Do-Nothing David

a sermon on 2Samuel7:1-17

A week ago, our building manager Anthony came back from getting various supplies at Menards. He said they had moved the Halloween display to make room for Christmas decorations. Anthony figured that—being a church—we might want to get in on a piece of that action and were running behind.

Well, last week we had a song from Hannah, of which Mary did a remix for her cover version. This week we have a promise spoken for David that gets echoed and repeated also to Mary before the birth of Jesus. It appears it’s not just the corporate capitalist extravaganza, but also our Narrative Lectionary that’s prompting us toward Christmas and a season pregnant with possibility.

But before I put up a big flashy twinkling star pointing toward baby Jesus, let’s take seriously what’s happening here in Hebrew Scriptures, in this part of earlier tradition.

Last week, we heard at the end of Hannah’s song about our revolutionary God of reversals working through an anointed king. Already that was looking past Samuel as prophet, past the first king he anointed, Saul, toward David. David was that youngest child who had been out tending the sheep, the meek and weak who overcame the giant conquering Goliath. He played music to soothe the troubled spirit of Saul. And he became a skilled and dynamic leader.

As today’s reading has begun, he has moved the capital to Jerusalem, from Hebron, closer to his hometown of Bethlehem. In the celebration of the move, David was dancing in front of the ark of the covenant—the special box that held the 10 Commandments and marked where God’s presence rested—with David leading the parade, not acting with pomp and honor fitting a king, but with sheer enthusiastic delight.

This guy was good at worship and praise, and that devotion fits today’s reading, where David said he wanted to build God a house, a temple, to move the ark of the covenant in from the tent of meeting to a permanent location, a beautiful shrine, something that seemed fitting for his devotion. This was accentuated because David felt guilty for building himself a nice house, a palace with imported materials and immigrant labor.

During this stewardship season, I could mention that you’ve invested in your own houses, and wonder about David’s guilt. I could point to grand and elegant cathedrals around the world, heartfelt projects invested in representing God’s grandeur and glory, and I could tell you those structures, the biggest and best of their time periods, exemplify David’s notion to build an appropriate house for God. Or we could notice that nowadays our magnificent expansions are about healthcare or entertainment or megamalls of glitzy shopping experiences.

But if you’re feeling compelled about donations and financial contributions to our congregation, or are worried about whether you’re feeling that way, and even if it would seem like a useful tool for me to clobber you with, the Bible story continues on: David thought he should build God’s house, but would not.

That resolution began with Nathan the prophet telling King David, “do whatever you want.” That’s not our usual understanding of religious ethics or of expectations laid on us. We tend to live with the feeling we’re failing, not doing it right, that there’s something more we ought to do or ought to give. It’s frequently accompanied by your feelings of guilt or inadequacy.

And so this is a stunning word of freedom: do whatever you want. You don’t need to feel bound by obligations, as if somebody is holding a moral standard over you that you inevitably won’t live up to. The prophet, the one who speaks the Word of the Lord, the angelic messenger of God directly says: “The Lord is with you. Do as you like. Whatever is on your mind. Go ahead!”

This is a really remarkable giving of permission, of license. You may think of the risks you’ve been holding onto, of ideas that excited you, of possibilities that seemed to have run into a wall.

On the other hand, it may be where your striving has been too excessive, where you felt compelled to keep going, even when it seemed painful or fruitless, where responsibility made you feel whipped and driven, where there was no carrot but only stick. Set that aside. You need not feel the coercion to be so duty-bound. Instead, as the prophet says, “do as you like.”

If that seems like ridiculously good news (and I hope you can hear that surprise, that freedom, that overturning of a too-typical sense of God always trying to force you to be better, to do right, to do more), then hold onto your hats, because it gets even more intense.

David said he wanted to build a house for God. Nathan the prophet said it wasn’t a requirement, but that David could do whatever he wanted. But then a follow-up message came from God, and Nathan had to offer a corrective, an intensification of the previous message: not only should David not feel obligated, God won’t allow him to do something that he could feel as an obligation. God says, “You won’t build my house.”

You have been freed from expectations that weigh you down. Still more, God forbids you from succumbing to such things. This may mess up a stewardship sermon, but if you’re feeling guilt about what you donate here or how involved you are, then God tells you to stop, not to do it, that it’s not for you.

God absolves David’s sense of shame, that he’s been too self-centered and should’ve been more pious in doing more for God, that he should’ve been more devoted and dedicated in celebrating and praising and glorifying God with some sort of accomplishment.

