4th Sunday of Advent

December 21, 2008
Reading 1: 
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Reading 3: 
Romans 16:25-27
Reading 4: 
Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
By Bruce G. Epperly

A covenant forever? A throne forever?  What might these words addressed to King David and his successors mean to 21st century “gentile” Christians gathered for worship with Christmas on the horizon? Taken literally, these words are irrelevant and counterfactual, except to those persons who assume that Israel is at the heart of God’s salvation history and will be God’s chosen instrument in ushering in the world-annihilating Second Coming of the Messiah. The state of Israel lives on, and I am grateful for that, and pray for the peace of Israel and its neighbors, but I – like most mainstream and progressive Christians – not only struggle with the notion of a chosen people, but also struggle in finding ways to interpret these passages creatively and spiritually for persons in our very different time, historically, spiritually, and socially. While I am tempted to delete 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 from this week’s lectionary, I believe there is wisdom here and though it may be very different from the authors’ intentions, it may still cast a light on our own 21st century experience. Faithful reading of scripture involves looking backward as we move forward in interpretations of the text that speak imaginatively and creatively to our time and place.

As I ponder the notion of covenant, like many others, my imagination turns from chosen nations to interpersonal relationships that involve ongoing personal choice and fidelity. My wife Kate and I will celebrate thirty years of marriage in early January. Over these three decades, I have learned that a growing and intimate marriage involves the ongoing interplay of commitment, choice, fidelity, sacrifice, love, and support in the context of both good and bad fortune. We have grown together as a result of ordinary as well as difficult decisions that we have made in domestic and professional life, relationships, and parenting. We have faced job loss, financial stress, cancer and other critical illness, aging parents and the challenges of the “sandwich generation,” our own aging, and relational and professional complexities. While we have been creatively imperfect in responding to each of these calls to decision, we have grown together over thirty years as a result of our deeply shared values and faith, an abiding love, fidelity to our family, and a sense of vocation, that is, our marriage is not just about us but also about circles of love that extend from our family to the planet and beyond. Our marriage has a grace beyond our expectations and, to some extent, despite the importance of our choices, we have experienced ourselves as “chosen,” that is, having the right combination of gift and grit, and personality and persistence, to grow together. Woven through it all, we have discovered the graceful guidance and inspiration of God.

From the perspective of an interdependent, evolving, and relational covenant, we may begin to take the first steps in understanding what an everlasting covenant might mean today. For the Israelites and for us, covenant is a source of inspiration and guidance; it defines who we are and what we are called to do. Covenant is also a promise that God was, is, and will be our companion, guiding us forward to new possibilities and adventures of service and fidelity. While the experience of covenant is always unique and intimate, whether with nations or persons, it is also universal, applying to all nations, persons, and to planetary interdependence. As a light to the nations, the nation of Israel may discover that God’s light shines everywhere. As lights to the world, Christians may discover God’s light in everyone they encounter. Faithful to God’s revelation in Christ, we may discover God’s generous presence in other spiritual paths.

In many ways, today’s Christians would do well to see covenant in vocational terms. The God who knows and calls us has visions for our lives and invites us to share creatively in God’s holy adventure. Covenant and vocation do not insure success or victory. Surely that is clear from the biblical and secular historical accounts of Israel’s history. But, despite the rise and fall of national and personal fortune, God keeps calling and working within the life of the nation Israel and within the life of persons like David and ourselves. God’s faithfulness embraces the whole earth; God’s inspiration touches everyone. This divine faithfulness calls us to be faithful to our world, to affirm our own call and provide for its realization; it also calls us to support God’s call in the lives of persons, communities, and nations.

In the Advent/Christmas season, recent economic events may tempt us to circle the wagons and just care for our own. But, such actions amount to turning our back on God’s call to embrace the stranger as well as the neighbor. To be faithful to God’s covenantal call, we must act both locally and globally, reaching out in our neighborhoods to insure the well-being of our communities (in terms of economics, education, health care, and opportunity to for personal transformation) but also our planet (seeking indirectly and directly to provide hope and opportunity for all of God’s beloved).

The covenant continues. Israel turns away over and over again, but the stream of divine inspiration and faithfulness – God’s love of the world – goes on without interruption. However we view the story of the Annunciation to Mary, her encounter with the angelic presence is part of that ongoing covenantal adventure. God who brought forth Israel and the prophets is also bringing forth new life for young Mary.

A covenantal surprise? Mary’s encounter with the angel is completely unexpected. While we can suspect she is well aware of her nation’s traditions and its myth of being the “chosen people,” she cannot imagine that she will become a major player in her nation’s religious history and the emergence of a new world religion.

Regardless of our viewpoint on a literal virgin birth, the Annunciation narrative points to Mary’s unexpected yet life-transforming encounter with God and invites us to share in her story. Hebrews speaks of encountering angels unexpectedly in ordinary life. Surely this is the case with Mary. While there is much to be said for accounts of angelic protection and the role of guardian angels, it is clear that the biblical tradition sees angels as messengers of God’s presence, calling us to our vocation. Angels challenge us to become conscious members of God’s holy adventure. Accordingly, Mary is asked to share in what she considers a personal, if not gynecological, impossibility, to become the mother of the Savior of her nation and the world. Although Mary is overwhelmed by God’s vision for her, she recognizes in all her surprise that “nothing is impossible for God.” The issue is not a supernatural violation of processes of conception and birth, but God’s surprising, unexpected, and life-changing possibilities which are often a “quantum leap” beyond what we can imagine. When we are confronted by such life-changing possibilities, we also need the reassurance - “don’t be afraid” - as we take the first steps into uncharted frontiers of contemplation and action. With Romans 16, we will, along with Mary, find out that God will strengthen us as we experience the demanding good news of divine revelation.

We don’t know why this covenant was personally made with Mary of Nazareth. Was she the first young woman to be asked? Did the other young women of her community shrink from God’s novel vision for their lives and humanity? What we do know, or can imagine, is that she said “yes” to an unexpected birthing and her “yes” transformed the future of her nation’s faith, the future of our lives, and the future of the planet. Mary’s “yes” still resounds and inspires persons like ourselves to embrace God’s unexpected and life-changing vision.

Covenental transformation? Mary’s joyous praise (Luke 1:46-55) gives voice to God’s vision of global transformation. Shalom will reign; justice will prevail; the least of these will be restored. These words remind us that salvation is always personal, but never individual. Mary’s words of praise call us to social and political transformation in which God “spreads the wealth” so that lost and marginalized will be able to live abundantly. As “anxious affluent” persons, we are tempted to hold onto our own largesse, especially in times of economic insecurity. We are tempted to care for “our own,” whether that means our family, congregation, or nation. But, Mary’s words challenge us to care for “others” and discover that in God’s reign “there is no other.” We are joined in the intricate body of Christ, the beloved community, in which all of our destinies are interwoven.

With Christmas on the horizon, we are challenged to experience God’s covenant in our own lives. It is easy to neglect our personal and communal vocations amid the busyness of Christmas shopping and partying. But, God is always inspiring us, seeking to birth something new in our lives. God is always challenging us to look beyond our own welfare to embrace the sacred and transforming character of every moment. We will discover that we truly have a “wonderful life” and that, like George Bailey, we will find that each encounter can be life-changing and community-healing. More than that, we will discover that we are part of a greater stream of revelation; with Mary of Nazareth and David long before her, we share in God’s everlasting covenant as it inspires and empowers us.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.