INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year B - FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
2 SAMUEL 7: 1-11, 16. There seems little reason for this lesson on the Sunday before Christmas except that it ends with the promise to David that his reign would be established forever. This almost appears as a 'quid pro quo' for David fulfilling the commission given through Nathan the prophet to build the temple in David's new capital, Jerusalem.
LUKE 1: 47-55. Instead of a psalm, we read Mary's song when she has revealed her pregnancy to her older relative Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. This song is known as "The Magnificat" from the Latin translation of its first words: "My soul magnifies the Lord."
Was it actually Mary's song or was it Luke's idea of what she might have said on this happy occasion? Bible scholars agree that Luke found his model in Hannah's song at the birth of the prophet, Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10.)
PSALM 89: 1-4, 19-26. [Alternate]. This psalm reiterates the promise to David that his dynasty would remain forever. Early Christians quickly adopted it as a prophecy for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, descended from David as identified in the genealogies of Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 4:23-38.
ROMANS 16: 25-27. This doxology ties together Old Testament prophecies and the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is between the two what we may call continuity and discontinuity. The activity of our eternal God provides the link. In Jesus Christ, God's will to bring all humanity to faith has been revealed.
LUKE 1:26-38. As might be expected, the story of the coming of Jesus begins with the announcement to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Son of God. Much has been made of the details of this story in theology, hymnody and art. The mystery of the Incarnation is told in a story because it cannot be described in other ways. The miracle is that God came, not how it happened.
It is important to remember that we believe in Jesus, God's Son, not because he was born of the Virgin Mary, but because he is God come among us in human form, “the Word made flesh.” Mary made this possible by her acceptance of God's will that she be Jesus' human mother.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
2 SAMUEL 7:1-11, 16. There seems little reason for this lesson on the last Sunday before Christmas except that it ends with the promise to David that his reign would be established forever (vs. 16). This almost appears as a 'quid pro quo' for David fulfilling the commission given through Nathan the prophet to build the temple of Yahweh in David's new capital city, Jerusalem. As it turned out, David did not fulfill his part of the bargain.
The story has all the artificiality of hagiography. It begins with David's confession of guilt to Nathan about his apparent success and comfort in comparison to the rude tent in which the ark of the covenant still rests. Nathan received a nighttime revelation from Yahweh, presumably in a dream, instructing him to encourage David to proceed with the building of a temple. There follows a brief summary of David's career as a fulfillment of the Israel's divinely shaped history and ends with the assurance that David's dynasty will last forever. David's prayer in the latter part of the chapter further emphasizes the artificiality of the preceding story.
In his exegesis of this passage, the late Professor George B. Caird, one time principal of United Theological College, Montreal, and of Mansfield College, Oxford, stated that this chapter is one of the most controversial in the book of Samuel. (*The Interpreter's Bible* vol. 2, 864f. Nashville, TN: The Abingdon Press, 1951.) Many scholars had drawn attention to its parallel in Psalm 89 and some have suggested that there is a direct linkage between the two. Caird pointed to the first four verses of the psalm as presupposing the existence of the prophecy of Nathan in vs. 16 of this reading. Others have proposed that the passage was the product of the Deuteronomists in the latter years of the Davidic dynasty, when the Babylonians indeed did threaten and ultimately brought about its end in recorded history. Caird concluded, however, that there is every reason to believe that both the psalm and this reading were dependent on an earlier tradition of uncertain date.
On the other hand, Caird's analysis of the passage pointed out its true value as Christian scripture: "The belief in David's everlasting kingdom, which persisted even after the down fall of the Davidic dynasty at the time of the Exile, contributed to the later eschatology of Judaism in which many pious hopes were centred in the coming of the great David's greater son." The NT gospels were written as a further extension of this eschatological belief. The difference is that the gospels declared that the promise had been fulfilled the promise in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah/Christ. The two genealogies in Matthew 1:1-16 and Luke 3:23-38 make this point especially clear.
LUKE 1:47-55. Instead of a selection from the Psalms, we may read Mary's song when she has revealed her pregnancy to her older relative Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. For many centuries it has been known as "The Magnificat" from the Latin translation of its first words: "My soul magnifies the Lord." In actuality, however, it is a psalm; and like many others in the Psalter, it consists of a number of selections drawn from the oracles of the prophets. Bible scholars generally agree that Luke found his model in Hannah's song at the birth of the prophet, Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10.)
Luke's idea of what Mary might have said on this happy occasion might be seen as only slightly relevant to the actual situation. That also was case with the model Luke followed. Yet this in no way has diminished the significance of the song for the faith of the church through the past two millennia. What has distracted many, perhaps, is the way it has been so closely associated with a sentimental understanding of Mary's role in the spiritual life of the Christian church.
