Lectionary Reflections, Advent 4, Year B: Occupy Bethlehem?

This week’s readings.

Our readings bring us ever closer to the coming of Christ, and it is easy for our attention to focus on Mary this week, with the story of the Annunciation as the gospel reading and the Magnificat as an option for the Psalm. But we shouldn’t let our expectation of Christmas divert our attention from the other readings. In particular, the reading from 2 Samuel is fascinating on its own, and meaningful too in its lectionary context, with God’s promise to David that “your throne shall be established forever.”

The passage from 2 Samuel occurs just after David has gained control of the monarchy and has begun the building projects that every victorious ruler undertakes–to demonstrate their power and symbolize their reign. David has built a “house of cedar” for himself, and gets the idea to build a temple for Yahweh. Nathan the prophet supports him in this effort, saying “The Lord is with you.”

Apparently Nathan wasn’t paying attention, because Yahweh speaks directly to David, asking him where he got this bright idea and whether Yahweh had ever asked to have a temple built. In fact, the Hebrew suggests that Yahweh has walked alongside and with the Israelites. For all of the effort in 1 and 2 Samuel to offer a defense of David’s rise to power and of his monarchy, there remains in the text considerable antagonism toward monarchy in general. This seems to be one example of that.

The lectionary editors no doubt wanted to focus our attention on the promise that David’s house would last forever and that his throne would be established forever, a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. But there’s another connection between this reading and our other texts. Yahweh tells David that “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.” In the Magnificat, Mary sings:

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Just as Yahweh lifted up the lowly David and made him king, Mary sings that God casts down the mighty from their thrones and sends the rich away empty. There’s a connection here, not just the genealogical connection with David that Matthew and Luke want to emphasize. We are invited to compare the rule of David, perhaps the rule of Rome, too, with the rule, the reign of God, and the coming of the Messiah. To put our hopes in the power and justice of human rulers and institutions is to hope falsely, for 1 Kings goes on to describe how Solomon, the wisest of all kings, oppressed the people. His son Rehoboam promised to do even worse, a promise that was met with rebellion and led to the division of the Northern and Southern monarchies.

As Advent nears its end, this season in which we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ and reflect on his coming to us in Christmas and in the Second Coming, we do well to remember that God’s power is greater than that of any human agency or institution, and that Mary’s song praises a God who upends power relationships, reverses the status of rich and poor, and feeds the hungry. These latter are especially important to keep in mind with all the news of Occupy Wall Street, the 99%, and Republican efforts to lower taxes on the wealthiest of our citizens.

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