Meeting God on the Road
There is a constant temptation to box-in and control God. We seek to define God in ways that allow us the ability to determine what God is and can be and do. We build temples and churches and we invite God to inhabit them, and as soon as God enters, we seek to shut the door. Magic is designed to manipulate the supernatural, and religious rites are often designed to do much the same thing. There is a place for theological reflection and even defining what we believe about God and God’s interactions with the world, but is not God bigger than these constructions? In the story that emerges out of 2 Samuel, David wants to build a temple for God to dwell in, but had God asked for a Temple? Did God need a Temple? Or is God content to meet us on the road? As Joerg Rieger writes in his book on Traveling, when we believe that God is primarily housed in our sanctuaries, out of which we carry God to hither and yon, we fail to understand what God is doing and where. Indeed, this “entity” might not even be God (Traveling, p. 34).
As we near the end of our Advent journey, we are confronted with the stories of the incarnation, of the indwelling of humanity by God in the person of Jesus. This concept of incarnation reminds us that God is present with us – not in temples made by human hands, but in the one who embodies God’s grace and mercy and meets us on the road. The question is; are we ready to meet God in the places God chooses, or are we determined to keep God in the box?
There is a strong connection between the reading from 2 Samuel 7 and the gospel reading from Luke. Both speak to the promise of David’s kingdom, a dynasty that according to Samuel shall last forever. In the gospel, Jesus stands before us as the chosen heir of this dynasty, but as we learn from the entire story, it is a different kind of realm than perhaps the author of 2 Samuel envisioned. The passage from 2 Samuel begins with David pondering the fact that while he has a nice house made of finest cedar from Lebanon, God is still living in a tent. David has settled in, but God is still living like a nomad, and David doesn’t think this is a good idea. Therefore, David proposes to Nathan the prophet that a permanent temple be built so that God can settle in and be comfortable in the land. Nathan at first thinks this is a good idea. But, God has other ideas.
In a dream Yahweh speaks to Nathan and suggests that David is probably not the person to build a temple (and Solomon is credited with this venture), but that’s really beside the point. Yahweh asks: I’ve never lived in a Temple before, but instead I’ve been traveling with the people in a Tent, and never did I ask: “Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (vs. 7 CEB). David may feel the need for a nice palace, but God is not to be confined to such a permanent spot. No God desires to be out there on the road. Now, God is gracious in responding to this suggestion and therefore the God who took David from the pasture to the throne and who eliminated David’s enemies, has chosen to provide a home for the people of God where they can live without being disturbed – so that “cruel people will no longer come and trouble them like earlier when I appointed judges and I’ll give rest from your enemies” (vs. 10-11). Although a series of Temples will be built, God is not limited by these monuments made of human hands. Thus, whether there is a Temple or not – God remains free to act and engage us on the road, where we live and have our being.
In the Gospel reading for this fourth Sunday of Advent we hear the annunciation to Mary that God has chosen to favor her with the blessing of bearing a child who will be called the “son of the Most High.” Her child will receive David’s throne and will rule over Israel forever. This seems to be the answer to the promise issued in 2 Samuel, but as the continuing story demonstrates the nature of this kingdom is much different from what may have been envisioned when these words of 2 Samuel were penned.
For her part, Mary shows a bit of curiosity as is to how all of this might happen since as yet she’s still a virgin. Although she has questions she appears willing to listen to this angelic messenger who has brought her a message of great importance. Too often when we read a text like this we get caught up in the particulars – like Luke’s declaration that Mary has yet to have sexual relations with a man. There is a tendency to import into this statement theological meaning that may not be there – for instance proof of Christ’s divinity. Rather than get bogged down in this debate, perhaps we can think about the broader question of God’s choice of this young woman from the backwater town of Nazareth who is engaged to Joseph, but not married to him (she hasn’t consummated the marriage). As John Buchanan notes God often chooses those who are living on the margins to be the agents of God’s work in the world. He writes: “Mary reminds us that God can use modest men and women who do not seem to have much to commend them, not much that the world recognizes as important and powerful” (Preaching God's Transforming Justice, B, p. 31).
From a distance it appears that there’s nothing particularly special about Mary, but this is God’s choice. God sees something that perhaps we might not see. In her curiosity, Mary asks how this will take place, and Gabriel explains that the “Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Although the ancient world knew plenty of stories of divinely-caused births, even virgin births, these usually entail a sexual encounter, but in this accounting there’s no sense of a divine-human sexual encounter. Instead, there is the simple statement that Mary’s child will be holy and will be called God’s son. Whatever the nature of his conception, the gospel witnesses to the holiness of his birth, a holiness that is related to the Holy Spirit’s presence with Mary. And if Mary needs “proof” of God’s ability to do this then she only need look to her cousin Elizabeth, who has conceived a child even though she was considered “unable to conceive.” And the angel concludes with this word: “Nothing is impossible for God” (vs. 37).
If nothing is impossible for God, does this mean that God can do anything? Is God all powerful (omnipotent)? If so, then why is the world as it is? Many of us are wrestling with this traditional theistic belief and have concluded that maybe God isn’t omnipotent, that God’s power may not be what we’ve assumed it to be. Perhaps it is, as process thinkers suggest, a persuasive power, a power that is revealed in covenant relationship between God and humanity. Thus, as Bruce Epperly puts it: “ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are open to God’s revealing in their lives and then say ‘yes’ to God’s vision for their lives.” It is this openness to God that Mary demonstrates, when like the prophets of old she responds: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said” (vs. 38 CEB). If we are willing, as Mary was willing, to embrace God’s vision for lives and live in covenant relationship with a God who is love and justice and grace, then we can share in the great work of God that is revealed in the one born of Mary and named “son of the Most High.” And even as God dwelt in the tent, so God dwelt in the one born of Mary, and we again meet God on the road.
In that wondrous Christmas hymn, we hear the angels sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo,” “Glory to God in the highest.” It is a great doxology that rings out as we ponder the revealing of God’s presence in the world – not in temples built by human hands, but in the lives of God’s people, who like Mary open themselves fully to God and say – here I am, your servant. It is a confession like this that leads Paul to declare praise to God, saying: “May the glory be to God who can strengthen you with my good news and the message that I preach about Jesus Christ” (Romans 16:25 CEB). Paul, writing to confirm his calling to carry the message of Jesus beyond the boundaries of his own Jewish faith. It is as Bruce Epperly writes:
Our sharing of God’s good news advances God’s realm in surprising and ever-expanding ways. Nothing can hinder the spread of good news; the winds of revelation and healing blow where they will and on whomever they will!Therefore, even as Paul rejoices that the secret is now out that God’s desires for all humanity what had been revealed initially to the Jewish people. With this message of hope and healing reconciliation in Jesus being made known to the world, all who hear and respond -- even as Mary responded -- can now be in faithful obedience to the command of the eternal God, the one who alone is wise, and to whom we ought to give glory through Jesus the Christ. Glory to God in the Highest! Amen.
The Christian faith is not static. It’s not a bunch of rules and regulations. Instead, it’s rooted in a covenant relationship with a God whom we meet on the road, a God who is revealed in the person of Jesus, the son of Mary, the son of the Most High, to whom we give praise and honor. The message of Christmas, which Advent prepares for, is that God has chosen to be present, to inhabit our world, to share in our realities, and to meet us on the road, as Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:28-32).