Unsettled

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, 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 you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 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 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?” 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. 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, 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. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

It was the perfect Christmas Eve service.

The weather was just cold enough with the faintest hints of snows falling from the sky without it worrying people away from driving to the local church. 

The little cherubic children had practiced “Away In A Manger” for months and were ready to sing before the gathered people with little pipe cleaner halos hanging above their heads.

The pastor had prepared the perfect pulpit proclamation with enough humor and theological gravitas to get the ChrEasters (Christmas and Easter only people) back in church the following Sunday.

And the highlight of highlights was the so-called Living Nativity scene outside on the front lawn with the holy family, magi, angels, shepherds, sheep, goats, and one particularly cheerful looking donkey.

Like I said, it was perfect.

At the end of the service, while groups made their way up to the altar to take their traditional family color coordinated Christmas Eve pictures for Instagram, as the pastor shook hands and made small talk with all the unfamiliar faces, while the organist went through a carefully crafted holiday medley, as the poinsettias were passed out to later adorn dining room tables, while children scarfed down the sweets that were promised for good behavior during the service, as the ushers counted the largest offering ever received on a Christmas Eve… Joe and Maria, a man and young pregnant woman, stood outside the church shivering in the cold. 

Their clothes were mismatched from an assortment of thrift stores, their bellies rumbled at a volume that could only rival the braying donkey, and they prayed that someone, anyone, would be able to help.

So they waited, listening to the laughter and frivolity that was taking place on the other side of the sanctuary doors.

And finally, while families fell out of the church, the couple spoke softly and humbly as asking if anyone had a place they could stay for the night, and every single person, pastor included, walked right passed them as if they didn’t exist.

Merry Christmas indeed.

King David was feeling high and mighty, all settled in his house. He sent for the prophet Nathan and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time we built a temple for the Lord who has delivered us from the hands of our enemies? I mean, we’ve got all this power and wealth and what good is it if we don’t show it off? I mean, for God!”

And the prophet intoned, “Sure, the Lord is with you.”

But that very same night, while the prophet was asleep in his bed, the word of the Lord came to Nathan and said, “Are you out of your mind? Go tell that David these words: I don’t need a house to live in, I don’t need a box for you to hide me away. I am the Lord God. I’m a mover and a shaker. I’ve got things to do, and you can’t domesticate this Spirit. Remember – It was me, The I AM, who took you from your father’s fields, I was with you when you took down the mighty Goliath, I was with you when you danced before the ark, and I will be with until the end. I’ve got plans for my people. So don’t waste your time with a temple, greater things are in store for the people Israel.”

An apt and succinct summary for this passage from 2 Samuel might be: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

In the strange new world of the Bible we come across a king and a prophet who are contradicted by the Word of the Lord – with all of their comfort and complacency they were so sure that they had it all figured out only to have it turned upside down.

Today, we’ve got plenty of examples in which, both in the religious and political realms, there are those who have no doubt what God’s purposes and plans are only to have them 180’d.

There’s a church in San Francisco that was having a problem. On Sunday mornings, while families and individuals walked through the main doors, they were treated to the smells and the sights and the sounds of the homeless who had slept in the alcove the night before. Sure, the ushers had shoo’d most of them away before the service but their presence was still palpable. 

Week after week the pastor and the leadership of the church fielded complaints about the problem and people wanted to know what the church could do to help.

So, like any good church, they formed a committee and started a fundraiser. In a few short weeks they amassed $20,000 and decided to put it to good use.

Did they use the money to start a feeding ministry?

Did they use the funds to subsidize some low-income housing for those in need?

Did they use the finances to start job training programs?

Nope.

They used that 20 grand to install a motion sensor sprinkler system with the solitary purpose of spraying water every sixty seconds throughout the night to prevent anyone from trying to gather in the alcoves. 

The Word from the Lord today in 2 Samuel serves as a warning against any overly assured reading of the will of God and reminds us, pertinently, that God is God and we are not.

But this also comes as a great challenge. 