Mary's joy at being so favored finds it fullest expression, however, not in anticipating the birth of her child, but in what is to happen according to God's will and purpose because of this child's coming into the world. Moving as it does from the personal to national concerns, the song reflects Mary's own exaltation from the humiliation of a still unmarried mother to the greatness of the one through whom God came to establish justice in the world.
In his commentary on St. Luke, Professor George Caird wrote: "If the Magnificat had been preserved as a separate psalm outside of its present context, we might have taken it to be the manifesto of a political and economic revolution....Jesus was to take up this hope for the reversal of human fortunes and rid it of its limitations of nationalism and self-righteousness, so that it could become the basis of a more profound revolution than the Jews had ever bargained for; and Luke’s gospel more than any of the others does justice to this aspect of his ministry." (*St. Luke*. The Pelican New Testament Commentaries. Penguin Books,
As disturbing as this may be to modern enthusiasts of either biblical and dogmatic literalism or economic fundamentalism, this message remains true to the great prophets of Israel such as Amos, Micah and Isaiah. It still rings true today. At a time when the gap between rich and poor widens daily, the leaders of nations have failed to recognize the nature of the problem, let alone the dangers of social upheaval inherent in it. Prophetic declarations of the will of God that provident justice is for all humanity need to be repeated again and again. This is the essential message which the song of Mary proclaims.
PSALM 89: 1-4, 19-26. [Alternate]. This reading reiterates the promise to David that his dynasty would remain forever. The whole psalm consists of four distinct parts of which we have here only the first and part of the third sections. Although some scholars have declared it as two originally separate psalms, it seems more likely that it originated as a lament for a Judean king and should therefore be treated as a royal psalm. The latter verses 38-45 suggest that it may have been written after a significant national disaster such as the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians and the exile of the greater part of the nation’s political, economic and religious leadership.
The hope of the restoration of the Davdic monarchy persists throughout the poem. Expressions such as “my chosen one, my servant, the first-born, the highest of the kings of the earth, thy anointed, one exalted from the people” all reinforce this perception. These terms make abundantly clear that the house of David has total divine sanction. Vss. 30-33 goes so far as to declare with a profound sense of the Deuteronomists’ view of history that those break the covenant law will suffer divine punishment represented and ideally enforced by the monarch. The present reading concludes with the absolute assurance that David’s line would remain regardless of the vicissitudes of history.
Early Christians quickly adopted the psalm as a prophecy for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, descended from David. The genealogies of Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 4:23-38, although artificially designed, expressed this belief. Christian scripture and hymnody has reiterated the theme in such passages as the stories and poetry placing the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the city of David.
ROMANS 16:25-27. This doxology needs to be read aloud and heard as if the apostle himself was delivering it as a benediction. At first it may appear to read clumsily. Scholars have long debated whether it is really part of the letter at all or an addition attached to it at some later date. Variations in ancient manuscripts give ample evidence to support this debate. Commentaries differ as to the authenticity of this specific passage and of the whole of ch. 16 as well as the original placing of the doxology in the letter. It has been suggested that it might better follow 15:33. It has even been hypothesized that - except for the reference to the prophets in vs. 26 - it was composed by the 2d century Christian Marcion, condemned as a heretic because he rejected the OT as valid scripture. Marcion is also known to have used a version of the letter truncated at the end of ch. 14.
On the other hand, one might well begin the benediction with the opening words of vs. 25, "Now to God who is able to strengthen you ..." and then skip to the concluding words of vs. 27, "to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen." To do so, however, would be to miss the whole intent of the passage.
The theme of the doxology is that while the divine plan of salvation was witnessed to by the prophetic scriptures of Israel, its full scope has only been revealed by the coming of Jesus Christ. Thus it ties together Old Testament prophecies and the gospel of which Paul claimed to be one of the early apostles. There is between the two what we may call continuity anddiscontinuity. The activity of our eternal God provides the essential link. In Jesus Christ, God's will to bring all humanity to faith has been revealed.
The key to this interpretation of the passage is found in the reiterated phrase "according to ...." English translations struggle to make sense of the complicated clauses which follow a simple Greek word *kata*. Some attempt to work around it, but most set these as repeated clauses to create emphasis that builds to the climax as to God's ultimate purpose from time immemorial: "to bring about the obedience of faith."
In short, this was the gospel which Paul preached. Everything he had learned and believed as a Jewish Pharisee, he still claimed as his lasting heritage. Yet he had now found all that completely transformed through the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Having grasped this freely offered gift, he had no other message to proclaim. As William Barclay wrote in his conclusion to *The Letter to the Romans*: "For Paul, the Christian is not a man who has surrendered to an ineluctable power; he is a man who has fallen in love with the God who is the lover of the souls of men, and whose love stands for ever full-displayed in Jesus Christ." (The Daily Study Bible. Edinburgh: The St. Andrew Press, 1955.)
