Building a house

Fourth Sunday of Advent; 20 December 2020; Advent 4B (RCL); 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 15; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38.

This passage from 2 Samuel represents a dramatic shift in the theology of covenant in the Old Testament. With this reading, we enter the age of a royal ideology — politics and theology are linked. Up until this point, the covenant God has made with the people has been conditional: if you follow my commandments, I will be faithful to the thousandth generation, but if not, the covenant is void. The land will spit you out.

In the verses we skip over, God promises David that his son will sit on the throne, and the dynasty will never end, even if the future kings should disobey. God will punish them with the rod of men, but the covenant will stand. But even in the midst of this oracle which establishes a royal ideology (the covenant of God with the people connects through the king), there is the voice of dissent: Will you make me a house?

Part of the ideology of monarchy in the ancient world was the connection between the palace and the temple — part of the same compound. The king functioned as the guarantor of the temple cult. The national treasury was stored in the temple. Throughout the books of Samuel, we encounter a dissent from the monarchical view of things. The nation existed just fine without kings, and now, they will distort the relationship between the people and God. Kings will appropriate all the best men, women, land, and wealth for themselves. Even the centralization of the cult was resisted. This passage includes some of that resistance.

God will make David a house, but David will not make God a house. As long as God can move about in a tent, God can be worshiped wherever the people are. Once a temple is built, God must be worshiped at the temple, bringing the whole system under royal control. Throughout the books of Samuel and Kings, we find evidence of stubborn resistance to the centralized cult. The authors of those books rail against the “high places” where people go to worship without the intervention of the official priesthood.

Luke alludes to this passage from Samuel in Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. You will name him Jesus and he shall be great (I will make your name great). Luke, of course, is writing after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE. That catastrophe created a crisis for the religion of Israel. Without a temple, there is no cult. Rabbinic Judaism resolved the crisis by finding the presence of God in torah. Christians resolved it by finding the presence of God in Jesus.

Luke places Jesus on David’s throne, restoring the royal covenant (of course, without the Temple — Jesus sits on David’s throne, not Solomon’s). In Acts, Luke will have the spirit, in the form of wind and fire (pillar of cloud and fire) descend upon the church, just as it had upon the tabernacle. God is wherever the people are. And in Luke’s telling, there is not even a single (though moveable) tabernacle — God is wherever the Jesus people are, on the Way (what the Jesus movement was called before they were called Christians). God is journeying throughout the world, with whole crowds of people, not just on a single way.

And this shift is happening through a young woman in an out of the way corner of the Empire. For Luke, Mary is the prime example of a disciple. Her willingness to say yes to bearing the divine presence is an example for all of us.

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