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Sermon for 21 Dec 2014

FIRST READING 2 Samuel 7:1–11, 16

1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” 3 Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you.” 4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:
5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.


PSALM Psalm 89:1-5, 19-29

1 Your love, O Lord, forever will I sing; from age to age my mouth will proclaim your faithfulness. 2 For I am persuaded that your love is established forever; you have set your faithfulness firmly in the heavens. 3 “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn an oath to David my servant:  4 ‘I will establish your line forever, and preserve your throne for all generations.’” 5 The heavens bear witness to your wonders, O Lord, and to your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones; 19 You spoke once in a vision and said to your faithful people: “I have set the crown upon a warrior and have exalted one chosen out of the people. 20 I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him. 21 My hand will hold him fast and my arm will make him strong. 22 No enemy shall deceive him, nor any wicked man bring him down. 23 I will crush his foes before him and strike down those who hate him. 24 My faithfulness and love shall be with him, and he shall be victorious through my Name. 25 I shall make his dominion extend from the Great Sea to the River. 26 He will say to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation. 27 I will make him my firstborn and higher than the kings of the earth. 28 I will keep my love for him forever, and my covenant will stand firm for him. 29 I will establish his line forever and his throne as the days of heaven.”


SECOND READING Romans 16:25–27

25 Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26 but is now disclosed, and through the prophetic writings is made known to all the Gentiles, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith — 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever! Amen.
GOSPEL Luke 1:26–38

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “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 Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

