Sunday, December 18, 2011

Fourth Sunday in Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Luke 1:47-55 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

Go and tell my servant David, Thus saith Jehovah, Shalt thou build me a house for me to dwell in?

There may be a few churches that are growing and successful, but it seems to me that most churches are struggling in some way. The pews are less full than they were a few years ago, the bills are harder to pay. People are struggling, and so they have less to give to the church. The division that is seen so clearly in so many aspects of our life has found its way into the churches, too. The issues might be great or small, but they are there. Now, perhaps it is not worse today than always; after all, conflict has been a part of the Church since the beginning. Yet, in some ways it seems like we just don’t have the strength to fight the burdens and obstacles that are inside and outside our walls.

We are even finding it difficult to define our mission in the world. The neighborhoods around us are changing, and we have to realize that what we did a few years ago might not continue to be the work we should be doing today. It is easier to see in our own individual lives because we recognize that as we grow we have to change with our circumstances. I’ve been a mom for twenty-two years, but now that my children are grown, I will have different work to do. The same can be true with the Church, especially if we define ourselves by the work we do.

But perhaps that’s the problem. We invite people into our fellowship by using the programs and ministries as a draw. “My church has a great choir, come and hear them sing.” Or, “We are having our annual soup supper, come enjoy some homemade soup and stay for worship.” We ‘sell’ our church based on the good works we do around town, or the preschool where we help the neighborhood children grow in knowledge and in faith. These are all good; they are excellent ways to both share our gifts and reach out to the community. But they will never build the kingdom of God. Perhaps a family or two will become members because of the good things we do, but we will never be truly faithful if we think that we can build a house for God; we have to understand that God builds a house for us.

In the Old Testament lesson, David wanted to build a house for God. This is not a bad aspiration; David offered to do it as an offering to the God who had brought the people out of Egypt and built them into a great nation. David’s reign was a golden time. They were strong and independent, prosperous and full of joy. David simply wanted to give God the same rest and blessing that He had given to them. Nathan even thought it was a good idea, until God gave His word on the subject.

Our natural inclination is to ‘do something.’ When someone is sick, we ask what we can do. When someone is going through a tough time, we want to do something to help them through. When we face a time of struggle, we want to do something to get out from under the struggle. Even when things are good, we have to find something to do. We are blessed to be a blessing, so when we are feeling blessed, we strive to find a way to be a blessing. The trouble is, we often decide to do something for the sake of doing it, instead of waiting to discover what God intends for us.

David rightly wanted to do something to bless God. How could a temple be a bad thing? It would be a place where God’s people could gather and give Him honor and glory. God obviously was not against a temple because He gave the responsibility to David’s son Solomon to build it. David could even collect the materials that were necessary for building it. Yet, David was not given that responsibility. God asked, “Did I ever ask you for a house?” He didn’t need four solid walls because He stayed among His people wherever they went. He led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. The day would come when David’s seed would build that house, but that’s not where the promise really lies: the promise is that God will build the house and the kingdom. Out of David’s seed would come a kingdom that will never end, a throne that will last forever.

The time came for a temple, but it was not up to David or even Solomon to decide when it would be built. God is our guide, our true King. He is the one to whom we should turn when trying to discover our mission and ministry in the world. I know this is impossible, especially since you can ask a hundred people in a congregation and you’ll get a hundred different answers. But the reason we come up with so many answers is because we are asking the wrong question. We ask, “What should we do?” when we should ask, “What is God doing?” We try to build a temple when God is telling us to wait. When want to build a place where we can put God when He wants to build us into a place where He can dwell.

Of course, we are not very good at listening. How can we know for sure that what we are planning is, or is not, God’s will? Nathan didn’t know and gave David the go ahead. How do you trust one another when one is sure that they have heard God’s voice and another hears something completely different? How do you decide as a body to go one way when all the parts have heard different directions? Our uncertainty makes us struggle with one another. This is why the question should never be, “What should we do?” It isn’t about what we do, but what God does among us. The response we make to God’s grace is not something that is decided by a committee at a meeting, but naturally flows by faith.

Think of it this way: you have a hundred dollars to share. You sit down and make a list of all the charities that could use that hundred dollars and then consciously decide which one deserves it more. In the meantime, you discover your neighbor just lost his job and doesn’t have enough to buy groceries for the week. Charities are certainly wonderful ways to share our blessings; helping those organizations is good stewardship of our money. But we have to ask ourselves, are we open to the possibility that God is inviting us to use this blessing to do a kindness for our neighbor? Where is God working? What is God doing? What is God calling us to do?

Mary certainly didn’t ask for her blessing. Mary was an ordinary woman, not even a woman. She was little more than a child when the angel spoke to her. She was given the most extraordinary purpose: to bring the Savior into the world. This was indeed a blessing. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth said the same. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” What if Mary had been like Sarah and Abraham, trying to fulfill the promise of God by her own works? We usually think that Mary was overcome by the Holy Spirit at this moment, but the scriptures do not actually say that it happened just then. What if there was some time—days or even weeks—between the promise and the fulfillment? What if Mary tried to become impregnated in those days or weeks instead of waiting for God?