For, we are so sure, most of the time, of what God is up to (particularly during Advent). Most of us have heard the story of Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem so many times, or we’ve seen enough plastic nativity scenes, or we’ve heard the crooning Christmas carols over and over again, such that we cannot see or hear how bewildering the story really is.

Our Advents and Christmases are far too domesticated for the Lord who refuses to be kept in a box.

Consider – God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God brings down the mighty form their thrones, God lifts up the lowly, God fills the hungry with good things, God sends the rich away empty.

We worship a God who acts before we do and, more often than not, catches us by surprise.

David lived a life of surprises: He was anointed by the prophet Samuel after taking care of the sheep one afternoon, he confoundingly took down the mighty Goliath, he hid away from the wrath of Saul in a cave, he became king over Israel. Sure he was handsome and crafty, but the only reason David got to be the David we know is because God was with him. And yet, near the end of his days, he thought it only right to build a dwelling place for the Lord who had delivered him, and his people, time and time again. 

But God does not rest on God’s laurels.

God is in the business of finding dwelling places not for God’s self but for God’s people. God is always ahead of us, from making the covenant with Abraham to waiting in Galilee for the disciples on the other side of the resurrection, God is moving and acting and shaking things up in ways that will surprise us.

Who could’ve imagined that the second born heel-grabbing twin would be the one through whom God’s blessing would be bestowed?

Who would’ve imagined that a harlot who lived on the edge of Jericho would be part of salvation’s genealogy?

Who could’ve imagined that a little shepherd boy would one day be king?

In all times and in all places, we do well to dwell upon where, today, God is moving ahead of us and acting in ways that we cannot even imagine.

What assumptions do we have about what is perfect and pleasing in God’s sight?

In what ways are we still trying to domesticate the wildness of God’s Spirit?

How receptive are we to the God who blows where He chooses and not necessarily where we choose?

Remember – God delights in the surprise!

Over and over again in scripture, and in life, God chooses the unexpected to bring about the Kingdom. God plucks people out of complacency and says, in different ways, shapes, and forms, “I’ve got a job for you!” God stirs up our understandings of the world, flips them upside down, and calls it Good News.

This is the final Sunday of Advent, our time between time. This season has a way of setting the stage for the already but not yet all while getting under our skin. Advent compels us, forces us, to slow down, wait, and notice what we so often miss. 

God is God and we are not.

God works and moves in the world in ways that we would not, were it up to us.

And here, on the final Sunday of Advent, with thoughts of David and Nathan, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, we cannot help ourselves but relish in the strange and wondrous and confounding Good News of Christmas.

For, the Messiah is born in the last place left in the little town of bread, to a virgin named Mary who has no standing in the world. 

He grows up in the hick town of Nazareth, and leaves only to spend the rest of his days among the last, least, lost little, and dead.

And, (most surprisingly) he becomes obedient, even to the point of death – death on a cross.

That’s the God we worship.

God is not some perfect and clean and respectful and tame deity that we often domesticate throughout the church.

Our God is on the move, upsetting expectations, calling upon people we would usually ignore, and making a way where there is no way.

God reminds Nathan, and therefore David, that God is perfectly comfortable remaining in the tent. Why? Because tents are made to be moved. We, on the other hand, we rejoice in building temples and monuments and buildings to proclaim stability and importance. We do this, in large part, because we are afraid.

We are afraid of being forgotten. We are afraid of death. We are afraid that we won’t have anything to show for the lives we’ve been given

And how does God respond to our attempts of permanence?

God laughs.

God laughs at our feeble attempts at immortality by kicking up the winds of change and declaring that all things are being made new. 

God laughs at our struggles for perfect moral existence and proclaims forgives for sins. 

God laughs at our certainty and shows up in the most surprising of ways, as a baby, to change the world. Amen. 

Greatness – Sermon on Luke 1.5-23

Luke 1.5-23

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order off Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years. Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn their hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

 

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for you prayer has been heard.”

archangel-gabriel-struck-zechariah-mute-1824

And so it came to pass in the days when King Herod ruled Judea, that a priest named Zechariah had his life turned upside down. Now Herod was a terrible king, responsible for countless atrocities, murders, and high levels of corruption. A man with frightening power ruled over a land and a people with such chaos that he dominated the attention of the masses. During his rule, a nobody priest married to a woman named Elizabeth, made his way through life.