Absolute monarchies are those in which all power is given to or, as is more often the case, taken by, the monarch. Examples of absolute power corrupting are, the Roman emperors (who declared themselves gods) and Napoleon Bonaparte (who declared himself an emperor). “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” arose as part of a quotation by the expansively named John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton. The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Of course there are exceptions, but even those exceptions allow their position and authority to get away from them at times. One problem that comes from power is the felt need to express it. And one of those ways is through the building of structures.
Architecture and power are Siamese twins joined at the hip. Rulers have always wanted to translate their power into brick and mortar — from the tower of Babel and Egypt’s pharaohs to Chairman Mao, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. I. M. Pei, in his contract given by Franois Mitterand to renovate the Louvre, was commissioned to re-establish the glory of France. Serious resources have been committed by rulers to display their strength and grandeur with architecture. And Israel’s king David was no exception.
David had finally consolidated his kingdom and established his city on Mount Zion. The cost of this had been enormous and David’s hands were bloody from the fighting and intrigue. Now he lived in a fine palace with cedar walls on Mount Zion, and Israel, a nomadic nation of runaway slaves in a tiny crossroads country, was at least looking respectable in the family of nations. King David looked like a king and lived like one. After all, Hiram, king of Tyre, had made this possible by giving him this beautiful palace. I guess you could say, all’s well that ends well. No longer an outlaw, no longer a contender — he was king and looked and lived the part, and he wanted people to notice. So he announces to his private chaplain, Nathan, that he had great plans for God’s house too. But as David found out, things aren’t always that easy. Sometimes, no matter what your intensions, God may have other plans. This reminds me of a statement made by comedian Woody Allen, “if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans.”
Perhaps David felt guilty about the disparity between his house and God’s tent. It could be that after all of this building for himself, he was beginning to have buyer’s remorse or builder’s remorse. Perhaps it was a rainy night in Jerusalem, and while he was feeling safe and dry in his great house, he had a pang of conscience as he thought of the ark of God in a very vulnerable shelter. Could he not hear the flapping of the tent as the wind blew and the rain descended? So he thinks to himself, “I’ll do something for God. I’ll build God a house as good as my own,” he announced to Nathan. “I live in a palace of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” No matter if he was motivated by the fact that God had blessed him immensely or feeling guilty for not thinking of God first, it was a noble gesture indeed.
People who covet power and court it constantly, know instinctively that every opportunity to demonstrate the power they possess must be taken. Yes, David lived well, but his God did not. Could David be so powerful and his nomadic desert God live in a battered old tent? After all, the other deities in surrounding empires lived well. Could the God of Israel be much at all, if His house was so scruffy? So David determines to build a suitable “house” for God, a temple fitting for the God of a new great nation (or, at least, a wanna-be nation) and a great king (again, a wanna-be king) like David.
On the surface all this sounds logical and initially, the prophet Nathan agrees; after all, he would be senior minister in the new temple. It sounded good, and in all likelihood would sit well with the people. The only thing wrong with the plan was that God didn’t see it that way. That night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying: “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling’ ” (vv. 4-6). God said to Nathan, “Go and tell David I have always met my people in a tent. That is how I identify myself with them.” Instead the Lord will make you a house (v. 11).
If any houses are to be built or dynasties established, God will do it, not David. David didn’t fool God by this very generous offer to build Him a nice house. This was only an extension of David’s plan for himself, disguised as a generous thing to do for God. This empire needed a more manageable, predictable deity, but God had no intention of being domesticated by Israel. So God’s question, “What makes you think you are the one to build me a house to live in?” must have burned in David’s ears. (2 Samuel 7:5). David may have felt the need to shore up his power, but God doesn’t. Yahweh has never been tied down to a building; He has always roamed freely, even before He adopted Israel. Why should He be domesticated now? God will operate on His agenda, not David’s. After all, who is the real King here anyway?
The dwelling in a tent motif carries over to the prologue in John’s gospel, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). God always insists on His own agenda. He will not be domesticated. This kingdom will not be established on David’s agenda with his public works program. God has an agenda and He will establish the house of Israel forever, longer and beyond the life of a temple. He will do it His way and in His own time frame, and better than anyone could ever imagine. Indeed, the agenda factor is the real issue for most of us.
At first glimpse, it appears that God would be a great enhancement for living. Doesn’t He part the seas and send the manna? With Jesus, many followed at the beginning because He could heal them, feed them, raise them from the dead. Not a bad deal when you think about it; so why not cry Hosannah! I mean, if you can have your cake and eat it too, why not? However, this taking-up-the-cross stuff should be negotiated out. Sacrifice and going the second mile sounds good, but it’s not to be taken very seriously. Sadly, that’s the attitude for many Christians today. As long as serving God doesn’t get in the way of what we want, then why not? As long as it doesn’t cause us inconvenience and God’s agenda and our agenda line up, then sure we’ll do the Christian thing.
This agenda issue also goes to church with the modern Christian. Garry Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury cartoon, portrays a character and his wife looking for a church. As they interview the pastor of the Little Church of Walden, they ask if the church has a volleyball team. The pastor replies, “No.” The couple then exclaims, “And you call yourself a church?” Most pastors have been through this ordeal, having to answer questions from people “shopping” for churches that meet their agendas.
As Trudeau expresses in another cartoon, a questioning couple is talking with the pastor, and they say, “Doesn’t the task of redemption imply guilt?” The pastor answers, “Well, yes, I do rely on the occasional disincentive to keep the flock from going astray. Guilt’s part of that!” The next panel shows the inquiring couple responding, “I don’t know. There’s so much negativity in the world as it is….” She says, “That’s right. We’re looking for a church that’s supportive, a place where we can feel good about ourselves. I’m not sure the guilt thing works for us.” He replies, “On the other hand, you do offer racquetball.” She says, “So did the Unitarians, Honey. Let’s shop around some more.”
