"It is not till such times as these that we realize what it means to possess a past and a spiritual inheritance independent of changes in time and circumstance. The counsciousness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that goes back for centuries gives one a feeling of confidence and security in the face of all passing strains and stresses. I believe that anyone who is ashamed of more tender feelings evoked by the memory of a rich and noble past, for in my opinion they belong to the better and nobler part of mankind. They will not overwhelm those who hold fast to values that no one can take from them."-Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Letters and Papers from Prison 57)
This past Sunday, I preached the Annunciation of Mary. At least, that is what I intended to preach on. At staff meeting, we had talked about the visit of the archangel Gabriel to Mary as the herald of the Most High. We talked about how powerful her assent and acceptance of this news was, and how odd that in the face of her simple preplexity that the archangel should offer the counsel to "be not afraid."
I went into Sunday's sermon with that in mind, and fully intended to talk about how, when we are called to be bearers of God's word to the world as Mary was, we can offer up the same assent and the same willingness to be overshadowed by God that she does. We don't need to be afraid. That makes sense, right? Why fear God or the things that God asks of us?
The answer is pretty obvious in that we too often find ourselves at odds with what God wills for us. Our own desires and wants get in the way. That is us at our worst, and at our most blind point in relationship with God. When we supplant God's will for our will, and perhaps even dress it up with god-language, then we do God the greatest disservice. Not only that, but we turn completely from Mary's assent to bear the Christ. We install our own child of appetite in its place.
So, with all of that churning in my mind, I went in to the sermon fully intending to talk about how we can open ourselves up in these last hours before the feast of Christmas to being more like Mary, willing and open to what God intends-being willing to set down fear and take up hope. Simple enough.
But that isn't what I preached.
As I sat listening to the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, a passage from one of the Books of Samuel, I heard with new ears an exchange between God and King David. And a different sermon was preached.
David has consolidated his rule over Israel. Jerusalem is at peace. The Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God's presence within and with Israel has returned to the people. All should be right with the world. Yet, David is uneasy. He lives in a palace of cedar and stone. He is clothed well in rich robes. He has what every King should have...and out on his front "lawn" is a simple tent that houses the Ark. Here is David in his palace, and God's mercy seat is domiciled like a tenant in his land.
David beseeches the Lord, "Let me build you a house better than mine."
God's response is simple; that God has dwelt with Israel since its time in Egypt in a tent...and God's favor has not waned since David's ascendancy to the throne. Why should David have to build God a house? If it is to make David feel less guilty, then how is that a glory to God? It isn't.
Houses of worship are beautiful things. They give us both geography and geometry to our prayers and our communal life's practice. But, for God who made the world, what is it about a sacred space that God needs from us? Not so much at all...except for a heart prepared for God to dwell in-so says the Collect for Advent 4:
We beseech thee Almighty God, to purify our consciences by thy daily visitation, that when thy Son our Lord cometh he may find in us a mansion prepared for huimself; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, on God, now and for ever. Amen.
The place that God wants us to prepare is not outside our own selves, but the space within. Churches are beautitul places. We fill them with sacred things, both physical objects that inspire our devotion and those precious memories that remind us who we are and where we come from...but a place cannot contain the true glory of God. Only the human heart can truly compass that and bring it into the world, as Mary does with the Christ-child.
That is a very hard lesson to learn. I find it harder to learn and to relearn as I grow older and more set in my ways. I want to have things arranged around me so that I am comfortable. After all, life is hard and I should be able to have a space for me and God to get together that gives me reassurance and peace. But, there is no peace that the world can give without God being the author.
I think that was the lesson David had to learn...and the one that Mary intuitively grasped. When God comes to us, it is important-paramount, even-to allow that advent to be what God intends. "Be it unto me," says Mary. That is the key to setting aside the fear and anxiety that Gabriel seeks to assuage. Acceptance of God in God's time and in God's way opens the portals of possibility for us. It enables us to see what God intends.
Advent 4 rings the season to a close and points to the Feast of the Incarnation. May God give us the spirit and strength of Mary to accept the Christ at his coming.