Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Throne of His Father David: An Advent Sermon

Alright, there's a question I have for all of you: How many of you have ever, in all your lives, seen a Christmas movie called Home Alone? Well, for the rest of you, it came out a third of a century ago, so I don't think I have to worry about too many spoilers. I bet you mostly remember the meat of the plot, but I want to focus your minds on the opening scenes. The McCallister family is getting ready to leave their massive home in suburban Chicago for a Christmas family vacation all the way to Paris. And there are a lot of kids running to and fro. You've got Buzz and Jeff, you've got Megan and Linnie, to say nothing of the seven cousins roaming the house.

But then there's the runt of the family, the target of Buzz's frequent bullying and the disdainful taunts of all the rest: Kevin McCallister, age 8. Completely dismissed, even by his parents. In Kevin's perception, he “always gets treated like scum.” He's the afterthought child at best, constantly angling for that last scrap of real attention. After a family altercation, his mother banishes him to the attic. And in the frantic chaos of the next morning's late start, and an inflated miscount of the children, it's little wonder that his distinct personhood is so neglected as to be unnoticed in its absence – and his family flies away without him.

They didn't have this movie, or any movie, three thousand or so years ago, but there's a boy back then who I think might have liked it, or at least gotten the premise. He was a youngest child, with two sisters and seven big brothers. Like Buzz to Kevin, the oldest brother Eliab looked down on this littlest brother as a pest. This littlest brother was the afterthought child of the family. Shorter than the others, barely acknowledged or respected, he was accustomed to being left out of things. The day a prophet came to town and invited their family to an exclusive party, their dad made sure that all of them were there, Eliab and Abinadab and Shammah and Nethanel and Raddai and Ozem and the other one, and probably the girls Zeruiah and Abigail too – except he didn't bother inviting the littlest kid. Who would want him? He can have leftovers, or eat bread and water. So dad left the pipsqueak out, put him to work while the rest of the family hobnobbed with a real mover-and-shaker over a steak dinner. Can there really be any doubt that this kid's heart would go out to that Kevin on the screen?

The name of that littlest brother, those three thousand plus years ago, was – and I'm sure you've guessed this by now – David. Think about what his childhood must have been like. He was born a number of years into the reign of his people's first king, Saul the Tall, a handsome but humble man, the son of a prosperous farmer, a man originally more accustomed to operating a plow than to commanding nations. Saul had been picked from the least trusted tribe, Benjamin, and its most hated city, Gibeah, in case this experiment in having a king went awry. But it hadn't, and so David was born in a small town, Bethlehem, less than ten miles south of Saul's town Gibeah. Between Bethlehem and Gibeah there lay a city on a hilltop, the Jebusite walled town of Jerusalem.

By the time David was a young teenager, he was small and forgotten, but scrappy and brave, with experience taking out bears and lions with his shepherd's sling so as to save his father's lambs; he was musically gifted, a useful talent for entertaining himself in the fields; he was well-spoken, not that anyone was accustomed to listening to what he had to say; and, though he'd never have presumed it of himself, his heart was pleasing to his God, reminding God of what a human heart ought to be like. And so one day, out in the field with the flock, a messenger comes – maybe a neighbor, maybe a cousin – to tell him his dad Jesse is calling for him. He hurries back to town, only to find himself at the party from which he'd been excluded. And there stands the prophet Samuel, and the delectable beef, and the dejected looks on the faces of seven brothers who, unbeknownst to David, have just heard Samuel tell their father that the LORD doesn't choose them (1 Samuel 16:6-10).

But now David is here, and to his and everyone's surprise, as he's introduced to this legendary judge, priest, and prophet, the prophet pulls out a ram's horn from his cloak, uncorks it, and drizzles fragrantly spiced oil all over David's head, while David's brothers stand around and watch their little brother receive an enigmatic honor. We've jumped to the end of Home Alone, where the older brothers and sisters warmly greet Kevin, tell him that they missed him, that they're glad to see him. Here David's brothers, and perhaps also his sisters, are in awe as the prophet anoints the boy, setting him apart for... something. Samuel doesn't explain. We have the benefit of hindsight that, as the psalmist says, God “chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance” (Psalm 78:70-71). The former 'black sheep' of the family, the lonely shepherd boy sent to toil, the afterthought child, is now, in a way deeper than the rest can see, at the center of Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:11-13).

