Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:26-38
What our biblical texts offer us today is not so much a moral lesson or something to hope for, but a deep truth upon which to meditate.
Oh God, we believe that the Word was in the beginning, and we believe that all things were made through the Word, and that the Word has come to us, so we anticipate grace and truth . . .
It’s kind of interesting, if you think about it, that David was keen on building a stately mansion for God, but God was comfortable with a tent. David felt bad that, while he met with this assistants and advisors in a palace of stone and cedar, the people met with God in a tent. We sometimes call it a tabernacle, but a “tabernacle” is just an old fashioned way of saying it was a big tent, an impermanent habitation. To the highly-accomplished king David it must has seemed like an old, ratty RV trailer the neighbours parked outback and forgot.
There is a connection between this and the famous line from John 1:14. That’s the verse that reads, “And the Word became flesh and lived (or dwelt) among us.” The verse could be translated differently, not better or worse, just differently. If a translator were being more literal she could render the verse like this: “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” Or she could say that the Word “camped among us.”
The tent of meeting that irked David was eventually replaced by a mansion. David’s son Solomon built it. It was a grand temple. At the dedication Solomon said, “I have built . . . an exalted house, a place for [God] to dwell in forever.” Then Solomon prayed,
“O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart . . . . But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heading the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.”
Yes, Solomon built God a mansion. They thought of God as a king in those days, a king above all kings. So of course, a king should have a mansion, a palace, some place that spoke of power and permanence and centralization.
I sometimes like the thought of the contemporary musician and Christian teacher Cheryl Bear of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation. She says that we might benefit from thinking of God as a grandparent. Grandparents are those people who have the rest, the patience, and the experience to get involved in the lives of children in positive ways—especially when parents are exhausted and impatient. Old or young, we could all use that kind of presence in our lives.
But in the ancient Hebrew world the most common metaphor for God was that of a king. The king was the one to whom people looked for justice, peace, and the space to live well.
So for David and Solomon, the temple was a bit of a branding exercise. What was said of God was in a way said of themselves. Every organization today, not-for-profits and just-for-profits, go to great lengths to define and defend their “visual identity.” Colors and logos, they use these to depict their corporate character and to identify what they do. The temple and tabernacle functioned in the same way. They weren’t the only place where God was present, but they identified it, they described its character.
A tent said one thing; a grand, palace-like temple said something else. A temple of stone and cedar said that the worship of God was a destination wedding.
But the Bible registers the fact that Solomon himself had misgivings. As we read earlier he mused, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less the house that I have built!” That’s one of those lines that goes mostly unnoticed . . . for generations.
However, like an outdated sports arena the temple of Solomon did not last forever. It was torn down, reduced to rubble—the monarchy with it.
Generations later a new builder of palaces and arenas put up another for meeting God. We call it the second temple or Herod’s temple. It was glitzy, solid, and huge. But can a house of stone and cedar contain God? Is there a mansion worthy of wearing the Creator’s brand? Herod was a narcissist, be probably didn’t care.
At the same time as influencers and lobbyists scurried and scuffled over that grand temple, a small-town teenager, a woman of David’s line, was yanked into the story. Her name was Mary.
If our watching of The Crown, the show about the life and reign of Elizabeth II, has shown us anything, it’s that being yanked into the story of royalty is at best, a mixed blessing.
Gabriel, who is one of the few messengers of God to be named in the Bible, appeared to Mary, and said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” This, at least, is how the historian Luke recorded it. He tells us too that she was perplexed. We often assume that Mary was taken aback by the mere fact that an angel had shown up, just as we would be if an angel or Justin Bieber walked into our room. But Luke says that Mary was perplexed by Gabriel’s words.
Truth be told, Mary was better prepared to meet an angel than are we. But Mary was no better prepared for Gabriel’s words than are we. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” There are some people who might take such a greeting in stride. People that think the world revolves around them. People who think they must always be noticed and appreciated. People who assume everyone else is living in their story. Mary was not such a person: she was surprised.
Gabriel told her that she would conceive in her womb a child who would be called “Son of the Most High,” inheritor of the “throne of David.” And as John would later say, the Word pitched his tent among us. Not in a palace, but in a body.
In the fourth century, after much philosophizing and politicking, the church would conclude that the best way for them to speak about Mary’s son was to say something like this:
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
There’s a Greek phrase that some Christian liturgies use to capture the astonishing thing this is: platytera ton ouranon. It means “wider than the heavens.” Mary did not possess a mansion, but in her faith she nurtured the universe. Her womb and her spirit became the dwelling place of God. The tent of divine habitation.
Years after Mary had passed from the scene, long after the old manger was busted up for kindling, long after Jesus’ voice had ceased to echo through the hills, near the time when the second temple too was leveled, members of the communities formed in Jesus name would speak a blessing over each other. They would pray that Jesus would dwell in their hearts, as their feet sunk deep into the soil of love (Eph. 3).
Are we not then the dwelling of the divine—the mobile tents of flesh, a collective womb, branded with the creator’s presence? There is only one Mary and only one incarnate Son of the Most High. But as we grow in love the Word dwells in us. That’s what the early Christians believed.
And in that way we too enter the story of royals. In our spirit, if not our body, we too are platytera ton ouranon. We are wider than the heavens. This is a strange and shocking mystery. The old builders of divine palaces would be scandalized. This is a mystery that blazes like the sun; the appearance of an angel is a nightlight by comparison.
So, in sum, today we hear Gabriel’s words twice: first, to Mary: “Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you.” We are thankful for her faith. We imitate her trust in God. But then we here the echo of Gabriel’s words, this time to ourselves: “Greetings favored ones. The Lord is with you.” A tent of flesh; a tabernacle of the divine; a dubious RV for the holy.
May the Holy Spirit guide us as we consider these strange ways of the Ancient One. Amen.