2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 * Luke 1:46b-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 * Romans 16:25-27 * Luke 1:26-38
Finally we come to the baby, announced by Gabriel and heralded by the prophet-mother Mary.
The particular combination of texts for this fourth week in Advent underscores that this can only be God’s story, God’s initiative, God doing the impossible work of newness in the world and in us. Newness, Christmas, love, all are God’s doing in the first place. It is not that there is nothing we must do to make Christmas happen; it is that there is nothing we can do. Only God can make that impossible child. Only God can create real newness. Only God can do forever. And this week God will.
It is a week of two Messiahs, two promises. The first Messiah, David, wants both to honor and to enclose God elaborately in cedar, an offer God counters with something less confining and more permanent. God does not need a house-temple, but God will give David a house-dynasty, and it will be forever. The word appears twice in verse 16. It has to be this way because any settledness David might feel, any sense of achievement, is God’s doing anyway, and any hope for an enduring future must rest on God too.
This gracious initiative of God links this Messiah and this promise to the Gospel reading. God’s steadfast love, which is by definition unconditional and eternal, and the power of God to do impossibly new things bring us to Mary and the Messiah announced to her and again the promise of unending faithfulness on God’s part, unasked for, unimagined, unmerited. The kingdom of this impossible child will have no end; again it is repeated – no end and forever (1:33). The promises of God to Israel being fulfilled in Jesus, of which Mary sings, are again forever (1:55). And in the optional song of the week, the Psalmist will sing forever (v. 1) of God’s steadfast love, established forever (v. 2) in the covenant with David.
In Luke’s birth narrative, unlike Matthew’s, there is no emphasis on scandal, no indication of dismay at the news. The Mary we meet here is joyous and bold. Mary’s song, read alongside the annunciation, opens up both texts for us by making clear what kind of kingdom Gabriel is promising and by revealing what sort of person God has chosen to carry the king. The first three weeks of Advent have prepared the way for Mary’s song so completely that it should almost go without saying, but sometimes the message of the brave young glorifier gets lost all the same, or at least that is not the Mary we seem to hear about most often when the annunciation story is told. This young woman speaks, with the images and hopes of a prophet, of a world turned upside down by God’s insistence that the hungry should be filled with good things, the lowly lifted up, the dangerous message of newness that makes life hard for prophets, as it will some day be soul-rendingly hard for Mary (2:35). But for her, at this moment, as far as we can discern here, there is only joy.
Although we do not read the paragraph preceding the annunciation or the one that connects it to Mary’s eruption of prophetic joy, we are aware that there is another woman and another pregnancy in view. She is present in the little subordinate clause that begins the annunciation: it is Elizabeth’s “sixth month” of her miraculous pregnancy. Then it is to her that Mary’s song is addressed. One could even say that she elicits it with her joyous response to Mary’s greeting and the joyous response of John who leaps in utero. Mary, in the literary context of the text, is not alone. Her good news is shared not only with the angel but, at the angel’s suggestion, with another woman surprised by the impossible possibilities of God.
But, as Mary and Elizabeth know, it is always bigger than the miraculous pregnancies, for them and for us, because the one who was called barren and the one who was a virgin are drawn into God’s time, God’s plan not just for themselves but for the world. These impossible pregnancies point to God’s impossible work in the past and future of Israel, which is always ultimately a story of all the nations coming to God’s new heaven and new earth.
God’s intentions are overtly socio-political here, as Gabriel and then Mary make clear. There is talk of thrones and kingdoms and a reordering of things in the newness of God, a fulfillment of the story of God’s steadfast love for David. Already in the story with the children still in their mother’s wombs, power is being redefined, expectations overturned, social structures subverted, God revealed again as bigger than any human system or expectation.
It is certainly a disorientation and reorientation of a Christmas that is about shopping and parties. And for many of us that could be a great relief, to know that all of those trappings are irrelevant, incongruous even when they are placed alongside God’s magnificence coming near to and embracing our fragile humanness. That is where the comfort and joy of Christmas week lies in this alternative reality of God that the Advent texts teach, in pointing to and experiencing in ourselves the mysterious greatness of God doing great impossible things in our smallness, as we celebrate how God did the greatest thing of all, the very incarnation of divine steadfast love, in the womb of a brave young poet from Nazareth.
It is good news for all of us that we have the sort of God Mary and the prophets describe and that he calls us to live in and proclaim the alternative reality of his love. It is strange, mysterious, beautiful good news that God comes in the form not of an invincible action hero but of a human baby boy born to a human woman and that he asks us to live not as invincible people marked by success in all we do – or marked by a mighty struggle to succeed on the world’s terms and hang on to youth and beauty and money and things that do not make for peace — but as vulnerable people marked by God’s love, God’s impossible newness, God’s justice and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. God’s ways may not be what we always want or expect, but they are always ultimately, mysteriously, impossibly better than what we want or expect.
Perhaps it is worth saying, even though we all know it to be true, that for many people, what lies behind the good cheer of Christmas is a broken heart. But Advent has room for all of the feelings that this season might bring, all of the circumstances in which human beings may find themselves. The Advent texts suggest that, far from being a time for unmitigated mirth, the Christmas season, which begins with a lament, has plenty of room in it for our brokenness and the brokenness of the world. God’s steadfast love, joy, peace, and hope meet us and the world in all our complicated humanness, not only at the manger but before it and beyond it. God has room in the house for all that we bring at Christmas. We are invited to come as we are, with only our hearts, as Christina Rossetti puts it – even if they are broken.
It is worth dwelling in the place of waiting with our hopes or our hopelessness, our certainty or our anxieties, because when we do that, God may blow our expectations and hopes wide open. The Advent texts remind us that God is more than we hope for, and God is beyond our expectations, and God is just different from what we think we’re getting. God’s ways are not our ways. So God can turn us upside down in just the way we need so that we can see with new eyes the little child and the world he came to save.