Advent IV, Year B
2 Sm 7:1-11,16
Luke 1:47-55 or Ps 89:1-4,19-26
(2 Samuel 7:1-11)
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent." Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you." But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?" Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
(2 Samuel 7:16)
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelationof the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith– to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
One element that cannot be passed over is the question of the virgin birth. Our concern is not whether the virgin birth is a ‘piece of history or faith’ but of seeking to discern the function of the story within the larger narrative world of the gospels.
The traditional ‘Advent’ themes of Mary’s submission, God’s Promise, the angelic messengers, etc. tend to mask the way that the text undermines certain cultural conventions, which in turn speaks to the larger concerns of mimetic theory. This element can be seen in Mary’s question “How can this be since I am a virgin.”
Jane Schaberg has raised the pointed question as to whether or not Mary consented to the act that would produce the pregnancy. She acknowledges that Mary may be consenting to a future pregnancy and motherhood, but that underlying the infancy narratives is the hidden story of Mary’s rape. Luke’s reframing of the narrative to follow along the Hebrew narrative paradigm (as articulated by Brown) serves to “rehabilitate [Mary] from charges of scandalous immorality” (Jane Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus).
She traces the belief in the virgin birth to Gentile believers “when the New Testament Infancy narratives, or aspects of the pre-gospel infancy tradition, were heard or read against the background of predominantly Gentile religious heritages and sensibilities and without enough of an ear for the subtle Old Testament allusions and Jewish sensibilities.”
She observes further that “the notion of replacement or cancellation of the role of the human male in the post New Testament doctrine of the virginal conception is the result of pagan influence on the reading of the Matthean and Lucan texts.”
Sadly, though she rightly sets the story of Jesus’ conception in the context of Greco-Roman birth narratives, she has completely missed the way that it refuses to participate in violence with them. She sees too much gospel acceptance of “pagan influence.”
Like Schaberg, Rene Girard also observes that “to put its message across, no doubt the virgin birth of Jesus still resorts to the same ‘code’ as do the monstrous births of mythology. But precisely because the codes are parallel, we should be able to understand the message and appreciate what is really unique to it – what makes it radically different from the message of mythology (Things Hidden).”
When Schaberg asks about the perspective a “pagan” would bring, she assumes what Girard asserts: “In innumerable episodes of mythical birth, the god copulates with a mortal woman in order to give birth to a hero. Stories of this kind always involve more than a hint of violence.” What Girard next observes seems to us to be an alternative perspective on “pagan influence.” He says, “no relationship of violence exists between those who take part in the virgin birth: the Angel, the Virgin and the Almighty. No one here is playing the role of mimetic antagonist…the complete absence of any sexual element has nothing to do with repression…the fact that sexuality is not part of the picture corresponds to the absence of violent mimesis with which myth acquaints us in the form of rape by the gods.”
Schaberg’s suggestions regarding Jesus as a ‘mamzer’, a bastard child, illumine aspects of the gospel tradition by pointing out the extreme forms of marginalization that occurred to such children. Jesus paternity was an issue and it had to do with Mary becoming pregnant before she had been ‘taken home’ by Joseph. Girard’s reading of “pagan influence” better suggests how a pagan reader would be astonished by what was not there: namely a god who rapes women. This God, Mary’s God, was different and this difference is “the message of a non-violent deity, who has nothing in common with the epiphanies of the sacred.”
It is important to understand that differentiation in mimesis requires that a random victim be designated as ‘alien/different’ from the group. As Girard has demonstrated, this differentiation often results from physical or social handicaps. That which differentiates can then be blamed for the mimetic disunion the community experiences. Through the death of the differentiated one, an end can be put to the conflicts flaring through the group.
Jesus was probably perceived as an illegitimate child and thus lived a life on the margins of his culture, not by choice but by virtue of the legal decisions made by his culture. The Lucan narrative points to the fact that God takes responsibility for Jesus’ paternity and so God is, along with Jesus, rejected and marginalized. Violent systems and violent religions will always marginalize the God of Peace.
