Sunday, December 21, 2008

A House Is Not a Home

A House Is Not a Home

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 21, 2008

II Samuel 7:1-16

See now, I am living in a house of cedar,
but the ark of God stays in a tent.

Frederick Buechner once wrote a book called Telling the Truth. It seems like a good title for a book on a religious subject, truth telling. In the first chapter he described — from firsthand experience — the feeling that most preachers know and the scenes that we see when we step behind these things called pulpits:
So the sermon hymn comes to a close with a somewhat unsteady amen... Fresh from breakfast ... and a quick run-through of the Sunday papers, the preacher climbs the steps to the pulpit with his sermon in his hand. He hikes his black robe up at the knee so that he will not trip over it on the way up. His mouth is a little dry. He has cut himself shaving. He feels as if he has swallowed an anchor. If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, he would just as soon be somewhere else...

In the front pews, [some folks] turn up their hearing aids, and a young lady slips her six year old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation...there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand...

The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler. The stakes have never been higher. Two minutes from now he may have lost his listeners completely to their own thoughts, but at this moment he has them in the palm of his hand. The silence…is deafening because everybody is listening to it. Everybody is listening to it including even himself. Everybody knows the kind of things he has told them before and not told them, but who knows what this time, out of the silence, he will tell them?

Let him tell them the truth.1

Telling the truth is what Nathan and the other prophets of the Old Testament were called to do. Tell the truth no matter what. Even if you had just the night before told the king to build a temple if he desired, if the truth came to you that it was not something God wanted, then, if you were any kind of prophet, you were obliged to tell the truth, even if it made you look foolish, because the truth is what counts.

Kathleen Norris recently contemplated the house-building plans of David and set them alongside the building-a-house-for-you that came to fruition at last in the person and work of Jesus:
My FAVORITE Christmas book is The Donkey’s Dream, which is about the journey Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem. Meant for young children, Barbara Helen Berger’s story is a brilliant and subtle work of theology. Or perhaps anti-theology, as it allows simple images to tell us more than words can convey about what the incarnation signifies. As the donkey ambles and dreams, we see that he is carrying a luminous city, with many gates and towers. Next we see on his back a sailing ship, rocking on the sea like a cradle, and then a flowing fountain, and then a rose. Finally we see what he has been carrying all along—a pregnant woman in a blue robe spotted with stars.

The child who trusts the wisdom of these pages has a head start on David, who had to be convinced by Nathan that it is not we who must build God a tabernacle, but God who chooses to dwell in and among us. Our job is to accept the burden. Human concepts of grandeur change—David’s cedar house might today be a McMansion of fake stone, with chandeliers, central air and cedar-scented room fresheners—but God’s designs endure forever. It is in people, and not things, that God wishes to live.2
Kathleen Norris is suggesting that if we wish to find the tabernacle wherein God desires to be worshiped, we must look inside ourselves. We, gathered in God’s name, are the living tabernacle of God.

Seems that was an idea Nathan had to return to, after he had blurted out his acquiescence to the king’s idea that it was time to build a nice stone house to hold the old ark of the covenant that had traveled with the people from Egypt to the promised land all those years ago. David the king hadn’t even gotten very specific in the idea he was sharing with Nathan before Nathan promptly awarded him a blanket blessing to build whatever it was he had in mind.

Why worry over David’s ancient plans this morning, in December, just 4 days from Christmas? Well, the most obvious of reasons is that the gospels and other writing in the New Testament point to this passage in particular when reasoning that Jesus came to earth to claim the very throne of David in a way no earthly king had done before. Remember Jesus saying to the people before his crucifixion, “Tear down this temple and I will rebuild it in three days”? They thought he meant the temple of stone in Jerusalem, but the gospels let us in on the secret that he was referring to the temple of his body, which would be killed but in three days would rise again.

Never mind trying to contain me in a temple of stone, God declared, “the Lord declares to you,” Nathan reported to the king, “that the Lord will make you a house.” And that house, as we now know, was not a house of stone, but a house of generations, from which one day would come the King of kings, Lord of lords.

At Christmas time, we are witnessing the onset of the building of that house for God which would not ever be destroyed by marauding armies, because that house was the very body of Christ, by which all those baptized in his name become householders, participants in the very work and witness of God. It’s a very big story.

Reflecting on the implications of that story can be a difficult assignment for those of us who are called not only to speak the truth, but to minister year after year in a pastoral relationship with people. Want to know why some sermons can drift into blandness? It’s no mystery. Preachers love their people, and don’t want to raise a fuss. Most preachers I know can relate to Fred Buechner’s comment about the anchor in the throat, and even to the line about “the honor of the thing.” One other thing I know for sure. The old proverb says that familiarity breeds contempt, and this certainly can be the case where preaching is concerned. One of my favorite scholars once wrote a book about preaching the Gospel to those who have already heard.3 The familiarity of the faces of preachers and of their message is enough of a problem that a whole book seemed called for.

