‘Who lives in a house like this?’ If you are a telly fan, you might recognise this as the catchphrase from the game show ‘Through the Keyhole’ in which a presenter, most recently Keith Lemon, wanders through someone’s house picking up clues, dropping hints and throwing around puns in the hope that a celebrity panel will be able to make use of their extensive knowledge of cultural trivia to work out who does indeed live in a house like this. The concept behind the show is, simply, that our homes are a reflection of who we are, an expression of our selves. I would imagine that most of us here this morning would agree wholeheartedly that our homes are, or at least should be in theory anyway, places where we can be ourselves, and express ourselves.
As a priest, I go into lots of people’s homes, to visit, to take home communion, and to visit families preparing for baptisms, weddings and funerals. I look at photographs on mantelpieces and pictures framed on walls, I admire ornaments and colour schemes, and I can’t help but notice people’s CD collections or DVD stacks or bookshelves – I suspect that sheer nosiness about people’s lives is one of the basic requirements for being a priest – and I hear the stories behind all these little things that, as the cliché puts it, make a house a home. I visit people in care homes too, and I notice all the ways in which people create a home for themselves wherever they may be. Sometimes it’s in a care home room, with photographs and crayon drawn pictures by grandchildren and magazines and books piled up on a side tables, that I get the best sense of who someone is. Some people are, with our doubt, excellently stylish home makers and create rooms which are both beautiful and welcoming, but what I like most are rooms which say something to me about the person who lives in them, rooms into which I can walk and see, from looking around, who lives in a house like this.
This morning we’ve heard the moment in the story of King David when, at last, David finds himself at home, and wants to make a house for God to live in, too. King David’s rise to royal power was not, as you might know, an easy one, and home must have seemed a very distant promise for David as the conflict over who would be king, Saul or David, gathered momentum. At times David had been a shepherd, spending much time outdoors; he had been wary guest in the house of King Saul, and later a fugitive, fleeing for his life and hiding in caves. Through it all, David knew that God was with him; no wonder, then, that when David finally took his throne in Jerusalem and found himself living in palatial surroundings, that his prayer was for God to come home, too.
It wouldn’t be until the reign of David’ son Solomon that the temple in Jerusalem would be built, and even then, the temple would not be a forever family home for the Almighty, overtaken as it was in the Babylonian exile some five centuries later. Even the second temple, the one that still stood in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, was to be ransacked by the Romans in the siege of 70AD. Yet what we hear in the words of the prophet Nathan is the faithfulness of a God who is with his people even in exile, in hiding and in dry dusty desert wanderings. We hear the yearning of a tender God who longs to come home, to dwell among his people. We hear the confidence of a sovereign God who
does not need humans to create a home for him, but who himself creates a home for us.
And so we come to our Gospel reading, that most angelic of home visits when Gabriel is sent with the news that at last, the throne of David would be established, not in the Jerusalem Temple or in any of the other great cities of the ancient near east, but inside her own, young, possibly teenaged, virgin, body. The home which God promises to create, the home God yearns to share with his people, the home which is to be found even in exile, in hiding and dry dusty desert wanderings, is not made out of cedar wood or gold, but out of female human flesh. How can this be, asks Mary. How can I – a virgin, a girl, not even a mother yet, poised between adolescence and adulthood – how can I host this king of all kings? The thought is preposterous.
Yet when you think about it, the idea that God can create a home in a human body is no less preposterous than the concept that God’s home can be made out of wood and gold. After all, when we read about the Temples of Jerusalem in the stories of David and Ezra, with all their splendour and beauty, we end up understanding that it was never about the beauty and the splendour, the cedar wood and the gold, anyway – it was about the presence of God that filled the sanctuary and sanctified it, made it holy. If you read on a little from our Old Testament reading, the climax of the story of the Jerusalem temple of which David dreams, is the moment when the cloud of the presence of God overshadows the ark of the temple as Solomon dedicates it to God. It is this overshadowing presence that establishes the temple as the house of God, not the craftsmanship or the music or the royal connections. It is the same overshadowing presence that establishes Mary as the person in whose body the King of all Kings will take up his home.
So what kind of God lives in a house like this? A house made of young, vulnerable, female human flesh? A house which itself will be under threat in the most vulnerable days of Jesus’ life, a house that will move, like the tabernacle, from Galilee to the hill country of Judea to Bethlehem and thence as a refugee to Egypt, a house that cannot possibly match the splendour and beauty of the Jerusalem Temple but, on the contrary, bears within its body not glory but the shame of pregnancy out of wedlock?
Mary sings out in her Magnificat what kind of God lives in a house like this. A God who does great things for the humble. Who lifts up the lowly. Who calls out his mercy from generation to generation. Who does mighty deeds. Who fills the hungry with good things, but dismisses the haughty and the proud. Who remembers his servant, Israel. Who has not forgotten one of his promises. When we look at Mary, in her youth, in her vulnerability, in the social shame of her unmarried pregnancy, in her tenacity, in her faith and readiness to say yes to God despite the sword that will pierce her own heart as she bears the Christ child, we see what kind of God lives in a house like this.
And what about where that same God lives today? All around the world people have built houses for the Lord; we are in one here, one which I love very much. But our churches are never meant to be about the stone and the wood, the music or the craftsmanship. All of that – beautiful and splendid as it is – is to help us to see the overshadowing presence of the divine who still comes and dwells among his people today. Because when God takes up his home in the body of Mary, that same God sanctifies all human flesh, makes it possible for all human bodies to know within them just a little of the presence of the divine that Mary carried those nine months.
This year, we have seen over and over again in our news pictures of refugees – in Syria, in Iraq, in South Sudan and in other places. We have seen battered and exhausted human flesh wandering through dry desert ways, many people dying before reaching place where they can create new, if temporary, homes. The good news of the incarnation is that it is in this flesh that God sets up home. What kind of God lives in a house like this? A God whose love for his people is so faithful, so tender, so confident, that within the human body itself is the most natural home he could choose. Amen.