December 24, 2017 (morning)

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:26-38

“At Home in a Tent”

As we lit the Candle of Love this morning, we read: “For God so loved the world… that the Son of God took flesh and dwelt among us.” Literally, that phrase from John’s Gospel, chapter 1, could be translated as “God tented among us.” The implications of that decision on God’s part, to come and be with us in the world are absolutely astounding! And it is because of that decision – because of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ – that we worship and celebrate at Christmas each year.

Our reading this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures may seem unusual for a Christmas service. Indeed, we are much more used to hearing readings from the prophets about a child who is expected to be born, about a king or messiah who will come and bring hope, freedom, and joy to God’s People Israel.

But today’s reading is not from one of the prophets, but it’s back in the historical books, in 2nd Samuel – a reading about King David. Yes, there is a prophet involved in the story. The prophet Nathan, who advised and guided King David, teaching him and correcting him when he began to stray from God’s will.

At this point in the story, David has fairly recently been anointed as King of the United Kingdom of Israel, and Jerusalem has been made the capital city of the Kingdom. David has brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city with dancing and much rejoicing.

You may remember that the Ark of the Covenant is that ornate box that the Hebrews carried with them from their wilderness wandering days. Inside the box, the tablets with the ten commandments are carried, and the ark has come to represent God’s very real presence with the people on their journey into the Promised Land.

So now, as the King of Israel gets himself settled in his kingdom in the great city, he starts to wonder about where his God is living. He says to his prophet advisor, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”

We don’t know exactly what David has in mind, but I think it is perhaps the first suggestion that there should be a temple for God, some large and lofty building to house the great and powerful Lord and God of Israel!

At first, Nathan doesn’t object to David doing something about this odd disparity. But that same night, God speaks to the prophet… perhaps in a dream, perhaps in the quiet of reflecting on David’s idea a little more. And God asks Nathan, “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… did I ever [say] ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

Of course, God never did ask for a house, or a temple, or a dwelling place of any kind. Indeed, God went with the people wherever they went, guiding them through the wilderness, staying with them in their tents, walking with them on their journey until they got to the land that God promised to provide for them.

Have you ever pondered that image of the Hebrew People on their journey with the Ark of the Covenant in tow? Various priests walking in procession carrying this fancy wooden box, carved with ornate angels to guard it. God in a box, set up in a tent at night, going with the people to their new home.

When I think about it, it seems kind of absurd. We can’t put God in a box and carry him with us! God is all around us… above us, below us, between us, even within us. I imagine God going ahead of us to guide us like a shepherd would. And I imagine God going behind us to push us on when we get nervous or scared. I cannot really get my head around God being in a box that we must carry with us along the way.

But as human beings who cannot literally SEE God’s presence with us day-by-day, we need helps and reminders and physical representations to keep us aware that we are not alone in this world. I think that’s what the Ark of the Covenant was for God’s People so many centuries ago… something they could see, and take with them, and remember that they were in covenant relationship with the God of the universe.

However, it seems like God did not want David to build a big house for him and leave him there. God said, “I’m the one who will build a house for you, David.” God promises to give David descendants, a line of offspring, a house and a kingdom that will never end.

We hear an echo of this in today’s reading from the Gospel. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a child, and she will name him Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The angel tells her that “the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” And over in Matthew’s Gospel, the angel tells Joseph that the child should also be called Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.”

You see, God did not need King David to build God a house. God already had a home in this world… a home in a tent, side-by-side with God’s People Israel as they journeyed through the wilderness and into the Promised Land… a home within the heart, and the womb, and then the arms of a poor, young, maiden from a small town in Galilee… a home within a community of fisherfolk, and tax collectors, and sick people, and women, and children, and others who came to Jesus for help, and hope, forgiveness, and healing.

I am thinking of Jesus travelling through the towns and villages with his disciples, sleeping out under the stars, making a temporary home among both friends and strangers who welcomed him into their lives. He didn’t look for, or long for a house, or a palace, or a temple of his own. But he made his home in the hearts of those who welcomed him.

Jesus was a gift to us. Because God knew that we human beings need helps, and reminders, and physical representations to help us to know that God is present in our lives. And Jesus did just that. He became flesh, and dwelt among us. He was born, and lived with us. He “tented” with us in the world so that we could see and experience what God is like, so we could learn his Way and grow into the people God made us to be.

God didn’t come into a temple or a palace. God came into the humble and temporary dwelling of a stable. God came into the vulnerability of a poor family, soon to be persecuted and on the run for their lives. God came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his whole life for others.

And so, if we are looking for Jesus today, which I hope we are at Christmas… we will need to look in those kinds of places for Christ who continues to dwell with us, to pitch his tent among us. We must look for him among the poor, among the refugees, among those who are rejected or overlooked.

Mary seemed to understand it when she sang the song of praise that we call the “Magnificat.” She recognized that in making a home in her body and in this world, God was raising up a poor and lowly girl to make her into one who was blessed. She saw that God was bringing down the powerful and raising up the lowly. She knew that God was filling the hungry with good things, and sending the rich away empty. She offered her joyful praise because God was fulfilling a long-ago promise and making a home for himself in the world and in the lives of regular people.

One more biblical reference to a tent is coming to mind, because I preached on this text from 2 Corinthians 5 at a funeral a few weeks ago. The Apostle Paul, speaking about resurrection and the promise of eternal life refers to our physical bodies as the “earthly tents that we live in.” He assures us that when our earthly tents are destroyed (when our bodies die) that we will have “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

That’s a beautiful promise for everlasting life beyond our time in this world. But it also reminds us that God is present with us right here and now, where we live in this world, in our bodies, in our earthly tents.

Our lives in this world are temporary, and somewhat precarious… very much like we are living in tents. We are vulnerable to illness, accident, heart-break, and so much more. But the good news is that God has come to “tent” with us. We are not alone.

At Christmas, we remember and celebrate the fact that “God so loved the world… that the Son of God took flesh and dwelt among us.”