Today in the Spirit: Advent 4B

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The festival day is at hand, yet the Church would have us linger longer in Advent, contemplating all that God the Father has done to foretell and prepare the arrival of “Yeshua” (“the one who delivers”) into the world. In Advent 4, Year B, the assigned Gospel reading from Luke 1:26-38 relates the narrative of the angel Gabriel coming, not to Jerusalem, but to the remote Galilean village of Nazareth to meet the virgin “Maryam” appointed by God to be the mother of the incarnate Christ. Together with the other readings of the day, we receive this beloved story as a motive to worship God who equips his people for that form of radical obedience, which can say simply because of who God is, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (38).

The appointed OT reading from 2 Samuel 7:1-17 recalls for us when, once Jerusalem had become established, King David sought permission from YHWH to construct a temple in the city. The reply is cryptic, with God promising, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (12-13). Whose kingdom? In our worship, it is that of Jesus, son of David, whose coming is at hand. Psalm 132 is assigned only once a Sunday in the three-year cycle to complement the reading from 2 Samuel. In particular, the second half of the psalm draws our attention as Christian worshipers to the coming of Jesus: “There I shall make the horn of David flourish; I have prepared a lantern for my Anointed” (verse 18, BCP Coverdale).

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The assigned NT reading from Romans 16:25-27 gives us the apostle Paul’s final words in that great epistle. Strikingly, Paul claims that the OT prophetic writings (two examples of which we hear in worship on this day) are not for the Jews only but for all nations, drawing us as a later generation Gentile worshipers into the promise of the one God’s established kingdom on earth through Jesus Christ. The Collect for Advent 4 is a prayer asking God to “stir up” his power in us to receive the help we need to be “delivered,” not in the limited sense of being born again once but sustained by “Jesus Christ our Lord” to the very end.      

The Collect

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and as we are sorely hindered by our sins from running the race that is set before us, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Would You Build Me a House to Dwell in? (2 Samuel 7:1-17)

Now when the king [David] lived in his house and the Lord had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, the king said to Nathan the prophet, “See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent.” And Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? (1-5)…

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever (13-14).

Many commentators tell us this is one of YHWH’s milestone covenant renewal statements given to the people of Israel, this time through David in a historical line with others delivered through Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Hearing of the promise of God to establish Israel and to arrange for the construction of a house for my name makes us think of the coming of David’s son Solomon, but clearly, the reference to a kingdom forever pushes us far forward to the advent of another descendant of David, Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel reading from Luke 2 will confirm that thinking as the angel Gabriel tells Mary,[Jesus] will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (32-33).

From this passage, devotional gold can be found in the dialogue between YHWH and David through the intermediary Nathan. At the outset, David exhibits his heart for the LORD in his desire to build a temple in Jerusalem. But there is guilt behind David’s words (See now, I dwell in a house of cedar) and pride, which God himself uncovers in his own subsequent question in the dialogue (Would you build me a house to dwell in?).

For all his devotion to God, David has not yet arrived at the place of humble surrender we find in John the Baptist from last week’s Gospel reading (“He must increase, but I must decrease,” John 3:30), or in Mary this week (“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Luke 1:38). David will get there by the LORD’s own leading as demonstrated in the king’s prayer immediately following our text (see 2 Samuel 7:18-29). There David says in wonder, “You (LORD) have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and this is instruction for mankind, O Lord God! (19). God’s instruction to us all is to hear his word correcting our faults and healing our wounds, dissecting guilt and pride, giving us a vision of his infinitely bigger perspective on the world and his greater love for us, even as he dispatches to fulfill our small duties for him. So, the well-known proverb: The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:1).

Today, Holy Spirit, lead me to the wisdom you graciously revealed to King David so that I might gain the humility to see how much bigger and better your ways are than mine and rejoice in them.

Turn Not Away the Presence of Your Anointed (Psalm 132:(1-7) 8-19)

Though the exact words of David’s vow quoted in this psalm (vv. 3-5) do not appear elsewhere in Scripture, the spirit of it comes out in the OT reading we will have just heard from 2 Samuel. The occasion of the song seems to be the commemoration of the ark of the LORD coming into Jerusalem for the first time. In Advent 4, we express the same level of intense anticipation over the coming of the Christ that the Israelites have for the establishment of God’s presence in the holy city: Arise, O LORD, into your resting-place, you and the ark of your strength; and then notice the verse in the psalm that we have adapted for use in the Morning Prayer office: Let your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let your saints sing with joy (8-9, BCP Coverdale). 

