Sermon: Sunday, December 21, 2008: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16  ;  Luke 1:47-55  ;  Romans 16:25-27  ;  Luke 1:26-38


God who is coming, God on whom we wait, have mercy on us. Amen.

On September 11, 2001 most of the United States, and much of the world, was glued to its television sets. I remember where I was when I heard the news, and who delivered it. I was in a classroom when my friend Clorise came in to announce that the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. We were confused. Had it been an accident? Students and teachers left their classrooms and we all gathered in the student lounge around a television to watch that awful morning continue to unfold. As we huddled together we felt our common identity and drew strength from each other’s presence.

On September 12, 2001 most of the United States was staggering through its life like people trying to wake up from a nightmare. Everywhere you went the televisions were still on, news and analysis being offered non-stop. Images of hordes of people gathered around the wreckage looking for their missing loved ones. I was in a store, paying for something with my credit card, and I heard the name of a new acquaintance I’d just made – a friend of a friend. I remember thinking, “I know someone with that name” just before I turned to see his picture on the television. A passenger on United flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania.

On September 13, 2001 I was supposed to give the opening invocation at a dinner with President Carter at Emory University. The honor was mine as a part of my duties as student body president of the school of theology. I dressed in my black suit and tie, had my picture taken with President Carter and his wife, Rosalyn. I milled with the other students, teachers and administrators waiting for the dinner to begin. Drinking water to keep my nervous dry-mouth at bay.

Finally it was time to begin. I rose to offer my prayer. I acknowledged that we were gathered together in the middle of a moment of extreme pain and confusion. I asked for God’s strong presence with those who were grieving the loss of loved ones, as well as those who continued to hope that their loved ones would be found. I did not have any clear answers, but I prayed my questions. Show us what it means to worship the Prince of Peace today. Teach us how to turn the other cheek.

I said my amen and sat down next to an undergraduate who kept looking at me as though I’d just made an unpleasant odor. Didn’t I know that invocations at events like these were mere formalities? Part of the ritual of citizens meeting heads of state? That nothing of importance was supposed to be said? Certainly nothing controversial. Nothing about God, or who God is.

I am drawn to this memory, especially this week as many Christian progressives have been angered by the selection of Pastor Rick Warren to give the opening invocation at President-Elect Obama’s inauguration next month. I’m no fan of Pastor Warren’s politics, but that doesn’t keep me from sympathizing with the difficult position he’s in simply by virtue of the fact that he’s been asked to speak to and on behalf of God to and from the halls of power. Everything about that moment is fraught with peril – when the powers of the world stand before the sovereignty of God.

We overhear a similar moment in scripture this morning. King David has finally consolidated the tribes of Israel and Judah under one reign and has claimed the city of Jerusalem as his own. He has established a monarchy, a dynasty. He has gone from shepherd boy wandering the fields to warrior king inhabiting the halls of power. He has just finished construction of a new palace when he calls the prophet Nathan and says, “see I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent” and he begins to dream of a grand temple in which to house the ark of the covenant. Noble intentions meet selfish ambitions. He imagines people going up to the temple and being reminded each time they do that they are only able to exercise their faith because their king has made it possible. Which is to say that he dreams of domesticating God.

But God comes to Nathan in a dream that night with another answer for King David,

Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 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. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word… saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” 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; 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.

God reminds David and any who would be king or president or governor that the power and presence of God cannot be domesticated and kept safely in halls of cedar, or brick and stone. That God has a mission in the world, to reconcile God’s people to one another – like the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah – to shepherd them together as one flock, which is perhaps why God anointed a the shepherd boy David to replace the warrior king Saul.

Preaching the fourth Sunday of Advent is like praying at a formal affair. We know all these texts – the song of Mary sung at the annunciation, the story of her visitation by the angel Gabriel. The promise of the world turned upside down in God’s in-breaking reign. It’s difficult to say anything about the God that refuses to be domesticated at a time of year ruled by domestic expectations. Is the tree up? Are the presents bought? Is the grocery shopping done? Have the cards been sent out? Will everything go smoothly? Can we all get along? Coming to church on these last days before Christmas we perhaps long for something comfortable, something stable and dependable. A familiar story alongside a favorite hymn. A domesticated God.

The angel Gabriel’s message to Mary, however, is the bookend to God’s message to David through the prophet Nathan. God will not be locked up in a temple, no matter how beautiful or well decorated it is. God chooses instead to live in a tent, something made of animal skins and sturdy branches, or perhaps living flesh and fragile bone. God chooses Mary as God’s tent, God’s living tabernacle. Not because she is perfect or pure, but because she is the opposite of all this. She is poor, she is overlooked, she is shamed, she is at the edge. She stands for everyone who will not be at the temple, or the inauguration, or the dinner. God chooses a womb over a house of cedar, because you can’t be locked in a womb. You can only stay there for a short while, and then you are let loose in the world.

This is the dynasty God establishes in David’s name, this branch of the tree of Jesse. This is not the day for preachers to name names or offer predictions of where God’s presence dwells or where God’s action will come next. We cannot pretend to have domesticated God.

Instead, we should all listen to Mary’s song and ask ourselves – we should all listen to Mary’s song and ask each other: who are the proud God seeks to scatter – who are the powerful being taken off their thrones – who are the rich being sent away empty? And, for we who believe that God is on the loose in the world, that God has a mission, and God’s mission has a church, we should be asking ourselves and each other: who are the lowly God is lifting up – and who are the hungry God longs to fill with good things? Where is God headed next? What does it mean to follow and not to lead?

When the powers of this world come face to face with the sovereignty of God they discover what each one of us must confess at some point in our lives, that God is free to do and be and love and save as God will.
That God is not our God, but instead that we – and everyone else – are God’s people. This kind of upside-down thinking will put us in conflict with those who want to domesticate God, to put God in service of country, or personal agendas. It will mean upsetting the status quo, turning everything on its head. That is the God for whom we have waited. That is the God who is coming.


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