Advent 4B (December 24, 2017)

This was the sermon preached on the morning of December 24, as Advent drew to a close and Christmas had not yet begun.

Mary’s song complicates our holiday. I guess it should. She sings it this morning, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which, thanks to the calendar, is also Christmas Eve, thus complicating our holiday. I love Mary’s song. It always exists in relation to something. In Luke, it is what Mary sings after a conversation with her elderly cousin Elizabeth. Today, it is what we sing in response to the First Reading. In Luke, the song is a stirring call to take hope in the face of tyranny, and, above all, to trust a God who can convince a fetus at 27 weeks to leap at the sound of the voice of God’s mother. This morning, the song follows the promise of a safe throne. We hear that the throne will last forever, then Mary promptly sings that God tears tyrants from their thrones. You see the complication.

King David wants a temple for God. He has defeated Saul and Saul’s son, and has secured a United Kingdom of Saul’s Israel and David’s ancestral Judah. He’s even conquered a new capital, Jerusalem. We can read into David an ulterior motive in this Temple plan—a temple looks nice, unites people, plays well with the religious voters. The story gives me the sense that David is honest: “God has given me all of this; I’d like to do something nice for God.” The prophet Nathan likes the idea of his workplace being renovated, and gives David the thumbs up. God, though, tells Nathan in a dream, “Have I ever—from the day you picked me up at Sinai until now—said to anyone, ‘Why don’t I have a house?’ I get that it’s Christmas, David wants to do something for me, and, I know, I’m hard to buy for. What do you get the God who created everything? But there is a reason a Temple never came up: I don’t want one.” Then comes God’s patented flip, where God turns the whole thing around and shows us we had it upside down and backwards. God says to Nathan, “Tell David, ‘You will not make me a house; I will make you a house. And it will last forever.” David’s throne and royal family will last forever. This promise was part of why the Babylonian conquest and Exile was so devastating. This promise gave hope to some that despite the Exile, Judah would be restored. This promise gets complicated by Mary’s song.

Mary breaks the promise of a secure royal lineage. I don’t mean she fails or lies or double crosses. She breaks it, cracks it open, the way Paul Tillich talks about a broken myth. A myth, for Tillich, points to God in a way technical language cannot, but if a myth is taken scientifically it will obstruct our view of God. Davidic kingship is a myth. It is a symbol or metaphor of God’s presence and rule among us. Unbroken, the myth may lead us to think we need an actual blood relative of David to wear an ermine lined gown and sit on a special chair surrounded by lackeys who shuffle about at his command. Mary’s song breaks that myth. Here is a woman engaged to be married into that royal house of David, singing of how God tears tyrants from their thrones. Yes, sung in response to David, the tyrant being pulled down could be King Saul, who was rather tyrannical and definitely got the old divine pull-down. But in our story David is on the throne. And David is not as good a king as he was a general. The promise of his royal rule is a myth that must be broken or else it will obstruct our view of God.

Even our hope for a metaphorical king in Jesus is fraught with peril. In the Church we’re tempted to say, “Well, everyone else has failed at this but it’ll work when we do it because Jesus.” Or, “It’s sinful and bad when others do it but it’s different when we do it because Jesus.” We may say Christ is king, and think that it means we can rest, as David sought to. That all the battles are won. That we are in possession of salvation that we rightfully own and that is at our disposal. That events in this world do not matter because we’re somehow different. Sorry, this life isn’t over until the Last Trumpet. (Which is itself a metaphor for a different day.) We may say Christ is King, and the Church is Christ’s body, ergo the human institution of the Church is always right. May even be God. Sorry, but we are totally fallible. We may say Christ is king and Christ alone, but we’re still talking about human kingship, and human kings always rule with someone. There is always a governing coalition, a group of people who keep the ruler in power and who benefit from his power. We tend to assume that since we’re the Christians, we’re in that coalition, benefiting from our proximity to power. We think we can push around or ignore the non-Christians, or the Christians who aren’t just like we are. We’re like James and John. “Hey, Jesus, John here’ll be Prime Minister and I’ll be Minister of War, eh?” No. We need Mary’s song to break the myth for us.

It is important because in the Gospel today Gabriel tells Mary that her son will have the throne of his ancestor David. We read this scene and Mary’s song out of order, but that’s okay because Mary doesn’t need convincing that Jesus is God and will rule differently; we need to understand that. We need to approach the promise of Christ’s kingship with a broken concept of kingship. We need to understand that “king” is a symbol, and that it only applies to Jesus Christ when it is cracked open and we can see it pointing to God, and God peeking around the pieces at us. Jesus will reign, but it won’t be precisely the way we think. Jesus will be a king, but it won’t look like what we think of as a king. He is a king who tears kings from their thrones. He is the thing itself and that which subverts it.

God’s model of kingship is sideways. Horizontal. Lateral. That’s what Mary’s song tells us. We’re all children of God—male, female, rich, poor, believe in God, don’t believe in God. Yeah. The main difference between those last two is that we who believe, believe all of us are Children of God. The standard protestant place to go with this lateral kingship is the “Priesthood of All Believers.” We think of Luther’s famous line from The Freedom of a Christian: “A Christian is perfectly obedient, servant to all; a Christian is perfectly free, lord of all.” And we are tempted, as with the myth of Davidic Kingship, to mess it up, and think, “Yes. I am perfectly free; you all are supposed to obey me and do things the way I want.” God’s model of kingship will not permit us to lord ourselves over anyone. It will not permit us to think we possess God and someone else does not. It will not permit us to pretend that any human institution is God. It will not permit us to form in and out groups. We share equally and fully in the goodness of God. Christ, our elder brother, the King, has come to the lowest level—helpless newborn who grows up to get crucified—so that all people are equal in him.

That’s probably not the holiday message we anticipate on Christmas Eve morning. There will not be a Hallmark movie about God subverting human power structures and forming a Church in which all are equal and God the son is a vulnerable newborn baby. But it is the message God’s son chooses to tell us on this, the morning before his birthday. Jesus says to us, “You don’t build me a house; I build you a house, and not a house where you can feel all righteous over against the people outside, but a house for you and the people outside—you’re supposed to invite them in and share the place with them.” Jesus says to us, “I’m the king now, but I tear kings from their thrones. I’m going to be one of you. The ‘least,’ as Matthew puts it, the ‘child’ as Mark will, the ‘neighbor’ in Luke, the ‘friend’ in John. I will be in charge. I mean, let’s be honest: I’m God; you’re not. But I won’t be a king like you have them. I will be peeking around the ruins of the myth of kingship, that my mother broke when she sang her song.” Mary complicates our holiday, and in doing that she makes it mean something to us today. May our myths be broken, and may we see God peeking around them at all of us today.