The shift to the Gospel of Luke begins the transition to the familiar Lukan Christmas themes. Since the work of Raymund Brown on the Infancy Narratives, it is commonplace to observe the structural parallel to the Hannah story in the Hebrew Scriptures. Brown observes five common parts to the structure:
1. The appearance of an angel
2. Fear or prostration of the visionary
3. The divine message
4. An objection by the visionary or request for a sign
5. The giving of the sign for reassurance
Brown’s thesis points out the way that the gospel writers saw Jesus’ life in relation to the God who acted in Israel’s history. Luke’s use of the language of the Septuagint and narrative form points to the intimate connection the author sees between Jesus and Israel’s history. The remainder of the Infancy Narrative is shot through with allusions and references to the Hebrew Scriptures. It is also textually woven into the social fabric of pre-70 C.E. Judaism.
One element of the text that is often overlooked is the issue that this pregnancy evokes: the charge of illegitimacy. No matter how you slice it, whether it is a bona fide miracle (Machen), a rape (Shaberg), or intense physical attraction between Joseph and Mary (Chilton), Jesus birth cannot be squared with Joseph and Mary’s wedding date. (Personally, we both opt for the miraculous understanding) It is possible that other gospel evidence (Mark 6, John 8) suggests that Jesus was ‘perceived’ as a bastard child.
The social status of a mamzer (bastard) child has been explored in Jeremias, Chilton, Meier and Schaberg. Chilton succiently says “the term mamzer refers specifically to a child born of a prohibited sexual union, such as incest (Mishnah Yebamot 4.13). The fundamental issue was not sex before marriage (which was broadly tolerated) but sex with the wrong person.” “Further, “unless she could bring witnesses to show she had been in the company of a licit father, it was assumed she had been made pregnant by a mamzer or another prohibited person, so that her child was a mamzer (Mishnah Ketubot 1:8-9).”
According to Jeremias, mamzerim are located toward the bottom of the social scale, below Gentile slaves and those who worked in despised trades (e.g., tanners and shepherds) but above Samaritans! Mamzerim were forbidden marriage (i.e., sexual union). Mamzerim could only marry proselytes, freed slaves, or other Israelites with grave blemish.
In the light of the perceived ‘mamzer’ status of Jesus it is worthwhile to consider the many elements of Jewish life that were closed to the mamzer and how that may have contributed to Jesus’ social outlook. Certainly the 20th century notion of “Jesus’ preferential option for the poor” could well have developed from his experiences of being treated as “less than.”
Chilton puts it well: “Scholars have overlooked the fact that the conditions of Jesus conception as Matthew refers to them made [Jesus] a mamzer, no matter what his actual paternity was. Western Cultural preoccupation with sex before marriage has caused scholarship to convert the issue of Jesus’ status in Israel into the anachronistic question of his legitimacy and thus to ignore one of the most powerful influences on his development. On any theory of his birth, he belonged to the caste of the mamzer or ‘silenced one.’ (See Isaiah 53! ed.) From the beginning of his life Jesus negotiated the treacherous terrain between belonging to the people of God and ostracism in his own community (Rabbi Jesus, emphasis ours).”
Rape, illegitimacy, the exploitation of women by men and their gods are not pleasant themes for a holiday season shrouded in tinsel, Nat King Cole and Santa Claus. But as clergy know all too well, the season from Thanksgiving through New Years is the most difficult time of the year.
No matter how sentimental we try to make Christmas, both the gospels and the news bring us the same story. The media brings it in terms we clearly understand: rape, murder, sexual assault, sexual exploitation. The stuff of the gods.
Karl Barth points out (Church Dogmatics I/2) “the heathen idea of the substantial procession of certain men from the essence of Godhead…involves a compromising either of the begetting deity as such or the begotten man as such. It would, therefore, be an exceedingly misleading sign of the mystery of Christmas.”