Kathleen Norris concluded her little devotion I referred to a few minutes ago, saying,
And so it goes with us, much of the time. We cling to what we know, the ordinary life that pays the bills. But God keeps calling and, surprisingly, is often answered by the least among us, the most unlikely people from the provinces. It is the barren Hannahs, the young Davids and innocent Marys who hear and believe, and further God’s reign on earth. As many times as we turn away from their witness, God has put us together on the road to Jerusalem. It is never the right time, and we are never ready. We have other, more important things to do and places to be. The burden is too great for us to carry. But once we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” the angel will depart, and the path will open before us. We can trust that even in this violent, unjust and despairing world, God’s word of hope is true, and we will sing it “from generation to generation.”4
It’s easy to affirm, year after year, “I believe one day the Messiah will come;” much harder finally to say, “This Jesus is the Messiah!” to commit, to throw our lot in with the others who have found in him the Lord of life.

When we hear of young people who have religious experiences, it is interesting, even inspiring to us. However, more often than we might think, when our own children have such experiences, we can find it threatening. It may call into question our own feeble faith. “Where did you get this ‘wisdom?’” we may ask. “Wasn’t our faith enough to satisfy you?” Hearing of churches off somewhere else that offer their buildings and budgets for ministries as soup kitchens, or counseling centers, or centers for ministry with the homeless, we are pleased. When someone suggests it for our church, we begin to raise questions.

So often, sermons are filled with great stories of success.5 These are necessary. Deeds of courage, changed hearts and lives, sacrificial acts of love, renewal, these all contribute to our courage in the faith. But what about those times when success seems elusive? What of those times when the efforts of believers are met with resistance, or marked by failure? What happens when, try as we might, now just turns out not to have been the time to begin that new ministry in our church? Faithful discipleship is not always successful. The gospels remind us not only that Jesus was rebuffed, but that through his entire ministry he was met with the small human “no’s,”which God nevertheless gathered into a final YES of resurrection.

That is the key to our hope as believing people. Even Jesus knew the sting of resistance from those he had loved as family and neighbors. Why should we know anything less painful? But with us, too, God will gather up the small and petty human “no’s” into a grand and final YES of redemption and resurrection.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 22 ff.
2 “Open Paths,” by Kathleen Norris, Christian Century, December 13, 2005, p. 18.
3 Overhearing the Gospel: Preaching and Teaching the Faith to Persons Who Have Already Heard, by Fred Craddock, Abingdon, 1978.
4 Ibid.
5 Some material in this paragraph adapted from Thomas Long’s notes in Word and Witness , Vol. 9, No. 6, 7/7/85.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Lead Gently

Lead Gently

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder
Second Sunday in Advent: December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Of the scripture to be proclaimed over the four Sundays of Advent, this is one passage that seems custom-made for those who may be spending their pre-Christmas days wishing they could go to sleep tonight and not wake up until December 26th, those for whom the word “Christmas” and all it brings to mind are just misery stacked on hopelessness. It is a prophecy for those who dread encountering Currier & Ives Christmas scenes of happy hearths in comfortable homes where families love each other in perfect harmony, those who want to weep for the ways in which their Christmas will fall so miserably short of that unrelenting vision.

This is a section of prophecy in Isaiah that recalls the desperate and hopeless plight of the Chosen People in exile. To give it a modem twist — since the geography is virtually the same — it is as if the prophet identified completely with suffering exiles in Iraq, in the very same kingdom where several thousand years ago, the remains of the nation of Israel withered away by the banks of the rivers of Babylon and longed for Zion.

This is the sort of desperation and hopelessness that Isaiah understood when, even as God called him to prophesy comfort to his people, he cried out what any homecoming queen can tell you when she looks at her corsage three weeks after the big event, “All flesh is grass...the grass withers, the flower fades.” The Chosen People were caught up in the temporary nature of human life, began to see their destiny as entirely controlled by the transience that governs human life in general. Just like countless nations before and after them — like once mighty Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, Nazi Germany — they were a once-great nation that was destined to perish: all flesh is grass.

We know the feeling, most of us. And if we don’t know it yet, there will come a day when we will. Even though we may have known halcyon days when we were part of perfect families that gathered for perfect holidays — may know such days even now — we also know how true it is that such experiences do not last. Perhaps more often than we care to admit we live in fear of the day when we will awaken to realize that an end of warm and happy home scenes has come true for us. In the final analysis, the fleeting nature of happy days often does not make them seem more precious — as we might like to think — but all the more depressing for their transience. A child, once the joy of our hearts, now perished and gone; a home, which once rang with the voices of aunts, uncles and cousins, now relentlessly silent in their absence; a set of bedrooms in a home, once filled with children and pre-Christmas bustle and excitement, now silent; a career which once offered such promise, now lying in tatters as we turn in despair to see about picking up the pieces. All this while everyone around us seems to be singing “tidings of comfort and joy”. What comfort? What joy? Why not depression instead?

“Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her period of conscription has ended, her iniquity is forgiven.”

