Pleased as man with man to dwell?

Some sermony thoughts for 18th December (Advent 4B) – 2 Samuel 7.1-11,16 & Luke 1.26-38.

What constitutes a fit dwelling place for God?

King David found himself wondering this, as he contrasted his royal palace with the tent that housed the ark of the covenant, the symbolic presence of God among the chosen people. Could it really be right that his house was nicer than God’s house?

When our fine early medieval churches were built, most of the surrounding dwellings would have been little more than huts – the money, the time, the craftsmanship and skill, were all ways to make the house of God feel like an important enough place for the presence of God among his people.

If we fast-forward about a thousand years from David (and back a thousand from our earliest church buildings!) to our gospel reading, we find Mary probably wondering some of the same things: what constitutes a fit place for God to dwell?  ‘Why me?’ she must have wondered.  Her virginity alone couldn’t have been what made her a suitable place for God’s human form to grow and develop, for there were plenty of other young women around who could fulfil that particular criterion.  We can get too hung up on Mary’s virginity being the one thing that set her apart, and attribute all sorts of moral meanings to virginity that can be unhelpful.  There must have been more to Mary than that.  Undoubtedly God could see further, and would know what kind of family Mary and Joseph would make, but again, that couldn’t have been all it was.  It seems to me that the key criterion for Mary is less her inherent worthiness, and more her willingness – we don’t know how many women the angel approached before he found one who said yes!

This is good news. Because it rather calls into question the idea that Christian life is all about creating a place which, in and of itself, is worthy of God. If it were about that, then we would all be doomed to failure.  If God was only willing to be in places that were worthy of him, he’d have stayed in heaven.

This is a recurring theme and concern of many of our favourite Christmas carols. We cannot, it seems, quite believe that God actually wants to be here:

“Thus to come from highest bliss / into such a world as this.”

It’s hardly surprising that many Christmas carols feature the dualistic divide between earth (bad) and heaven (good).  Why would anyone in heaven want to come to a place where “o’re the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong”? Man is indeed at war with man, and sin and strife cause such great suffering on a global scale and on a personal scale.  We can focus more closely and look at our own lives, too, and find them wanting: I know I look at myself and ask myself why on earth God would want to spend any time in close proximity to me.  If we ask ourselves the question, ‘Is the world, and are we, a fit place for God to dwell?’ there can only be one answer, and it’s not one we will be comfortable with.

But, what the carols also tell us is that that’s precisely why God was, and is, here.  You don’t light a lamp when the sun in shining, and people who are well don’t need a doctor, as the grown-up Jesus would go on to say. It’s precisely because we’re not inherently alright, because we’re not in and of ourselves, fit places for God to dwell, that he comes and dwells with us.  It’s because it’s bad that God chooses to be here.

One final problem with the question ‘what makes a fit place for God to dwell’ is that it kind of makes the assumption that God is in heaven and comes to earth.  But the continuity between David’s story and Mary’s story that the lectionary draws out today isn’t just to give credence to Jesus’ genetic pedigree, but is also to underline the fact that God has always been here, and has always been willing to slum it with us.  In the Old Testament lesson, God tells David that he’d been OK about the tent, and in the prologue to John’s gospel (which most of us will hear at various carol services this coming week) we learn that God ‘dwelt among us’ – literally translated, this is ‘pitched his tent with ours’.  God isn’t some honoured visitor that we clean up for, sweeping all the junk from the sideboard into a big black bin bag and stuffing it into the garage so that the house looks tidy (it’s not just me who does that, is it?)  God turns out to have been here all along, not an honoured guest, but a member of the family.

In our ultimately futile task of making ourselves worthy, we can run the risk of making God into a guest at his own party, or a visitor in his own house. Mary did not take God in as a guest. She took God in as a member of the family.  If we, like Mary, let God grow in us, and shape us, and transform us, gently, from the inside out, we’ll find that God is indeed at home with us.

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