Sunday, December 24, 2023

Tonight's the Night!

We began this Advent by looking back on one of the most important people in the Bible: a boy named David, who grew – by God's grace – to be a king. If you were with us then, you heard how God took this black sheep of a family in a little town called Bethlehem and raised him up to be the shepherd of a holy nation. Along the way, by grace he toppled giants, by grace he outlasted persecutors, by grace he conquered Jerusalem, fended off enemies, and became a blessing on his throne. We heard, too, how God made a special covenant with him: “I will raise up your seed after you... He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him..., but my steadfast love will not depart from him... And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12-16). After that, “the LORD gave victory to David wherever he went..., and David administered justice and equity to all his people..., and David's sons were priests” (2 Samuel 8:14-18). There we last left the tale of David, on that happy note. What a great ending!

But... it wasn't. Pride crept into David's heart. His army went forth while he stayed safe and sound in his palace. Idleness there led to lust, greed, theft, adultery, murder (2 Samuel 11). Chastised and rebuked, he repented and was forgiven his guilt, but he'd labor lifelong under the deadly consequences of his deeds (2 Samuel 12). From that moment on, his family began to spin out of control. David's son Amnon made a shameful assault on David's daughter Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22). David's son Absalom murdered David's son Amnon and fled (2 Samuel 13:23-39). Absalom, welcomed home, then betrayed and dethroned David (2 Samuel 14-17), a tragedy that ended only in the death of this traitorous son of David (2 Samuel 18), sending David into a horrifying spiral of grief (2 Samuel 19). In this instability, Sheba of Benjamin rose up and lured all the tribes but Judah into renouncing David; and in the chaos of civil war, one of David's nephews murdered another (2 Samuel 20).

With Israel reunited at great cost, David's son Adonijah proclaimed himself the next new king, so David had to have his son Solomon anointed quickly to ensure his succession (1 Kings 1). With his dying words, David gave Solomon two instructions: Walk with God, and settle my old scores – which Solomon did, executing his half-brother Adonijah and his cousin Joab (1 Kings 2). But yet “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father” (1 Kings 3:3). Blessed with wisdom, this son of David made Israel great among the nations, so that people “ate and drank and were happy,” and “Judah and Israel lived in safety..., every man under his vine and under his fig tree, all the days of Solomon” (1 Kings 4:20-25).

In peace, Solomon built God a temple, which he inaugurated by rehearsing the covenant with David: “Now the LORD has fulfilled his promise that he made! For I have risen in the place of David my father, and I sit on the throne of Israel (as the LORD promised), and I have built the house for the name of the LORD God of Israel. … Now therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed which you have spoken to your servant David my father” (1 Kings 8:20-26). After a week of feasting under the son of David's blessing, on the eighth day people “went to their homes joyful and glad of heart for all the goodness that the LORD had shown to David his servant and to Israel his people” (1 Kings 8:66). God promised Solomon that “if you'll walk before me as David your father walked..., then I'll establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father..., but if you turn aside from following me, you or your children..., then I will cut off Israel from the land that I've given them..., and this house will become a heap of ruins” (1 Kings 9:4-8). What a darkest of nights that'd be!

Step by step, Solomon let success steal his heart away “after other gods..., so Solomon... did not wholly follow the LORD as David his father had done” (1 Kings 11:4-6). There'd been so many hopes; now there were so many fears. At his death, Solomon was followed by Rehoboam, grandson of David, a foolish man who yearned to flex his harshness (1 Kings 12:1-5). He provoked Israel 'til they disowned his throne: “What portion do we have in David? … To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David!” (1 Kings 12:16). “So Israel has been in rebellion against the House of David to this day. … There was none that followed the House of David but the tribe of Judah only” (1 Kings 12:19-20). God declared: “I will afflict the seed of David because of this, but not forever” (1 Kings 11:39). So Judah could only look in hope toward the last night of affliction.

