The first two chapters of Luke include some of the most beautiful poetry in scripture, expressing the presence of God in the lives of the faithful of Israel.
Following our text for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the Canticles of praise to God:
These texts follow our study for today and bring to conclusion the nativity story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke.
The interweaving of the stories of the John’s birth to Elizabeth and Zechariah provide an entry into the story of the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. Luke is the only gospel that links the lives of John and Jesus in such an intimate way, identifying Elizabeth and Mary as relatives (1:36). Elizabeth gives birth to John in her old age; Mary gives birth to Jesus in her youth. Elizabeth gives birth to John six months before the birth of Jesus to Mary.
The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah, a priest in the temple, to announce the news that their prayers have been answered and Elizabeth will bear a son who will be one like the prophet Elijah: “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God” (l:16). Until the birth of John, Zechariah will be mute because of his unbelief in such an announcement (1:20). Because of her age and embarrassment about her pregnancy, Elizabeth remains in seclusion for five months (1:24-25).
Now, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel is sent by God “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (1:26-27). Mary receives Gabriel’s words in wonderment: “‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be” (1:28-29).
What Mary was about to hear has changed the aeons of time forever. To a young maiden engaged to Joseph come the words of comfort and promise: “‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call him Jesus” (1:30-31).
The name “Jesus” would have special meaning for her and all Israelites, because it is derived from a Hebrew word that means “savior” and signifies the promise of one who saves God’s people. Not only will Mary conceive a child in a way never heard of before, but the child will play a special role in the salvation of all God’s people. Hear the message of the angels: “To you is born in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11).
The proclamation of who Jesus is has to be one of the most exalted in all scripture: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (1:32-33).
In Jesus, the fulfillment of the ages has come. The Messiah, so longed for in the history of God’s people, brings together the reign of David and the promise of life to the family of Jacob/Israel. Thus it is no wonder that Mary responds: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34).
The wonderful exchange between Mary and the angel Gabriel continues to express God’s pure and simple gift to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (1:35). Within this single verse, we have the basis why the Christian faith is centered in the triune God. All three persons are present in the God we confess as “the Most High,” in Jesus Christ “the Son of God,” and the overshadowing presence of “the Holy Spirit.”
The connection back to the verses that preceded our text (1:5-25) now draws this story to a conclusion, once again linking John and Jesus in a familial relationship: “And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren”(1:36).
The older and once barren mother is visited by the young mother-to-be in the verses that follow our text (1:39-45). The text records one of the most touching experiences of a mother, once barren: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry” (1:41-42a). Her words of praise follow in verses 1:42b-45.
The interpretive key to the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke is present in the message of the angel: “For nothing will be impossible with God” (1:37). This is the story of Elizabeth, Mary and the faith in which the evangelist has authored this gospel. This theme continues throughout the entire gospel to the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ−nothing is impossible.
The final response of Mary in our text for today expresses the faith of the young mother and chosen one of God: “‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her” (1:38).
When the aged Simeon meets Mary and Joseph with their son in the temple for the Jewish rite of circumcision, Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms with these words: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed−and a sword will pierce your own soul, too” (2:34-35). Eight days following the birth of her child, Mary hears the prophetic words of Simeon that will bring her to the time of the crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God.
This Sunday’s text is the Advent of salvation that brings together the past, present, and future under God’s salvation purpose.
Within David’s checkered story (a patchwork of triumph and downfall) comes a pivotal glimpse into the Lord’s relationship with David, Israel, and ultimately all of history by way of the promise of an eternal “house.”
Textual Horizon A snapshot of the events in the narrative leading up to this point of this periscope: after David was anointed King of Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-5), he consolidated political power in Jerusalem culminating in the construction of a royal palace of Lebanon cedar and the sowing of more royal “seed” (5:6-16), fought and emerged victorious over the enemies of Israel (5:17-25), and with great drama and liturgical fanfare brought the ark of the Lord to rest in a tent in Jerusalem (6:1-23).
The pericope begins with a bit that could massage the imagination — an interchange between the king and a heretofore unknown prophet, Nathan:
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.'” (2 Samuel 7:1-3)
David is clearly feeling comfortable in his digs and presumably desires that the ark of the Lord — the very presence of the Lord — have a house as well. Nathan appears to want the king to remain that way, and plays the yes-man to David’s desires. In short, David alludes to a desire to build a temple in Jerusalem for the ark of the Lord.
That night, however, the Lord intervenes by way of Nathan with an everlasting promise, a theological statement about the ‘house’ of David.
The promise, anchored in the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt (2 Samuel 7:6), plays with the Hebrew word bayit, meaning house. David sits in his palatial house contemplating building a house for the Lord. The divine promise, however, is of a house not of stone or cedar, but a royal dynasty that the Lord establishes forever (7:16). Unlike the Lord’s blessing of Saul, which was revoked (1 Samuel 15.26), the blessing of the Davidic house (even with the failings of David’s successors) will remain forever (2 Samuel 7:14-15).
