This week brings us to that time in Advent when we get serious about remembering the first time our Lord visited the earth in the work and person of Christ. In particular, we hear the story of the angel appearing to Mary and announcing that future birth as well as the birth of John the Baptist, who has occupied our Gospel lessons these last two weeks. In the Protestant tradition, this week mark's Mary's Sunday. We lit the pink candle before the beginning of the service. Had we still the pink altar linens and stole, it and I would be so adorned. Those who pay closer attention to ecumenical affairs may well wonder why we and our Roman brothers and sisters cannot seem to get the remembrance of Mary on the same day. As one who just got back from Rome discussing human trafficking and charged with education the wider Church about the fight, I wonder the exact same thing. I can tell you, however, that it is still an important day in the life of the Church. Wednesday, I preached on the Mary as the counterpoint to Eve in salvation history. Several of the ladies in residence came up afterwards to thank me for that sermon. My favorite comment was from a 101 and a half, never forget the half, year old resident who wanted to make sure she had heard me rightly. “So if anyone blames women because of Eve for being the source of evil and sin in the world in my presence, I can just tell them them that they better be glad that Mary said 'yes' because salvation came into the world through her?” I'd say she heard the lesson pretty clearly despite the buzz in her ears! You laugh a bit here, but it was a serious lesson for some of those women. Ask Bernice or Jane. We are fortunate that we do not live with some of the burdens laid upon them!
Last week's sermon clearly caught a number of you where you needed to be caught. Few sermons I have ever given have had that kind of feedback. From my perspective, it was a rather simple message: rejoice! I discovered in those conversations, though, that some of you do not yet see your struggles as places where God will glorify Himself in your lives. A bunch of times this week, we spoke in terms of our struggles as places where God does His absolute most noticeable work. When we get out of His way and come to realize that we bring nothing substantial to the battle, it is amazing the things that He can accomplish. I know a few of you are still struggling with the idea that our primary purpose of gathering each week is to praise God for the work He has done in our lives both corporately and individually. Yes, we are fed to go back into the world. Yes, we are charged so that our energy will carry us through the week. Yes, the flame of the Holy Spirit is vented a bit so that we might be a brighter light in the darkness. All those images are true. Our primary purpose for worshipping, our primary work, is to give thanks to God for the work He has done for us. All of us.
David was taught that lesson well in our passage today from 2 Samuel. David has completed the work assigned to Joshua so long ago. The “ites” have been conquered, and David has earned a rest from his labors. David has a great idea. He is going to build a temple for God. Understand where David is coming from. As we are taught in the passage, David thinks it unjust that he lives in a house of cedar while the ark of Yahweh is kept in a tent. God, and His ark, are of infinitely more value than David, and so David wants to give God an appropriate place to dwell. It seems reasonable, does it not?
Culturally speaking, David's desire makes even more sense. I have explained until you are all sick of hearing from me about the cosmology of the ANE. Just as countries rose and fell with the battles in the heavens of their gods and goddesses, temples we considered a kind of bailiwick on earth of each god and goddess. Mars and Venus might like all of Italy, but their temples in Rome were their real homes. Zeus might like all of Greece, and parts of the Mediterranean who worshipped him, but his real seat of power was his temple. Israel, as we know, will buy into this cosmology. Israel will come to believe that they are unable to be conquered by their enemies. They knew God was real; He had acted to save them in the past. Since He was real, so went the logic, He would have to protect His people in order to make the world knew He was THE celestial being. A loss would be unthinkable. If you understand this way of thinking, you get a grasp of what Israel felt at the Exile. You begin to get a glimmer of the feelings they had at the razing of the Temple, and its paltry, by comparison, successor that Ezra and others built on orders by the great king. If you begin to understand how the loci of temples were viewed in the ANE, you begin to get a sense of what would have plagued the faithful Sanhedrin when they judge Jesus and, later, Peter and John Mark. Blaspheming on a god's temple was not done. Blaspheming on THE God's Temple was unimaginable. But those are other lessons . . .
