A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Advent/B • December 20, 2020
Every journey has a moment when you spy the end. It is not the end but it’s time to make ready for the end. Flight attendants on an airplane say, “Prepare for arrival”. A train slows and announces the station. Driving home, you turn onto a familiar street. This is the end of the Advent Season, the time of preparation; we are almost there; come on, come to the stable. Every sailor knows the ring of the harbor buoy in their home harbor. Every Christian knows the sound of the Christmas bell. It’s ringing; today, it calls us, come to the stable, come to the Lord, come to Christmas. Come so you can say, with angels, with shepherds, with all creation: “Here I am, Lord”.
Advent is about the arrival of a new way for God to be present, so I want to think about what that means today. I’m not talking about Jesus today because it isn’t Christmas yet, we aren’t there yet. I want to think about arrivals and see what God can show us as we get ready to arrive. I hope you’re ready to come along on this last little bit of the Advent journey, I hope can get ready to arrive.
Did you listen today as the Hebrew scripture was read, that part from Samuel about King David? To understand it, you have to go back a ways. What’s been happening is that God’s people settled down and prospered in the promised land. They looked around, they saw some other people around them who looked like they had it even better and they wanted to be like them. Those people had invented something called a King. So they asked God for a King. God wasn’t too interested in giving them a King but went ahead and they got one, a man named Saul who turned out to be just as bad as God thought he would be. So God sent them a new King, a guy named David, a shepherd boy.
Now David was a success, he was everything you hope a king would be at first. He had to take over from King Saul after some fighting, some battles. But he won them and he set up a home in Jerusalem. But he didn’t feel he was finished. He didn’t feel he had arrived. Those other people all had big temples for their Gods so David decided he’d build a temple. He emailed the prophet Nathan just to get the approval of the clergy. I don’t think any clergy have ever said no to a building project. So it was on.
But he forgot to do one thing; he forgot to ask God what God thought about this plan. And when God had something to say, it wasn’t what David expected. Because honestly? — God doesn’t care about buildings. God doesn’t care about how nice the altar looks or how clean the carpet is. God cares about God’s purpose.
So there’s David, the great king, ready to arrive at the final step of greatness, the biggest thing he can imagine: a palace for him, a temple for God and God laughs and says, “Did I ever ask for a temple? Are you the one to build me one?” And then God reminded David about the wild, free part of God. “I never lived in a house”. God reminded David where he came from: “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…” You see? suddenly David is being told that it isn’t David who is arriving, it is God’s purpose being accomplished, God’s purpose is arriving in David.
I’m not talking about Jesus today, I want you to see that what’s arriving at Christmas isn’t just a baby, it is a purpose that’s been going on a long, long time. This incident with David is about a thousand years before the first Christmas. A thousand years, and God is already looking ahead. Because the next thing God says is, “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.”
Wow! What a turn around! Remember how this whole story started? David was going to build a temple for God. Now it’s God saying to David, hold on: I’m the one who’s going to build, and I’m going to build your line into a home for everyone. Now it’s God saying to David, hold on: you aren’t thinking big enough, you’re thinking about a temple that’s going to last what, a few hundred years? I’m dealing in the whole of human history. I’m going to build a house, a line of generation, that’s going to last forever. That’s where I’m going. And Christmas is where that purpose is arriving.
Christmas is coming in a few days, it’s arriving, and I wonder if we’re ready. Do you remember when you were a kid and those last days before Christmas were so painfully long? Do you remember counting down? Do you remember special things you did? We used to go to a big department store every year at one of the country’s first shopping malls. And there, in the middle of the store, in the heart of the store they would have a big beautiful Lionel train running around and I’d watch it and it would run around and around. I’d count the days every day.
Now if a few days to Christmas can seem like forever to us, what does it seem like to God? A thousand years from David to Christmas. 36,500 and some days, I didn’t account for leap years. That’s how long God had been pursuing that purpose at Christmas. That’s how long God had been faithful to this promise at Christmas because Christmas is the next step in the covenant God made with Dave. David wanted to build a house; God insisted on creating everything and binding together God’s people in love. David wanted a big building; God built something bigger than David ever imagined.
This is the signature thing about God: bigger than you ever imagined. We like to wrap things up, put a box around things, define them, build a house for them. This is what God says about doing that with God: “I’ve never lived in a house.” We often come to Christmas so laden with our customs that we mistake them for Christ. We’re concerned about the wrapping but we miss the most important thing, the thing Mary says: “Nothing is impossible for God.”