Too many see the Christian life, as expressed in the church, as the “Good Ship Lollipop.” You may remember the film, or have seen it in an old movie on television: Shirley Temple dancing joyfully with Bo Jangles on the deck of the Good Ship Lollipop. The ship is filled with happy people, cared for by a helpful captain and crew who are no more than social directors dedicated to the happiness, entertainment, and indulgence of the passengers. Occasionally, the Good Ship Lollipop as a church, gets hijacked by those on board who see its primary purpose as political or social — either way, they impose their own agendas on the old ship of faith. Others use the Good Ship Lollipop as a means to advance their careers, or otherwise force it to serve their private agendas. And the ship loses its way as well as its purpose for being.
The agenda factor is clear in the old story of the lifesaving station on the coast of Maine. The lifesaving crew was known for the efficiency with which they were able to pull out of the raging surf those whose ship had been torn apart by the rocks along the coast. The lifesaving crews were well disciplined and effectively trained. They took justifiable pride in the way they rescued people from the raging surf. As success came their way, they bought uniforms, built a clubhouse, held parties and other social gatherings, and in every way enjoyed their volunteer work. I mean, why not? They’re doing a good thing very well.
However, they became so absorbed in supporting the work of the lifesaving station that some began to feel that going into the surf to rescue those who were drowning was an imposition. After all, they had to attend to the affairs of the club. So others were hired to do the work of lifesaving so that the original crew could support the work of the club, or foster other work that had presented itself. Finally, after one particularly devastating storm, the hireling rescuers brought an unusually large number of people from the sea and took care of their needs in the newly decorated clubhouse, causing an unusual amount of damage to the carpet and paint. The club, in response, had a hastily called meeting, passed a resolution, asking the lifesavers to move to other quarters and in every way separate their activities from that of the club. It seems that in all of this, the original agenda of the lifesaving crew had been lost.
The people of God are always in a struggle with the agenda issue. We’re like the lighthouse keeper who was given a specified amount of fuel each month with which to light his beacon. His job was to use it judiciously and to make certain there was enough available for an emergency. One day a fisherman, having run out of fuel in his boat, came and asked for a little fuel so he could complete his journey to the shore, and, of course, the lighthouse keeper complied. He was followed by an excursion boat taking tourists to see the deep waters and to appreciate the beautiful shoreline. He found himself in the same predicament, and so to help the people, he gave away some of the precious fuel. Several weeks later a party boat came, filled with revelers. The captain had not made proper provision, so the keeper gave away some more of the precious fuel to help these people also. Finally, on a dark and stormy night, the light was needed, but the keeper had no fuel for the light. Lives were lost unnecessarily.
Isn’t this what happens when the people of God get seduced into personal agendas rather than God’s agenda? Energy is used. This seduction obviously happens to churches, but it also occurs to individuals as well. For most modern Christians, the religious life appears to be a good add-on or an acceptable accessory, much like a better engine or leather upholstery in an automobile. For far too many, discipleship “should be something to enhance my standing in the community, rather than giving me a way to enhance the community.” “The programs at church may keep my children off drugs. Who cares about the content of the program? Or the Sunday school lessons and sermons may make me a better businessperson. Who cares about changing my life?” Whatever is being taught is okay as long as it really doesn’t go very far.
A young man had become very interested in his faith. He started studying the scriptures and adopting additional ways to deepen his spiritual life and feed his own soul. One day after much struggle, he announced to his pastor that all this religious activity had to cease, because his wife was greatly disturbed by it. Her reasoning was straightforward. She said to her husband, “I like our lifestyle and our place in the community. I’m afraid that if you keep this up, you’ll give it all up and become a missionary, or move to the inner city, or join the Salvation Army, or do social work.” “It’s destroying our marriage,” he said, “therefore, I’m changing churches so I can start over, save my marriage, and find a new agenda.”
What is God’s agenda if it’s not to live as a captive of Israel in a nice house, or in our churches, domesticated and well-fed? God began to reveal His agenda to David by reminding him again of His providential care. Notice the “I will’s” of God, preceded by a series of statements, in the first-person singular: “I took you…,” “I have been with you…,” “I have cut off all your enemies…,” “I will make you…,” “I will appoint a place for my people…” (vv. 8-10). Here the action shifts from what the king plans to do, to a reminder of what God has done. In other words, “I know what I’m doing,” God says. “You’ve done rather well on my agenda so far, and it will be my agenda all the way.” This forces us to ask ourselves, “Who’s really king here?” If a house for God is to be built, it will be done by God and not by David. Only God can establish the house of Israel and the throne of David forever. Locking up God in a fancy house at this time wouldn’t do it.
This passage (2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16) is the foundation for the Messianic hope of Israel. It became the hope for the revival of David’s rule after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. It was after this that Israel began to look forward to a new king from the house of David. Here we see that the agenda of God was far greater than the agenda of David.
The Old Testament prophets base their understanding of the kingdom of God on the promise He gave David in 2 Samuel 7. David’s agenda was too small; he wanted to establish a rule that would be temporal. He focused on a God located in a nice house, and God would not be localized. Instead, God’s plan was to establish a kingdom that would begin with David and ultimately change the human heart and extend to all eternity. God will accomplish His agenda. Gabriel’s message to Mary speaks of the house of David (Luke 1:32). Peter begins his message at Pentecost in Acts 2:29-30 talking about the house of David. Paul in Romans 1:3 refers to the seed of David. Now we wait for His coming again.
On Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ coming, and we must realize that this living, unmanageable God is leading us to something new. In this season of anticipation, let’s set aside our agendas and be open to God’s agenda for us. Let’s re-examine ourselves and see if perhaps God has an agenda for us greater than anything we can imagine. After all, isn’t God bigger than the here and now? Isn’t His plan for us greater than today? So don’t force God into our agenda; rather let’s instead be open to His.

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