Sermon, Dec. 20

So let’s talk about today’s Old Testament lesson, from the first book of the prophet Samuel. I’m going to go ahead and say this is the oddest Old Testament lesson in all three years of Advent lessons. The rest are all prophetic texts – about God coming to deliver, redeem, and restore. This is the only narrative text out of twelve. So let’s play “Why is this in the lectionary?”

One superficial reason is that Jesus is of David’s lineage – both by his parentage and in terms of people’s expectations about him. When folks call him “Son of David,” they’re expressing the  hope that Jesus will throw out the Romans and re-establish the kingship in Jerusalem, as in rose-tinted memories of King David’s time 1000 years earlier. 

But then, why THIS story? Why not any other of the many stories about David, Israel’s great long-ago King? And what is even going on here?… 

Let’s revisit what the Ark of God is, because while our Godly Play class covered that recently, the rest of us may be fuzzy on the subject. 

During the wilderness journey after leading God’s people out of bondage in Egypt, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments – the way they are to live as God’s people, under God’s protection. The Commandments are written on tablets of stone by the finger of God. Moses breaks the first set, after discovering that the people have started worshiping a golden calf while he was off on a mountaintop talking with God, but God instructs Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke.” (Exodus 34:1)

So those tablets – and eventually, other holy documents and objects – are what’s INSIDE the Ark. The Ark itself is a very special, very holy box, that is made on the wilderness journey – along with a very special, beautiful tent. In Exodus 25, God tells Moses what the Ark should look like: 

“They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark…. You shall put into the ark the covenant that I shall give you.” (Exodus 25:10-14, 16)

Then they were commanded to make a kind of throne – a “mercy-seat” – with two gold cherubim on top of the ark; and God tells Moses, “There I will meet you, and… from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the covenant, I will deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites.”

So: The Ark is the most precious and holy thing the Israelites possess. It stands for God’s living presence among them, and their duty of faithfulness to God. They carry it on their journey; they carry it into battle with them… for example, the enemy city of Jericho is defeated when priests march around it seven times carrying the ark. 

But the Ark is not a weapon of mass destruction. It doesn’t guarantee victory. About twenty years before David became King, the Philistines, a neighboring tribe, were attacking Israel and causing trouble. So the elders of Israel said, “Let’s bring the Ark to the front lines, so that God may come among us and save us from our enemies.” But it didn’t work. There was another battle; Israel lost; thirty thousand soldiers died; and the ark of God was captured. 

I wish I had time to tell you about the ark causing mischief while it’s in enemy hands; read 1 Samuel 5 for that story. Gold mice are involved. So the Philistines give the ark BACK… it ends up in an Israelite town called Kiriath-jearim, and stays there for twenty years. 

Now we are early in the second book of Samuel. After many years of bloody civil war David finally becomes king over all Israel. The FIRST thing David does is claim the city that will become Jerusalem from the Jebusites, who live there. Then, he has a fancy house built for himself, and takes a bunch more wives and concubines – he already has a few. 

And then he decides that what his new capital city really needs is the ark of God. So he takes a group to bring the ark from Kiriath-Jearim to Jerusalem. It’s an occasion of GREAT celebration: “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” (2 Samuel 6:5) UNTIL there’s a sobering moment that reminds the people that the Ark is not to be trifled with. The cart carrying the Ark is going over rough ground and one of the priests tending the ark reaches out his hand to steady it, and falls dead on the spot – for touching the Ark. (Those of us who remember the Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, may have some vivid mental images for this story. The Ark’s power to melt Nazis is based on some Biblical precedents.) 

SO David gets jumpy and decides maybe he DOESN’T want the ark around after all. He leaves it in the home of a fellow named Obed-edom, who lives nearby, for three months. But then he hears that things are going really great for Obed-edom with the ark at his house, and David decides to bring it to Jerusalem after all. So they have ANOTHER procession, with trumpets and dancing and celebration, and bring the Ark all the way to Jerusalem this time – to a tent that David has prepared for it.

