This article is part of the series, the Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My teacher Walter Brueggemann has said that 2 Samuel 7 is the most important chapter in the Old Testament, if not the whole of scripture itself. This is a strong claim, but the issues of faith and life that directly or indirectly bear on this text in both Israel and the Church more than support it. It is perhaps unfortunate in some ways that the lectionary places the text here, at a time of year (seven days from Christmas this cycle, but closer in others) when people are expecting a sermon about Mary because there is so much in it that people need to hear. So while it would be nice to have this text in a different time of year, this is nonetheless a great Sunday to preach “between texts” and combine the message of both into one and thus present some great insights that can be neglected if one preaches the lection from Luke by itself.
The reason for the lectionary’s pairing this passage with Mary in Luke is readily apparent. The promise that a descendant of David would always sit on the throne, made in 2 Sam 7, has long since gone off course by Nary’s time. This promise raises some of the most significant theological issues in all of the scripture, which is the reason for Brueggemann’s assertion about the text’s primacy, none more important than what it means in light of the catastrophe of exile when the promise seems to have been abandoned by Yahweh. Luke’s annunciation explicitly links the birth of this coming baby to the royal line, thus portending a reversal n the fortunes of the people of God, as well as a renewal of the promise made so long ago. But this is what makes 2 Samuel 7 so interesting for preaching in Advent. The narrative context of David’s big plans to build Yahweh a house (i.e. a temple), which Yahweh rebuffs with the promise instead to David that HE will be the one getting the house (i.e. a dynasty), is one which is redolent with wealth and power. At this time in the story, David has subdued his enemies, both internally and externally, and looks ready to take a kind of “victory lap,” in order to establish his legacy. He has come to this point by the conventional means of getting to such a palce in his career, having flattered, lied, betrayed, or killed anyone who stood in his way. He is no angel. But for all his faults, everybody loves David, because whatever else he is, he’s a winner–especially where it counts the most, over Israel’s and Judah’s arch enemies, the Philistines. So among those looking for messiah in Israel centuries later when the Davidic monarchy collapses, it will be this paradigm of leadership which will predominate subsequently among the people of God, of the conquering hero who uses whatever means necessary to dispatch the enemies of Israel. Likewise, his kingdom as well (and that of his son, Solomon) will be the paradigm for expectations about what the world will look like under such a leader’s rule, with everyone subordinate to and in fear of Israel/Judah.
Not everyone in Israel was looking for the coming of messiah in the forst century CE. The Sadducees, for example, only accepted the books of Moses as canon and thus did not recognize the authority of any of the texts prophesying the revival of the Davidic monarchy in the prophetic books. But for those who did accept the prophets as canon and who thus lived in expectation of the restoration of God’s promise for an everlasting dynasty, the kind of model for messiah that I just related was the norm. And we know from Josephus that there were a number of people who were Jesus’ near contemporaries who, operating out of that messianic template, sought to rally the people to political and military revolution against the Roman occupiers.
It is the annunciation story that exposes what has in essence been a kind of divine “head fake” as to what messiah was all about. That is, Luke foreshadows the development of the rest of the later Jesus narrative by cluing us in that this child isn’t going to be anything like the expected paradigm, thus undermining the genrations of conventional wisdom on the subject. His mother is a young unmarried girl–they married early in antiquity and she is engaged, so she is probably no more then 15. And she lives in a second-rate town, Nazareth, a nearby working-class suburb of the great city of Sepphoris, a sure sign of ignominy if ever there was one, as later recounted insults about his origins will attest in the narrative all the way to the inscription over his head on the cross. In other words, this kid is a nobody from nowhere. Yet it will be this forgettable, easily dismissed kid whom God will raise up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the greatest of all who ever lived and ruled, but nothing like any who have gone before him in those roles.
One of the main reasons the Church celebrates Advent is to ready us for the surprise ending to the story, that messiah ends up being nothing like what he was expected to be. His birth story in Luke will be the culmination of that early abasement, in a humble cattle stall. And thus the kingdom which he comes proclaiming and the one for which he later teaches his disciples to be yearning is as different from others of its kind as the messiah will also be from all other kings. In Advent. we are called to wrap our minds around the prospect of the impending “God with Us” and what that presence means for all of life. The political theological implications of the child who comes thus challenges all of our basic assumptions about how we love, befriend, spend, consume and vote, for he upsets what we thought we were supposed to be doing, what we thought mattered, and how all of that was supposed to be achieved. God’s plan to fulfill the promise made to David and to reconcile the world was not about wealth and power, and this one fact turns all that we value in this world on its head.
Timothy F. Simpson is an editor of Political Theology. He is a board member of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and is parish associate at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL, where he also teaches Religious Studies at the University of North Florida.