Rehoboam died, passing the throne to one of his 28 sons, Abijah, who warned the Israelite secessionists not to “withstand the Kingdom of the LORD in the hand of the sons of David” (2 Chronicles 13:8). Yet Abijah's “heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father was; nevertheless, for David's sake, the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him” (1 Kings 15:3-4). That was his son Asa, who “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, as his father David had done” (1 Kings 15:11), like purging idolatry and welcoming many from the northern tribes back into communion, forging with them a new covenant to together seek the LORD (2 Chronicles 15:8-15). Yet late in his days, his courage failed, and he used bribery rather than faith to fend off Israelite aggression (1 Kings 15:16-24).

Asa's son Jehoshaphat found peace with Israel's king Ahab (1 Kings 22:44), and he “walked in the earlier ways of his father David” (2 Chronicles 17:3), sponsoring the Levites to take teaching tours through the land (2 Chronicles 17:7-9). But Jehoram, Jehoshaphat's son, began his reign by putting his own brothers, fellow sons of David, to death (2 Chronicles 21:4). Jehoram “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, yet the LORD was not willing to destroy Judah, for the sake of David his servant, since he promised to give a lamp to him and to his sons forever” (2 Kings 8:18-19). In the end, Jehoram “departed with no one's regret” into that silent night of the tomb (2 Chronicles 21:12-20). Only one of Jehoram's sons had survived: Ahaziah, who was led astray by marrying a daughter of Ahab and Jezebel. Ahaziah's wicked widow “arose and destroyed all the royal family” except one infant boy hidden away in the temple. That boy, Jehoash, was acclaimed king at age 7 by guards armed with David's shields and swords (2 Kings 8-11). “And Jehoash did what was right in the eyes of the LORD all his days” (2 Kings 12:2), repairing the temple but lastly succumbing to betrayal, fear, and assassins.

His son Amaziah “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, yet not like David his father” (2 Kings 14:3). Under him, the northerners of Israel raided even the sacred temple of God, and Amaziah also fell victim to assassins (2 Kings 14:11-20). He was followed by his son Uzziah, who, after decades of goodness, then trespassed on priestly privileges and was stricken by God with leprosy, forcing him to abdicate the throne (2 Kings 15:5; 2 Chronicles 26:16-21). His son Jotham, who took over, returned to “what was right in the eyes of the LORD and built the upper gate (2 Kings 15:34-35). Meanwhile, as northern Israel, cut off from David's heirs, slid further into corruption, God warned them through Hosea that “the children of Israel shall dwell many days without king or prince,” but afterward they “shall return and seek the LORD their God and David their king, and they shall come in fear to the LORD and to his goodness in the latter days” (Hosea 3:4-5).

Outraged, Israel allied with Damascus to harass Judah and depose Jotham (2 Kings 15:37). His son Ahaz was terrified. Ask any sign you need to set your heart at peace, Isaiah said; but when Ahaz declined, Isaiah announced those beautiful words: “Hear then, O House of David!... The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:11-14). And later, as Ahaz's anxiety plunged him deeper in cowardice and corruption to the point of burning his own son alive (2 Kings 16:3), Isaiah praised God for impending deliverance: “The yoke of his burden and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian, for every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful-Counselor-Mighty-God-Everlasting-Father-Prince-of-Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the Throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:4-7). But when would that be?

Ahaz passed from the worldly scene, but not before making his son Hezekiah his co-king and watching together as northern Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, just as Isaiah had promised. Hezekiah, like his father David, “trusted in the LORD... so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah..., for he held fast to the LORD... and the LORD was with him: wherever he went out, he prospered” (2 Kings 18:5-7). Holding the Assyrians at bay, he became terminally ill but, for David's sake, God showed by a shadow-shortening sign that he'd heal him at the temple on the third day (2 Kings 19-20). “He who has no money, come, buy and eat! … I will make with you an everlasting covenant: my steadfast, sure love for David” (Isaiah 55:1-3).

Alas, his son Manasseh “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD..., and he burned his son as an offering” (1 Kings 21:2-6) – another innocent son of David, put to a fiery demise. Chastened in the end, Manasseh “humbled himself greatly..., and commanded Judah to serve the LORD,” and God “was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea” (2 Chronicles 33:12-16). But his son Amon “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, as his father Manasseh had done” (2 Kings 21:20). Assassinated in a palace coup, the people raised up Amon's little son Josiah in his place (2 Kings 21:23-24). Could he be the son of David they'd been looking for?