Somehow, David gets recommended to King Saul as a worthy musician and armor-bearer, a service he can come on occasion to provide. In this next story, he's a fairly passive character, a teen boy who does whatever other people ask him to, again so small and forgettable that as the story unfolds, King Saul will ask repeatedly who he is and where he's from, as if they've never met before. That includes the day in the Valley of Elah when this boy David, running family errands, is the lone one ridiculous enough to pick a one-on-one fight with the hulking Philistine champion Goliath, striking Goliath down like a mere beast through speed, savvy, and skill blessed by God (1 Samuel 17). In the next years, David grows in popularity, the stuff of folk songs and legends. But Saul's on-and-off darkness grows, a spirit of murderous envy gnawing viciously on the king's soul as David ceases, bit by bit, to be a nobody (1 Samuel 18-21). The path there is long and painful, but by the end of his twenties David is an outcast from court, a people's champion for the depressed and oppressed, the malcontents of all Israel who are bitter and burned-out, astonished to find themselves with any hope left in their hearts to pin on this general whom Saul has deemed an enemy of the state (1 Samuel 22:1-2). Yet through it all, David refuses to harm King Saul, even when he has every opportunity to reach out and take what he growingly senses should be his by divine right (1 Samuel 24, 26).

Eventually, without David raising a hand in violence, Saul's own foolishness leads to his doom – taking David's dearest friend, Saul's son Prince Jonathan, with him (1 Samuel 31). Now fast-forward through years of civil war. David has already settled his family in a town in Judah's hill country called Hebron. That wasn't David's decision; it was God's direction. Hebron's got a long history behind it. Father Abraham's tomb wasn't far away (Genesis 23:19; 25:8-10). When Israel invaded the land, Hebron's suburban villages were assigned to Caleb of Judah, one of the only faithful scouts under Moses, but Hebron itself was also given to Israel's priests as a city under their special protection (Joshua 14:13-15; 21:13). Now, with the civil war ended once there was no one left alive from Saul's house to contest what God was manifestly doing, messengers from all the tribes have come to Hebron.

David, by this point in his later thirties, meets these messengers. Their mindset is to put aside the feud that divides tribe from tribe. They accept David, of the tribe of Judah, as being of the same bone-and-flesh kinship as themselves who come from the other tribes (2 Samuel 5:1). They remember and recount David's past military heroism that was for the good of the whole nation. They confess they now see he's the man whom God himself has chosen to be Israel's good shepherd and prince (2 Samuel 5:2). When they receive a fair hearing, the elders come, and accept the terms of David's covenant, a treaty to end the war. The elders recognize him as their leader, accept a position under his authority (2 Samuel 5:3). And then they anoint him there in Hebron. Once more, for the third time now, that fragrantly spiced oil pours over David's head, dripping down his bearded cheeks; he inhales slowly through his nostrils, taking in the aroma of election. The elders accept him, not just as the king of his own tribe as he had already been (2 Samuel 2:4), but as the king of an Israel united as one nation under God and, now, under God's anointed shepherd (2 Samuel 5:3). What Samuel had signified over two decades earlier in anointing a boy, now that very sign was fulfilled by the third anointing of the man.

With all Israel behind him, it was time for David to go forth with God. Nestled in their midst remained this outpost of foreigners, the unconquered Jebusites persisting for centuries in Jerusalem. Experience had deceived them into thinking they were untouchable, and boastfully they dismissed David as a puny man, so contemptible even disabled Jebusites could hold him off. Until David and his men infiltrated Jerusalem through its water system, and he claimed a new capital for Israel: the upper stronghold Zion, City of David (2 Samuel 5:6-9).

And David became greater and greater” – things were only looking up for David. But what was it that made a shepherd boy, an afterthought child, into a king and conqueror? “For the LORD, the God of Hosts, was with him” (2 Samuel 5:10). Israel's God, the LORD, the One who arranges heavenly beings into ranks like an army, was David's unseen backer, whose invisible power could be detected in its effects. And when David began to make international ties and receive gifts so that he could construct a new palace of cedar and stone (2 Samuel 5:11), then David himself “knew that the LORD had established him king over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:12). Not for David alone, but for the people, the flock.

