Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dec 21, 2008 - Our Story

First Presbyterian Church of DuPage - The Five O'Clock

2 Sam 7.4, 8-16: That night Yahweh told Nathan, ... “So now, say this to my servant David: ‘This is what Yahweh of hosts says: I took you from the pasture and from your work as a shepherd to make you leader of my people Israel. I was with you wherever you went, and I defeated all your enemies before you. Now I will make you as famous as the great men of the earth. I will establish a place for my people Israel and settle them there; they will live there and not be disturbed any more. Violent men will not oppress them again, as they did in the beginning and during the time when I appointed judges to lead my people Israel. Instead, I will give you relief from all your enemies. Yahweh declares to you that he himself will build a dynastic house for you. When the time comes for you to die, I will raise up your descendant, one of your own sons, to succeed you, and I will establish his kingdom. He will build a house for my name, and I will make his dynasty permanent. I will become his father and he will become my son. When he sins, I will correct him with the rod of men and with wounds inflicted by human beings. But my loyal love will not be removed from him as I removed it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your house and your kingdom will stand before me permanently; your dynasty will be permanent.’”Blockquote

What we talk about tonight--the scripture passages we listen to, the story that connects them--is the most important thing we’ve talked about all through the last four weeks of Advent. We are listening to the story of Jesus as it unfolds. The story begins with a promise, with prophecy, and leads us right up to our own celebration in just a few days. It leads to a barn in Bethlehem, to a cross outside Jerusalem, to an empty grave, and to our continued waiting for Jesus to come again with his kingdom. This is an important story.

But I need to confess that I have a hard time, sometimes, relating to it. You see, tonight is different from the other nights we’ve gathered together this Advent. In the past weeks, we’ve talked about hope and repentance, about peace, about joy even in the midst of mourning--things that are in a lot of ways timeless, things that are abstract enough to be able to touch on each and any of our lives, whoever we are. Hope and peace and joy and, especially, repentance and mourning are things that we each can explain and illustrate from experiences in our own lives. But tonight is not like those things.

Tonight we are talking about something that is not abstract or general or public domain in any sense. Tonight we’re not even so much talking as listening. We are listening to a very specific, very unique story, the story that tells us who Jesus is, that tells us why he can be the source of our joyful hope for peace. We’re listening to events that are not general but historical, things that happened in history, promises that were given, a baby that was born. And this can be a lot more difficult to talk about, to relate to. What do we know about ancient kings in far off countries, about promises of an ideal leader, about the politics of three thousand years ago--we can barely keep up with our own! Why should we care about this?

We just heard God’s promise to David to take one of David’s sons and make him God’s own son, to set him up as ruler and to give him and the people peace. This promise works as a decent beginning for the story we’re telling tonight. Some people might trace Jesus’ story back a little further, some might not. But this is where we’ll start tonight. In the passage we just heard, David has just become king over Israel after a long and bitter rivalry with the former king, Saul. In the rocky transition between administrations the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of God’s presence with the people, had been captured by the Philistines, an enemy nation Israel was continually in border disputes with. David has just received the Ark back from the Philistines and brought to his capitol, Jerusalem. And now he has a measure of peace that neither he nor the people of his country have ever seen before during their lifetimes. And as he reclines in his royal palace, he thinks of God’s Ark, the ornate box containing the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments carved on them, sitting in an antique tent. So David decides he will build a house for God, one like his own, with cedar walls and a good stone floor, something more worthy of God’s presence dwelling in it.

But God has other plans. He tells David through Nathan the prophet that David isn’t going to build him a house--a temple. Instead, he is going to build David a “house”--a dynasty that will rule Israel from this time forward. It’s kinda a pun.

But if we listen really carefully to God’s promise, we’ll discern that this promise is about more than ancient politics. God isn’t just telling David that his son Solomon will be a good king. First, we find that sandwiched in the middle of God’s promise about David’s dynasty is a promise that affects many more people than only David’s family. God promises peace for all the people--no more oppressors, no more violent men. He will give them a peaceful place where they can settle down without fear of losing it when someone stronger comes and drives them off. God will give them relief. And all this will happen through David’s son.

Next, we discover that David’s son is not going to rule simply through inherited privilege. We’ve seen far enough of that in our own day. The wealthy pass their wealth down to their kids. The best schools fill up with people more privileged than us; we can’t afford to buy a house in the right school district; we can’t afford the astronomically rising tuition bills at the good colleges. Some people are born lucky, born into good families that get all the breaks, have all the resources. And what are we left with? But this isn’t how David’s son will get to power. True, he’s born into the right family. But just like David, whom God reminds that he started out as a sheep-chaser, David’s descendant is going to come to power through God’s action, not his own or his family’s. God says, “I will establish his kingdom.”

Then God says that this descendant--and I should mention here that “son” in this passage doesn’t have to mean the immediate child of David; it could also be his grandson or great-great-great-grandson. This descendant is going to build a house for God’s name. Now all the people in the next generation thought for sure that this promise meant Solomon. He was a good king over Israel, times were peaceful, he even built the temple. And they were right to a degree. But the peace in his reign didn’t last, he had his moral lapses (especially into idolatry), even his temple was eventually torn down. Was he really all that God meant?

