Due to a quirk of the calendar, the fourth Sunday fo Advent (Year B) in 2017 falls on December 24, which of course is also Christmas Eve Day. At St. Peter Lutheran Church, we had our usual Saturday worship as Advent 4, and a single service on Sunday morning which was also Advent 4. So, this is my Advent 4 sermon. You can find this year’s Christmas Eve here.
Sermon texts for Advent 4 are Luke 1:26-28 and 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, along with Psalm 89:1-4 and 19-26.
For this final piece of Advent, we’re going to focus on two heroes of faith, King David and Mary, the mother of Jesus.
We’ll start with David. We often think of David as a little shepherd boy, or perhaps as a poet writing Psalms of praise to God. Both of those are true, but for much of his life, David was a warrior. Much of the books of First and Second Samuel tell of his battles.
Today’s story comes from chapter 7, at a time when David has found success. He’s won his wars, and now he’s settling down. He’s built a nice palace, and he’s looking around, wondering what’s next in his life.
He’s had a long journey since he first appeared in the story to defeat the Philistine giant Goliath. After years of fighting wars, in chapter 5 he became king over all Israel, conquered Jerusalem, and finally defeated those pesky Philistines. In chapter 6, with the nation’s enemies defeated, he retrieved the Ark of the Covenant from where it had been stashed
That brings us today’s reading from chapter 7, in which King David notices a problem. He is living in this nice house, this palace made of expensive cedar, and the Ark of the Covenant, this box representing the presence of the Lord, is living in a tent. And so, David decides his next project will be to build a temple, a splendid, permanent resting place where God’s presence will dwell.
Now, there are two ways to read this. One option is to give David the benefit of the doubt, to assume his concern was genuine. Maybe he really was distressed about living in a better house than God. Maybe he really wanted to honor God, to give thanks for all the help God had given him, and the best way he could think of was to build a temple. I suspect that’s partially true, since David is called a man after God’s own heart, and at least some of the time, he was a pretty faithful guy.
David announces his plan to the prophet Nathan, and at first, Nathan’s on board and assures him that God’s on board too. But that night he hears from God, who says no. If David is so generous, if David is honestly concerned God needs a nicer house, why would God decline his offer? Apparently, there’s more going on here.
The other way to read this is to be a little more suspicious of David. David has gone through a lot. Over and over, he’s prevailed against some pretty bad odds. He’s done amazing things, he’s been hailed as a hero, and now he’s even been made the king. Building an epic, permanent temple is a great way to establish his legacy, a great way to ensure he and his accomplishments will never be forgotten. Building a temple could even put God in his debt. Maybe his project is a little less generous and a little more manipulative than it appears.
If that’s true, if David’s motives aren’t quite as pure as he wants people to think, God’s response makes more sense. Look at how the Lord responds. There was no command or requirement to build a temple, and God had never complained about moving around in a tent. Still, though, God doesn’t say building a temple is a bad idea. But David is not the one to do it.
Instead, the Lord tells Nathan to go back to David and remind him of everything the Lord has done for him. “I took you from the pastures, from being just a lowly shepherd, and made you king. I have been with you wherever you have gone. I have cut off all your enemies. I will make your name great.”
The issue is not whether building a temple is a good thing to do; the issue is David’s motivation. Is his gift for God, or for his own glory? The Lord reminds David that all his accomplishments are because of what God has done. God has made David the king. God is the one who chose David as a shepherd boy, the one who gave him victory over Goliath.
In fact, David’s story is Israel’s story in miniature. God rescued the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt and brought them into the promised land. They were God’s chosen people, a holy nation set apart for God, not because they had earned it, but because God chose them and made them an example to the whole world. And yet, over and over again throughout the Old Testament, pretty much whenever things start to go well for them, the people of Israel will forget about God and start to take credit for their own success. It’s the same warning God gave them through Moses years before as they entered the promised land.
How often do we fall into the same trap? How often do we take credit for something that’s really God’s doing? How often do we fail to give thanks to God because we assume we deserve the blessings we’ve been given?
We all have a tendency to want to take credit for what God has done, don’t we? We want to be in control. We want God to cooperate with our plan. It’s almost like in wanting to build a nice house for God, David wants to have somewhere nearby to stash God, somewhere where God will be readily accessible when needed, but where David can be in control.
God has a different plan. There will be a temple, but David will not be the one to build it. That job will fall to his son, Solomon. Instead of David building a mighty house for God, God will build the house of David, his royal dynasty. Not only will David’s bloodline continue and rule over Israel, God promises the throne of David will be established forever.
The Psalm we just read, Psalm 89, celebrates that promise, that covenant God made with the chosen one, David, to establish his descendants forever and build his throne for all generations.
Centuries later, the promise God makes to David will be fulfilled. But it won’t be in a way where David can take credit for it. In fact, it will take a miracle. As history moves on, David’s sons rule over Israel for a while, but eventually the kingdom of Israel and then the smaller kingdom of Judah are destroyed. Israel becomes a territory of powerful foreign empires, first the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Romans. There are no more Davidic kings.
Think of how the people felt when they recited Psalm 89, how they felt when they heard about the promise. In fact, a few verses later, that same Psalm asks why God has allowed the king to be defeated. “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” Basically, how can this promise possibly come true?
And then we get to this familiar story in Luke, where we hear about the angel Gabriel, sent by God to a town called Nazareth, to a virgin named Mary, engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The angel promises God hasn’t forgotten the promise. The child Mary conceives will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give to him the throne of his ancestor, David.
Mary does not fall into that old trap of taking credit for what God is doing. How could she? What has she done to deserve this? God is doing all the work. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” What would be impossible for her or for any person is possible for God.
And Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Come back tonight to hear where the story goes from there.
Two final points I want to make.
First, our motivations matter. There’s nothing wrong with building a temple. There’s nothing wrong with leaving a legacy, or giving to the church, or serving in a public role. There’s nothing wrong with being recognized for your generosity. Both David and Mary served God in very public ways. Generosity is good.
But if your service or your giving is only so you will feel good, so you’ll have control, or so you’ll be remembered, then you’re missing the point. Where David had pride, Mary is humble.
The second point is this: God keeps God’s promises. Even when it seems impossible for God’s promise to be fulfilled, God is faithful. What a wonderful message of hope for us. God works through prideful people and humble people, through a mighty king and a young peasant girl, all to keep a promise to shine a light into this dark world.