This dynastic house is intimately connected with David, though it is clear that the building and blessing of the dynasty is the Lord’s doing. “I took you from the pasture…” begins the Lord’s first-person recollections and promises (2 Samuel 7:8b-16) regarding David’s call, appointment, and in the verses omitted from the lectionary portion the succession of David’s house after his death. This is the Lord’s doing.
An important piece of this is the centrality of the people of Israel (7:10). The royal house is not established solely for the monarch of the day but for the Lord’s people.
In the end, the pericope climaxes with the promise of an everlasting house and kingdom: the line of David. As such, David’s initial desire to build a house of cedar for the ark of the Lord is put off to David’s son, Solomon (2 Samuel 7:13).
Preaching Horizons The Advent setting may draw one to focus on the incarnational and eschatological trajectory of the concluding verse of the pericope: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). Recall the announcement that will echo though sanctuaries with the Gospel reading of the day: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26-27). 2 Samuel 7:1-11 provides a footing for understanding the idea of the royal Davidic house and the promise in 2 Samuel 7:16, that this house and throne are established forever. In light of the historical fall of the Davidic dynasty upon the demise of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, and in line with the Gospel writers, Christians traditionally and theologically understand Jesus as taking up this royal line.
In light of the incarnation, life and ministry, death and resurrection of Christ, the Davidic line is reinterpreted in terms of the incarnation and of servant kingship. Abuses of monarchical power and authority that mark the reign of David, Solomon, and those that follow them, while not provoking a revocation of this divine promise, do mark the reign of Davidic kings with episodes of amnesia about the fact that the house was established by the Lord and for the Lord’s people. The Lord remains faithful, the dynasty not so much.
The crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate Word — Christ’s enthronement — when read in the light of his adopted Davidic heritage marks the advent of a new, everlasting servant reign.
This marathon of a psalm is found in the last psalm in Book III of the Psalter.
The Psalter is divided into five books, with key psalms placed at the “seams” between the books. Often, these key psalms are either wisdom psalms that focus on teaching the ways of God and following God, or royal psalms that describe God’s gracious work on behalf of and through the person of ancient Judean kings. This psalm is a royal psalm. The psalm starts with a brief introduction (vv. 1-4), which is followed by three distinct and lengthy sections (vv. 5-18; 19-37; 38-51).
Although only the introduction and a selection from part two of the psalm are assigned in the lectionary, it is worth taking a whirlwind tour of the entire psalm in order to get a sense for its testimony. The psalm launches into praise at the beginning, but then sinks into deep pain at the end.
In the introduction (vv.1-4), the opening verses sound the two theological keynotes of the poem: God’s steadfast love (see vv. 1-2) as shown in the covenant relationship that God initiated with David (see vv. 3-4). These themes unwind throughout the rest of the psalm. The first two-thirds of the psalm offers praise to God for the covenant that God formed with David and David’s descendants. The last third of the psalm cries out to God because the covenant with David seems to have been endangered. Perhaps the psalm is to be dated at the time of the Babylonian exile when Jerusalem was overthrown and its kings ceased to reign. The key words are steadfast love (Hebrew hesed) and covenant (Hebrew berit). Together, these two words form one of the most powerful theological tag-teams in the Psalter, because both words have to do with God’s character. The first word goes to God’s internal character and testifies that at heart, God is a faithful God–this is God’s nature. The second word goes to the external actions of God and testifies that God is faithful to the promises God makes. Here, the promises to David are explored.
The covenant with David is laid out in the beginning verses of 2 Samuel 7. David has finished building his own “house” (Hebrew bet, meaning here a palace), so he resolved to build a “house” (temple) for the Lord. But the Lord responded, “No, you are not going to build me a house, I will build you a house (meaning a royal dynasty).” God further promised that one of David’s descendants would forever rule over God’s people. These promises formed a key part of the theology of the nation of Judah, and thus for the religious people who were descended from the Kingdom of Judah: the Jews.
Section two of Psalm 89, from which the second part of the lectionary selection are taken, explores and celebrates God’s election of the Davidic monarchy. The section praises God’s promises to David, specifically the Lord’s assurance that the covenant was permanent–“my hand shall always remain with him, my arm also shall strengthen him” (v. 21). In verses that are not included in the lectionary selection, the Lord said that wayward Davidic kings would be disciplined when they disobeyed God or acted evilly –“If his children forsake my law and do not walk according to my ordinance…I will punish their transgressions” (vv. 30, 32). However, in order that this punishment would not be final, that the relationship would remain intact, and that God would be faithful to the covenant: “I will not remove him from my steadfast love, or be false to my faithfulness” (v. 33). As noted above, the psalm ends with a painful cry to God, “You have renounced the covenant…where is your steadfast love of old” (vv. 39, 49). This cry of pain was likely the result of the fall of the city of Jerusalem in 587 and the exile of the people.