So here is David, wanting to build a temple for God and His ark. Like a good king, he consults God's prophet. Nathan cannot think of any reason why David should not build a Temple to God, so he advises the king to proceed. Then, that night, God speaks to Nathan about David's plan. God reminds Nathan and David that He has never lived in a house since the day of the Exodus. For generations God's dwelling has been a tent. Never, in all the history of God's dealing with the people of Israel or their ancestors has He asked them to build a temple. Part of the reason for that, of course, is polemical against the cosmology of the ANE. God reminds His people over and over that there is no need to chase after dumb idols, to worship gods and goddesses who cannot hear or speak. They do not need to go to a temple to speak to Him. He is God. He speaks and then He does. There are none in the heavens who compare to Him. Best of all, He has chosen them to be His people. The God has chosen this people to be the group through which salvation comes to the world. Israel has been taught how to live in communion with a holy, righteous God. Through their living, or so they believed, the covenant that He made with Abraham will come to pass.
The other reason that God does not need a temple, though, is that He is a God who is with His people. One of the consequences of a temple in the ANE was that the temple became the focus for that particular god or goddess. It is not unlike some of us today. How many people think that God is really confined to these walls? How many people live their faith as if God is really only looking down into this sanctuary? How many people think their faith is something to be lived for 60-90 minutes each weekend? I can steal supplies from work because, you know, it's work? I can mock my neighbor or my friends because, you know, this really isn't church? I can sell substandard products or do substandard work because, you know, God only expects good behavior from me at church? I don't have time today to pray or to study Scripture because, you know, that's what we do at church? All of us know people who have bought the lie that God is not God over everything, just a few minutes of our week. Heck, at one time we were them. And we even patted ourselves on the back for going to church! God ought to appreciate the fact that I gave up sleep/golf/football for Him today. Ever thought that?
The greatest difficulty of being a Christian, I think, is the effort that is required to live a life as if we believe in Christmas and Easter and everything in between. It is hard, hard, not to fall prey to the lies of the world. How many times are we tempted to curse the other, evening knowing the other is created in His image? How often are we tempted to give God “good enough,” even though our testimony is supposed to be that we are stewards of His glorious abundance? How many times do we place our trust in other human beings only to learn that they are human and sometimes fail us?
One of the important lessons of this day for us is the reminder that we cannot do anything for God, absent His blessing and empowering. David, for all his heart and for all his faithfulness, was still a huge sinner. There is nothing that David can off God. Nothing. It is God who took the youngest of the family from the pasture and made him king over Israel. It is God who gave David victory over those who fought him. And it is God who will make a house for David, a house that will stand for ever, unlike those temples made by human hands. All David can do is give thanks and praise and remind himself “Who am I?” to be so blessed.
All of that brings us to the Gospel lesson. I am often surprised with the statements of colleagues in ministry. I find it a hard thing, given the hours we keep and the pay that we get, that a substantial number of colleagues serve God without believing in the entirety of the Gospel narrative. I'm not talking about private doubts spoken among us, but of voiced doubts shared with congregations. Some of us stand in the pulpit and doubt things like the Resurrection of the body or the Flood or the deliverance through the Red Sea or the casting out of demons, and then we lament when some non-Christian thinks he has found Jesus' heal bone with the nail from the Crucifixion still in it or some other “biblical conspiracy” captures the imagination of our assigned flocks. Another example of that is the birth story of Mary.
Our NIV translation calls specific attention to the fact that Mary was a virgin, even though she was betrothed. How many people in the Church scoff at the idea. In this age when “hooking up” or “friends with benefits” or “booty calls” define our relationships from our early teenage and, in many cases pre-teen years, it is no wonder that people outside the Church reject the story. But why do so many of us within the Church reject it? Science has taught us that there must be a sperm and an egg to create new life, Father. Really? Did science teach you how to raise the dead? Did science tell you how to feed 5000 men, plus women and children, with a couple fish and some loaves of bread and somehow have more leftovers than original bread and fish? Did science teach you how to visit plagues on Egypt? Did science teach you how the youngest son, a shepherd, might rise to become king over a county despite the oversight of his father and the will of the king? Did science tell you how to replicate your personal favorite miracle in Scripture so that you could perform it over and over and over again to your heart's content? Did science teach you how to circumsize your own heart, how to nurture your faith, so that you could develop a flow chart that helps those new to your faith travel the same road as you and come to the exact same level of faith? The why would you discount the teachings of God in the face of a science that fails on so many other levels? Why?