It may be hard for us as modern Christians to relate to the zeal of Jewish people, ancient and (some) modern, for the temple, the ark, and Zion. But all we need to do is replace these terms in the psalm with the person of Jesus. He is the promised temple coming into the world and the ark with whose presence the people of Zion, the Church of Christ, battle through life in the world until the ultimate victory is at hand. At Advent, we re-enact the anticipation of the coming of Christ much like the ancient Israelites would have done with this psalm. See how the longing for the Anointed One, a descendant of David, in this psalm, also appears in the final chapter of the NT: I [Jesus] am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price (Revelation 22:16-17).

In the final hours of this Advent season, Holy Spirit, let flow from within me your own zeal for the appearing of the Son of God in the world, just as the people of Israel expressed their own longing for the presence of the LORD in Zion.   

The Obedience of Faith (Romans 16:25-27)

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen.

Notice Paul does not simply write, “strengthen you according to the preaching of Jesus Christ,” but strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ. In Paul’s day, there was, as there is today, already a surfeit of the preaching of Christ that was without the content of justification that comes by faith or the sanctification that comes by the Spirit of Christ, which are highlighted in this letter. Paul dares to say my gospel in this final invocation in Romans because what has been handed down to him comes from the revelation of Jesus Christ himself (1:1, Galatians 1:11-12). The revelation of Christ is, to go farther back and deeper in, a mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed.

This Advent, what exactly are you preparing to receive? Is it Jesus Christ? Yes, good, but are you sure it is the revelation of Jesus Christ according to (notice the repetition of that phrase three times in the passage) the terms by which the Father God gave to OT prophets and the apostles? Is your faith that of receiving the gift of a loving Father who offers the Son’s death on a cross as a payment for sin? Or is it something different, like sympathy with the teachings of a good man or modeling his good behavior, neither of which is any gospel at all? While these sermons may be the preaching of Jesus on the surface, they are not the obedience that comes from faith (NIV). 

Witness Martin Luther’s exhortation for the saints to hold onto correct doctrine:

The matter of justification is brittle—not in itself, for it is most sure and certain, but in respect to us, within us. I myself have experienced this, for I sometimes wrestle in hours of darkness. I know how often I suddenly lose the beams of the Gospel and grace. It is as though dark clouds obscured them from me. So I know about the slippery place in which we stand, even if we are experienced and seem to be surefooted in matters of faith… So, let every faithful person work hard to learn and retain this doctrine: and to the end, let us pray humbly and heartily, and study and meditate continually on the Word.

Today, in the Spirit, reading Paul in Romans in this season of contemplating the coming of Christ, I resolve to examine myself–my doctrine and my behavior arising out of it–to see if what is in me is the obedience of faith.    

Greetings, O Favored One (Luke 1:26-38)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be (26-29…).

 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her (38).

Quite naturally, this narrative focuses much of our attention on Mary. However, the truth is Luke’s telling of the story is really centered in the work of God sending the angel Gabriel to deliver a divine word to Mary. As seen above, the first and last activities reported in the narrative are the movements of Gabriel, and almost all the dialogue is the angel speaking. So, what is the work of God (through Gabriel) in this iconic passage? More than just delivering the message, it is breaking down the minimal resistance Mary puts up to hearing it: 1) Gabriel opens with a favorable greeting (though Mary wonders at first, she is drawn in enough to keep listening); 2) Gabriel clearly relays the mission God has for her (however much astounded, Mary understands it); 3) Gabriel responds to her human frailty to receive the word; and 4), by the tidings of Elizabeth, Gabriel gives Mary something concrete, something in her own plane of existence, to grasp onto (and see how Mary runs to Elizabeth first thing).

Mary is certainly to be commended for her humility in obeying the word of God. But as a matter of personal devotion, we do well to observe the actions of God in this story in parallel with our own experiences of divine wooing us into action. Do we not find the Lord drawing us in with encouraging expressions of his love toward us in the Scriptures and through others? Do we not find, despite our attempts to wriggle free by making matters more muddled than they really are, the Lord communicating clearly what he wants from us through the Scriptures, prayer, the sacraments, and the fellowship of believers? Do we not find God is always patient with us through the periods of our incessant questioning? And do we not find that he consistently shows us the next concrete steps forward to follow him? In Psalm 32, David exults in the word of God, absolving him from sin: “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.” Then this: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32:7-8).  

Today, Holy Spirit, make me humble like Mary as a fitting response to your clear and gentle manner of coaxing me to submit to your word.   

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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