LUKE 1:26-38. As might be expected, the story of the coming of Jesus begins with the announcement to Mary that she is to be the mother of the Son of God. Much has been made of the details of this story in theology, hymnody, art, including within recent years a feature television movie. A great deal of these presentations give a very sentimental view of both Mary and her pregnancy. In 1999, an article in the Los Angeles Times and Toronto Star described how scholars, artists and moviemakers have made an effort to give Mary "a makeover." The article stated that "some of their most powerful new impressions of her come from comparisons of her problems with those of the underprivileged today....(These) re-evaluations of Mary didn't start as a 'tear down.' Instead, she is being respectfully escorted off a pedestal that has kept her from living as full a life as modern historians and scripture scholars are currently reconstructing her."
Some more radical scholars like John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan and other participants in the Jesus Seminar give a much more down to earth interpretation of the narratives of Matthew and Luke. If somewhat speculative and having a certain appearance of negativity, their work does substantiate the conviction of many modern believers that the great religious mystery and spiritual meaning of the Incarnation is that God came, not how it happened.
It is important to remember that we believe in Jesus, God's Son, not because he was miraculously conceived and born of the Virgin Mary, but because he is God come among us in human form. Mary made this possible by her acceptance of God's will that she be Jesus' human mother (vs. 38). This aspect of the story points directly to the humanity of Jesus.
Donald Spoto, a former Roman Catholic monk, scholar and biographer of a number of famous persons, published what purports to be a biography of Jesus. (*The Hidden Jesus: A New Life.* St. Martin's Press, 1998. His chapter on the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke is particularly insightful. Among his many incisive comments he has stated: [Jesus'] existence as God's ultimate manifestation does not cancel his humanity.... The chapters (telling of Jesus' birth) are far richer if we read them as artistic, highly refined, dramatically structured and inspired religious meditations - declarations of the Easter faith, lovingly and strategically placed at the head of the two Gospels to announce just who Jesus is, in opposition to those who understand very little of him, as the subsequent story of his ministry makes painfully clear."
Perhaps with concern for his relationship to the church, Spoto quotes the staunchly conservative Cardinal Josef Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) who presided over the Roman Catholic Church as official arbiter of church dogma: "According to the faith of the Church, the Sonship of Jesus does not rest on the fact that Jesus had no human father: the doctrine of Jesus' divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage."
Another of Spoto's astute observations reads: "The birth of Jesus, say Matthew and Luke - and those who came to believe in Jesus - begins a new creation. And the only way for ancient writers to describe this new creation was by the inspired invention of new metaphors - not the fabrication of untruth, but an entirely fresh way of telling the truth. God's revelation, after all, need not be restricted to the form of literal history."
The presence of angels in the birth narratives in Luke's Gospel is the ancient Jewish way of saying metaphorically that God was initiating a unique and self-revealing event. As in the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18 & 21, God acted beyond all expectations. The message of the angel Gabriel to Mary was the same: "Nothing shall be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37) The angel's words by way of explanation to Mary about this unique event is a post-resurrection statement: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you ...". Yet it still is within the context of a Jewish Christian faith attested by the name for God, "Most High," and the angel's additional words, "therefore the child to be born will be holy."
The theological concept of the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and the story of the annunciation in this scripture reading are by no means easy subjects on which to preach. The contemporary preacher must do so recognizing that there are in the listening congregation many who sincerely desire to hold an intelligible faith that both maintains the ancient traditions of the gospel and yet does not violate their credibility. It is no longer sufficient to proclaim emphatically, "The Bible says ...." The preacher must struggle to understand what the author of the scripture passage intended to say in the rich, metaphorical language of his time and culture, and then show the congregation in language and metaphors of our time and culture how to believe, as that first audience believed, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Some of the more radical alternatives to the doctrine Virgin Birth have suggested that Mary was the victim of rape, possibly by a Roman soldier. Assuredly, that would not have been unknown in those distressed times. But would that have been so much worse than the incidents reported in our modern media almost daily of women being similarly abused. Recently, a Moslem woman from Pakistan who had been so shamefully ill-treated by male members of her own family for the sake of the so-called “family honor” has become an international heroine seeking to banish this practice from her culture. In essence, she and all those supporting her seek to redeem her culture from an ancient tradition which no one can accept as anything but a violation of human rights.
Is it not possible to view the birth of Jesus to his as yet unwed mother in a similar light? Does this not also lift up the redemption as the essential purpose of God in the human birth of Jesus of Nazareth? Radical as the thought may be, if we were writing the story of his birth today, would it not be quite appropriate to cast it in such terms?