This relationship with God will not grow out of self-reproach or remorse, nor from your intensive efforts. Again, for any sense of divine mandate, that there are certain things you have to do to get on God’s good side, that God frowns on you not trying hard enough or being a good enough person, for any concept that you’re not living up to your potential, and how your internal so-called conscience tells you you’re doing it wrong and aren’t who you should be, for feelings of falling short and telling yourself you’re a disappointment, God puts a big red X over that, shutting down that internal dialogue, cancelling those demands, by ordering you to stop trying.

You’re not going to build a house for me, God tells David. I’m going to build a house for you, a dynasty, a promise of eternal blessing for the house of David.

In the story, this promise is a ways off. God said that a son of David’s would build the temple, but David hadn’t even met the woman who would be that boy’s mother yet. After their rocky relationship begins, the first son of Bathsheba will die shortly after childbirth, and David will grieve fiercely. Solomon will struggle with his family and stray from God. His descendants after will leave the kingdom a mess.

And yet here is God’s enduring promise.

Which may bring us back to Mary and thoughts of Christmas. The God who says you can do what you want, and whose only restriction is to forbid you from those obligations that make you feel you’re getting ahead or threaten to make you feel behind, we recognize this God in the birth of Jesus, not because he would grow up to be a mighty king winning battles like David, or because he would have wisdom and prestige like Solomon, or since he had the right DNA as a descendant, or would teach us how to behave rightly.

The angel proclaims favor to an expectant mother Mary and that this kingdom will have no end because God’s will will be done, on earth as in heaven. Even more clearly than in the illustrious but fallible King David, better than anyplace else, Jesus shows us God’s work in a birth as a baby to an unwed mother shut out from the glitz of celebration and any glory of sumptuous life.

Jesus grew to convey that this is God’s work and not our own in welcoming every last outcast he can find, forgiving every sinner he meets, and offering wholeness and redemption to those who need it, while disparaging the self-righteous and scoffing at the pretentiously pious, and spurning the machinations of the temple, that alleged dwelling of God, disregarding its very destruction. Jesus showed that this can’t be wrecked by an empire, in spite of their heedless injustice, can’t be undone by us followers who often forget to follow, can’t be stopped even by vile and violent death. It’s simply not dependent on you or your plans or timelines or sense of propriety and devout exertions.

This is God’s effort. This is God’s blessing. This is God’s promise. If something gets in the way of that, don’t do it. Otherwise, do whatever you want.

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Christmas Eve sermon #2

One of the most exciting and essential parts of this Christmas story is usually overlooked or unmentioned on Christmas Eve. We’re so involved in the sweetness of a mother and baby, in the pastoral sereneness of barnyard animals, in the mysterious glory of angelic choirs, that we avoid the hard, vital honesty that this is a protest story.

It’s not just telling us that Jesus was born in such-and-so way, which was coincidentally charming for carols and fitting for greeting card images. Rather, the details of this story right from his get-go place Jesus against expectations, against a dominant and domineering culture. Identifying this birth with God’s presence very directly locates God in a place where most would not have claimed—and most would still not claim—that God would be present.

Actually, backing up a notch, these shocking details revealing God with Jesus were arising even before his birth: that the angel Gabriel was sent to a girl. Probably the same age as girls in our Confirmation class (which they were sort of horrified to learn). Beyond the biology of it, it is a meaningfully shocking detail that God came to Mary, a poor, young woman. By typical criteria, she sure wouldn’t be identified with God’s presence; God was supposed to be mighty, in palaces and buddied up to rulers. Even in the Jewish temple, God sat at the center, amid restrictive hierarchy of the elite male high priest having closest access, where women were kept exclusively to an outer courtyard. But in this case, God moved out to visit Mary, to work in conversation and collaboration.

And, for her part, Mary realized this was extraordinary and radical, even if difficult. After Gabriel’s visit, she sang a song about how God was turning structures and systems on their head, lifting up the lowly while casting the mighty down from their thrones, filling the hungry with good things but sending the rich away empty.

This is more directly embodied in the birth of Jesus and this Christmas story. Again, it’s placing God’s presence away from the powerful, not in a castle or cathedral, but where there wasn’t even room in the inn, officially announced to shepherds in the field, guys who couldn’t hold a job with regular hours. And what could be more vulnerable than a baby’s birth?

