Proper: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Magnificat; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
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So here’s a word we don’t use much in this country: Dynasty. I usually think of the TV show about the Carringtons and Colbys of Denver. Other than that, we may talk about the dynasties of powerful families like the Kennedys or the Rockefellers. The word itself comes from a Greek word meaning power or ability– think of dynamic, dynamo, dynamite. Historians use it in reference to a succession of rulers from the same family, like the Ming and the Yamato dynasties in China and Japan. European dynasties are more often referred to as houses. The House of Hanover was the last royal dynasty to reign over this country before independence. And of course the House of Windsor now reigns over the largest collection of real estate in the world. Because of that, Elizabeth II is referred to by some of her subjects north of here as the Queen of All that Is, based on a character in a kids show in the 80s (Marjory the Talking Trash Heap in Fraggle Rock).
Use of the word house instead of dynasty comes from the Bible. As we’ll read again tonight, Joseph and Mary were required to go to Bethlehem in order to be registered in the local tax rolls because Joseph “was of the house and lineage of David,” meaning that he was a descendant of King David, whose hometown was Bethlehem. And although Scripture doesn’t say for sure, it’s pretty likely that Mary belonged to the house of David as well, because it was the Jewish custom for the groom to choose a bride from among his own tribe. Regardless of that, however, by virtue of marrying Joseph, she became a full-fledged member of the house of David (similar to how Prince Philip, a member of the German royal house of Glücksburg, is also a full member of the house of Windsor by being married to Queen Elizabeth).
In addition to the word, house, there’s another word that’s somewhat related, and is important to consider here as well. Which is why we’ve just read this particular lesson from 2 Samuel together with this particular gospel from St Luke. The other word is tabernacle. And even though there’s no mention of it in today’s readings, it will come up in the Christmas gospel tomorrow morning. There’s also the word, mansion, in today’s collect. A mansion, in the older sense, simply means a dwelling place or a room, not a big fancy house, which is what we think of.
Well, David wants to build a house for God to dwell in among his people, but God won’t let him. He says that it’s because David so often worked against God’s own purposes. Yet God was merciful to David, and did promise that he would eventually allow a house to be built, not by David though, but by his son Solomon. From the days of Moses until the reign of Solomon, God’s earthly dwelling was in a tent or, to use that other English word for a temporary dwelling, a tabernacle. Once the Israelites had settled in the Promised Land, after having moved around the Sinai wilderness for forty years, the tabernacle was set up more or less permanently in Shiloh for the next 200 years or so. That tent housed the golden ark of the covenant, which God declared to be his earthly throne. Whenever his people were on the move in the desert, the ark was carried ahead of them. And whenever the armies of Israel went into battle, they carried the ark with them, understanding that it was God who protected them and won their battles for them.
David’s motives seemed pure enough. With God’s help he managed to achieve a fairly high level of national stability and security, at least to the point that he was able to make a nice home for himself and his family– a house of cedar, we’re told. That must have been what they were building houses out of in upscale neighborhoods back then. David didn’t think it right that the king should live in a house of cedar while God was still in a tent. You’d have thought that David would have insisted on remaining in temporary digs himself until after he’d put up a proper house for God. But we don’t know anything about that.
There could have been a bit of envy on David’s part though. All the neighboring nations had built temples for their gods to dwell in– their false gods– and palaces for their kings. Yet Israel’s God, the only real God, just had a tent. But the real God, the “maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible,” isn’t too concerned with what others think. He’s the One who spoke and everything came into existence. He’s the One who defeated all the enemies of his people, and secured for them a homeland. He’s almighty, he possesses all power over all creation, so he’s above being defeated or ridiculed, or becoming green with envy. It’s also impossible to contain him in a house. But we humans need a focal point for our worship. And so, speaking through Nathan the prophet, God said, “In all this time, have I ever told any of the rulers of my people to build me a cedar house?” That’s not what’s most important. What is most important, Nathan says, is that the Lord make of David a great house– not a cedar house but a dynasty, and that the throne of David, the house of David, “shall be established for ever.”