David became greater and greater. His ample family was set to continue its patterns of growth (2 Samuel 5:13-16). David won a great victory over the Philistines in the Battle of Baal-perizim (2 Samuel 5:17-21). David won yet another great victory over the Philistines in the Battle of the Valley of Rephaim (2 Samuel 5:22-25). It was time. Now that Israel was unified, with a new capital city untainted by a fractious history of division, King David didn't want to live apart from God. He wanted God to be his next-door neighbor. Or, to be more precise, he wanted the Ark of the Covenant, that holy relic that belongs to God's heavenly throne, a relic which mustn't be seen unveiled or touched, on pain of death. When David had been merely king of one tribe, it wouldn't have been right to fetch the ark. The ark was awaiting unity. It belonged in a city for the whole nation. It belonged in Jerusalem. So David pitched a tent in the stronghold Zion. “The LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place” (Psalm 132:13). And David's heart burned to give the LORD the LORD's desire.

Through incaution, the first attempt to move the ark the six miles from Kiriath-jearim ended in utter disaster (2 Samuel 6:1-10). Only three months later, after the ark had proven itself a blessing and not a curse to dwell with (2 Samuel 6:11-12), did David move past his fear and throw wide the gates. They resumed the right way, with true reverence and care. Every sixth step, before taking a seventh, the parade paused for a sacrifice to God, out in the open air (2 Samuel 6:13). It was the most festive day of David's life: a leaping priest-king of Jerusalem, a spiritual heir to Melchizedek, dancing barely dressed in his under-robes (2 Samuel 6:14-15); but despite the judgmental eyes of the proud, he was as fully “clothed in righteousness” as any of the priests that day, as a saint shouting for joy to his God (Psalm 132:9). Blowing a trumpet, offering sacrifices once the ark had been rested inside the tent David had pitched, David blessed the people and gave each man and woman freely a meal with dessert to take home and enjoy, treating not a one as an afterthought child (2 Samuel 6:17-19). The next tale will begin with the notice that “the king lived in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies” (2 Samuel 7:1). And so was fulfilled “what the LORD had sworn to him: to... set up the throne of David over Israel” (2 Samuel 3:10).

And why, maybe you might wonder, would we tell this story on the first Sunday of Advent? What has it to do with this season? But if you open the Gospel of Luke to its first pages, after some opening action up on Mount Zion, the scene shifts to the northern hinterlands, far beyond Gibeah and Ramah. For centuries, people have been crying out in prayer, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (Psalm 89:49). Now, at last, the angel Gabriel visits a young woman, the Virgin Mary, who is legally betrothed in Nazareth to “a man whose name was Joseph, of the House of David” (Luke 1:27). Tradition has it that Mary herself was of David's line (e.g., Ascension of Isaiah 11.2). What does Gabriel say first? “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28) – just as we earlier heard “the LORD, the God of Hosts, was with [David]” (2 Samuel 5:10).

Later in David's reign, he came to wonder if he'd really “find favor in the eyes of the LORD (2 Samuel 15:25). So naturally, when Mary wonders (Luke 1:29), the angel assures her: “Don't be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God!” (Luke 1:30). That's when Gabriel tells her: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31). Just as the LORD's favor made David grow “greater and greater” (2 Samuel 5:10), so this child likewise “will be great,” says the angel (Luke 1:32).

For long ago, the LORD God had, by a special covenant with David, agreed to adopt David's rightful heir: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come 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 to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:12-14). But in a supreme way beyond all expectation, this Jesus, heir to that covenant, will “be called the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). So it shouldn't surprise us that the angel concludes: “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the House of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33). For hadn't the LORD sworn to David “a sure oath from which he will not turn back: One of your fruit of the womb I will set on your throne” (Psalm 132:11), “you shall not lack a man to sit before me on the throne of Israel” (1 Kings 8:25)?