God continues, “I will become his father and he will become my son.” Again, there are a couple of ways to take this statement. On the one hand, ancient kings were often seen to have a special relationship to their national gods. The book of Psalms seems to reflect this same idea in places, that God adopts the king into a special relationship with him. But Solomon wouldn’t have been a very good son to God, would he? He didn’t spend his time meditating on God’s words. Instead, he concentrated on making political alliances and keeping his five hundred wives happy. He built them altars to their false gods and would stand by or even participate when they worshiped them. This promise seems to be pointing to something more, to someone that can truly call God his Father.

Ps 132: O Yahweh, for David's sake remember all his strenuous effort, and how he made a vow to Yahweh, and swore an oath to the powerful ruler of Jacob. He said, “I will not enter my own home, or get into my bed. I will not allow my eyes to sleep, or my eyelids to slumber, until I find a place for Yahweh, a fine dwelling place for the powerful ruler of Jacob.” Look, we heard about it in Ephrathah, we found it in the territory of Jaar. Let us go to his dwelling place! Let us worship before his footstool! Ascend, O Yahweh, to your resting place, you and the ark of your strength! May your priests be clothed with integrity! May your loyal followers shout for joy! For the sake of David, your servant, do not reject your chosen king! Yahweh made a reliable promise to David; he will not go back on his word. He said, “I will place one of your descendants on your throne. If your sons keep my covenant and the rule I teach them, their sons will also sit on your throne forever.” Certainly Yahweh has chosen Zion; he decided to make it his home. He said, “This will be my resting place forever; I will live here, for I have chosen it. I will abundantly supply what she needs; I will give her poor all the they need. I will protect her priests, and her godly people will shout exuberantly. There I will make David strong; I have determined that my chosen king’s dynasty will continue. I will humiliate his enemies, and his crown will shine.”

God made a promise to David, and the people rejoiced in that promise. For a long time they thought they were living in the full fulfillment of that promise. They said, “Look, we have the temple here, we have one of David’s descendants ruling over us. Things are relatively peaceful. This is got to be as good as it gets.” And never mind the fact that our country split in civil war only two generations after David. Never mind that our kings have a penchant for idol worship. Never mind that the poor are abused in our streets, that we buy up their land and force them to work for less than a subsistence wage in our fields. Never mind that the priests are corrupt, that courts make decisions for the rich, that other political superpowers are continually invading us. Never mind all that! Isn’t this the fulfillment of God’s promise?

But at festivals they would sing the reminder of what things were really supposed to look like when God set up one of David’s sons to reign: priests with integrity, king’s who kept God’s law, needs met, the hungry fed, the godly shouting for joy in the streets. But did they see any of this?
Only a few short centuries after God’s word to David through Nathan the prophet, all illusions that the promise had been fulfilled fell catastrophically apart. For generations, the little country of Judah, all that remained of David’s once expansive kingdom, had cowered in the shadow of rising political superpowers--Assyria and Egypt and Babylon. Occasionally they had their bravadacious kings who would mount rebellion, trying to widen their minuscule piece of the pie. But for the most part, Judah, like Israel before it, paid up to the bigger bully governments and toed the line.

But in 587 BC, after the false-start of a rebellion and a horrific siege, Jerusalem, the capital city, was leveled. Its king, all the nobility, the city leaders, all the craftsmen, anyone who was anybody, were deported, exiled to a country hundreds of miles away. No more Davidic king, no peace for the people, no food for the poor. The promise is decidedly not fulfilled; it even looks broken. How can God say of Jerusalem, “This will be my resting place forever; I will live here, for I have chosen it. I will abundantly supply what she needs; I will give her poor all they need. I will protect her priests, and her godly people will shout exuberantly”? What has God done? Where is his anointed king now? Is he not a faithful promise-keeper to David? Where is he now?

Lk 1.26-38: In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, a descendant of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled by his words and began to wonder about the meaning of this greeting. So the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end.” Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God. And look, your relative Elizabeth has also become pregnant with a son in her old age--although she was called barren, she is now in her sixth month! For nothing will be impossible with God.” So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.: Then the angel departed from her.

Three thousand years ago God made a promise to David. A thousand years later, after endless cycles of hope and disillusionment, of idolatrous prosperity and then mournful exile, God sends the angel Gabriel to a girl in the poor town of Nazareth to say that he is now finally fulfilling his promise. A thousand years have passed. Parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren have been born and died and rotted away. And the promise of one of David’s sons ruling justly on the throne in peace, a son of David who is also a son of God, has gone unfulfilled.

But then an angel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings!” What is she to make of this? What are we supposed to make of this? Why should God fulfill his promise now? Times definitely didn’t seem to be favorable. Israel was a troublesome little province in the Roman empire, where Imperial troops imposed heavy taxes and viciously slaughtered anyone contemplating rebellion. Nothing particularly marked out this time as special. No prophets had appeared--God had been silent since the time of Malachi four hundred years earlier. Why should he act now?