Two aspects of the psalm’s testimony are worth stressing. First, the psalm is a cry for help from a person or a people who believe that God is faithful, but who are in a position of pain from which it feels like God hasn’t kept promises. Worse, they are in a position from which they cannot imagine how God could keep the promises. But God did. God brought the people back to the land, redeeming them, healing them, planting them again in the soil of their promised land to grow and flourish. It is often the case in the life of faith that we cannot see over the horizon to a place or time where life will be better. But the promise is that the low moments are not the only ones; that God is faithful and remains in relationship with us.
A second aspect of the testimony of this psalm that is worth noting is the messianic nature of its witness. Why did Israel retain the royal psalms in the Psalter (which was not completed until years after the exile), in spite of the fact that after 587 Davidic kings never again ruled over Judah? Because these psalms were interpreted as containing the promise that one day God would send the ideal Davidic king to rule–a king who later came to be referred to as The Messiah. At Christmas, Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Even more, we celebrate the belief that God kept the promise: the promise that Jesus is the ideal son of David, who will rule the people forever. We celebrate our conviction that in Jesus, God’s “steadfast love is established forever.”
Paul’s great letter to the Romans ends with a doxology — a moment of praise.
(There is widespread scholarly opinion that Paul did not write these verses; however, the person who did and the editor who placed them near the end of the letter [commentaries cite the various placements of the doxology] clearly presumed that these words reflected Paul’s views). Earlier in Romans, Paul has stated that the fundamental human act in relation to God should be acknowledgement of God (Romans 1:28), and so the giving of honor and thanksgiving to God (Romans 1:21). Humanity’s ability to be human is built on the primary action of recognizing God and so of honoring and thanking God. The essential human stance is a focus on God and a profound awareness that God is, as a famous theologian once said (Tillich), ‘the ground of being’. Consequently, the ideal human disposition is praise of God.
The perfect mode of being human is to live for God’s glory. Paul (or an heir of Paul) models this at the end of Romans: “to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen” (16:27).
Praise of God is an ideal because humanity, in Paul’s view, has been drawn away from its natural state. Sin, and humanity’s cooperation with Sin, has distorted humanity so that, typically, human beings look to themselves and look after themselves as if God did not exist. The praise of God is foreign; what is normal is the praise of humanity. This means that what should be natural has become an ideal.
The good news, however, is that this ideal is now an offer. Humans can now live in praise of God because they can now live in the “obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26; cf. Romans 1:5). God has made available, through the gospel, the capacity to live apart from the dominion of Sin; to live in Christ (Romans 8:1-2), which is to live in the obedience of faith, as Christ did (Philippians 2:8) — the result of which is the glory of God (Philippians 2:11).
This way of faithfulness to God, of obedience to God, of praise of God is available because God has taken the initiative and revealed the mystery (16:25). Paul thinks of the good news as the apocalyptic revelation of God’s Son (see Galatians 1:16; and look at the commentary on Galatians by J. L. Martyn). It is not that the gospel itself is mysterious. It is that the gospel is the unveiling of what had until now been a mystery.
Two things to note here: First, the gospel is an unveiling of something that was in existence. The gospel is, then, not new in the divine scheme of things. It has been in God’s universe, as the words of this passage say, “for long ages” (16:25). This is why the “prophetic writings” (16:26) are one of the vehicles through which the mystery is revealed. Even though the scriptures of the synagogue are prior to the “preaching of Jesus Christ” (16:25), they reveal that preaching. This is the case because the kerygma of Jesus Christ is only new from the human point of view.
Other writings of Paul will take up this feature of the wonder of the gospel. Colossians, for instance, will speak of Christ’s activity in the creation of the world (Colossians 1:16) and of how all things hold together in Christ (Colossians 1:17). The event of the cross is placed in a context much broader than the historical life of Jesus. The event of the cross is seen as an episode in a narrative that spans back to the creation of the world and forward to the final defeat of everything that opposes God’s holiness.
The second thing to note is that the mystery is a mystery only until God decides to unveil it. Now there is no mystery in regards to the good news and the preaching of Jesus Christ. God has revealed the mystery.
Believers, then, stand in the light of revelation. This is all the more reason to praise God. God’s character as the one who cares enough to help God’s creatures live in their most perfect way, in the way of obedience of faith, is seen more fully now. The good news reveals God’s commitment to helping humanity live apart from Sin and so apart from disobedience; to live as we were created to live — towards God and not towards ourselves.
This passage places the incarnation, which we will shortly celebrate, in the broad arena of God’s never ending, always existent desire for humanity to live in peace. The reconciliation that is offered in the gospel is the reconciliation to what humanity was created to be. The goal of reconciliation has always been at the heart of God’s cosmos. Now it has been revealed. Believers in Christ are privy to the revelation of the mystery which is the good news — that Jesus Christ came into the world, died for our sins, was raised and that he will return to complete the defeat of Sin.