Sermon: An ark for Christmas
Preached on 11th December 2011
by The Venerable Ian Jagger
The angel said to Mary. “The power of the most high will overshadow you.” Mysterious and poetic words, and I will come back to them.
But first I want to start with something from Fr Gerard Hughes, the Jesuit priest, who has written some very popular books on spirituality over last 25 years. Here’s a spiritual exercise he uses. You need your imagination.
“Imagine that one evening there is a ring at your front door bell. When you go to the door there is Jesus standing there. Wow. Presumably you experience a flood of emotions, disbelief, delight, awe, but your good manners remind you to invite him in out of the cold, and you find yourself saying ridiculous things like ‘Do make yourself at home’, and calling all the family to meet him, and asking what he likes to eat.
Having imagined the first encounter, imagine then the scene two weeks later. Jesus has taken you at your word and has made himself at home. In the gospel he says ‘I have come to set daughter against mother, son against father, daughter in law against mother in law’ – so there have been some tense moments in those two weeks. Having made himself at home he has invited in whoever he wants (in the gospel the Pharisees complain ‘this man welcomes sinners and eats with them’ – so there have been some strange people in the house, and the neighbours will be complaining about the likely drop in property values in the area). Well, you couldn’t keep him to yourself so you brought him to the Cathedral where he addressed the two groups which were meeting at the time, the Cathedral Council and the Diocesan Mothers Union, in the course of which he told them that “prostitutes and sinners will enter the Kingdom before you”, which caused a degree of uproar and the Cathedral lost most of its principal benefactors.
“Now”, says Fr Gerard, “we have a problem on our hands. We can’t throw Jesus out of the house, yet the present state of affairs is intolerable. So we look around the house and we see the large cupboard underneath the stairs, we do it up tastefully, sparing no expense, and we put Jesus inside, quickly locking the door. We place flowers outside the door, and a lighted candle, and we genuflect whenever we pass by. What a relief! We now have Jesus where we want him.”
If that exercise makes us smile and feel uncomfortable at the same time it is doing its job. It is a spiritual exercise precisely because it asks us to attend to what we think and how we feel when we go through it. There is something about Jesus which is disturbing, disruptive, and takes us where we don’t want to go. And there is something about us which wants to limit the disruption, protect ourselves, get back in control and find a safe refuge. The passage of the centuries since Jesus walked about in Galilee has compounded this: for so many people it seems Jesus is safely hidden away in a book, not sitting in our kitchens wreaking havoc with our lifestyles. Churches too can become very established, very settled, very normal, whereas the presence of Jesus was unsettling, and totally redefined ‘normal’.
Both our readings today articulate this. In the reading from Samuel King David, who has built himself a fine house, asks if he should also build a house for the ark of God. “I am living in a house of cedar but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Not very reverent; not very appropriate, perhaps. At first sight David’s suggestion seems right to Nathan the prophet, so Nathan says “Do all that you have in mind”. (This is an example of what happens to many of us: when we are asked something we give an initial response which seems right, but then we sleep on it and other things come to mind which we hadn’t thought of before. This ‘sleeping on it’ is one of the ways in which God speaks to us and “the power of the most high overshadows us”.)
So in the night (under the “overshadowing of God”) new thoughts occur to Nathan, new truths which his initial response had missed.
1. Perhaps there is something intrinsically important about the presence of God in a tent: perhaps it says something about who God is, and how he is with his people.
2. And anyway, who is in charge here? Did God ever raise this, did he ever say he wanted a house? And if he isn’t commanding it, why would we be doing it?
3.Furthermore, isn’t the boot on the wrong foot here: it is God who is building David’s house and lineage, not David who is building God’s house or Temple.
This is the truth that dawns on Nathan as God overshadows his sleep. It fits well with the politics of the situation. To help in his task of uniting the northern and southern kingdoms David had conquered Jerusalem, right in the middle of the territory, and established his house there as a symbol of political power. In bringing the ark to Jerusalem he was uniting political and religious power around himself. To build a temple for the ark would be to tie God’s presence to the King’s reign. It would be a very astute move.
But God cannot be domesticated, conscripted to our cause, imprisoned in our power. The ark in the tent was a sign of the God who had brought David to this place and had established his kingship, but he is a God who may move on. I am reminded of those wonderful lines about God in R S Thomas’s poem Pilgrimages: “He is such a fast / God, always before us and / leaving as we arrive.” The ark reminds us that he is a God who is on the move, who cannot be pinned down, who is always likely to be asking us to move, to change, to go with him to uncomfortable places where he alone will sustain us. However powerful David’s house and kingdom it was sustained by the God whose presence was marked by a tent.
And so we come to the gospel reading. “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 called Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” Our minds glaze over with the comfort of familiarity, and we may fail to notice the ark of God’s presence gently carried in to this ordinary home to turn all notions of normality upside down. “How can this be?” asks Mary. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you”, says the angel. This overshadowing takes us right back to the end of the book of Exodus when all the preparations had been made to erect the very tabernacle of which we heard in our first reading, the tent in which the ark of God was placed. And when Moses had completed everything God had commanded, the cloud, the glory of the Lord, filled the tabernacle and Moses was not able to enter because the cloud settled upon it and the glory of the Lord filled it. “The power of the most high will overshadow you.” In the birth of Jesus, in this divine and human person, the ark of God’s presence will once again be the place where his glory settles, and his gracious presence leads his people.
It is the same cloud of glory which appears on the mount of Transfiguration, and out of which the voice of God comes with love and approval towards his Son. Again, Peter half recognises the cloud and suggests erecting three tents on the mount, but this is another misguided attempt to control and domesticate the divine. “This is my Son”, says the divine voice, “listen to him”. Fewer human proposals please, and a little more listening to who God is and what he is doing. It could almost be the prophet Nathan all over again. Same mistake, same message. God is doing something, he is going somewhere – pay attention.
And then, as if the allusion to the cloud of glory which overshadowed the ark is not enough, to complete the picture about the significance of Jesus, the angel says to Mary “he will be called the Son of the Most High, and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David”. That OT picture of King David in his palace in Jerusalem with the ark of God’s presence in the tent next to it, that slightly uneasy picture, is now to be resolved. The kingship and the glory are to be united in Jesus in a way that was never possible for David.
So, as we journey through the familiar Christmas stories, I hope we will notice afresh the disruptive, unsettling, mobile quality of the ark which runs through them so strongly. God is on the move and can’t be tied down. The adrenalin is up. Think about the disturbing announcement to Mary, the journey on the donkey, the flight to Egypt. “Foxes have holes, the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” And so on, through the whole of his journeying. The life of Jesus is a challenge to us not to try to domesticate God, but to look for God on the move, the God who goes before his people.
But as we dare to follow Jesus we come across this astounding and death defying miracle, that if you go where his disturbing and kingly glory leads you, you come in to a place of grace. He is not enticing us down a dark alley where all we hope for is going to be snuffed out. He is leading us to what is better than we could ever hope to secure for ourselves. After all, if you go back to Fr Gerard Hughes and his little exercise, one reason we might prefer to lock Jesus under the stairs and nod to a candle instead, is because we don’t really believe that what he brings us is better than what we already have.
In these next few day, as we enter afresh into the mystery of his coming to pitch his tent amongst us, we pray for that overshadowing of glory, that dream in the night, that will help us to recognise his authority as King and his glory as God; and we pray for the grace that Mary had to get us through the disruption he brings and let him lead us out of slavery to the promised land.