Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- Here is a focus on obedience, on what God requires of his creation. Now for us moderns, with our strongly developed sense of our own individuality and autonomy, this is a difficult concept. We almost instinctively rebel against the notion that we owe obedience, even reverence, to another higher authority. The very idea that a being far superior to us can command our obedience goes quite against the grain.
This sense of our being in control of our own destinies and personal integrity was also an important issue for ancient man. In our Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel (7:1-5.8-12.14-16) we see what an issue this was for King David. Now David had been chosen to be king instead of Saul; he had successfully fought his people’s battles and defeated their enemies; he had established their capital city in Jerusalem, a stronghold taken from the Jebusites, and he had married a daughter of the previous king and set up his harem in the city. He had every reason to think that he had got things sorted, and could in consequence control the religious practices of his people. Indeed, such was his power that the prophet Nathan initially agreed with his proposal to build a Temple to the Lord God.
It was however not to be the case, as God spoke to his prophet and rejected all these grandiose plans, insisting instead that all David’s triumphs and successes had been brought about by his, God’s will and dismissed any sense that they were the result of the kings own abilities. We might like to reflect for a moment what a risky thing it was for Nathan to have related to the king. Here he confronts a powerful warlord, one with considerable following, the usurper of other thrones and gets away with it. A chastened David accepts his rebuke and the rejection of his pet project in favour of the announcement of a God given son and heir, of the founding of a dynasty which will last down through the ages, something particularly spectacular in a period when rulers live in continual expectation of being knocked off their perch by others more powerful and ruthless.
Our story of the Annunciation to Mary from Luke’s gospel, (1:26-38) is a continuation of this great story of the action of God for the salvation of his chosen people. Here Mary is visited by God’s messenger Gabriel with the instruction that she ‘rejoice.’ In contrast to the bombast of David here we see that Mary is terrified by this experience. Here she is, a young girl, parthenos in Greek, single, probably hardly at puberty and betrothed to an older man but not yet married. The angel informs her that she will bear a son through the power of God’s Holy Spirit who will continue the Davidic line, a kingly line which had fizzled out generations before in sad corruption and decline. The prophecy of Nathan it seemed had proved a fallacy. But the angel was not talking about earthly power; not promising a great renaissance of Davidic kingship and violence aimed at getting rid of the Roman occupiers of their land. This promise or prophecy is of a child who will be the Son of God; someone born into this old line whose entire purpose and being was not to be based in earthly power, as Israel knew it and always desired it, but one who would be God’s representative of earth. This promise is not of another prophet, but one who shared God’s own being and identity; Emmanuel, God with us, the Son whose message and purpose would be to go out way beyond the limiting confines of tiny Israel to the entire world, with the promise of a salvation of an entirely different kind. As a sign of the truthfulness of this promise the angel tells Mary of the quite unexpected pregnancy of her barren elder cousin Elizabeth, and Mary recognising her place in this divine plan submits. “I am the slave of the Lord.”
Unlike her ancestor David, Mary recognises her place in the scheme of things, and is willing to be obedient and comply. It is not as though she is simply bludgeoned into this, for as we see, Mary questions Gabriel quite closely; but, once having received his answers she is compliant, obedient. The pattern for our story here deliberately departs from that of David in favour of the stories about Samuel, around whose birth hang other sad tales of barrenness and prayer for redemption from this curse by his mother Hannah. When she is told that her dearest wish for a boy child will be granted, we have to remember that in obedience and gratitude Hannah weaned Samuel and left him for God with Eli the prophet at Shilo. Significantly once Mary has accepted her destiny, our story ends with the stark words “And the angel left her”, a hint of the path which Jesus will take in his obedience to the Father.
Paul’s concluding words in the letter to the Romans takes up this theme too. (16:25-27). Paul speaks of the revelation of the eternal mystery of God’s intent and will for us, and of the task of Christians to play their part in the disclosure of God’s plan so that all may be brought to the ‘obedience of faith’. Our task is to play our part in this great mission to the world. This is why we celebrate the seasons of Advent and Christmas, not for ourselves, but in order to bring others to the glory of God.