1st Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm: Luke 1:46-55
2nd Reading: Romans 16:25-27
Last year at the our gathering of Oregon Lutherans, one of the speakers used the image of the finger play we all learned as kids: Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and see all the people. He changed it to be this: Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and send out the people. If you would have asked me when I was a kid where is God's house, I would have said it was church, but I hope if we asked the kids or any of us today, we would point out into the world, to people who are in prison or suffering from Ebola or neglected children or our neighbor in need. That is God's house, within people all around us.
When King David wondered where God's house was, he pictured a beautiful house of cedar, with grand architecture and large stones and carvings. He pictured what would eventually become the temple. He was naturally grateful for all that God had done for him: Taken him from the pasture to make him a prince, been present with him throughout his life, cut off all his enemies, and made for him a great name. God had taken him from a nobody and made him a great king. Now David wants to thank him and his gift is to make him a dwelling, a fancy house, a grand mansion. God quickly dismisses the notion and then changes the subject, turns it back to David and what God has done for David.
Mary, too, was a nobody that God lavished with grace and favor. We assume that there was something really special about Mary that would make God approach her with this assignment to bear God's only Son. There isn't anything in the reading that indicates anything special about her. In fact it may be that like King David, it was her lowliness that got her the job. Now she will be a house for God until Jesus is born and a shelter for him during his childhood.
She doesn't have any cedar to offer to build God a house. All she can do is say, “Thank you!” and stand there dumbfounded and wonder at the mystery of God coming in this unexpected way. Some have said that Mary gave her affirmation—her yes. And yet, when the reading says “servant” the word is really “slave.” Instead of calling herself God's servant, she calls herself God's slave. This shows that this isn't really about her will, but God's. This is God's action, not Mary's, to be born into this world. She does give her affirmation, but that was just icing on the cake. That she gave it was a response to what God is doing in this world, and also it was an affirmation without all the information about what this would mean for her or for her son or for any of us.
God is so active and Mary so passive. But even King David was pretty passive when it came to being chosen by God to lead. Every time he does get active, he does something stupid that gets him in trouble. What does go well for each of these chosen lowly people is that the lines of communication are kept open between them and God and a dialogue goes on in which God is present and they try to understand what God is doing and respond to it appropriately. God keeps on acting despite their imperfection and keeps the plan of love on track.
Now, after Mary has had some time to think about what's going on with her, we get today's psalm, Mary's song to Elizabeth when she arrives at her home to find that what the angel has told her is true. Elizabeth, although she is pretty old, has conceived a child. Mary is pregnant. She's found a relative willing to take her in and care for her during her pregnancy. This is just the beginning of what the angel has been saying, that nothing is impossible with God.
Nothing is impossible. It is possible that the lowliest will be chosen for the most important jobs. It is possible that God would break into human existence. It is possible that a virgin and an old lady would become pregnant. It is possible that prayers uttered year after year would finally be answered. It is possible that God's relationship with people is challenging and compassionate. It is possible that Jesus won't have a house in which to be born or a house to minister from or lay his head, but that will make his ministry even better. It is possible that God doesn't need a cedar house or any building, but must be free to move about and be available for everyone. It is possible that he would show us how to feed and heal and love and do so for us, too. It is possible that we would put God to death and inflict such suffering upon Jesus that he would die. And it is possible that he would rise to forgive us and give us new life.
God doesn't need a house. God doesn't need protection. God needs to be free and available. It turns out that the buildings we make to glorify God, say more about us than about God. They are walls that make us feel safe. They are walls that create insiders and outsiders. They are monuments to ourselves and a show of our wealth. That God does something good from them is another indication that nothing is impossible with God. I've loved seeing the downstairs transformed to accommodate the pantry. For years that closet was full of useless papers and old equipment. What fun to dig through and make it relevant, useful space that actually gives glory to God, not because it is big or fancy, but because it enables food to move through our church and out to hungry people.
God's ideal house is not big or fancy, but it is utilitarian, made to serve and welcome people in need. And furthermore, God is promising David another kind of house. “You want to build me a house, David? I'll show you a house. This will be the kind of house that really lasts for all ages.” Not like the temple which has already been destroyed when Luke's Gospel was written. This is house in the sense of family and lineage, a family of misfits that God is building, starting with David and expanding to all outsiders and aliens and gentiles. This is a house built out of love and compassion, a house that will be made sure forever because of Jesus and the life that he gives to all of us. In God's house, those in power keep their mouths shut and get out of the way and the smallest and shyest are empowered to be front and center, take the most important roles and receive the most attention. As they gain in power, they get to pass that privilege and favor on to the new lowliest ones, until all share power and God is able to work through each one and be present to each one and make each one a home for God's love.
God's ideal house is not one where people sit around and sing praises to God, the way I used to think of church. It is a heart open, a people going out to find God in unexpected places, it is in fields of sheep, it is in a barren womb, it is within the young and the old, it is in us even when we don't get it. The think about David and about Mary is that they could have been any of us, that they are us. God is taking what is humble and undeveloped and fresh and raw within all of us and doing what God does best, breaking into our world, surprising us, turning our systems of power and strength on their heads, and leaving us speechless and completely dumbfounded.
As messed up as this world is, God is active and breaking in. 150 families were fed through the pantry with a Christmas ham, homemade cookies, and many other extras to make it special and when one family lost their ham voucher, a man with compassion gave his away. There is the amazing miracle of giving and thinking of others that happens this time of year, with food and gifts for kids and meals, and kindness. A family who has been trying for a pregnancy finds out twins are on the way. A child asks to be baptized. New friendships are formed. A country has a difficult conversation about race. Someone gives up driving their car for a week, a month, a year. Under the soil, seeds wait until conditions are right to grow. Someone learns to read. Someone plays beautiful music. Someone visits a sick relative. Someone apologizes for a wrong from long ago. Someone seeks healing in a broken relationship. God is breaking in. God is being born. Love is developing and is the size of a pineapple this week, the right size to sneak in to all our Christmas preparations, but growing and bringing light and newness.
We don't always respond appropriately. Sometimes we want to build a structure to box that in and capture it for a lifetime. Sometimes we don't know what to say. But our hearts are bursting with thanks and sometimes that's all we can say. And once it soaks in that really all things are possible with God, we may find our emotions need expression either in words or a song or an action or two that helps someone, or in a changed life, oriented toward going out and finding God on the absolute margins, among the weakest, the least refined, the most lowly. May you find God active in the world around you and in your life. May you let that love wash over you and affect you. May you respond in whatever way you do, letting God make something of that imperfect response and break down the walls of the temple, our church, our homes and our hearts, until we all know that we are in God's family, and that God's house is big enough for all of us.