God Removes the ‘If’

Peering ahead to the next bend of the swift-flowing river, the kayaker spied a heron standing tall in the lightly iced shallows that lined the snow-dusted bank.

Desperately wanting a close-up glimpse of the slender-but-majestic bird, she paddled upstream against the strong current as hard, but as quietly, as was possible.

When she finally managed to maneuver her slender boat to within mere feet of the heron, the winter hues of the great bird’s feathers – navy blue, steel gray and pale periwinkle – came into crystal clear focus.

A Heron’s Wisdom, digital drawing by Lauren Wright Pittman, SanctifiedArt.org

But, while the kayaker marveled at the bright oranges of the its beak and the sunshine yellow of its eyes, the shy, skittish heron suddenly took flight, alighting far ahead but still spied at the waterway’s next turn.

And thus the river dance continued – one close encounter after another, bend after bend, with the steadfast-but-elusive heron leading the way – until the setting sun brought a most-unwanted end to the kayaker’s voyage of discovery.

As the heron took flight, in a swan song of sorts, toward the dense thicket of piney green that defined the moment’s thickly treed horizon, the kayaker felt a lingering sense of gratitude for the bird’s presence. Theirs had been an almost-cosmic ballet of pursuit and intimacy, guidance and mystery.

And that rhythmic companionship through the crisp hours of an early winter day taught the kayaker something about her relationship with God.

Though you might feel like you’re paddling upstream, all alone, the Lord is nevertheless along for the ride. And, in fact, the Lord is leading the way – forever and always.

That’s what King David discovers in our Scripture lesson for this fourth Sunday of Advent.

David is riding high atop a tall wave of personal and political successes, and that largess apparently is churning up a measure of spiritual guilt that’s washing up and over David’s heart and mind. From his roost in a grand palace, it flat-out doesn’t seem fair – at least to David, anyway – that God lives in a plain-old tent.

Comfy cozy in his swanky home, perhaps in front of a roaring fire, his feet resting on a velvet footstool and his lips sipping a hot toddy, David decides that he needs to show some appreciation for the blessings that God has lavished upon him. David wants to return the favor and build the Lord a house befitting the one true God.

God, however, almost immediately revokes David’s building permit.

God, as it turns out, doesn’t desire or need fancy digs. The Lord, in fact, seems to suggest that he enjoys living in a tent. That kind of “mobile home,” a sacred fixture in much of the Old Testament story, is, after all, a visible reminder that God travels with God’s people wherever they go.

That’s just one of the comforting takeaways in this passage from 2 Samuel. But, as always, God is still speaking. So, listen now, for even-more-amazing grace and love that knows no bounds, in the Word of the Lord:

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 that 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 this to 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 this 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.

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever. (2 Samuel 7:1-16)

What in heaven’s name is Nathan thinking?

Or maybe he isn’t thinking, more likely daydreaming, when David first approaches him with his grand plans to build big. In giving his almost-nonchalant go-ahead, Nathan in as much is saying to David, “Yeah, well, you know, whatever you want is OK with me, my liege.”

Or maybe Nathan really does think things through as best he can and reckons that David’s plans are so holy and pious-sounding that absolutely nothing could possibly be out of kilter. Is there anything even slightly out of plumb with idea of giving God the extravagant gift of a brand-spanking-new home?

Whatever his thought process, Nathan quickly discovers not only that has he spoken too soon but also that he has completely misread the mind of God. (With a sigh of relief, how nice to know that even biblically authorized prophets get things wrong every now and then. That’s quite the comfort to those of us who preach!)

In his shoot-from-the-hip support of David’s idea, Nathan commits what also is oftentimes our mistake when it comes to understanding God’s preferred ways of gifting grace and showering love.

Maybe one of the reasons that Nathan so readily agrees to David’s initial idea lies in the assumption that, because we humans like everything lavish, showy, and outwardly impressive, then so too does the King of kings and Lord of lords.

If presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens, live in places like the White House or Buckingham Palace – and if such regal, manifestly commanding dwellings convey the majestic importance of the people who live inside, their hands the reins of power, then surely the all-powerful, almighty God needs and deserves such glitzy, opulent quarters, too.

Sorry, but no. God needs not what the world craves and far too many of its people envy.

Thumb ahead through the pages of your Bible, and when you get to the New Testament, Luke’s Gospel in particular, and find out who’s taking up residence in the humble womb of poor, little Mary, meek and mild, you start to understand why God retorts a “thanks but no thanks” to David’s magnanimous offer.

The God who possesses more power, more elegance, more sheer awesomeness than any being anywhere further knows full well that the best things in life – including the redemption of the world – move quite well, thank you kindly, along more modest paths gracefully and lovingly paved with humility, gentleness and sacrifice.

A Dream Confirmed, digital painting by Lisle Gwinn Garrity, SanctifiedArt.og

That’s a real head-scratcher – especially in contrast to the basic economic logic and standard political maneuvering that’s part and parcel a broken, fearful, and often-greedy world.

Like the Dr. Seuss-storied Grinch himself, even those of us whom the Lord has claimed as his own puzzle and puzzle ’til our puzzlers are sore just thinking about the reality that now each and every believer in Christ is – in body, mind and spirit – a temple of the Holy Spirit of Jesus. God needs no house built for the divine self, because, believe it or not, you and I are now among the dwelling places of the God Most High!

Yet, like Mary, since most of us don’t exactly look the part we’re called in play in the drama of salvation, we, unlike Mary, mostly just stumble through our days as if that isn’t true.

But it is!

Despite all human efforts to grasp God, or put God in a box, or otherwise try to hem in God, the Lord remains beyond comprehension, unbound and everywhere, far out ahead, setting up shop in even the most unlikely of dwellings – long ago in Mary, and now in you and in me.

Once was the time when God’s presence in the lives of God’s people was conditional. If we all just follow all the rules, then God will love and care for us all. But in a promise first made to David, brought to life through Mary, and fulfilled by the Jesus of Christmas and the Christ of Easter, God removes the “if.”

The God who is full of grace fills the empty spaces of our lives with unconditional love that endures despite our sins, trespasses and whatever else tries to separate us from God and one another.

That is the bedrock of our hope, and so, we join the heavenly host in song:

Veiled in flesh the God-head see; Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased in flesh with us to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden prepared this message for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2020. It is part of his Advent-Christmas series “Those Who Dream.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Bruce C. Birth, Doug Bratt, Scott Hoezee, and Lauren Wright Pittman inform the message.

Related video meditations:
Lighting the First Candle of Advent – Hope
Lighting the Second Candle of Advent – Peace
Lighting the Third Candle of Advent – Joy
Lighting the Fourth Candle of Advent Love

Related Advent sermons:
Like Those Who Dream,” from Mark 13:24-37, about Jesus’s caution to “keep awake” for his return.
Something New Begins,” from Mark 1:1-8, about “preparing the way” for Jesus to enter our lives.
Connecting the Dots, from Luke 1:39-56, about Mary’s song of praise for God choosing her to be the bearer of God’s dreams.

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