Even if we claim this is a newborn king, still that title subverts the usual claimants to the throne. Most particularly, the story challenges one directly: Caesar Augustus, the emperor of Rome. As he conquered most of the Western world and spread the empire around the Mediterranean, claiming allegiance and claiming tax revenue and claiming slaves from these beaten regions, he was also making claims for himself, that he was Lord, was divine, the son of god, that he was the bringer of peace and savior of the world.

Those terms and titles sound awfully familiar because you’ve heard them applied not to Caesar but to Jesus. Claiming them for Jesus contradicts Caesar, saying that the authority, the godly dynamics, the real presence for what matters didn’t reside in the capital of the empire, surrounded by soldiers and in control of the Senate. This Christmas story is a direct protest against the occupying forces of Caesar.

Now, that protest served mostly in subversive encouragement, because there’s no head-to-head contest where Jesus would win. He’s born out in the boonies. As far as Caesar is concerned, it wasn’t the Holy Land, but an outpost of an outpost, far at the edge of his empire. Even Jerusalem was scorned by Caesar, and this was a Podunk suburb of Jerusalem. The only claim Bethlehem had was as the birthplace of an ancient bygone king, of David, who had ruled a millennium prior. You see faded signs in small towns commemorating the softball team that won the Division 3 state title twenty-some years ago, and the nostalgia of Bethlehem’s best victor was exponentially longer.

Still, there’s something setting up our attention in Jesus about that king. David, after all, was the underdog who used his sling to slay the giant, to take down Goliath and stop the oppressor. But this new Goliath from Rome would be harder to slay. Jesus would have no opportunity to confront Caesar in a duel. Rather, his peculiar victory we are still celebrating and still deliberating is that Jesus confronted Goliath and died, gave himself up on a cross, his final protest and the shocking embodiment that God wasn’t with the mighty authorities, but identified with one who suffered unjustly in scorned death.

His faithful protest continues. We’re singing next “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” envisioning small streets of the unimportant village 2000 years ago when a homeless baby was born, shut out from warmth and yet identified as the center of God’s presence, and then the song sees those same streets in Bethlehem today.

Our travel group met residents of those streets this fall and continued to realize the old difficulty: they are facing a Goliath, and they have practically no chance of slinging the right stone that will bring down the giant and end the oppression and occupation. That’s because their Goliath isn’t just one big baddy but is a spreading, lurking, cancerous system that tracks their every movement and watches what they put on Facebook and keeps them from traveling to see family and puts up walls that separate them from their livelihoods and establishes laws to shut up life and keep them curfewed and close off possibility at every turn.

Yet we saw Bethlehem’s protest, the proclamation of God’s presence and the celebration of life even while the authorities claim that’s not where it should be found. They dance, they play sports. They cook and grow vegetables. They create artwork, like angels from shards of stained glass shattered by tanks. They speak truth to power. They graffiti messages of hope and humor on the wall that’s there to confine their wellbeing. They worship, they cherish community, they care for their young, teaching peace in schools. All of this, which may sound as normal as the birth of a baby and as low wage workers on the late shift, this is all transformed into a protest, when living itself requires courage and existence is resistance to the Goliaths of empire, just as that first Christmas.

This is a time when we may need to be reinforced in those practices ourselves. You may need to hear the protest of this Christmas story. You may need the examples, the witness, the martyr of others engaged in subverting authorities and resisting oppressors, of toppling terror and restoring righteousness, of hope over fear.

I’m going to end this message of reinforcement with words by my favorite artist. I’ve certainly never quoted him in a Christmas sermon, but maybe now that he’s a Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s got some additional credibility. Or maybe you can just hear these words from 50 years ago as a blessing and hope amid the darkness, echoing why Jesus was born, to strengthen you this evening. Bob said: “Nowadays there are crueler Goliaths who do crueler, crueler things, but one day they’re gonna be slain, too, and people two thousand years from now can look back and say, Remember when Goliath the 2nd was slayed?”

Take courage, dear people, and be not afraid. This is the world a baby was born into, the world God so loved, the world that needs you.

 

 

  1. O little town of Bethlehem,        2. O little town of Bethlehem,

how still we see thee lie!                              the organs still do play

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep        of Jesus in a manger

the silent stars go by;                                  and angels on the way;

yet in thy dark streets shineth                   our music and our singing

the everlasting light.                                    is louder than a gun,

The hopes and fears of all the years        and church bells in their ringing

are met in thee tonight.                               remind us we have won.

 

  1. O holy child of Bethlehem,

descend to us, we pray;

your love bring down on David’s town;

drive fear and hate away.

Awake the ire of nations,

let justice be restored.

Rebuild the peace in silent streets

where once your love was born.

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