Sermon for Advent 4
2 Samuel 7: 1-11,16
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
Over the last few weeks I’ve been weaving several themes into the sermons as we make our way through Advent, preparing for the coming of the Lord – the one whom suddenly comes to His temple. In the mornings I’ve focused especially on the significance of the Old Testament background to our understanding of what Christmas is all about, that to truly appreciate what it is we shall celebrate in seven days time – and in the evenings we’ve been taking time to think about the title given to Jesus, Son of David. Well as we draw near to Christmas these themes and in a sense the entire corpus of Scripture is coming closer together like the spokes on a Bicycle wheel coming into their focal point, the hub. The Old Testament story is about to break into the New – Creation is about to give way to New Creation and the Son of David comes to be born in the city of David. For the only time in Advent the focus of our thoughts shifts from the Old Testament to one who is revealed in the new, Mary the Mother of our Lord – but we cannot move the focus without remembering what has gone before. As last week with the year of the Lord’s favour, as in previous weeks with the rich imaginings of the prophets, we cannot begin to understand hat is happening in this Annunciation to Mary without an understanding of the background and one of if not The Key interpretative key is The Temple of the Lord and more specifically the Ark of the Covenant which was placed in the Holy of Holies, but which had been missing now for many years, since around the time of the exile – it’s absence from the Temple of Herod the Great not remarked upon but a living rebuke to Worship of the Living God in the time of Christ
Our reading from Samuel finds David established in his Royal palace in Jerusalem, and ‘The LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around Him’ – and he looks about and declares ‘I am living in a palace of Cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent’. The Ark of God – the Ark of the covenant in which Moses had placed the two tablets of the law, the ten commandments but not only that, also the bread of the presence and the rod of Aaron – Ancient reminders of God’s Presence being Priestly and sustaining his people with the bread from heaven, the Manna.
And David has it in mind that it is not right that he should live in a Palace, but that the Ark, should remain in a tent. For the Ark was far more than a box of religious artifacts – it was both the place of the atoning sacrifice and also the Place where God deigned to dwell, enthroned among the cherubim. So, David has gone to a lot of trouble to bring the Ark to Jerusalem and this is outlined in the chapter immediately prior to our reading today, in 2 Samuel 6
And I am beholden to the Catholic scholar Scott Hahn for the following illuminating parallels between the story of the ark and that of Mary and Elizabeth that I read at the beginning – remember the New Testament is a fulfilling of the Old, so we should find distinct traces of the New in the Old. And here there are Very Powerful echoes. David had gone into the Hill country of Judea – just as Mary did after the annunciation, to see Elizabeth – David declares ‘How can the ark of the Lord come to me?’ – Elizabeth says ‘Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?’ – David dances with all his might before the ark of the LORD – John the Baptist leaps in the womb of his mother at the presence of Mary – after David went up, the ark of the LORD remained three months in the hill country, and Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home. We listen to the story of Mary and Elizabeth, but we are meant to hear the story of David and the ark of the covenant
Do you see? That if we are familiar with the Old Testament texts, then all of the sudden the Christmas story takes on new and powerful dimensions. Why we probably never wondered what was the significance of Mary staying three months with Elizabeth – but all the parallels with the story of David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, suddenly bring this text to a Life we did not even suspect it possessed.
And that parallelism, that striking symbolism is made even clearer in the account of the annunciation – the power of the Most High will overshadow you – as the writer to the Hebrews puts it – ‘Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.’ The Glory of God dwelt amongst the cherubim, overshadowing the Ark. The atonement cover was the place of the atoning sacrifice [Rom 3:25 Hilasterion Gk] – Mary was to be the new Ark who would bear the one who would be both the sacrifice and the place of the sacrifice. The one who would carry within her not tablets of Stone but the New Law, of Grace and Truth, the Law that is Christ, not the rod of Aaron symbolizing priesthood but the New high Priest, Not the old manna which their ‘ancestors ate and died, but the living bread that one may eat and not die’
The symbolism is compelling – and all the more so when you remember that the Ark had gone missing – it had been lost, an old tradition in 2 Maccabees, a book of the apocrypha says Jeremiah came and found a cave-dwelling, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense; then he sealed up the entrance. Some of those who followed him came up intending to mark the way, but could not find it. When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: ‘The place shall remain unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy. Then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear - and where does tradition hold that Christ was born, not in a Stable, but a Cave
One of the crucial signs that the people waited for as they waited for God’s Messiah, was the restoration of the ark and listening to the story of the annunciation and the visit of Mary to Elizabeth with this background, the story is suddenly given a new and dramatic dimension, one all too clear to the first hearers of the gospel.
Well enough of the Ark for now – but what of Mary in her human response to the words of the angel – and it is important that we put it that way – for unlike Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, there is no sense that Gabriel appears to Mary – we tend to assume it – Luke is very careful in his writing, the angel of the LORD appeared to Zechariah – he did not believe what the angel said, thus he was struck blind – but Luke says that Gabriel ‘came to Mary and Said ‘Greetings favoured one, the Lord is with you blessed are you among women’ and Mary was troubled by his words, wondering about the greeting’ the emphasis throughout is on the words of the angel – she is troubled by his words, not his appearing – and Mary says Yes to the word. She heard and accepted the word – thus there is an important tradition in the early church that Mary conceived through her ear – so early pictures of the annunciation have a beam of light going into her ear. She heard and accepted the word planted in her. To put it in ways that apply directly to us, she Obeyed.
The word Obedience has roots which give it the meaning Full hearing – if you obey, you have Really heard, the Word has passed into you and born life and fruit as it is without parallel in Mary, who through her obedience is The Model of humble obedience to Christ the Living Word. “Here am I the Servant of the Lord” she offers herself to be the dwelling place of the Son of God “Let it be to me according to your word” She says Yes to God Most High – and so like the first Eve, but this time without sin, she becomes a New Mother of all the Living, all those who are born again having said their own yes to God in Obedience, and are thus born anew.
While we were yet sinners, loudly declaring our NO to God, Christ died for our sins, becoming the Representative human declaring instead a YES to God. Mary in a real sense becomes the first in whom Christ dwells through her own Yes to God’s will. She is the first example of the obedience of faith to which the whole gospel calls us
St Paul bookends his epistle to the Romans with this phrase – in Chapter 1:5 he declares his work as the apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith amongst the gentiles – and in the last verses he points back ‘to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed, to bring about the obedience of faith’ – this is the goal of the gospel that in the yes of Christ and through the yes of Mary, all humanity may be drawn to that same yes,the obedience of faith.
The book of Revelation may seem a strange place to tie up a sermon, just before Christmas, but this is all laid out in chapters 11 and 12 where John sees Heaven opened and sees the ark and then suddenly he sees the woman clothed with the sun who gives birth to a child who is carried up to the throne of God - the Victory of Christ is proclaimed and the dragon in his anger we are told ‘went off to make war on the rest of the woman’s children ‘those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus’ Those who in Christ and through the obedience of Mary say yes and reveal in themselves the obedience of faith, who themselves say “Let it be to me, according to your word” - May we likewise hear and obey.