Yet his messenger says, “Greetings!” We’re left with Mary, wondering what’s going on. But we are not left too long. The angel continues: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! Listen: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will never end. God has not forgotten his promises! God has not broken his word! The words of 2 Samuel 7 leap out of the angel’s message - “he will be great,” “Son of the Most High,” “God will give him the throne of his father David,” “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever,” “his kingdom will never end.” Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise!
Mary is stunned. She’s a virgin--she’s never had sex with anyone. How can she get pregnant without having sex? Or perhaps she wonders if Joseph will be the father, that she and Joseph, poor as they are, the construction worker and his bride-to-be, perhaps they will be the beginning of a new royal line. After all, maybe she thought, her great aunt or someone had said David was somewhere back in their family tree...

But again, the angel delivers a word from God that overturns all out expectations. This baby will be no adopted son of God, no royal ruler with religious ties. No, what so many generations had accepted as a metaphor--much in the same way that they accepted Solomon as the promise’s fulfillment--God reveals to be literal: Jesus will indeed be God’s true Son. Mary will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit through the power of the Most High. This baby is no ordinary king. He is God from God himself.

But what kind of king, what kind of God, would this baby be? God promised peace through him, yet seventy years later, Jerusalem was leveled yet again, its inhabitants driven out into the desert yet again, a bloodbath in the temple courts. Is this peace? More, Jesus never wears a royal robe except when he is being beaten as an insurrectionist. He never wears a crown except when thorns are twisted and pressed into his scalp. He is never hailed as king of the Jews except when the soldiers mock him and beat him and nail a derogatory sign over his cross. Is this really the fulfillment of God’s word?

Where are the priests full of integrity? How many sex scandals have we seen destroy our churches, our parishes? Where is God’s abundant supply of our needs? How many of us struggle to stay in a home, in a job, in school? Are the poor fed? Or do they still wander hungry, beneath overpasses, riding the El to stay warm, waiting in lines outside of shelters? Has God kept his word? Is Jesus reigning?

I said it is hard for me to relate to this story sometimes. Partially, it is because many of the events seem so far in the past, so separated from my experience by history and culture. But in another way, I think it is because this story places such demands on my experience, on my own place in time, on my life and my politics and my finances, on my hopes and expectations, on my story. Sometimes I don’t like that.

You see, Jesus is the answer; he is God’s great fulfillment. But the story isn’t over yet, the fulfillment we sing about in the manger in a barn in Bethlehem is not the end, nor is the cross, nor is even the resurrection. Jesus’ kingdom is forever, his reign is without end. And we are waiting for him to return, to bring his rule with him. We are living with that as our hope, believing our peace is the peace that he will bring, rejoicing in this. There is a day coming when there will be enough bread--Jesus demonstrated this when he fed the five thousand, a kind of foretaste, but not yet, not yet the fulfillment. There is a day coming when our needs will be abundantly met - “In my Father’s house are many rooms” Jesus says, and “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” There is a day coming when priests, when church leaders will be full of integrity--Jesus is our model. There is a day coming when we will have peace, the peace Jesus will bring.

So for now, we live in anticipation, in waiting and hoping and believing. We live like Mary, not always understanding what or why or how God is doing what he is doing, but looking up in faith, saying, “Yes, I am the servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.” And like Mary, we wait. She waited for nine months to see this God-baby, and then thirty more years to see him die in humiliation on a cross and then three more days to see his empty tomb and gloriously resurrected body. So we wait.

Ro 16.25-27: Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that had been kept secret for long ages, but now is disclosed, and through the prophetic scriptures has been made known to all the nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith--to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be glory forever. Amen!

We still have four more days to wait until Jesus comes, until we celebrate his birth in Bethlehem. As we wait, I challenge us each to set aside a few moments on each of these days--maybe in the morning while you drink your coffee or before you eat dinner or before you sleep--and to reflect on what Jesus is bringing--what our hope is. Then I want us to ask ourselves very honestly whether we are living in anticipation of his coming.

He comes bringing integrity: Are we being honest and fair in our relationships, accepting blame, giving praise, speaking out when things are wrong, striving for reconciliation? He comes bringing food for the hungry: are we giving food to those who are hungry? Are we giving shelter to the homeless, clothes to the threadbare, a listening ear to the distraught, companionship to the lonely, patience to the emotionally needy? He comes bringing protection: Do we trust him to protect us now? Will we become vulnerable, emotionally, financially, knowing that he cares for us? Are we willing to follow him who had no home, no place to rest his head? Are we protecting those who are oppressed, abused, battered? He comes bringing peace: Are we working for peace--globally, locally, personally? Are we mending relationships, having honest conversations, inviting estranged friends over to dinner? How are we voting, what charitable causes do we support, where are we spending our money?

Are we living like Jesus is really coming to reign? Lord, have mercy.

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