2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For 2 Samuel 7:1-16 Part 2

One wonders what tone goes with God's words in vv. 5-7. Is God commenting on David's audacity: "Don't you think if I wanted a house I would have one already?" Or is it exasperation: "Finally! After all I've done for you people, you'd think someone would have noticed before now that I was living in a cheap tent and done something about it!"

There is no mistaking the outcome, however: David mentions to Nathan this disparity between his dwelling and God's and the next thing he knows, God has made him promises beyond his dreams. This is an example of the experience of being "walloped by love" that leaves most of us in a puddle of confused, joyful tears.

Advent is certainly the season for such goings-on. Joseph and Mary wanted only lodging for the night and got instead a place in history. Shepherds wanted only a peaceful night and instead got a chorus of angels. The Jews only wanted a champion against the Romans and instead got someone who changed the face of the earth.

What are the hopes our people bring to this Advent? For some, the hopes are quite modest: Just one family gathering without alcohol and violence; a real tree with just one present wrapped by loving hands; a visit by just one of the children to the nursing home. Many will not have even these small wishes granted—not this year, maybe not ever.

The challenge of preaching Advent is the challenge of proclaiming the good tidings of great joy in ways that reflect the true outrageousness of this walloping while the preacher remains loyal to persons who cannot join the ticker-tape parade. Much preaching misses both marks at the same time, by watering down the good news into some thin, manageable form and then implying that failure to join the resulting tinker-toy parade disappoints God.

Advent is tempestuous for many. The crunch of time, money, and expectations hits many people hard—the reality of a frazzled but empty life stands in stark contrast to the all-pervasive myth of the merry Christmas. People hang on somehow, hoping, not hoping.

Once about two decades ago I was in a rowboat about a hundred yards off the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. I was with a friend, and we were heading in no particular direction, enjoying a lazy summer vacation. We spotted something odd in the water farther from shore: A thin, dark cylinder that seemed to submerge and then pop up in the rhythm of the waves. We rowed toward it. As we got closer, we realized it was a tree branch about the shape of a rake handle. It must have been out on the lake for days. One end had gotten waterlogged and heavy; it pulled the other under as the waves passed over, then the top rose up about a foot above the water. As we pulled alongside it, we saw a small dark shape against the branch. It was a butterfly about the size of a hand; a monarch, drenched, clinging to the branch, submerging, emerging. We got the branch and the butterfly, took them both to shore, carefully dried the butterfly and put it in what looked to be a safe place to recuperate.

An encounter with an insect—a bug—long decades ago. But the image of the butterfly on the branch has been powerful for me: The tiny life clinging beyond all strength, beyond all hope, beyond all reason. Many people go through life like that butterfly, and especially go through Advent that way: Clinging to hope when there is no reason to hope. For most there is no rowboat in sight.

I'm talking here not only about the obvious sufferers: The poor and homeless, the politically oppressed, the sick and dying, the widows and orphans. Their needs certainly clamor for our attention and response. But in addition so many bright, well-scrubbed faces in the pews mask quiet desperation.

What are we to make of God's promises to David about his kingdom? The commentary in the Oxford Annotated Version of the NRSV suggests that David's dynasty had already fallen "probably some time before our author wrote." This is a complex faith that writes of such a promise when then-current events had already invalidated it. Who is this God and what is the nature of our faith in this God's promises?

Paul Hessert makes the distinction between "soul" and "self" in his recent book. The self represents our social identity with all its trappings: Strivings after prosperity, status, vocational fulfillment, relational satisfaction, physical comfort, and so on. The self builds, plans, directs, performs. The self wears its various statuses like military decorations. The self deals in power and meaning (cf. "signs" and "wisdom" in 1 Cor): The self attempts to ascertain "God's plan" and seek "biblical principles."

The soul is the human part of the true relationship with God—what is left after the trappings of social identity are removed. This is not self-denial or self-abnegation, which are simply specific strategies by the self to improve its position. Soul is the human being in emptiness and vulnerability, unprotected by social or psychological defenses. The soul is most often seen and experienced during moments of transition and crisis: Birth and death, marriage and divorce, times when the power of our emotions overwhelms our day-to-day protective numbness. In those moments we experience God most directly, both in presence (when we cry, "Abba," or murmur, "It is the LORD") and in absence (when we cry, "My God, why have you abandoned me?").

Surely it is to the soul that God speaks, to whom God makes promises. God certainly shows inconsistency in establishing "the work of our hands" (Psalm 90), and the long line of martyrs attests to God's willingness to let people of faith suffer and die. Yet these witnesses did not die defeated and did not claim to have been betrayed. In the communion between God and soul is a richness that makes the agenda of the self superfluous. As Job declares, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust him" (KJV).

The promises of God to David are first heard as promises to the self-fulfillment of his royal aspirations, the establishment of his line forever. Heard in this way, the promises are empty and ironic. Our own self-aspirations often go similarly unfulfilled, or may come to fruition, yet leave us unsatisfied, successful but lacking signifi cance. What David had with God, what is available to each of us, what is promised and awaited in Advent, is God-with-us in the communion of souls. In that encounter we may lose everything our selves value—including our very selves—and still emerge feeling walloped by love.

Gregory A. Hinkle