The ark is used to tents, of course. But Israel doesn’t live in tents anymore. People live in villages, towns, and cities. They’ve ARRIVED. They’ve settled. So it starts to bother David that the ark is in a tent. Which brings us to today’s lesson. “Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 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.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’”

Nathan is the prophet of God who succeeds the great prophet Samuel. David doesn’t always like what Nathan has to say, but he trusts him, because he knows Nathan will tell him the truth. But after giving David the OK to build a grand house for the Ark, Nathan has a dream, in which God gives him a word for David. I like what the Message Bible paraphrase does with this passage: 

“Go and tell my servant David: This is God’s word on the matter: You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now. All that time I’ve moved about with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders I commanded to shepherd Israel, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’”

God goes on to remind David that God raised him up from being a humble shepherd boy to being King of all Israel. And God explains that actually it’s GOD who is building DAVID a house – giving him the kingship, defeating his enemies, and establishing his lineage so that his son will sit upon his throne after him. 

After Nathan tells him all this, David goes to the ark and prays to God there – a long prayer of praise and gratitude, concluding, “You, O Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have made this revelation to your servant, saying, “I will build you a house”… Therefore may it please you to bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue for ever before you.” 

It’s hard to tell any of the David stories in isolation because David is such a strong personality. ALL the David stories together tell you a lot about how to read any ONE story. This coming summer, the lectionary will bring us more texts from 1 and 2 Samuel – which might be another reason we get this text this Advent, anticipating those readings – though it’s still weird!

But maybe even if you don’t know David already, you can hear from what I’ve shared that David is a man of ambition – even hubris. His deep and genuine – though complicated – faith in God might be the only curb on his self-esteem. David is a great man, but not consistently a good man. 

When Father John and I were talking through this passage, as we do, Father John recalled a quotation form Mark Twain: “Scripture tells us that God created Man in God’s image, and Man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” David thinks that God is like David. That God wants a fancy house, and power and riches and adulation. And David – let’s be clear – wants the glory of building that house for God. This project would have been partly about honoring God – and partly about honoring David. 

So God is displaying a lot of perceptiveness about David, here. If God allows David to build God a house, David’s sense of being God’s Special Dude might totally overwhelm him. David might really start to think of God as his pet deity, something he owns and commands. 

So God says, Slow your roll, David. Don’t get it twisted. I’m the one building a house here. YOUR house. 

It’s a terrific chapter in the saga of David’s kingship. And… it’s a really interesting story to receive here, today, right before the Gospel of the Annunciation. Of Mary’s Yes to God.

It is Solomon, David’s son, who actually builds the first great Temple in Jerusalem. But Mary, too, is a descendant of David’s lineage who is blessed with the privilege of housing God. Of being the means by which God comes to be housed, to incarnate, to dwell in the very world God created. 

Besides God’s choice about when, where, and how to pitch God’s tent among mortals, God’s rebuke to David has another theme in common with today’s Gospel: God’s refusal to align neatly with human systems of power and status. 

What David is offering and imagining is very commonplace in human history, and very dangerous: God and King as allies, with King in the driver’s seat. History has seen plenty of gods who were bound and beholden to particular human leaders or regimes. Gods used to legitimize the use or abuse of human power. 

The God of Israel – the God we know in Jesus – refuses all such arrangements. Insists on holding rulers accountable to God’s expectations – things like caring for the poor, maintaining a just social and economic order, and tending the land with respect. God says No to David, because God knows David’s rule is shaped by the desire for wealth and status. Mary says Yes to God, because she knows that God’s rule is not. 

The God who comes among us as Jesus Christ is a God who persistently holds the most powerful to account for the well-being of those with the least power. Mary sings that ancient truth in the Magnificat, her hymn of fierce hope about her son, and about what God has done and will do: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

We’ll now receive the Annunciation Gospel, then sing Mary’s song, in a poetic setting written by poet Rory Cooney.