Are we listening?

Advent 4B, Sunday, December 18, 2011

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:46b-55
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When I read the lesson from Second Samuel on Tuesday, I was struck by something kind of odd in the first three verses.  David makes a plan.  He tells the prophet Nathan about it.  Neither of them pray.  And Nathan, without praying to God for guidance, tells David to go ahead with his plan because it’s what God wants.  They both assumed they knew what God wanted.  But as it happened, they were wrong.

Here’s some background.  David, with God’s help and guidance, had just finished a civil war against Saul’s son.  David was newly crowned king and was no doubt looking to establish his prestige and position, and what better way to prove his piety and his riches than to build God a temple, a place for God’s people to worship him?  A temple building would help all the day-to-day work of the priests and people in God’s name.  Building a temple would be good for the religious establishment, and it would be good for David’s political career.  Everyone benefits!  So David talks to Nathan, who was the most powerful prophet in Israel, and (without actually asking God if this is what God wants) Nathan gives him the green light to build a temple.

Just about anyone living today would agree.  After all, of course God needs a house!  Building or purchasing a church building is one of the first things new congregations do, once they’re stable and self-supporting.  It’s the expected thing to do, the normal thing to do.  Buildings are very useful things—just look at all the ways Trinity’s building contributes to God’s mission!  It’s a place for worship and study, a place for Christian fellowship, a place to host the Food Pantry and the Toy Drive, a place to care for children and teach them about God.  It’s a tangible symbol that the LORD is with us, a place where we know we can encounter God.  We come here Sunday morning and we hear God’s word, we are taught and inspired, we are strengthened by God’s holy supper and we are sent out into the world.  This building, this house of God, helps us do all that.

So why didn’t God want David to build him a temple, a house of cedar?  It can’t be that God doesn’t like temples in general; a generation later, God told David’s son Solomon to build a temple.  I think it has to do with Nathan and David’s attitude.  They don’t think they need to ask God what God wants them to do; they don’t think they need to pray; they think they already know.  They think that God’s priorities are the same as theirs.  God has given David the kingship, and thus the king’s great and expensive house to live in; now David plans to return the favor.  He’s going to take care of God and build God a big expensive house to live in.  They are so focused on the expected thing, the normal thing, that they can’t see what God actually wants them to be doing.

God points out the error of that attitude.  “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?”  God doesn’t need David or anyone else to take care of him; God can take care of God’s own self, thank you very much.  In fact, things are the exact opposite.  God is the one who takes care of us.  God is the one who guides us.

Like David and Nathan, it’s very easy to assume that we know what God wants us to do, the plans God has for us.  After all, we are God’s people.  We are doing God’s work.  We study God’s word.  Surely, if anyone can figure out God’s plans, it should be us.  And yet, the Bible is filled with stories of faithful people who didn’t understand what God was doing until after it was already done, and explained to them.  Take David, for example: God promised David that his house and his kingdom would be “made sure forever before [God]; [his] throne established forever.”  Do you think David, hearing that, understood that God wasn’t just talking about an earthly kingship over one nation?  God was telling David that the salvation of all the world from the sin and brokenness would come from one of David’s descendants.

God was telling David about a heavenly kingship that is better and greater than any mortal country could hope to be.  And yet David probably only considered God’s words in relation to his and his descendants’ reign over the kingdom of Israel.  He could understand part of God’s plan, that God had claimed Israel as God’s people, and David and his children to play a special role.  But he probably didn’t understand just how special.  How could he?  Even centuries later, after many prophets had spoken, when Jesus came people still didn’t understand his ministry.  Not until after Jesus’ death and resurrection did people look back at all that had been said by the prophets and by Jesus and realize what they had meant.

David and Nathan’s plan to build God a temple wasn’t necessarily a bad plan, it just wasn’t God’s plan.  But they didn’t know that because they didn’t ask.  They didn’t pray.  They just went on about their business as usual, doing the expected thing, the normal thing.  But God wasn’t doing the normal, expected thing.  God was doing something extraordinary, and God wanted David and Nathan to help with God’s work.  As followers of God, we should take note of this lesson: we should never just assume we know what God wants us to do.  Instead, we should be open to what God is calling us to do, even if we don’t exactly know how it’s going to turn out in the end.  Instead of being like David, we should be more like Mary.

God does surprising things all the time.  God does things we wouldn’t expect.  We’re so used to the story of Jesus that we don’t often realize just how strange it would have seemed to the people living it.  They didn’t know how it was going to turn out.  They didn’t understand what God was in the process of doing.  Mary certainly didn’t expect what God called her to do!  And yet, despite not knowing what was going to happen, she followed God’s will for her.

Just imagine being Mary: nobody special, from a backwater region.  Getting ready to live a very ordinary, mundane, predictable life.  And then an angel visited her.  Can you imagine an angel coming to visit you and telling you that the Lord is with you?  It’s no wonder she was afraid and perplexed.  Who wouldn’t be?  Yes, God is with us, we know that … but there’s a difference between knowing God is with us and having divine confirmation of it in the form of an angel telling you directly.

And what God was asking her to do wasn’t something anyone would expect God to do.  After all, in that time and place an unmarried woman found to be pregnant, or any woman found pregnant by someone other than her husband could legally be put to death by stoning, which is a pretty brutal way to go.  At the very least she and her entire family would be shamed, humiliated, in the eyes of their friends and neighbors.  Any plans she had for her life would pretty much be out the window.  After all, how many people would believe that God was the father of her child?  If this happened in our community, would you believe it?  It doesn’t fit into our nice, neat categories.  It doesn’t fit into our expectations.  What God called Mary to do wasn’t easy.  Mary had no way of knowing, then, what this thing God was asking her would lead to.  But the one thing she knew was that life would never be normal again.  Her life would never follow the safe, ordinary, normal pattern she had expected.  But God would be with her, and God would guide her.

Mary chose to listen.  She chose to follow God’s call, even though it would be hard, even though God was calling her to do something out of the ordinary.  Mary trusted God to guide her, even though it would disrupt the plans she had for her own life.  And God used her to bless the whole world through the coming of Jesus Christ our savior.

It’s not always easy to hear God’s call.  Few of us get angelic messengers, and the cares of the world—our own fears and desires—can easily distract us from listening to God.  And yet, God is still speaking to us, calling us to do God’s work in the world.  The question is, are we listening?  Are we praying for guidance?  Are we open to God’s call, even if it’s not easy, or safe, or expected?  Are we willing to let God use us to do extraordinary things?  I hope and pray that we will follow Mary’s example.  Let it be with us according to God’s Word.


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