Once God's Holy Spirit overshadows Mary (Luke 1:35), much as the same Spirit had rushed continually upon David from his first anointing (1 Samuel 16:13), the newly pregnant Mary goes on a journey to visit her elderly kinswoman Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah (Luke 1:39-40), probably in the priest-owned city of Hebron where Israel first accepted David as king (2 Samuel 5:3). There, just as David had once fearfully asked “How can the Ark of the LORD come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9), so the Holy Spirit prompts Elizabeth to say in wonder: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me, that the Mother of my LORD should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43). After singing how “from now on, all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), Mary leaves just before Elizabeth gives birth to John, whose father Zechariah blessed God for having “raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Luke 1:69).

Months later, since Joseph is “of the house and lineage of David,” a census calls him back home “to the city of David which is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4), the same where David's head first got oiled, where David first caught the Spirit to the consternation of his brethren. Taking Mary with him, there in Bethlehem she gives birth to the Messiah, the Anointed One, in a cramped peasant home (Luke 2:5-7). Meanwhile, there were shepherds in the fields outside town, keeping watch over their flocks in the same way the shepherd boy David once watched his father's flock in that same field. And to these shepherds in David's field, there came a splendor and a sound, an angel with a joy so fearsome as to burst the human heart with good news too big to fit inside it.

So many times in David's life, people told David their version of good news, and always it was a failure. The Amalekite man who took credit for Saul's death hurried to tell David (2 Samuel 1:1-10). “He thought he was bringing me good news,” David reflected (2 Samuel 4:10). But the boast disgusted David and broke his heart (2 Samuel 1:14-16). Saul's son Ishbosheth then waged that civil war against David over the kingdom, until Ishbosheth was betrayed and assassinated in his sleep by two of his very own men, members of his own tribe of Benjamin (2 Samuel 4:5-7). They expected to be rewarded for their 'good news' that they'd put an end to David's enemy, that vengeance had won the day (2 Samuel 4:8). How little they, holding Ishbosheth's head, understood David's heart (2 Samuel 4:11-12). Many years went by, and David's reign again was beset by civil war. His own son Absalom had risen up against him, driven him out of Jerusalem. Holed up at Mahanaim in deep regret, David sent forth his troops but ordered them to show mercy to his son (2 Samuel 18:5). Suddenly, David sees a running messenger, the high priest's son Ahimaaz. “He is a good man and comes with good news,” David hopes (2 Samuel 18:27). Ahimaaz claims not to have answers. He's followed by a Cushite, who professes to carry “good news for my lord the king” – Absalom, son of David, has been killed in disgrace by David's nephew Joab (2 Samuel 18:31-32). David weeps and wails like never before, wishing he could've given his own life to save his beloved but traitorous son (2 Samuel 18:34).

Three times, no one around David understood what good news really meant. They thought brutal betrayal and bloody vengeance were the stuff of which good news is made. Their 'good news' was a disappointment to David every time. But now comes a messenger more foreign than any Amalekite or Cushite, a messenger as foreign as heaven to earth – and this messenger knows what good news looks like. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people, for unto you is born this day, in the City of David, a Savior, who is the Anointed One, the Lord!” (Luke 2:10-11). This good news was the One to whom would be given the throne of his father David, the One who would be the Shepherd of Israel and the Desire of the nations.

What was the throne of David, the rule of David, like? It was the priest-king joyously leading the procession. It was worship and blessing and a holy tent. It was a distribution of sustenance and sweetness to the people, a gift from a glad heart like the heart of God. That's what it had meant for David to have the throne. And Jesus, LORD and Anointed rolled into one, will rule like that from the throne of his father David. The kingdom of God and of David are one. Jesus is born, the Son of David whose heart isn't merely after God's own heart, but is God's own heart. He's born to give his own life to save his beloved but traitorous creation. He's “the Root and Descendant of David... who has the key of David” (Revelation 22:16; 3:7). He's born in Bethlehem to unlock the gates of life, to pitch the living tent of the church for worship, to bless his people in the holiest of names, to feed us the sustenance of the Spirit and the sweetness of God. He's born to be our good-news Savior. “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:10). We're longing for King Jesus, the king in whom the throne of David is forever. That's the longing of Advent. Amen and amen.

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