Sermon - 18th December 2011
Advent 4 - Compare and Contrast
Scripture - 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Luke 1:39-56
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is also available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Our two readings today seem very different; one is a long message given to God to the prophet Nathan seeming to assure David that his house would last for eternity, the other is meeting between Elizabeth and Mary with the marvellous song the Magnificat with its radical vision of a re-ordered world. The link between them is the theme of Kingship – David’s version of kingship and the kingship we see in Jesus.
David was Israel’s second king. When the Chosen People had entered the Land they lived as a conglomeration of tribes with no central governing authority. They were united by a common story – God’s rescuing them from slavery – and a common worship of the Lord. They were besieged by enemies and, from time to time, God raised up judges who would defend the people and serve as military leaders. The political theory they had was that God was their king and it would be wrong to take to themselves a king as that would usurp God.
However, the system of judges wasn’t enough to satisfy the people who clamoured for a king. Saul was anointed as king by the prophet Samuel and his reign was troubled. He was constantly at war with the neighbouring peoples and was mentally ill – only David’s playing of the harp would soothe him. David seems to have had a romantic affaire with Saul’s son, Jonathan and became very popular with the people as a skilled military leader. The shepherd boy soon became a royal courtier and general. His military success led him to marry Saul’s daughter, Michal.
After Saul and Jonathan’s death, David assumed the throne and was Israel’s only really successful king. He expanded the territory, secured the borders, made the country prosperous, brought – eventually, the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem and set up a Temple there. He made Israel a force to be reckoned with and his reign was seen as the highpoint of Israel’s history. His son, Solomon, married many foreign, and pagan, wives, enslaved the people and after his death the country split in two. The kings in both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms were not regarded, generally, highly and eventually the country ceased to exist in any meaningful form once the elite were carted off into exile in Babylon. When the Kingdom was re-established it lived under the shadow of, first, the Greek and then the Roman empires. The Romans ended Israel as a kingdom about 30 years after Jesus’ life and it wasn’t re-established until after the Second World War.
So David’s reign was the highpoint – but it was a troubled reign.
The prophet Nathan was the conscience of the nation. He functioned a bit like the Archbishop of Canterbury is supposed to. His task was to speak God’s truth to power. In today’s reading he reminds David that the physical place where the Ark of the Covenant – seen as the place where God dwelt – was not important. Later on Nathan has to condemn David for murder and adultery after he has his affaire with Bathsheba and has her husband murdered.
David was a complex character. The only relationship he had which was happy was the one with Jonathan. Michal seems to have been a bit of a nag, Bathsheba is seduced, her husband murdered and the child they conceived died – both saw this as a punishment from God. We don’t know much about Bathsheba but she must have been powerless – who can refuse a king? Later on in life Bathsheba makes sure her son, Solomon, succeeds to the throne even though he wasn’t first in line and she lives as Queen Mother. In his old age he can’t get warm and so a young woman, Abishag, is sent to lie on him to warm him. He is a tragic figure – he had so much potential yet his flaws were dreadful.
Yet this flawed man was the most significant king of Israel and God’s promise was that David’s throne would be established forever.
In our New Testament reading we read of a quite different king and view of kingship. Mary travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth and their exchange forms part of the Catholic traditional prayer the “Hail Mary”. “Blessed are you amongst women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” is a phrase taken straight from St Luke and used in prayer by Catholics each day. Mary’s response is radical, powerful and deeply subversive. In the 1980s various regimes in South America banned these words from being used in church as they were a rallying call for revolution – they allowed them only to be said in Latin!
The words, known to us as the Magnificat, point to the Kingdom of God which will be different from David’s kingdom and every other kingdom, realm and political philosophy known to humanity.
Mary recognises that God has looked on her in her “lowliness”. She was poor, a young girl – probably only in her early teens. She wasn’t a queen in a royal palace but a peasant from Nazareth. She recognises that all generations will call her blessed – an awesome thought – because the Mighty One has done great things for her. Of course God’s blessing is double edged. She had the tremendous task of bearing Jesus in her womb, bringing him up, teaching him his religion, caring, nurturing and supporting him as he grew but also she had to bear the pain of separation when he left home and became an itinerate preacher, she had to deal with his rather anti-family comments and, at the end, stood and watched as he died. The joy of resurrection wouldn’t totally efface the pain of Good Friday.
But the subversive part of her words are a little further on “ God has shown strength with his arm; he has scatted the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful form their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”.
This is a message that Jesus, time and time again, refers to – God’s bias to the poor. The Kingdom is a place where the values our world where the poor are ignored, despised and oppressed are lifted up and filled with good things. It’s a message we see in many of the Christmas carols we sing and hear played. We started with the Advent carol “O Come O Come Emmanuel” which begs the Lord to come and set free His captive oppressed people and to close the path to misery. The Victorian Masters of this Hall recognises that God became incarnate in the poor, on the edge of society and from the poor comes the message of liberation.
As we celebrate Christmas with friends, family, loved ones or even as we mark this time quietly on our own, let’s reflect on:
God’s power which was shown in the weakness of a new-born babe.·
The maker of the universe laying in a manger on straw with animals feeding around him.
The giver of law and justice having to flee persecution and seek asylum in Egypt.
How Jesus turned the world upside down as he inaugurated a Kingdom with values different from the values of this world
And as we reflect, let’s make the values, the concerns, the interests of Jesus our own. Let’s recognise that justice, equality and fairness are a huge part of Jesus’ message and that these need to form part of our spirituality and religious practices just as much as prayer and worship. In doing so we expand the boundaries of God’s kingdom and help to make this world the place where God truly reigns.