Two characters frame this Fourth Sunday of Advent: a king at the height of his power and a young woman, little more than a girl, with no power at all, and not likely to ever have any. They are both God’s partners in the story of salvation, but the difference between them tells us something about the kind of human partners God is looking for.
First is David: We can imagine him in today’s passage having an “it’s good to be the king” kind of moment: finally having secured his throne, captured Jerusalem, and delivered the ark of the covenant—basically God’s presence—into the holy city, in a particularly shrewd political move. Now he lives in a fine palace, probably believing a little too much his own press, telling the court over and over again about that Goliath guy.
At the height of his strength he makes some not uncommon human mistakes when it comes to God: First, he imagines God to be a lot like him, a king (and therefore in need of a palace), and second, he is eager to do “for God” what God neither wills nor wants.
And so God has to step in through the prophet Nathan: “Slow your roll, there, buddy,” to paraphrase a bit: “Remember, I plucked you out of the fields and made you king, when you were little more than a boy. I’m the one who will build you a house.”
How God builds that house brings us to the young woman, Mary, with a whole lot of nothing to call her own, except herself. Probably the furthest thing from her mind was that God would have anything for her to do. And yet it is to Mary that the angel Gabriel, “sent from God,” comes: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you,” the angel says, “God wants you to build a house.”
But unlike the house of cedar David offered, which would set him back only the cost of building it, Mary’s task is a bit more involved, and, we can safely say, more complicated. I’ve always wondered if Mary’s perplexed statement of the obvious—“How can this be, since I am a virgin?”—was said also with some trepidation, some knowledge that God is asking for a lot, maybe for everything. Her marriageability is Mary’s most precious and only asset, and building God this house is going to put that in jeopardy. In fact, when this same story is told another way in the Gospel of Matthew, God’s sends an angelic messenger to Joseph instead, counseling him to overlook Mary’s untimely pregnancy.
And yet, Mary, says yes, she goes all in, even as she has everything to lose. And in doing so, she opens the door to the salvation of the world.
A king and a young woman, and God chooses the girl with nothing, the one who goes all in with God with what little she has, so that God can go all in with the world God has made.
Which leads me to wonder how and when God might choose to partner with us. Perhaps it’s not those times when we are at the height of our strength or our success, not the times we think we know what God needs and wants from us. With Mary as the pattern, it is more likely to be those times when we feel we have nothing to offer, or we don’t know what to do, or we don’t think we can even survive what life has brought us, times when the idea that we could do anything for or with God is furthest from our minds.
Maybe it’s when we are stripped of any pretensions, when we are most aware of our weakness, that’s the time when God sends the messenger with Good News: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid. You have found favor with God.”
The irony of Advent is, after all, that in answer to our prayers that God tear open the heavens, and shake the mountains and come in power to accomplish the Great Divine Cleanup of the World, God answers those prayers with weakness, with the abject powerlessness and utter vulnerability of a baby, born of a young woman, barely more than a girl, with nothing but herself to offer, God’s partner in opening the door to the salvation of the world.
Why should it be any different with us? For nothing will be impossible with God.