Better still, you know why the virgin birth is important! First, it fulfils a promise of God. Way back in Isaiah, God promised that The Virgin would birth The King! God spoke, and now He gets ready to fulfill what He has said. That's the way God works. He tells us His plan, and then He accomplishes it. He always, always keeps His promises. He has selected Mary to be The Virgin of whom He spoke, but He wants her assent, just as He did Abraham & Sarah, Moses, Joshua, and countless others in between. What He is asking of Mary is too wondrous for words. Mary, I want you to give birth to My Son, the fulfilment of My promises to Abraham & Sarah, to Moses, and to David. He and all Creation waited for her answer. We are arrogant if we do not believe she understood the worldly consequences. Mary had to fear what her parents would think, what Joseph would think, and what the neighbors would think. Still, she trusted God that He would redeem her decision, and she became the God-bearer! She became The Virgin described by Isaiah centuries before. She became the one through whom God's plan of salvation would come into the world! She would make it possible for Emmanuel, for God to be truly with us. Her faithfulness would see the angels sing and shepherds tell in wonder. And the world would never again be the same . . .
But did she need to be a virgin, aside from Isaiah's prophesy? Had the baby that she born entered into her womb by traditional means, that baby could not have been the Savior. Had Mary been raped by a soldier or fooled around with Joseph, that child that she bore would have been created by the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but not of God. It would have been like the temple proposed by David and all those who chase after false gods. That child would have been like a human-made idol. That child would be incapable of becoming the perfect offering for our sins. The torah could not have been fulfilled by a child of human effort (think of the story and promise of Isaac). The human baby would have been insufficient and devoid of power to redeem; but the fully God and fully human Incarnation was perfectly fashioned for His role. That babe will grow obedient to the role of the Son as to a Father. That baby will grow into the role of the Rabbi. That babe will become the One whose thong John the Baptizer is unworthy to tie. That babe will die that we might receive power to become His children!
On your way to church today, I figure the last thing you expected to hear was a bit of teaching on the Virgin Birth of our Lord. The world and some in the church poo-poo the idea because they think they know better, they think God is somehow bound by the rules which He constructed, that those who are engaged could not possibly not be having sex. The world has the wonderful ideas which, for reasons too long to explore today, have become idols in their own fashion. You know and I know, however, that God is not an idea. He is a real person. Well, He is Three Persons in One Unity, but that is a sermon for another day. God is known and made known through His work with people in relationship to Him. Mary received the honor of becoming The Virgin because she assented to His will. Did she have any idea that her faith would make all that we know about the work and person of Christ possible? I doubt it. She heard many strange words and pondered them in her heart, we are told. I do think, however, that she understood the Lord whom she served. She believed that one day Messiah would come. She believed that Yahweh would one day free His people. And she believed, if He really had chosen her to be the instrument through whom His Child would be born, He would bring about His purpose. And so, she chose to believe.
If I have done my job today, you have a bit of why God's Son had to be born of a virgin, to be more specific—THE Virgin. But I hope so in a way that removes the gullibility of which Rufus may have accused you. The virgin birth really is a doctrine of the faith. But does the doctrine of the virgin birth really save us? That is a yes and no question. It does, but not in the way that we think. When people ask us that question, it is usually a reference to our belief about sex and its role in our lives. To believe in the virgin birth is equated to having a biblical understanding of sex. The Virgin birth is about so much more than that, however! What really saves us is the product of that birth from The Virgin's womb. God declared that The Virgin would give birth to His Son. That Son, and His faithfulness to the Father, is what really saves us. Neither, however, is it simply a doctrine upon which we can disagree. Our creeds, which are really distilled teachings about our faith, remind us that we who confess the faith believe it. But the story of Mary teaches us why it was necessary. God had promised to deliver His people, and knew that we, His people, could never produce anything on our own to save ourselves. Our efforts are vain, our gods are mute and deaf. So, once again, He entered and acted in history, that all who came to know Him and call Him Lord might be saved. And because Mary consented to bear the Son, and the possible stigma and shame and, dare I say Cross that was intended for her Son, we who gather here today give thanks for her faithfulness and the fruit of her womb!