At Home in our Midst
“At Home in our Midst” – II Samuel 7.1-9, Luke 1.26-33 Rev. Rhonda S. Cooper – December 20, 2020
First and Franklin Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, Maryland
You better watch out, you better not pout, you better not cry, I’m telling you why … you-know-who is coming to town. Most of us, no matter our age, surely must remember the anticipation we felt at the prospect of the Jolly Intruder coming down our chimney, or through the back door. He came not to rob or harm us. Rather, he came to acknowledge that we were worthy recipients of his good favor, the proof being the treasure under the tree or the surprise in our stockings.
The transformation of St. Nicholas from benevolent neighbor to the patron saint of children is very interesting. He likely was born 1700 years ago in a little town on the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Turkey. In that village, he was known as a very kind person with a deep and abiding faith. He used his wealth to help others, and many stories were told of his magnanimous heart, especially toward the poor and the sick.
By the time of the Renaissance, a thousand or more years later, he was the most popular saint in Europe. Even after the Protestant Reformation, when veneration of the saints was highly discouraged, Saint Nicholas remained popular, especially in Holland. So it came to be that Dutch immigrants brought their beloved Sinter Klaas to New York, several centuries before Macy’s came to be. So now, Sinter Klaas, or Santa Claus, has found a home in the hearts of children, young and old, especially among those who desperately want their home to be found and their hearts to be warmed on Christmas Eve.
Before we poo-poo old St. Nick as a “subversion” of the “true meaning” of the holiday, let’s be honest. Who among us, especially when alone, afraid or adrift, or feeling vulnerable and voiceless, who among us during these times would not like to be comforted, even embraced, by a reassuring and comforting presence? Could it be that the story of St. Nicholas sums up the longing of the human heart, a longing for that which is generous and dependable, as well as mysterious and beyond human control.
You just heard the recounting of a conversation between David the King and his counselor, Nathan the prophet, in the Old Testament lesson from II Samuel. At this point in the story, David had been raised from the status of shepherd to that of king, prince of Israel. David had built all the secular buildings necessary to showcase his power and position, and he remembered that God Almighty had lived in a Tabernacle, a portable tent in other words, since the days of Moses, wandering in the wilderness with the people of Israel, centuries before. Now, David thought, perhaps God also needed a palatial dwelling, just as he himself had a royal palace. What could be wrong with that, he wondered and consulted his chief of staff, who said, “Sure, go ahead and do it. The Lord is with you.”
Then Nathan the Prophet had a word from the Lord, that is, after initially encouraging this building plan. And the word was, in a nutshell, “Not really necessary or advisable”. Indeed, the Lord God preferred to be free of a building made with human hands. God liked being portable, untethered, unencumbered by upkeep and management. Did God ask for a house in which the Almighty might rest, and give audience? Did God want to be “on call” for the King to pay him a visit when it was
convenient in the King’s schedule? Actually … no. Why? Because the God of Israel preferred not to be bound to a certain space or place, or be contained within four walls, even four palatial walls.
For you see, the tabernacle, the word literally meaning “to dwell”, the tabernacle that had been God’s place for generations, was perfectly fine, God said. The walls they were flexible, the ceiling it opened easily to the sky, the floor it was low maintenance, the tent it was portable. The tent, not a temple, was perfectly suited to a God who would go and be exactly where God wanted to go and be. “I am who I am,” God had declared to Moses, “and I will be who I will be.” (Exodus 3.14) … And much-more-free in a tent than in a fine temple. David heard the word of the Lord spoken through Nathan the Prophet, and the fine temple he did not build.
Then 1000 years later, long after the reign of David and his successor Solomon and all the other potentates, long after Solomon’s Temple had been built then destroyed and built again (which is for another sermon), and actually only a few years before it was re-destroyed … 1000 years after David consulted Nathan the prophet about temple-building … we meet this young woman in Luke’s Gospel chapter 1: A young woman who is visited by the angel Gabriel with the news from God that she will become pregnant, carry, then birth a boy-child. A child who would grow into a man who would be called “Great, the Son of the Most High”, one who would exceed the greatness of King David many times over. No wonder Mary was speechless, no wonder Mary was troubled. “How can this be,” she pondered, “Why me? Why now?”
Think about it: This same God who had said “no thanks” to David’s temple, so as not to be hemmed-in by a building … this same God who declared, “I will be who I will be”, now declares intent to take up residence where? In a young woman’s womb, buoyed and nourished by the waters of life for nine long months, and delivered into the light of day in pain and struggle, as have each and every one of us, to this very day.
This same God who clearly had resisted being captured within the walls of a temple, now willingly becomes captive within the flesh and blood of a mortal human being. The God who is above all, free of all, changeless and ageless, the one who is as far away as the farthest star in the universe yet as close to us as the air that we breathe, this God now willingly and intentionally finds a home in our midst. “And the word became flesh and (literally) did tabernacle, did dwell, among us…” (John 1.14) – the singular Bible verse which sums up the very mystery of Christmas itself.
Dear friends, we have been found by the One who has made the divine home within us. We are the people God has favored by making a home in our midst, within Mary and now in our hearts and souls and the community of faith itself. In the midst of our uncertainty, our vulnerability and our brokenness, as the Psalmist (70.5) sang, “We are poor and needy of spirit,” we too may hear the same Word that God spoke to King David and Nathan the prophet, “I have been with you wherever you have gone.” (II Samuel 7.9)
You see, I suspect that the enduring popularity of St. Nicholas is testimony to our desire simply to be found, to be un-forgotten, to be remembered and recognized as worthy of God’s grace and love. We want to hear those gentle footsteps of a Holy One coming through the door and visiting our home, or just calling our name in a still, small voice out of the whirlwind of the world’s disorder. Dear friends, we have been found and we will never, ever, be alone.
We have, by the grace of God, become the home of Christ. God has made a home in our midst: God dwells among us. Open your eyes and your ears and your heart, and you will see and hear:
- In the voice of the one who takes a stand for that which is right and true and just, on behalf of the voiceless.
- In the hands of the one who shares a grocery bag with the one who is hungry, or the one who delivers a meal to the elderly neighbor.
- In the one who gently holds the heart and the hand of the sorrowing.
- In the one who shares kindness and a prayer with the afflicted.
- In the one who distributes out of her wealth to benefit those who may be left behind
otherwise in this world.
Open your eyes and ears and you will see – God tabernacles with us yet. We have been found. For the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
THE OLD TESTAMENT LESSON – II Samuel 7:1-9 (New International Version)
After King David was settled in his palace and the LORD had given him rest from all his
enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.” Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the LORD is with you.” But that night the word of the LORD came to Nathan, saying: “Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the LORD says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt, to this day. I have been moving from place to place, with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherdmy people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’ “Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone….”
THE GOSPEL LESSON – Luke 1:26-33 (New International Version)
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at the angel’s words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”