Ruling rightly, Josiah “walked in all the way of David his father,” and tried to reform Judah by the newly rediscovered Law (2 Kings 22-23). Only by truly embracing this Law could Jerusalem continue to have “kings and princes who sit on the Throne of David” (Jeremiah 17:25). But Josiah ended in tragedy, shot by Egyptians at Armageddon, for God had decided that Judah was too far gone to be saved except by a night of judgment (2 Kings 23:26-30). Josiah's son Jehoahaz lasted mere months; Egyptians carried him away and replaced him with Jehoiakim, who had a heart only “for dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (Jeremiah 22:17). Once he'd burned God's word, he was a dead-end: “He shall have none to sit on the Throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to... the frost by night” (Jeremiah 36:30).

His 18-year-old son Jehoiachin took his place (2 Kings 24:6-9). Now God was fed up with these sons of David. “As I live, declares the LORD, though you were the signet ring on my right hand, yet I would tear you off” (Jeremiah 22:24). After just 97 days on the throne, Jehoiachin was taken prisoner to Babylon, a cold and lonely night (2 Kings 24:10-16). His uncle Zedekiah, then “the king who sits on the Throne of David,” Jeremiah judged as rotten fruit whom God would throw away in disgust (Jeremiah 29:16-19). In the end, Zedekiah saw his sons slain before he was blinded and bound for Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). Through these centuries, what do we see, if not so many wasted sons of David – brutalized and burned, corrupted and condemned?

But through it all, Jeremiah found a message of hope: “I will gather the remnant of my flock..., and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed … Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days, Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he'll be called: The-LORD-is-Our-Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:3-6). Even in the prophet's darkest hour, he heard the promise: “David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the House of Israel. … If you can break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night..., then also my covenant with David my servant may be broken so he won't have a son to reign on his throne. … As the host of heaven can't be numbered..., so will I multiply the seed of David my servant” (Jeremiah 33:20-22). In that day, a people redeemed from captivity “shall serve the LORD their God and David their king” (Jeremiah 30:9). And from his night-black prison, Jeremiah surely wondered: But when?

Away in Babylon's hinterlands, the exiled priest Ezekiel heard the promise also: “I will rescue my flock..., and I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will feed them” (Ezekiel 34:23-24); “and they shall no longer be two nations. … I will save them from all the backslidings in which they have sinned, and will cleanse them. … David my servant shall be their prince forever. … Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forever” (Ezekiel 37:22-28). But when?

After decades, Jehoiachin was honored in Babylon, a sign of hope (2 Kings 25:27-30). But he died without seeing home again (Jeremiah 22:27). His seven sons grew up wondering if there was any hope, since Jeremiah had preached of their father: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days, for none of his seed shall succeed in sitting on the Throne of David and ruling again in Judah” (Jeremiah 22:30). But when Persia conquered Babylon, they released the Jews and made Zerubbabel – a twentieth-generation son of David – their governor. Prophets assured Zerubbabel he was chosen for great things, undoing the curse on his grandfather Jehoiachin (Haggai 2:23). He'd see the new temple to completion, not by might or by power but by God's Holy Spirit (Zechariah 4:6-8). “Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he. … His rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth!” (Zechariah 9:9-10).

But Zerubbabel wasn't the son of David who brought salvation. When he died, this local governorship of the Persian province of Yehud passed first to his son-in-law Elnathan and then to a series of men, including Nehemiah, with nary a word of descent from David. And yet Zechariah foresaw a coming day when “the LORD will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the House of David shall be like God, like the Angel of the LORD going before them” (Zechariah 12:8). Did Zerubbabel and Zechariah alike wonder, “But when will these things be?”

