God is not bound by our ideas of God
(Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-5, 8-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38)
Introduction to Mass
In the first reading this Sunday God raises a protest, through the prophet Nathan, against King David's attempt to turn the faith of Israel into something controlled by the royal court. Then, in the gospel, God again shows his freedom to act and to intervene in history in his own unconventional and unpredictable way when Mary receives the news that she is to be the mother of the long-awaited Messiah.
Prayer over the Advent Wreath
O Lord, stir up you power, we pray, and come; with great might help us, so that with the help of your grace, your merciful forgiveness may hasten what our sins impede. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
As with a lot of the historical books of the Old Testament it wouldn't be difficult to be confused by today's first reading, from the second book of Samuel. To understand what it's about, and to see why this Sunday it's linked to St. Luke's story of the Annunciation, it helps if we know a bit about the background of King David, who was alive about a thousand years before Jesus was born.
As the passage said, David had started out as a shepherd. In the battles between Israel and the Philistines he showed himself to be a good fighter and a good tactician. He succeeded Saul as king, and then, to consolidate his position, he chose Jerusalem as his new capital city and decided to establish his royal court there.
To be taken seriously David had to make the transition from being a more or less small-time guerrilla leader to being the monarch of - as he hoped and planned - a large, prosperous and powerful nation.
So he had a huge palace built for himself in Jerusalem, and he had the Ark of the Covenant - a very important religious symbol, which for the Jews embodied the presence of God - brought to Jerusalem with a great deal of pomp and ceremony. What the first reading was describing was David's plans to imitate other monarchs of the ancient world by building a grandiose Temple, joined to his own palace, to put the Ark of the Covenant in.
On the face of it, this looked like an act of great piety, a way of honouring God and giving him the respect that he was due. This was how David represented his own motives.
"Look," he says, "I'm living in a house of cedar, while the Ark of God dwells in a tent". That can't be right, he says. God deserves better than a home that's only makeshift and portable.
It sounded very praiseworthy and to begin with the prophet Nathan was persuaded to give the project his blessing. But David's real motive was to glorify himself and to bolster the institution of the monarchy. What he was really planning to do, in effect, was to assume control of Israel's religion, to contain and institutionalise God, so that the royal court could determine the way that people understood God and the way he acted in history. It was an attempt to use God to reinforce his own position as king.
According to the authors of the book of Samuel, God reacted to this by reasserting his freedom. Contrary to the desires of the court he refuses to be imprisoned and contained in some new Temple. God refuses to play up to David's man-made image of what God should be like. Instead he reveals what he's really like and what he wills through the words of the prophet Nathan.
Through Nathan, he dissociates himself from David's royal religion. It doesn't matter how many other kings build fancy temples for their gods, he says in effect. Not this God, and therefore not this King.
When we move onto the gospel passage we find St. Luke relating another instance of God acting in history, not in the grandiose and majestic way that we might think is appropriate for the deity, but in his own free and unpredictable way.
It so happened that at the time when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to bear his Son the Messiah, the latest King, King Herod, was in the middle of building another vast Temple in Jerusalem.
Again, although the ostensible idea was to glorify God, Herod had his own political reasons for building a new Temple. And while all that was going on, God's greatest revelation of himself was taking place somewhere else, far away from Herod's inflated schemes, in conditions that were far removed from what conventional religion would have considered appropriate or acceptable.
First of all, God chose to appear, and to become human, not in Jerusalem, in the great capital and religious centre of Israel, but in Nazareth, a tiny, obscure town of about 150 people in Galilee.
From the point of view of respectable religion, the town had a bad name. The people there had a reputation of being lapsed, as we might say, and of being infected with pagan ideas and practices. That was why later on in Jesus' ministry, people laughed when they heard that he came from Nazareth. "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" was the rhetorical question.
Second, the fact that God chose to communicate his plan of salvation first of all to a woman would have been offensive to pious and respectable Jews of the time. In Jewish society at that time women didn't have any real rights of citizenship or legal status. For example, they couldn't testify in a court case because their word wasn't worth anything, and their testimony was inadmissible.
Last of all, the idea of the long-awaited Messiah being conceived outside of marriage - which is what happened after all - would also have been an affront to conventional attitudes. Even in the slack religious atmosphere of Nazareth Mary would have been in danger of being stoned as an adulteress, if Joseph hadn't promised to marry her so quickly.
So the lesson of these readings, it seems to me, is a lesson about God's freedom to act in the way that he thinks best. God isn't compelled to act through channels that we deem appropriate, or appear in the places we dictate.
Whenever God has wanted to communicate something more about himself, he's never felt that he had to conform to our human expectations of how he should reveal himself. He's always worked in circumstances, and through the people, that he chose. In doing so he has often overturned self-serving human notions of what the divine character is like.
It's a warning, in a sense, against every tendency towards becoming a religious bureaucrat or a religious busybody: that so often, while we're busy constructing our modern versions of David's temple, or Herod's temple, trying to control the way that God is presented to people, with the real motive of glorifying ourselves, God is active in another, unexpected place, with a completely different set of people, carrying out his real work of salvation.
That's the reflection I think we can draw both from this Old Testament story we listened to this Sunday, and on the circumstances that God chose for his Son's entry into human history.