Zechariah belonged to the priestly order of Abijah and was regularly responsible for activities around the Temple in Jerusalem. Though Zechariah and Elizabeth lived righteous lives, they had no children and were getting on in years.

One day, a day like any other, Zechariah made his way to the temple in order to perform his regular duties. As was the custom, lots were cast to decide who would enter the sanctuary and offer incense to the Most High God. While countless people gathered outside the walls, Zechariah made his way in to perform a simple task that had been done for as long as he could remember.

This is where the story gets interesting.

1-blake-z-and-angel

While standing within the closed room, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah. We receive no description of this heavenly messenger in the biblical narrative, but the sight was enough to overwhelm and terrify Zechariah. Let your imaginations conjure up the confrontation with an angel to the degree that you would cower in fear and trembling.

Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will be filled with joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Take care to make sure that he never drinks wine or other strong substances, even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. In time, he will turn the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. He will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

And how does Zechariah react to this momentous declaration? How does he respond to the heavenly messenger carrying news of great joy?

“How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”

It’s moments like these in the scriptures that I wish I could jump into the story and smack some sense into the lives of the people experiencing the glory of God. How will you know this is so Zechariah? You fool! Don’t you know that with God all things are possible? Have you forgotten how he delivered your people from slavery and captivity in Egypt through the Red Sea to the Holy Land? Have you forgotten how the Lord provided a ram in the bushes for Abraham to sacrifice instead of his son? Have you forgotten how David was able to triumph over Goliath because the Lord was with him? Moreover, have you forgotten how many barren women the Lord has provided for? Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah. Come on Zechariah, have a little faith. 

The angel responds to Zechariah: I am Gabriel and I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to bring you this good news, but now, because you did not believe my words, you will become mute and unable to speak until these things occur.

So Zechariah made his way out of the temple, stood before the crowds unable to speak, and eventually returned home.

Of course, thats not the end of the story, but we’ll save that for later.

What are we to make of this remarkable episode recorded at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Luke?

God is at work here in ways familiar to us from the Old Testament: the story contains a casting of lots to make a decision, there is a vision in God’s holy Temple, a divine being appears to pass along a message, there is a promised sign, and a childless couple is given new life.

It is clear that God works in and through the normal avenues of life in the believing and faithful community. The community of faith can fall under the temptation to make God into whatever they desire for worship, but there is an important conviction present at the beginning of this New Testament: the stories of Israel are important, vital, and necessary for understanding how to be used for God’s purposes in the world.

Though this is a story from the past, doesn’t it sound familiar? Just as it is today, some horrible and frightening situation has gripped the people, a power reigns from above in order to control a community. Evil has taken root at the center of life and dominates the attention of the populace. This past week marked the one year anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school and another shooting took place at a school in Colorado. You need only turn on the news or read a newspaper to be reminded how much fear and violence demands ALL of our attention.

However, in spite of all this fear and damage in the world, just as during the time of Herod, there is another sort of person, quiet, removed, and yet, more important than the powers that rule, men and women who are the core of society and give it the depth of its reality. Then and always there were and are the humble and brilliant men and women in whom the strength of the present and promise of the future lie.

Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son, John, will be great in the sight of the Lord. Sadly, according to the ways of the world, greatness has had its definition confused and reshaped. We have been told that greatness is measured in terms of selfishness rather than service, in terms of material rather than spiritual wealth, in terms of instant gratification rather than hard work and perseverance. But greatness as God sees it, the greatness that John will live into, is about being linked with the eternal purposes of redemption, about being an obedient instrument of God’s peace, and helping others to know and feel love in their lives.

But notice: the greater John will become for God, the more hostility he will arouse in those around him. Doing the will of the Lord, reaching out in love according to discipleship sends ripples through the fabric of what the world deems as “greatness.”

