One secular song has done more damage to the message of Christmas than any other. It was first heard on Eddie Cantor’s radio show in November 1934, 80 years ago. It became an instant hit.
You better watch out, you better not cry,
you better not pout, I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake,
He knows if you’ve been bad or good,
So be good for goodness’ sake.
He knows if you’ve been bad or good. The message is that Santa will judge you based on that if. In the popular imagination that if has long been attached to the Biblical story. If you are good, if you obey God, if you give your life to God, you will receive God’s blessing. You will prosper in this life and at the great day of judgment, you will be found worthy to be with God for ever.
I won’t deny that the if version of the biblical story can be found in the Bible in plenty of places, but it is not the end of the story. Santa Claus is coming to town did not create the if, of course, but it did attach it firmly to Christmas. Yet the true message of Christmas has nothing to do with this “if.”
We have two stories this morning that are major moments in the biblical story where the threatening “if” of God changes. And the change described in these stories defines what we Christians call “the Gospel”–the good news.
The passage from the second book of Samuel we just heard may seem to be an odd choice for this Fourth Sunday in Advent. It is easily overshadowed by the dramatic story of Mary and the archangel Gabriel.
Yet this Samuel passage is certainly a keystone in the David story, if not in the whole of the Old Testament.
At this point in the story of King David, he has solidified his power in Israel, legitimated his throne, and begun the building of his capital in Jerusalem. Part of his legitimation agenda has been to take control of the ark of the covenant–the great symbol of God’s presence with Israel–and settle it in Jerusalem.
Having secured the ark, David now desires to build a temple to house it. Nathan, the great prophet of David’s reign, responds favorably to his desire and gives him a quick building permit, if you will.
But what had seemed so obviously right to Nathan proves to have been wrong. God speaks to Nathan and withdraws the permit in no uncertain terms. “I have not asked for a house,” God says, “nor do I want one.”
Then there is a great play on words in the text, after God reminds David of their history together.
Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.
We have shifted from “house” as “dwelling” to “house” as “dynasty.” And verse 16 goes on to say
Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.
In a flash, the dynamics of relationship with God have changed. Here in the text is the first expression of what will become known as God’s ḫesed, God’s steadfast, unchanging, even relentless, love.
God makes an unconditional promise to David. Saul, David’s predecessor lost God’s love because of his disobedience. David, God declares, will never lose God’s love, but more than that. God’s ḫesed shall remain with David’s line for ever.
To this point in the biblical story, the covenant between God and Israel could best be described by the simple word if. The faith of Moses was that God’s good inclinations toward Israel depended upon Israel’s obedience. It had been this if that had destroyed Saul.
David and his descendants will no longer contend with this if. That is not to say that it disappears, that God no longer has any requirements of God’s people, but the if will never be the last word. The last word has changed to but. In verse 15, which the lectionary inexplicably skips, God says
But I will not take my steadfast love from David, as I took it from Saul. (Verse 15)
Walter Brueggemann translates the but at the beginning of that sentence as nevertheless. I like that because it makes clear that God is saying “no matter what.” Here is a proclamation of what we call grace, the good news of God’s steadfast love in spite of all that separates us from God, both of our own doing and of others. Put simply, “You are a mess, nevertheless I will always love you.”
Now to the visit of Gabriel to Mary, where this nevertheless takes on even greater dimensions. In this story God finally has chosen a home, a place to dwell. In the story of the Annunciation, God declares through Gabriel that he will take up a dwelling of his own choosing, among humankind, beginning, as humankind begins, in a woman’s womb.
God chooses to take up a dwelling in Mary, about whom we are told nothing, except that she has found favor with God. Our human minds instantly create reasons why she must have been so favored. But the text is silent, and that fact alone unleashes a torrent of good news.
Why is the silence important? In almost every other instance in the biblical story, when God chooses someone for some special task, we are told specifically that they were in some way “righteous” people.
Even just prior to this story of annunciation in the parallel story of the annunciation to Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, of the birth of John the Baptist, we are told of Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah
Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly... (Luke 1:6)
Luke is a master storyteller. Details are important to him. It is no accident that he tells us nothing of Mary’s background. She found favor with God, that is all. “Why?” is left to mystery.
By this time King David’s line had been reduced to nothing. There hadn’t been a king of David’s line for centuries. The old promise had seemed to have been in vain. But the Annunciation to Mary–herself powerless, status-less, which is the real significance of her virginity–delivers the astounding good news that God’s love is disconnected utterly from human notions of power and status.
Mary says to Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” or, in some translations, “How can this be, since I know not a man?” On the obvious level this question has to do with the simple fact that she has not had the sexual intercourse necessary to conceive a child, but on a deeper level this means, “How can God make something out of nothing?” How can God make power out of weakness?
The answer to that question will not only be the story of Mary, but the story of Jesus himself, and the story of all his followers through the centuries. It is our story.
How can something be made out of nothing? How can God make love out of a mess? How can the holy God, the creator of the Universe, whose very name defines freedom, live among humankind, choose, even, to live within them?
Is it possible that you and I will appear before God one day and there will be a great book with the whole truth of our lives written in it and we will tremble at its very opening because we know the truth revealed therein is a very mixed bag at best?
Is it possible that we will hear the words of our lives and fall before the great if of God’s judgment?
Is it possible that then we will hear, “Nevertheless, you have found favor with God.”
Is it possible then that we can, like Mary, squeak out a “yes” even though we can’t imagine why it is true. Be it to me according to your word. And the word is grace. And the word is love. For us. Nevertheless.
We serve a God who can make something out of nothing, a God who changes his mind, a God who can wring love out of judgment. That ought to be enough to send us into a life of utter gratitude and joy, nevertheless.
And that is what Christmas means. Not if but nevertheless.