Our God is not like that. He is not like that in the beginning and he is not like that at the end. The virgin birth story is the stuff of eschatology: God can accomplish without violence that which humanity’s gods needed violence to accomplish. On Christmas Day, we are on an all together different page. We celebrate something joyful, something extraordinary, something peaceful, something revelatory in the birth of a Jewish baby boy. A baby boy full of promise whose advent brings peace.
The call to be peacemakers is not limited to ethical expressions in the New Testament but is grounded in the ‘history of the mighty acts of God.’ This is certainly the Lucan viewpoint of the salvation of God. From the beginning announcement to Mary to the announcement of post-resurrection peace, the gospel is permeated with this unique message about this unique baby who would be called “The Prince of Peace” whose coming we too await in these difficult times.
As preachers of the Good News, this text and its non-violent reading lead us back to the marginalized within our own society. How might they also manifest God’s rejection of violent systems to us in these holiday seasons? How can we help our congregations stand at the margins to hear this message afresh?
Progressive Christianity need no longer fear the virgin birth. We have moved beyond speculative metaphysical questions. With the help of mimetic theory we may understand the virgin birth to once again be anthropologically focused. If, in the early church, the virgin birth was used, not to demonstrate Jesus’ divinity, but his humanity, can we not also perceive the virgin birth in the context of biblical anthropology? And if this anthropology has any debt to mimetic theory, can we not point out that the virgin birth is the union of the peaceful God with the peaceful human? Can we not also use the virgin birth to point to the peacemaking God and Father of Jesus?
The comments on Jesus as mamzer seem important to me as an implicit commentary on “ism.” I have a little patience for theology that shackles Jesus to an ideology. I am much too “Barthian”, I suppose. Too many theological positions have been staked out ‘against’; I prefer theology that is integrative, and where journey, not position, counts.
Even so I have little taste for apologetic use of the virgin birth in preaching. Some use it apologetically to defend doctrine(s); others bend over backwards and apologize for its arcane worldview. Neither belong in the pulpit. Rather, let us preach the God who is coming, and what this God says and shows about God’s self in Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, born by a virgin’s consent.
Having laid out the entire drama of salvation within the letter – from the first Adam’s mimetic crisis that led to sin to the second Adam in Christ who practices only positive mimesis in perfect imitation of his Father, and finally the Spirit of adoption we receive by which everyone may also call God "Abba" – these closing words summarize again the plight of humanity and the source of our salvation.
In his commentary on Romans, Brendan Byrne points out that the strengthening that "Paul" refers to in verse 25 is in preparation for the intensifying trials that will arise as the eschatological battle reaches its height. Those in the Early Church who spoke or sang this liturgy knew the desacralizing power of the Gospel and its attendant dangers.
The doxology alludes to the trials that the Church will face as it stands in the obedience of faith to the message declared through the life of Jesus. As the work of the Holy Spirit continues to bring to light the nature of our violence and scapegoating, anyone who proclaims the Gospel openly will surely become a target of the very systemic violence they reveal.
However, troubles come not only from the larger culture, but also from within. From the historical/cultural reading we know that the early Church was also in the midst of an internal mimetic crisis – one in which Jewish Christ-followers, who had traditionally viewed themselves as God’s chosen people, observing Torah and living a life characterized by outward signs of their separation unto God, are now scandalized by the thought that the their inheritance is to be shared with non-observant Gentiles! Thus, the in-breaking of God’s reign is scandalous even within the first congregations as marks of distinctive identity are swept away and differentiation breaks down.
But this is the kerygma (proclamation) of Jesus Christ: God, complete and steadfast in love and free of all violence, is the source to Whom we must turn if we are to avoid being swept up in the maelstrom unleashed as a result of the unveiling and subsequent breakdown of the sacrificial culture and its victimage mechanism. By holding fast to Jesus and his example, we are strengthened to remain steadfast and avoid lapsing back into our unregenerate patterns of mob mentality and violence. Through the unveiling work of the Holy Spirit, the obedience of faith found in Jesus Christ is birthed within each of us as well.
