We are used to hearing Old Testament readings that make the Temple in Jerusalem the special place for the Hebrew people, the focus for their worship and faith in God. So much of the writings of the prophets concentrate on how things went wrong when the people rejected this worship, as well as lament for the loss of the Temple when the people were carried off into exile. This familiarity means we can miss a thread which our first reading (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16) displays; one of ambivalence at best and even deep suspicion. Here God, through the prophet Nathan, expressed that he is not keen on it being set up in the first place. David’s grand plan to build God a house is greeted with bemusement: ‘what do I need one of those for, I’ve not needed one so far, why should I be missing one?’ But David builds one any way and God seems to smile on the plan.
For all of the importance it gets, there are long periods when the people have to get on without it and they seem to manage, not least when in exile and since its final destruction in AD 70. As far as I know there have been no plans to rebuild it. God can set up his home and his shrine wherever he chooses. And with this we have a reminder that great churches and chapels, like this one, exist for our benefit, not God’s; they provide us with a focus, a place to concentrate the story of our faith and become symbolic for us of all our faith calls us to be.
This is an interesting reading to have on this fourth Sunday of Advent as we think about Mary’s role in the nativity, in the coming of the Christ-child among us. It’s clearly a vital role, one for which she is most highly favoured (Luke 1:26-38). And the implication of placing these readings alongside one another is that Mary is in some way being seen as the new Temple, the place that enables God to be visible and known among us in the birth of Jesus. And again this is not a role that exists for God’s benefit but for ours. God does not need to have this vehicle and mode of arrival, but chooses to do so. It is God’s will and choice to enter among us by entering into a partnership with one of his beloved, favoured, human beings. So beloved and favoured are we, that God honours our humanity to the full by being born of a woman, of Mary, just like the rest of us. The great mystery of the incarnation, of God among us, which we will mark in just a few hours time as our Christmas celebrations begin, is that God who could make himself known in any way he wished, chose this one, chooses to be present in human life so that we may see what it is to be fully human and beloved by God, that the life we have becomes a dwelling place for the sacred, for the holy of holies, becomes a temple of his presence.
Mary stands as a symbol and example of what it means to say “yes” to God, to join her in her response of “let it be with me according to your word”, for ”Here am I, the servant of the Lord” (v38). And as with all temples she points us to Jesus and helps us find a focus on God. She is not the object of worship in herself and should never be made into one. Any honouring that we do, and she is honoured in the story of our faith – and by Muslims too as Mariam, any honouring is for her response and therefore for the example that she gives us. We too are to be temples of God, temples of the Holy Spirit, so that we too can be a life consecrated for God’s glory and a place where others may see something of the grace of God at work in the world. Works in progress as we are, imperfect and in need of forgiveness and redemption, but nonetheless works of grace.
Mary has been made into a trophy over the centuries, an unreal ideal of womanhood, which detracts from the power of her story. It is likely that she had subsequent children because there are references in the New Testament to Jesus’ brothers and sisters, and they are not figurative references. I don’t find titles such as ‘Queen of the Heaven’ at all helpful, though wearing crowns is something all are called to, crowns of glory as we serve Christ the King and we thought about that at the end of November on the Feast of Christ the King, at Oliver’s baptism. But we don’t have three gods as the Qur’an mistakenly asserts: God, Jesus and Mary. Mary is not ‘Mrs God’. God is one, known as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and all that those stand for. Mary’s place remains subservient to that of God.
So to understand and honour Mary we need to keep the balance and perspective of our faith. And easily overlooked passages like our Old Testament reading this morning, can and do help us recall just what the purpose of various key aspects is. All our buildings, all our saints, are there to point to the love of God in Jesus Christ, to keep this focus before our eyes and help us see more deeply. It is Mary’s ‘yes’ that gives her the honour and displays her favour. It is this ‘yes’ that makes her a consecrated shrine of God’s presence and favour. And it is a calling for all of us too.
This is picked up in the New Testament in 1 Peter, where we are encouraged to be ‘like living stones, built into a spiritual house, holy, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 2:4-5). We are to be consecrated temples for God. I wrote a prayer this week for the 900th anniversary of the Cathedral’s rebuilding which began in 1118 after the previous structure was reduced to ashes in a fire two years previously. In that prayer I played with this notion of being living stones, precisely to remind us that the building is there to serve the mission and call of Christ to his church. My prayer was and is that we may be “formed into living stones who sing [God’s] praises, live the faith of Jesus Christ and risk all in his service”. This concept is central to Mary’s call, Mary’s response, and Mary’s challenge.
So let us ‘sing we of the blessed mother’, hail her full of grace, because in her we see the call to be consecrated, living stones, to the glory of God. And in this we see God’s favour for us as his beloved children, heirs of his grace. May this help us enter more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation and celebrate with joy, hope and great thanksgiving, as temples of the presence of God.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Advent 4, Sunday 24th December 2017