all, that’s what Messiah meant—one who was anointed of God to reign in a kingdom of righteousness and justice and peace.

It was a hope held for every one of their kings, voiced when the king’s reign was inaugurated. David was remembered by many as the greatest of those kings—one whose idealized reign was the model for the Messiah many were breathlessly awaiting. Luke (not in this week’s reading) makes much about the fact that Joseph is from the “house of David.” (Luke 1:27 & 2:3—By the way, if the connection with the house David is so important, one wonders whether the “virgin birth” perhaps takes away from that connection.) When the angel Gabriel announces the coming birth to Mary, the angel’s words include this promise, “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” (Luke 1:33) Matthew’s Gospel begins with “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David . . .” (Matthew 1:1) Jesus is repeatedly addressed as “Son of David.” (Matthew 9:27, 15:22, 20:30-31 are just a few instances.)

This week’s reading from II Samuel describes part of the reign of David. It ends with God saying, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (II Samuel 7:15) Although this history (as is true of most history) was compiled after the fact, some years after David’s reign, it is clear that very early a sense of the eternity of his reign was in the air. Likewise in this week’s Psalm God says, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: ‘I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.’” (Psalm 89:3-4)

This is what many thought was in the box—a Messiah in the mold of David. They were pretty sure they even knew some of the details, reflected in Mary’s song when she sings of the baby she is carrying in her womb. This child was associated with the Mighty One’s scattering of “the proud,” who “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly . . . filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:49-53—Note that Mary’s song was included in last week’s reading options as well as this week.)

It might be worth noting that the powerful who sit on thrones don’t come off too well in Mary’s song. Was the expectation of a king to restore the Golden Age of David misguided? Certainly David, in the story in II Samuel, finds that God doesn’t fit as neatly into a box as he thought.

David notices that he is living in a fine house but is worried that God’s still living in a tent. (II Samuel 7:2) God sends the prophet Nathan to set David straight. “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle . . . Did I ever speak a word . . . saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ . . . I have been with you wherever you want . . .” (vss. 6-7 & 9)

The implication is that God is a mystery greater than anything that can be contained in a box or a temple. Even Solomon, David’s son, who eventually built the temple, says in his dedicatory prayer, “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!”

I see us, in this week’s readings, being presented with a great mystery. We aren’t entirely comfortable with mysteries. To reverse the metaphor of opening the box, we often try to take the mystery and define it so that it can be contained. So many of our religious constructions—ideas, buildings, practices—are an attempt to tame and contain mystery.

This week’s reading from Romans talks about Jesus as “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages.” (Romans 16:25-27) Early Christians came to believe that Jesus became a revelation of what was in that hoped-for box.

In my opinion, that didn’t put an end to all mystery. Jesus himself—who he was and is, what his mission was and is—left/leaves plenty of questions to be answered. He can no more be contained and defined than God—or, dare we say it, the existence and purpose and meaning of any human life.

Although mystery is not mentioned in the second reading from Luke, it is certainly there. It is a story growing out of the early church’s struggle with how Jesus could be both human and divine.

The angel Gabriel speaks to Mary (portrayed as a virgin) about a birth in which “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Whatever the mysteries of this Jesus, Luke wants us to understand that his life and his mission have their roots in, are an expression of, the Spirit of God.

In considering the image of the box, I’ve noted that we sometimes try to contain the great mysteries of God and life in boxes of our creation. Advent and Christmas, however, are more about unwrapping and releasing the mysteries—not unwrapping them so we can now see clearly what they are, but so that they can inspire and empower our living. Jesus doesn’t do away with the mystery; his Spirit infuses that mystery into our very lives. Mary is not the only one whom the Spirit has come upon.

Just as there was wonderment in this child born of Mary, wonderment beyond his biological origins, so is there wonderment in each one of us—beyond our physical DNA. It is a mystery to be unwrapped and reunderstood each step along the road of life. It is understood in the embodiment and the living.

Margie and I have been reading daily readings from Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith by Henri J.M. Nouwen. I wrote part of this blog entry yesterday (Dec. 13). When we read Nouwen’s words for Dec. 13, they struck me as another take on what I was trying to say. He speaks of the messianic vision of “the peaceable Kingdom.” “Every time we forgive our neighbor, every time we make a child smile, every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens, and work for peace and justice among peoples and nations we are making the vision come true. We must remind one another constantly of the vision. Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are.”

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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