Saturday, December 17, 2011

Highly favoured? a sermon for Advent 4B

Behold the servant of the Lord
May it be with me according to your word.

It seems to me that, on a bad day, teenagers fall broadly into two categories. There are those who are world-weary beyond their years, whose only response to startling news of any kind is a characteristic shrug and a sigh of “Whatever”
And there are those who seem to think that we're all intent on making life hard for them...because, after all, it's all about them.
Their response to almost any announcement is an outraged
You've got to be joking!”
and it seems to me that often, in our behaviour towards God, there's more than a touch of the teenager about us.
We seem to be quite good at assuming WE know best how he should run things...and to descend into something quite close to the mood swings and slammed doors of teenage life if God doesn't fall into line with our expectations of just how our own pet deity, God in a box, should behave.
It's as if we thought that God existed just for our benefit – to smooth OUR way, to care for those whom WE love...
As if God was not just a personal God but OUR personal God...

I guess that must be part of human nature – perhaps part of what is unfashionably known as sin...We so place ourselves at the centre of the universe that our own agenda becomes the only thing we can really focus on.

David, certainly, was no stranger to believing it was all about HIM.
If you need any evidence, just think of the way he indulged himself with Bathsheba – and read some of the emotional outpourings of the psalms..
What's more, as befitted one of the greatest kings of Israel, he was absolutely determined to cement his place in history by being the one to finally pin God down – or at least to enthrone him – to be the one remembered for building the most magnificent Temple of all time.
Because, of course, if he was the one who built the Temple, he was in effect acting as God's host....and thus had God firmly and conclusively under his thumb.
God in a box once again.
His arguments sound good and plausible.
It's not right for me to be living in a palace of cedar when the Ark of God is in a mere tent...
But there's another agenda at work, for David knows that if he is the builder of a Temple, he will control the religious life of his people.

God, though, has other ideas, and is always greater than even the most amazing shrines we create for Him.
Ours is a God on the move...not one who wants to settle in a who is out and about, at work amid his people.
It's impossible, I think, to read this passage without seeing the image of a great Cathedral – a house dedicated to the glory of God – and that ramshackle encampment of tents set out before it.
And, with that image in mind, it's impossible not to ask questions.
Where would we most naturally expect to find God?
In the beautiful buildings dedicated to his glory?
If God worked according to our rules and conventions, that would be the only possible answer......but God's agenda is utterly different and so we must expect to be taken by surprise, again and again.

Ours is, famously, a God of surprises
He won't play by David's rule, won't be confined for the benefit of one man, or one family.
He has a larger scheme in mind
Ours is also a God who makes covenants.
Having put paid to David's ambition to win lasting fame through his architectural endeavours, God captures David in a covenant, which enshrines their relationship from then on and paves the way for all that follows...but never quite as we might expect.

For when God does pitch his tent on earth, it is not within the golden splendour of the Temple...nor in the palace of the King of Israel.
Instead God settles in the womb of Mary, - who is thus transformed into the ark of the new Covenant.
Amazingly she, an ordinary teenager in a small town, is able to offer a response of obedient hospitality that eludes most of us.

You'd expect confusion, even indignation.
You've got to be joking! What do mean I'm going to have a baby? I'm not married!
And later......what do you mean I have to travel on a donkey while I'm almost ready to deliver?
What do you mean I have to have my baby in a stable with animals? What do you mean I have to up and leave with my new baby and travel to Egypt of all places? What do you mean I have to watch my son
die? WHAT????? You've GOT to be joking.

But remember, though David's offer of accommodation for God was also an attempt to control God's self, Mary's response is something very different.
Behold the servant of the Lord
May it be with me according to your word.

Being 'gifted by God, highly favoured' is no guarantee of security or peace....
Whenever we reflect on Mary I'm reminded of some words spoken to God by Theresa of Avila
If this is how you treat your friends, it's not surprising that you have so few of them”
Who knows what Mary would have answered had she known what lay ahead...what her childlike confidence in God would really entail.
But somehow she is enabled, by God's grace, to set aside the teenage certainty that “It's all about me” and to make room in her heart, her body, her life for God's transforming presence.
It's not easy, even then, for her.
She is perplexed “How can this be?” - but nonetheless she is able to cede all control to God – and so finds herself intimately involved in the outworking of God's agenda for the world.

We too may find ourselves much perplexed – longing to have faith, to co-operate fully with God, but holding on too to that “all about ME” agenda that constantly gets in the way.
God's idea of what it means to be “highly favoured” is that the favoured ones are fully involved in God's work in the world...
Fully involved in alot of pain,in a spear piercing the heart, in that process of self emptying that is both at the heart of incarnation, and part of our daily discipleship...

God doesn't call us as self-absorbed teenagers, convinced that it's “all about ME”
He calls us as children, prepared to trust those we love to ensure that all shall be well...
He will undoubtedly surprise us, subvert our expectations (we might be wiser to look for him in the camp than in the Cathedral), will take us along roads that we would never have chosen, to places we don't much want to visit......

If we can offer the hospitality of our hearts and our lives, then God can do great things in us too.
Can we, dare we, pray today with Mary
Behold the servant of the Lord. May it be to me according to your word”


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. Food for thought.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. It's nice to have something to make me think a bit.

Kathryn said...

Dear anon...very sweet of you to say kind things, but I'd love at least a name as after hassle with troll-like anon comments I'd much prefer to know who is talking to me. Thanks so much for positive feed back - even twice in 3 minutes!!