John is to be like the prophets from old: in light of their direct contact and experience of the divine, they drew the messages which burned within them like fire and would not rest until the decrees of God were delivered.

In every age we need the passion of people on fire for God to shout out in prophetic fervor. Our lives are so often filled with the dry wood of dull possibilities that desperately need to be rekindled by the divine spark that often comes through the words and actions of the prophets. We need to have our lives turned around and back to God in order to discover the passion that is waiting for us in our discipleship. The communion between God and the prophet allows for a divine condition to be present and the purposes of God can be realized in the world.

I love the juxtaposition of the story of Zechariah in the temple with Gabriel. It is precisely at the moment when John is being prepared to speak for God, Zechariah is struck mute for his unbelief. The typical, traditional, and tired voice of the priest, is being replaced by the fervent, fantastic, and faithful voice of the prophet.

 

Worship is at the center of the story. I’ve read it countless times, and heard it discussed and preached on during numerous advent services, but something fresh and new struck me this week about Zechariah’s encounter. I wondered: why was he so surprised and scared? Think about it for just a moment; Zechariah was a priest, well-versed in the stories from old about how God interacted with God’s people, a man who often found himself in the holiest of places performing the works of the Lord. What did he think would happen to him inside that holy space?

Being overwhelmed by the presence of an angel in the sanctuary of the temple is like going to McDonalds, ordering a Big Mac, and being surprised to discover beef between the bread… I mean this is how God works! God shows up, confronts us in the midst of a moment, and calls us to something. It does not need to be grand, and more often than not it occurs in the small silence in a moment we least suspect, but for Zechariah it came in a big way. He was in God’s holy temple confronted by an angelic messenger bringing the good news. So why was he so surprised? And more importantly, why did he doubt the validity of the message?

Our expectations about worship have major impacts on the way we live our lives.

What we believe shapes how we behave.

What to we think will happen to us when we gather in this space? Are we prepared to be confronted by the God who called John to greatness? Are we willing to let God dwell in our hearts and change the way we live in the world? Are we ready to take up our own crosses to follow Jesus. Are we prepared for God to show up in our lives in ways that we cannot expect or anticipate?

Unless we recognize the definitive need for real experiences and methods of discipleship which wake the whole depth of our experience, then what we do in worship will remain, as it did for Zechariah, thin and lacking. Until we prepare ourselves to be surprised by God’s desire to find us where we are, then this holy place will remain, as it did for Zechariah, boring and repetitive. Until we dare to step out into new forms of life and love, hearing the word of the Lord, and letting it become incarnate in the ways we live our lives, then faith will remain, as it did for Zechariah, dwindling and fruitless.

eucharist

What do we expect will happen when we gather together at Christ’s table? Are we repetitively entering the holy space to burn incense unaware that we are meeting God in all of his holiness? Or are we excited and nervous about the prospect of being welcomed to a table that we have no right to join? Are we so rooted in our habitual worship that we can no longer remember why we join at this table? Or are we prepared to be called forth toward greatness in the world through the redemptive and life-giving properties of God’s presence at his table?

Just as it happened with Zechariah, a heavenly voice might be trying to break out into the world. Perhaps God’s good news is striving to strike forth through the closed circle of our expectations of church, faith, and discipleship. Important for us this morning is to remember that God is always on the move, reaching out to find us and change our lives, that there is always a new message for those with ears to hear. The great need for us is to realize, as Zechariah eventually did, to not be caught up in the limited imagination of what God can do in the world which assumes that the present must always be governed by the past.

zech_eliz_john

Nine months after Zechariah was struck mute in the temple by Gabriel, his wife Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy. When it came time to name the child, the family wanted to name him Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that it was to be John, and after Zechariah confirmed this with writing on a tablet his mouth was freed. The plague of his disbelief had been wiped away by the miracle of his son’s birth. Now filled with the Holy Spirit Zechariah spoke these great words to his infant son: And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

This is one of the many places that God confronts us in our lives. Through the bread and the wine let us all be moved to live lives worthy of the greatness that God is calling us toward.

Amen.