By the time we get to the fourth Sunday in Advent, it’s finally time to talk about Mary. The gospel lesson is the Annunciation, and the canticle is the Magnificat. On the surface, everything seems to be focused on Mary’s story, but, if you dig a little deeper, you discover there’s another important figure being celebrated this week.
Maybe we should call this David’s Sunday. King David is the focus of the Old Testament lesson (2 Sam. 7:1-11, 16). If we were to read the psalm instead of the canticle, we would hear echoes of the first lesson throughout. And, if you take another look at the Annunciation story, you can see that David and the promises made to him are central to the angel’s prophetic announcement to Mary. This late in Advent, it’s easy to jump ahead to the birth story and focus on Mary’s role (important, yes), but I don’t think we’re supposed to leave behind the Advent theme of promise and expectation quite yet, so I encourage you to take another look at David.
In the OT reading, David announces to Nathan that he will build a house for God and the Ark. Nathan agrees that it is a good idea, and he invites the king to proceed. That night, however, God appears to Nathan in a dream and tells him otherwise. Instead of David building a house for God, God will establish an everlasting house for David. There’s a great double-meaning of “house” here, so, when you hear it, think “House of Tudor” or “House of Stewart”—the kinds of lineages and families that were once described as a “house.” In other words, God is promising David a lineage, and, through it, God is promising his people the safety and security of a good king. For some reason I do not understand, the lectionary skips over the verses that talk about the offspring promised to David: “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.” The prophet probably had Solomon in mind or maybe another earthly king that would come someday, but, as Christians, we like to think of Jesus in those terms.
Read the gospel lesson for Sunday and listen for that Davidic focus: “of the house of David” and “the throne of his ancestor David” and “will reign over the house of Jacob forever” and “his kingdom there will be no end.” It is quintessentially important to Luke (also Matthew) that Jesus is identified as David’s offspring. Of all the messianic expectations that permeated first-century Judaism, the reestablishment of David’s line and throne was at the top of the list. David represented leadership at the pinnacle of Israel’s success. During his reign, the kingdom was as big as it would ever get. There was a united monarchy. Israel was the biggest and strongest geopolitical player in the area. Those were the glory days, and the reestablishment of David’s throne was the easiest way of envisioning the fulfillment of the hopes of God’s people.
Of course, the story of David’s heir unfolded differently than we might expect. I think Mary’s question of the angel points to some of these disconnects. “How can this be?” she asks. Partly that was a biological question, as her reference to her virginity makes clear. But I think it was also a cultural question. The angel was promising that her offspring would be David’s heir, but how can a peasant girl give birth to a king—virginity aside? Perhaps Mary knew that her betrothed was of David’s line, but, still, I think she needed some help connecting the dots. And the odd arrangement for Jesus’ birth (peasant girl, born in a stable, adored by shepherds) is mirrored in the unusual acclimation he receives as king (hosanna in the highest! but killed on the cross).
All of that leaves me wondering what role David plays in our own understanding of messiah. How is Jesus’ the son of David? How is he the fulfillment of the promises made in 2 Sam 7? Is the Davidic line still important to us? How does David’s legacy represent that for which God’s people still wait? What sort of throne are we expecting? Yes, we’re waiting for Jesus to come back, but what does that mean? If we’re still waiting for the gilded throne of power, I think we’ll be disappointed. The cross wasn’t an accident, nor was it a failure. It was the perfect expression of God’s power. So what sort of king are we waiting for?