December 18 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Advent 4
Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
Theme: Do not be Afraid. [This is the almost invariable opening line when an angel visits a human being.] As we continue to explore the idea of developing our spiritual faculties, perhaps we need to hear those words addressed to us: do not be afraid.
Introduction. During this Season of Advent I have been trying to explore the theme of the spiritual journey, corporate and individual, as being a process of stages by which we learn to hear God directly, rather than through a mediator. Thus, we can say with the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, that in olden times God spoke to us through specially anointed individuals, such as the patriarchs, Moses, Samuel, the Judges and Kings, and, of course, the prophets. Then came the incarnation when God in Christ came among us in Jesus Christ and spoke directly, but usually without being understood. Finally, at Pentecost God made his Holy Spirit available to all. We are now equipped to "receive" God directly: what we need to do is to learn how to tune in. This pattern of growth is well illustrated by today's readings.
King David is glowing with success. He is in a wonderful palace, his enemies have been defeated and all is well with his world. His thoughts turn to God. Is it right that he should have a splendid palace while God (represented by the Ark of the Covenant) is in a tent somewhere? He tells his friend, the prophet Nathan, of his concern, and Nathan tells him to do whatever he has in mind. It quickly turns out that God has something very different in his mind. Both David and Nathan were operating in the worldly mode. Nathan should have known better: as a prophet he should have listened to God, not to the king and not to his own sense of what is right. St Paul ends his magnificent Letter to the Romans with a final outburst of praise, emphasising the importance of divine revelation through the "prophetic writings". And Mary has an extraordinary encounter with an angel and moves from bewilderment to acceptance as she opens herself to the will of God.
Samuel. It's hard not to feel some sympathy for King David. Successful men don't always give credit for their success to God, or even give God a first (let alone a second) thought. The author, of course, is clear that the happy circumstances in which David finds himself are a gift from God. Where it seems David goes wrong is in the apparent belief that one good turn deserves another; God having been good to him, he will now return the favour. In other words, he is, perhaps unconsciously, claiming equality with God. He is overlooking the fact that God sets the agenda – God always takes the initiative – and so his own proposal to build a fine temple is presumptuous, to say the least.
Nathan the prophet forgets his prophetic role. He responds to David as a man – he operates in the worldly mode. He is so sure that God is with David that he assumes that whatever David had in mind will be just fine with God. He does not deem it necessary to check with God first before encouraging David in his plans. So God speaks firmly to Nathan. Notice that God does not speak directly to David. The message is for David but God gives it to Nathan to pass on. Nathan has switched into the spiritual mode: he can now hear what God is saying: David still needs an intermediary. Notice that the promise of an eternal kingdom in verse 16 is the one that the Archangel Gabriel gives to Mary in this morning's gospel passage.
Taking It Personally.
· Are you more likely to "remember" God in your times of difficulty or in your joyous times? When you feel thankful about something do you usually take time to express your thanks in prayer?
· What do you think of David's attitude? How would you characterise it? Have you ever felt that you were doing a good turn for God?
· Do you sympathise with Nathan? Are you inclined to encourage people to "go for it" without taking time to ponder whether the "it" they are going for is the right thing to do?
· Given the subsequent history of the kingdom of Israel, what do you make of the promise in verse 16? Should modern Israel determine its policies in accordance with such promises?
Romans. One of St Paul's favourite themes is the revelation of "the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known". This adds weight to the idea that God's self-revelation has been gradual – stage by stage – as humanity's spiritual evolution has progressed. Only when there were sufficient spiritually open people did God reveal "the secret", of salvation for all through Jesus Christ. The reference to the "prophetic writings" is a little obscure, as it seems to suggest writings contemporary with St Paul. But perhaps it means that with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost we are now able to understand the prophetic writings of old in a new way. [See Luke 24:45] The universal quality of salvation is emphasised in verse26 – a fitting climax to this full statement of Paul's theology.
Taking It Personally.
· Notice how Paul's thinking and theology lead him into praise and worship. Make praise for the wonder of God's self-revelation the centre of your prayer this week in the lead-up to Christmas.
· Reflect on how your own understanding of God's purpose has grown over the years. Do you sometimes find that things you didn't understand once suddenly become clearer to you?
Luke. Today's passage is about what we now call the Annunciation. Notice first that it is unique to Luke's gospel. [Matthew's account is far more terse, and is focused on Joseph rather than Mary; and Mark and John omit it altogether.] The Church tends to emphasise only one half of the extraordinary promises the angel makes to Mary, perhaps because she seems not to notice the other half. We can understand her reaction to the news that she, still a virgin, is to give birth. But the angel also tells her that the son to be born to her will ascend David's throne and will reign for ever. What on earth could that mean in the worldly sense? Mary's immediate response shows her operating in the worldly mode. Of course it makes no sense in that mode to say that she will be pregnant even though she is a virgin. "How can that be?" she asks. But she is talking to an angel! Angels do not operate in the worldly mode. His answer makes no sense in that mode: it can only be understood in the spiritual mode. Mary now moves from one mode to the other by faith. One thing she does know is that she is a servant of the Lord God. That is enough for her to leave things in God's hands – including her own life.
Taking It Personally.
· Read through this passage slowly, several times. Try to enter into the story as an interested observer. What are your feelings?
· Does the idea of the "virgin birth" bother or embarrass you? Is that a part of the Creed you feel uneasy about? Think about the "mode" in which you are operating: could that be the problem?
· Notice how Mary starts off being logical, even though she is talking to an angel! Do you find your logical mind gets in the way of your faith sometimes?
· Angels invariably tell their human audiences not to be afraid; but there is something scary about opening ourselves to the spiritual reality. Do you recall an occasion when you felt nervous or plain scared in this way?
· Pray this simple (but frightening!) prayer each day this week: "Lord God, send your Holy Spirit upon me, overshadow me with your procreative power, that Christ may be born anew in me. Amen."