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.