In most of Protestant thought the book of Romans has been thought of as a systematic exposition of Paul’s Gospel message. However, recent analysis suggests that understanding the rhetorical devices Paul incorporates in his writing are key to understanding the entire letter. In Romans 1:16-17 Paul begins his epistle by proclaiming that the Gospel is the power of God to save both Jews and Greeks. Much of the middle section of the book is devoted to explaining Israel’s rejection of Jesus and the inclusion of Gentile nations in the plan of salvation. These passages give us a glimpse into one of the earliest challenges to the nascent Church: How does the Gospel of Jesus Christ apply to those outside the Jewish faith? When Israel has thought of itself as the chosen people, how can it be now that both Gentile and Jew are a part of God’s plan, revealed in Jesus Christ? The Epistle to the Romans is Paul’s response to these questions.
Within the scholarly community there is general consensus that this closing doxology was not a part of the original epistle to the Romans. It is not included in all manuscripts and in some is appended to the end of either chapter 14 or chapter 15. The language also differs considerably from the genuine Pauline style found in the rest of Romans. It appears that these three verses are built from liturgical language used within the early church, in much the same way as the Philippian hymn to Christ. The structure suggests a call and response pattern, beginning in verse 25 opens with an address to God, which would be echoed back by a congregation in the praise and affirmation that concludes verse 27.
However, regardless of discussion of Pauline authenticity, the doxology references the main themes developed throughout Romans and uses the Greek musterion (mystery) in a sense that is congruent with references in Ephesians 3:3-6 and Colossians (other deutero-Pauline works) as something once hidden that has now been revealed even among all nations.
It’s the last Sunday before Christmas, and most folks are feeling breathless and in need of strengthening in the face of worldly culture. As Bryce points out, the in-breaking of the gospel was scandalous in the early church, and it still is now. The contrast between what we perceive “ought to be” since the birth of Jesus and the reality we live with is painful. We’re often tempted to do an “us vs. them” presentation of Christmas within and outside the church, making Santa or the economic push to purchase the scapegoated “them”. This year, scapegoating the economy may be a real temptation! Preaching from these verses this week offers us a biblically grounded perspective to observe ourselves from. Where are we scandalized by the implications of Jesus’ gospel within the church? How do we avoid blaming Santa and the shop keepers for the conflicts we experience in trying to celebrate the meaning of the season in the world we live in? The text just begs for a concise explication of the mystery that has been revealed, which might prove scandalous enough in itself, depending upon your congregation!
Images of a very pregnant Mary convey the impact of both mystery and revelation; there is no hiding a pregnancy at this point, but the one to be born is still a mystery. That’s an image that accurately describes both the individual in the pew and the church at large- and even the world we live in. We have a sense of new life within us, and a vision of what that should/could be- just like all expectant parents. We also still don’t know exactly what that life will be; we’re all still waiting to see how this child will affect us/the world. Regardless of the text actually preached from, many people in our churches will be picturing Mary/Joseph en route to Bethlehem via donkey, which is a good image to ground this text in on this particular Sunday. The church is very much like them: on a journey, feeling new life within, but not there yet. The “not there yet” poses the question: what will it look like when we arrive? What conflicts will be resolved, who will be included that will surprise us? Most of all, what can we do to facilitate inclusion and peace among us? Which of course leads easily into naming the source and character of the “strengthening” referred to.
Perhaps the scholarly view that the doxology we’re working with wasn’t part of the original text, but rather part of worship, speaks to the need for the gathered church to reiterate the gospel repeatedly so as to stay in touch with it in the face of chaos, confusion, and adversity. Affirming the importance of celebrating what is real in Christmas through text and carols and tradition may be important for people who feel like the economic collapse has deprived them of what’s meaningful in life; this doxology is a good way into looking at what’s been revealed in the world AND what remains eternally true. For those who are deprived of necessities, the message of hope is firm. Changing the pronoun in verse 25 from “you” to “us” and reading it again at the close of the sermon as a biblical prayer facilitates bringing everyone together in faith in the face of difficult experiences and adds the perspective of time and history.