No wonder Isaiah balked at this command and tried to remind God that people are like grass, nations are like flowers that grow, blossom, then fade away. We may be so accustomed to hearing this beautiful passage in connection with Christmas and the singing of the music of Handel’s Messiah that we forget that it is a thoroughly Old Testament word. It is a word addressed to real people suffering real hardship; a people for whom the Messiah had not yet come. It is a word for people longing to regain the sort of balance John Calvin was thinking of when he wrote that there are two great sins of humanity: one is to presume too much, and the other is to despair too much. The truth seems to lie in that thin line between the two extremes.1

While we may live in an age of presumption which supposes that human wisdom and technology will overcome every stumbling block, the people of Israel in the time of Isaiah had been in darkness, had veered away from presumption and were nearly given over entirely to despair. It was the deepest darkness we can imagine. And into that darkness came the word. Though the grass withers, the flower fades,

one thing remains.

Nine words save the next fifteen chapters of Isaiah from being a despairing rehash of the suffering and laments of Job, transforming this prophecy instead into a towering testament of faith:

but the word of our God will stand forever.

I think it is marvelous that in granting this prophecy to Isaiah God did not attempt to erase the experience of the people. It nowhere says that your suffering does not exist, that your experience is not real, God does not deny the reality of the hardships we can experience, our causes for despair. Isaiah was called simply to declare that on top and underneath and all around the ever-changing realities of this world — both good and bad — there is something which stands, something which persists, something which lives on, something which cannot be defeated.

The word of God does not depend on Israel; Israel depends on the word of God. We can replace the name, “Israel” with any other name, and the sentence works just as well:

  • The word of God does not depend on Rob; Rob depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on Mountain View Presbyterian Church; Mountain View Presbyterian Church depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on the good we can do; the good we can do depends on the word of God.
  • The word of God does not depend on the Dow Jones average; the Dow Jones average depends on the word of God...

Remember what Israel had lost: land, nation, king, temple and the worship that took place there. All of it was lost brutally, finally. Even so, without any of the physical features of that which makes a people — land, government, temple — they still retained the word of God. Not a word as merely some words collected in a book, but the living Word of God to which a book may testify, but which, like the person of Jesus, has a life of its own.

Advent moves us toward Christmas well only if it moves us closer and closer to a recognition of our complete neediness before God. We are made increasingly ready for Christmas only if Advent makes us increasingly aware that in the midst of all the transitoriness of life, all the contingencies which are forever stripping us of that which we had hoped would last forever, there stands the abiding and purposeful Word of God, which the carol says is “now in flesh appearing.” It is the sort of truth which caused John to reflect in the opening of his gospel, “In the beginning was the word....” There is something about God’s Word that goes beyond words, beyond books containing words, proceeding directly and unmistakably into life as we live it.

If it reminds us of anything. Advent reminds us that Christmas brings us not just one more nice feature among many other wonderful aspects of our faith but the single fact that saves us, the child who came in time to save the day, Jesus — word made flesh — without whom all was lost and irrecoverable. God is not silent, absent, uncaring. Quite the contrary. God is one who does for his people as outlined in the four verbs in the 11th verse: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. God feeds, gathers, carries, and gently leads.

The watchfulness of Advent implies this kind of care, the care of a nourishing, gathering, carrying, gentle leading God who provides that ultimate hope which we cannot provide for ourselves out of our own passing strength.

One last thing I remember asking of myself when I read this passage from Isaiah. I have a passing acquaintance with Old Testament history, and so I wonder why it is that Isaiah was able to speak these words before anything had happened, before the people actually returned to the Promised Land, before they were rescued from their exile, long before they could go home a build a new temple. Isaiah’s words sound as if the Word of God had already accomplished the rescue of this people from exile, as if the final salvation had already been accomplished, but I know that this is not true. How, then, can Isaiah utter these words?

The advent, the coming of God is to be proclaimed, then as it is to be today, even if its final consummation still lies in the future. In the end of the passage, praise is called for from the people as if help had already come, because the promise of God is as good as the execution of it. The promise that Jesus made to his disciples to be with them to the close of the age is every bit as good as if the close of the age were here today to prove him right. The full faith and confidence of the government of the United States is expressed in every dollar bill as a promissory note. How much more confident, then, should be the praise of the people of God upon receiving the promises of God?

A promise is to be born to us in this season, a promise like no other, a promise that will speak right to the heart of the most aching need we can lay before the throne of God if only we will have the courage to face that need and make our prayer known.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” to Las Vegas, to Henderson, to Nellis AFB, to Gene to Vicki to Martha to Rick to Joe to Helen to every single Tom, Dick and Harriett, proclaiming confidently to them all that iniquity is pardoned, that the word of God will be born among them and will stand when everything else has fallen. This is a promise. We can rely on it. We can proclaim it to others. Hope is being born in the world in Jesus Christ.

copyright © 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 “The Renewal of God-Confidence,” a sermon by Dr. Tom Boyd, preached April 25, 1971, First Presbyterian Church, Oklahoma City.