But, Mary did not immediately think of ways to make this promise come to fruition. She asked the angel, “How can this be?” We should not read Mary’s response to the promise as doubt. She may have been frightened or perplexed, but perhaps she simply wanted to understand what was to happen. “How shall this be?” does not question God’s power to do the miraculous, but instead seeks information. She didn’t ask, “What shall I do?” She asked what God would do.

Mary willingly accepted the Lord’s Word and received His promise and she didn’t run off trying to make the promise happen. The point of this example is so that we’ll realize how often we jump into work for the sake of doing something rather than waiting expectantly for God to do His Work in us. We jump into a ministry because it sounds good, but we do not see what God is really working in us. Even worse, we hang onto ministries that are no longer viable because we aren’t willing to see where God is moving us. We want to build that temple and keep God in one place because is it so much easier for us to do what we want to do if God is kept in one place.

Yes, I know. I feel useless when I’m not doing something. I feel lazy and selfish because I’m not using my gifts at every opportunity. I feel like the possibilities are passing me by. I am worried that I’m missing something important. But I have learned that sometimes we miss the real work God has ordained for us because we are so busy doing the work that we think we are supposed to be doing. David had other work to do, so God put a stop on the work he wanted to do so that he could focus on the work he was meant to do.

We are just one week away from Christmas. The expectation is all around us, not only for the religious celebration of Christmas, but the secular. Children are excited for Christmas day. Families are anxious to gather together. Friends can’t wait to share the gifts they have purchased for one another. There may still be things to do, but our text for this fourth Sunday of Advent reminds us that we can’t make God come by our work. Christmas Day will come whether we finish our shopping or cook the perfect meal. Even moreso, Christ will come whether we are ready or not; and He’ll come in His way, not by our work. We can’t build the temple that God has built for us. We can’t make a kingdom that God already rules.

So, instead of asking the question, “What are we going to do?” perhaps it is time for us to simply praise God for the work He is doing among us, letting Him create the miracles that change lives in and through us rather than trying to constantly find things to do. Paul recognized that there was a mystery in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He saw that God was working miracles in people who were not of Israel. He saw Gentiles being moved by the Holy Spirit into faith, active faith. It wasn’t just a confession of the mouth, but it was a movement of spirit and flesh that was changing the world. One person’s testimony led to a community gathering together to praise God. That praise was testimony for others who joined along in the song. The scriptures tell us that hundreds, even thousands, came to believe just on the word of one or two witnesses. This seems impossible to us, especially when we think about the differences in culture between the apostles and the gentiles. Yet, God is able to do this thing. Our problem is that we spend so much time trying to make this happen in our churches that we miss what God is trying to do among us.

God is able to bring the obedience of faith through the words offered by those He has called to believe. He is able to give strength to His people to face extraordinary odds, to do the impossible, to tell stories that are ridiculous and yet true. The purpose of the Gospel is not only the salvation of those lost in the darkness, but to bring the obedience of faith to those who hear the message. God is able to make His hand move in the lives of those who were never expected to hear or understand the Gospel message. God gives us the strength to continue taking that message into the world. This is the obedience of faith, to believe that God can do whatever He plans to do and leaving ourselves open and willing to let it be according to God’s Word. We believe and God moves through us into the world. This is a most extraordinary thing, beyond belief. We can’t believe that God can do something without our help.

It is natural for us, in our faith, to feel like we need to do things for God. David was king. By God’s hand, the obstacles to establishing a strong and independent kingdom were overcome under David’s rule. With a city in which to live, a palace for the king and roots being planted by the people, Israel was finally settling down into a golden age of peace and security. David was greatly blessed, and since he was a man who sought after God’s heart, it is natural for him to want to give God an offering of thanksgiving and praise. For David, whose life had been characterized by upheaval, the security of a place to live is the most logical gift. David finally had a home thanks to God, so he thought God deserved a home, too. We do the same thing in our own way; working because we think we have to give back to God all that He has given to us.

So let us, for a moment at least, take time to sing with David, praising God in song and proclamation. There is a lot of work to be done. There are charities that need our resources. There are people who need our help. The scriptures are clear that even while we are waiting for God we must be busy preparing for His coming. He does call us to do something. But while we are busy with the work of the Kingdom of God, and the preparations for Christmas, let’s always be open to the work God is doing among and around us so that we can respond to His calling with everything we have. David wanted to build a Temple, but God built an everlasting Temple through David’s seed. We want to do so much, but let’s not get so caught up in what we want to do that we miss God, for He is still building that Temple and Kingdom He promised to David, and He has invited us to be a part of it.

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