This is why we’re struggling right now. We have big problems, big issues, and a lot of us have given up. We just had the highest turnout election in American history. But 30% of eligible voters didn’t vote, they didn’t think it would make a difference. It’s like the snow plow guy that came over the other night. There was so much snow in our driveway and he did what he knew to do, he backed up his truck with the big yellow plow and he pushed and pushed and the snow mounded up and eventually he got stuck. So he had to spend a half hour unsticking the truck and he looked at the big pile of snow in front of him and said, “There’s nothing I can do about that.” It was too big for him.
Do you feel that way? Do you feel like you just can’t push anymore? Then stop pushing. Stop pushing! Well, I hear you thinking but then there’s still going to be a pile of snow. That’s true but the answer wasn’t to keep pushing, it was to find another way. The more he pushed, the more stuck he got. He needed to stop and so do we. He needed to back off and so do we. He gave up but of course the snow got moved. But it wasn’t pushed; it had to be pulled back, as it turned out. Just took backing up long enough to figure that out. Sometimes the answer isn’t to do, it’s to be quiet and wait.
Look at the story of Mary. Mary isn’t a king, like David; she’s a peasant girl. Historians tell us an unmarried young woman like Mary might have been around 14 or so. I’ve raised a couple of 14 year old girls. They care about all kinds of things, some small, some big. Maybe she cared about the inequality in her time, her song talks about the hungry being fed and the rich being empty. At the same time, maybe she cared about the talk at the well, what some pop star you’ve never heard of said on twitter. In the midst of Mary’s day, an angel appeared. What’s an angel look like? Big enough to be scary, I think of angels as like bouncers in a bar. Big thick arms, a black t-shirt, tattoos. Every time one shows up, the first thing they say is, “Don’t be scared.” You only say that if you’re used to frightening people.
The angel shows up and tells this kid the worst thing that can happen to a 14 year old unmarried girl in a small town is going to happen. And God’s going to do it: she’s going to have a baby. Her life is turning over. She’s going to be a mother and there is a moment where she has to make a decision, This is the biggest pile of snow, the biggest obstacle she’s ever faced.
What makes Mary so great is that she doesn’t push. Remember what she says? “Let it be to me as you’ve said.” She agrees to be part of God’s purpose, whatever that purpose will be. And she can do that because she believes, “Nothing is impossible for God.” Because she believes that, she can say with her whole life, “Here I am, Lord”. Turns out I have been talking about Jesus all along, after all. Because what we’re preparing for, what’s arriving, what’s coming is the fulfillment of God’s purpose and his name is Jesus. And the way to respond to that isn’t to push, isn’t to say what you can do, it’s to step back and say, “Here I am, Lord.”
Now you are like David, you are like Mary, we all are. You get to decide: are you preparing for presents or for God? Are you preparing for fun or for God’s future? Are you arriving at the end of advent at Christmas, or at a holiday? Are you building something or ready to appreciate what God is creating? That’s the difference between David and Mary: David says, “Here’s what I’m going to do”; Mary says, “Do whatever you want, God”. What are you saying? What are you ready to say?
That temple David wanted did get built by his son Solomon. It lasted about 400 years and was destroyed by the Babylonians. A century later, a new one was built. That one lasted about 400 years; the Romans destroyed it about 35 years after Jesus. A few hundred years later the ruins became part of mosque. Then the Israelis took over centuries later and it’s now a shrine—for now. David kept pushing but what he was pushing wasn’t God’s purpose. God’s purpose, on the other hand, did get fulfilled and it came about when a young woman said, “Here I am, Lord”. Just that: no push, just, “Here I am Lord,” it came about by waiting for God to accomplish God’s purpose.
Every journey has a moment when you spy the end. It is not the end but it’s time to make ready for the end. Flight attendants on an airplane say, “Prepare for arrival”. A train slows and announces the station. Driving home, you turn onto a familiar street. This is the end of the Advent Season, the time of preparation; we are almost there; come on, come to the stable. Every sailor knows the ring of the harbor buoy in their home harbor. Every Christian knows the sound of the Christmas bell. It’s ringing; today, it calls us, come to the stable, come to the Lord, come to Christmas. But preparing for Christmas is more than wrapping presents and putting out ornaments. Preparing for Christmas is taking the time to say, “Here I am, Lord.” So come to Christmas saying with Mary, with the angels, with all creation: “Here I am, Lord”.
It’s time to prepare for arrival. This is the end of advent and the question of Christmas is, are you just going to say, “Here you are, Jesus,” and go on pushing or “Here I am, Lord” and follow, as his disciple.