David has no real idea what exactly God has in mind, and neither do any of God’s people for a thousand years. Then comes the archangel Gabriel to announce to Mary that “the Lord God will give to [her son] the throne of his father David,” and that her son “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There’s another use of that word house. Speaking through the prophets of the Old Testament, as well as through Gabriel in this instance, God often referred to Israel as the house of Jacob, because all Israelites were– are– descended from Jacob, whom God renamed Israel. So the house of Jacob is the kingdom, and the house of David is the royal family. And even though David’s kingdom was divided between two of his grandsons, and conquered repeatedly thereafter, God didn’t alter his plan to establish David’s throne for ever, and to reconcile all nations to himself around that throne.
When Gabriel visited Mary that day, the house of Jacob was once again a conquered people. But part of God’s plan of reconciling the world was to use that conquering power in order to overtake the empire that possessed that power, and from there to begin to claim the world in the Name of the child in Mary’s womb. So this moment that we’re celebrating on the eve of Christmas is the pivotal moment in the history of the world. It’s the moment when the Creator of all humbled himself to be conceived as the child of one of his creatures. St Anselm, the great medieval archbishop of Canterbury said, “God who made everything made himself from Mary.”
In the gospel we’ll be reading this evening, St Luke says that “the time came for [Mary] to give birth” (Lk 2:6). And speaking of that same moment in time, in the gospel that will be read on Christmas morning, St John says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). That’s the birth of Jesus as seen from the heavenly perspective. And that’s where that other word for tent comes in. The literal translation of that sentence is “the Word became flesh and tented [pitched his tent] among us. Mary was the tabernacle of God for the first nine months of his human life. Then it was the home that she and Joseph provided. And then for the three or so years of his ministry, as he said of himself, the Son of Man had no place to lay his head (Mt 8:20; Lk 9:58). Like God in the days of David, he didn’t live in a house but moved about from place to place.
And it’s still not time for God to make a permanent home among his people. He’s not ready to rest just yet. He had a lot to do back then to lay the foundation for his great plan, which culminated in his dying, rising and ascending to the Father’s side. When he ascended, he left his tent, his tabernacle behind, but not for long. For soon afterward he sent the Holy Spirit to pick up the work and carry it on until he returns. And the chief work of the Holy Spirit is to gather God’s people and to make Christ present within the gathering, the Church. At one point Jesus said to his disciples, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt 18:20). And St John in his Revelation heard the loud voice from the throne of God saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (21:3). That’s more literally translated as “the tent/tabernacle of God is with men. He will tent with them…”
We are the tabernacle, the tent, the mansion that houses the living God on earth. When we gather in worship, he’s in the midst of us. When we go in his peace to love and serve him in the world, he moves with us, like the ark that moved with the house of Jacob and the armies of Israel. We are the tent, the tabernacle, the house of God, although he can’t be confined to our midst. And he’s active outside this tent in more ways than we can comprehend. It all began during a quiet meeting between Mary and Gabriel when God conceived his Son in her– another act of God that we can’t fully comprehend.
I want to leave you hanging with the rest of that quote from St Anselm, who was one of the great theologians of the Church. And this is deep theology, but it’s very easy to understand. Anselm says,
All nature is created by God, and God is born of Mary.
God created all things, and Mary gave birth to God.
God who made everything made himself from Mary,
and so he refashioned everything he had made.
The One who was able to make all things out of nothing
declined to make it by force, but first became Mary’s son.
As God is the Father of all created things,
so Mary is the mother of all re-created things.
God is the Father of all that is established,
and Mary is the mother of all that is re-established.
For God gave birth to the Son through whom all things were made,
and Mary gave birth to the Son through whom all are saved.
God brought forth him without whom nothing is [=exists];
Mary bore him without whom nothing is good.
O truly, ‘the Lord is with you,’ to whom the Lord gave himself,
that all nature in you might be in him.
Oration 7 in Opera Omnia III.21-22
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
a.m.d.g.: Ian C. Wetmore+