Through dark centuries, faithful Jews never forgot the promises to David. When a priestly family threw off the Greek yoke (huzzah!) and set themselves up as kings (uh-oh...), other Jews lamented that they'd “despoiled the Throne of David with arrogant shouting.”1 In the days of Roman dominion, Jews continued to wait for “the shoot of David who will arise at the end of days.”2 They prayed, over and over again, for God to “raise up... the son of David to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God.”3 A king “free from sin,”4 with words “purer than the finest gold,”5 a king “faithfully and righteously shepherding the Lord's flock,”6 so that “all shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah,”7 the “Messiah of Righteousness, the Shoot of David”8 – when, when, when?

Not long at all. Because, to meet the struggling hopes and haunting fears of all those many long, long years, God answered those prayers. He scooped up all the words of the prophets, and he sent his Eternal Word to take on Davidic flesh-and-blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary of the House of David, legally betrothed to Joseph son of David. And there, in the little hometown of David, the Promised Son of David waits to be born – the Lord Messiah, the Savior who brings immense joy (Luke 2:10-11). But when, when? When does the Word-made-Flesh tabernacle among us? When does mercy immortal invade the earth? When, when? I tell you now: Tonight's the night!

Tonight's the night David's fears and tears are washed away. Tonight's the night Solomon's wealth of wisdom is surpassed. Tonight's the night Rehoboam's division is rewoven into unity. Tonight's the night Abijah's Heir holds in hand the Kingdom of God, the night Asa's Son comes to bring prodigals home, the night heralds greater than Jehoshaphat's enlighten the land. Tonight a New Joash evades the butcher's blade, leprous Uzziah's perfect Son heals with a touch, and Jotham's Scion opens the gate of heaven on earth. Tonight's the night Ahaz's Sign casts out the oppressor's power, and Life stretches farther than faithful Hezekiah's shadow. Tonight's the night Forgiveness is born to burn off all Manasseh's mountainous sins, and Josiah's Strength shatters the idols dead.

Tonight's the night Jehoiachin's Son sets captivity free, Zerubbabel's Seed builds a higher temple, the Lord's Lamp burns bright in the darkness that can't comprehend it. Tonight's the night for raising up a Righteous Branch, a single Shepherd of Salvation to gaze up from the manger at the sheep he feeds. Tonight's the night from which the Lord's steadfast love is wedded inseparably to man. For “as keepers of deposits, all the kings of the House of David handed down and passed on the throne and diadem of the Son of David..., the Lord of Everything.”9 Tonight's the night of awestruck shepherds and of herald angels all ablaze. Tonight's the night earth exults and heaven hollers, when truth trumpets and beauty blossoms, when goodness glories and mercy marvels: “Behold the Son of David who glorified and crowned the House of David!”10 Now is the House of David indeed like God, because God has become David's Son as well as his Lord (Zechariah 12:8; Luke 20:44).

So tomorrow, under the newborn eyes of the Son of David who is the true Son of God, let us eat and drink and be merry, each under our own vine and our own tree. Let us come to his goodness in this latter part of the year, at this holiday of holiness, and retell these words purer than finest gold, these great glad tidings of gospel joy. For tonight, oh, tonight is that night – and tomorrow is that day of God's good will that knows no end. Amen! Amen, and may it be to you the very merriest Christmas!

1  Psalms of Solomon 17:6, translated in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:666.

2  4Q161, frgs. 8-10, line 17, translated in Donald W. Parry and Emanuel Tov, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Reader 2:55.

3  Psalms of Solomon 17:21, translated in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:667.

4  Psalms of Solomon 17:36, translated in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:668.

5  Psalms of Solomon 17:43, translated in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:668.

6  Psalms of Solomon 17:40, translated in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:668.

7  Psalms of Solomon 17:32, translated in James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2:667.

8  4Q252, column 5, lines 3-4, translated in Donald W. Parry and Emanuel Tov, eds., The Dead Sea Scrolls Reader 2:111.

9  Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity 24.2, in Kathleen E. McVey, tr., Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns (Paulist Press, 1989), 192.

10  Ephrem, Hymns on the Nativity 2.5, in Kathleen E. McVey, tr., Ephrem the Syrian: Hymns (Paulist Press, 1989), 77.

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