Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 20, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
For many years, I believed it was my call as pastor to increase church attendance, expand church membership, and build God’s house.
In my first parish, I organized several rounds of door knocking campaigns where we went door-to-door in our neighborhood inviting people to church. I remember the time two church-growth experts were invited to be the keynote speakers at our annual New England Synod Bishop’s Convocation, and I went home dreaming about how I could grow my little neighborhood church of 100 members, to a thriving regional congregation of a 1,000 members.
Like my namesake in the Old Testament, Nathan the prophet, I believed this work building God’s earthly house pleased God. I trusted God’s blessing was upon that work. I understood that increasing the numerical metrics of the congregation was perhaps one of my most important roles as a pastor of the church. But, like the Prophet Nathan of 2000 years ago, my outlook started to change.
Our First Reading today, from the Old Testament book of Second Samuel [7:1-11, 16] describes an interesting exchange between Nathan and King David, which led to God’s word speaking to set both men straight. The story starts with King David approaching Nathan with an irony. The irony was this: David had just finished building a house for himself, and he now reflected that while he rested comfortably in a house, the ark of the covenant, the sign of God’s presence and promise, was housed in a tent.
For David, this wasn’t right – why should he, the king, sleep in a house; while God (as God’s presence and promise was understood then to be in the ark), sleep in a tent? And so, David approached Nathan, and though he didn’t say it explicitly, what David implied was that he would build a temple, a permanent structure for the ark, which had never had a permanent home. To both men that made sense – of course, the ark of God should have a permanent Structure – it made sense to build God a house.
And so Nathan gave the king a holy building permit, “Go,” said Nathan, “do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.”
Who knows if David slept that night – perhaps his mind was racing with architectural designs for the new temple he would build? Some commentators questioned David’s motives: were they sincere? Was he really building a temple for the glory of God? Or, was he building a monument to his own ambition and glory?
The story doesn’t tell us about David’s night, but it does tell us about Nathan’s night. According to the story, that very night, the word of the Lord came to Nathan and said: STOP! HOLD ON! NOT SO FAST! Said the Lord: “Have I ever asked the leaders of the people, to build for me a house of cedar?”
I haven’t asked for a house!
I’ve never asked for a house!
Why are you building me a house?
And then the Word of the Lord said something profound – a message we are invited to take to heart today. The Lord’s message for David, was that the point was not, and had never been, about what David was doing for the glory of God, it was always about what God was doing in David for the blessing of the world.
Thus said the Lord of hosts to David:
- I took you from the pasture to be prince over my people Israel …
- I have cut off all your enemies …
- I will make for you a great name …
- I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them
- I will give you rest from all your enemies …
The Lord’s message for David was that he was not a self-made man. He did not become king by his own efforts – nothing he had was because of himself. Rather, all that he had, came about because God first chose David, and God was choosing to blessing the people through David.
And, as Christians on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we receive in faith what God said next to David:
- I will raise up your offspring after you
- I will establish his kingdom and the throne of his kingdom forever
- I will be a father to him, and he shall be like a son to me.
Writes scholar Brian Peterson: “The claim of the church is that this promise planted long ago in the memory of Israel has been fulfilled in the descendant announced by Gabriel, born from Mary, and adopted by Joseph. This text thus points to today’s Gospel reading and Gabriel’s promise that God will give to Mary’s son “the throne of his ancestor David … and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
The point of faith wasn’t for David, or for us, to glorify God by building earthly houses for God. The point, was God’s work through David, and God’s works through Mary, and God’s work through us, ringing blessing and healing into the world through Jesus, the Messiah.
Turning to the readings from the Gospel of Luke [1:26-38; 46b-55], the power of Mary’s story is not that she set out to glorify God, but that in faith, she was open to participating in God’s plan of salvation in and through her. When she sang her song – The Magnificat – which we sang in the place of our psalm this morning – Mary echoed the word of the Lord spoken to David centuries earlier. She did not boast of her own work or dedication, instead she witnessed to God’s work in her for the blessing of the world.
As Mary sang … it was GOD who has:
- looked with favor on his servant
- done great things for me
- shown strength with his arm
- scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts
- brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly
- filled the hungry with good things
- AND, remembered the promise made to our ancestors
It was not about what Mary did for God, it was about what God was doing through Mary for the blessing of the world.
Martin Luther said there were three great miracles in this text:
- that a virgin would become a mother;
- that God and humanity would be joined in this child.
- But Luther said the most amazing miracle of all was that Mary believed the announcement that she, rather than someone else, had been chosen to be the mother of God.
The miracle was not about Mary’s plan to glorify God … the miracle was the miracle of faith, that Mary believed and trusted what God was doing through her for the blessing of the world. Said Mary to Gabriel’s announcement: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Friends, it might be God’s will that after this pandemic, as we come back together again, that our attendance and membership might grow to new heights!
And if that is indeed God’s vision for this place, we should search our hearts and minds right now for just how ready we will be then to receive who God will send us, from all corners of Worcester, and all corners of the world.
But, what I can say for sure, is that the scriptures open us today, to discern what God is doing in us for the blessing of the world. The scriptures today invite us today into the miracle of faith. To believe that it is not about what we do for the glory of God, but what God is doing in us, right now, for the blessing of our families, our workplace, our communities, our nation, our world.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes: If you decide to say “No” to God’s work you simply drop your eyes and refuse to look up until you know the angel has left the room and you are alone again. Then you smooth your hair and go back to your spinning or your reading or whatever it is that is most familiar to you and pretend that nothing has happened … Or, you can set your book down and listen to a strange creature’s strange idea. You can decide to take part in a plan you did not choose, doing things you do not know how to do for reasons you do not entirely understand. You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.
Along with Mary, may we say, “Let it be in us according to your word!”