Bigger and Better
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
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.
Sermon Bigger and Better
Good morning. Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday when we celebrate God’s love for humanity. It’s a day for us to remember the greatest gift that God has ever given: his Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. This is a day to reflect on God’s love for us and prepare for this gift.
On the surface, our reading from Second Samuel might seem like an odd choice for the fourth Sunday of Advent. In verse 16, God says to King David, through the prophet Nathan: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” In the Christian tradition, we believe this points to Jesus.
Today’s gospel reading is the story of the angel Gabriel visiting the virgin Mary. In that story, the angel announces to Mary that she’s carrying a very special child. The angel says:
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear 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 to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (Luke 1:30-33).
That passage from the Gospel of Luke is a reference to our reading from second Samuel. Of course, that’s not how King David would have understood what God was saying to him.
David can only see himself in this story—he can only see his current situation. David is concerned with the things that concern all earthly kings: protecting his kingdom from invasion, consolidating his power over his kingdom, and having a son to inherit his kingdom. And somewhere after those standard, kingly concerns, David knows he has to be righteous and give thanks to God for all that God has done for him.
By all outward appearances, David is doing well; David is being righteous. He has been victorious in battle. Still, David is unsettled. David doesn’t ask the Lord what he can do for the Lord, he tells the Lord what he’ll do for the Lord. David says to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”
David is talking about the Ark of the Covenant—not to get all Steven Spielberg-y on you, but yes, that ark. If the theme music from Raiders of the Lost Ark is running through your head, please forgive me. It’s kind of inevitable.
The ark was created by the Israelites while they were wandering around in the desert; it was God’s dwelling place. When the Israelites weren’t on the move, they put it in a big tent, called the Tabernacle. And even in David’s time, the ark resided in the Tabernacle.
Perhaps David feels a little bit guilty. He has succeeded as a king. He’s basking in the glory of his victories, but that’s not enough. He’s unsettled. He wants to do something for God, something to demonstrate God’s glory. So, he settles on a new idea; he wants to build God a permanent home. Even the prophet Nathan agrees with him. And, hey, Nathan’s a prophet, he’s got a direct line to God! So, it must be a good idea, right?
No. Not so much.
Basically, God says to David, “HA!”
To put it another way, God says to David: Your answer isn’t good enough! I’m in charge! And besides, you’re thinking too small.
Like David, we’re also unsettled. A year ago, none of us had heard of COVID-19. And you know what? The world was still a messed-up place. There was plenty of darkness during Advent. Plenty of people in the world were hungry or homeless. There were wars and conflicts. On top of that, we were all getting ready for a presidential election in this country—we were bracing ourselves for all the ugliness that has come to characterize elections in this country.
Last year was dark enough.
Then the pandemic hit. And our responses to the pandemic fell along all of the fault lines in our society. First, we argued over how serious COVID was, whether it was the same as the flu, or whether it was more deadly. Then we argued over masks. Then we argued over the lockdown. We argued and argued and argued. We’re really good at that.
Now, when I say “we,” I mean us as a society. The congregation of this church has, I think, responded in a much more positive direction. We have learned how to adapt. We have online worship and we do most of our committee meetings over Zoom. Gradually, we’ve allowed for some small groups to meet, but in the last couple weeks, some of those groups have decided to postpone in-person meetings as we have seen a resurgence of the virus in our community.
In short, we’ve rolled with the punches and we’ve grown our capacity to reach people outside of our church walls. I think you folks are doing a wonderful job under incredibly challenging circumstances. Yet I’ve heard many of you wonder about our future. Many of you have asked, will people return to church after the pandemic is over?
I believe people will come back. I know people need community. I know people are looking for community wherever they can find it. I know we’ve been reaching people who we don’t normally see in worship. I understand the fear and anxiety behind that question. I do. But it strikes me that we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking one another, “Do you think people will come back to church?” the questions we ought to be asking are: “God, how can we care for your people? How can we be your Church in the world?”
To be fair, many of you are asking these questions. But sometimes it’s hard to see beyond our own fears and anxieties. Like David, our vision is limited. We see only our own perspective. That’s why we have to ask God to broaden our horizons, to see beyond ourselves—and be in conversation with one another.
I saw this play out in a Session meeting a couple weeks ago.
The presbytery offered some grant money to all the congregations in Monmouth Presbytery. Each congregation was offered up to $1,000, to be used for anything that fit the mission of the congregation. There were no limitations on the grants. Each congregation just had to explain how it would use the money.
I serve on the Mission Council of the presbytery. I got to read every single grant application. More than half of them wanted to use the funds to buy better audio/visual equipment so that they could improve their online worship services. In all honesty, I thought we could use this money to buy a new computer for the church. So, I mentioned this to the Session. The first two or three responses were enthusiastic: yes, that’d be great!
But then one of the elders said, “Pastor, what about EHAP? Shouldn’t we give something to them?” Now I won’t mention any names, but I think we can all guess which elder I’m talking about. And she was right!
EHAP, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the acronym, stands for the Emergency Housing and Advocacy Program. This is a ministry of the Freehold Clergy Association, and EHAP works to address the needs of the homeless and those who are at risk of homelessness. They do great work; they do God’s work.
In our reading from second Samuel, David sees things only from his own perspective—he wants to do something grand. And the prophet Nathan sees things from David’s perspective, too. It’s a reminder that we all have trouble seeing past our immediate needs and wants, in much the same way that I thought, “ooh, we could use that grant from presbytery to buy a new computer.”
When David says to God, “God, I’m gonna build you a house,” God laughs! In essence, God says, “Build me a house? You don’t build me a house; I build you a house!” God concludes by saying: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” God responds by making a promise, a promise that’s bigger and better than anything that David could have imagined. As I said before, we believe that the ultimate fulfillment of this promise came in Jesus Christ.
In that Session meeting, first one elder said, “shouldn’t we do something for EHAP?” Then another one said, “Yeah, let’s give some of the money to EHAP.” Then another said the same thing. The discussion turned. It started out with, “let’s use all the money to buy a computer,” then it changed to, “let’s split the money,” and then finally, the Session landed on, “let’s give it all to EHAP.”
The vote was unanimous. The Session applied for the grant and the Mission Council of the presbytery approved it. Next week, we’ll be handing that check over to Joan Mandel, the director of EHAP. Also, someone in this congregation stepped up and donated the money for a new computer for the church. That’s how the Holy Spirit works—especially when we come together and ask, “What does God want us to do?”
Eventually this pandemic will end. There was more good news this past week about another vaccine. I believe that people will come back to church. It may take a few more months before it’s truly safe for us to gather in large numbers, again, but people will come back!
The Church is not just the building where we worship on Sundays! Christ’s Church is all of the people who gather in his name, and then reach out to their neighbors, to the hungry and the homeless, to the last and the lost and the least.
All we have to do is keep on reaching out and keep on asking the question, “What does God want us to do?” As long as we ask that question and continue to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, God will continue to do bigger and better things than we could possibly imagine. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you go forth into the world, keep asking the question: God, how are you calling us to be your Church in the world? Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!