Expectations

Sermon for Sunday, December 18, 2011 || Advent 4A || 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
The Rev. Geoffrey Smith

You know, expectations can be a funny business, especially this time of year.

That’s why while doing some Christmas shopping on cyber-Monday I was thrilled to come across The Law of Expectation.  According to the website, the Law of Expectation is the secret cosmic force that gets us everything we asked for.  Without it, nothing comes through to the physical world.  And friends, for only $67 (normally a $247 value), you too can order the secrets of this missing link!

Yes, when you learn how to apply the Law of Expectation you will consciously get what you expect, you will be the Absolute driver of your results, certain of all outcomes.  Your self esteem will shoot through the roof and you will always feel deserving of what you want!  Click the link and order the Law of Expectation course today, and after we process your secure payment, you will be instantly redirected to your download page, where clear instructions guide you to collecting all of your products and free bonuses.

Sounds like a great Christmas gift, doesn’t it?  But not having actually having mastered the Law of Expectation yet, I kept reading, down into the fine print.  It was there I found a puzzler.  “If for some reason in the next 60-days you decide that this amazing course does not help you finally master the Law of Expectation once and for all, we will personally refund 100% of your purchase price – no questions asked! You may keep the free bonuses as our gift!”

Now excuse me for being Captain Obvious, but if it is a cosmic law that we get everything we expect, why do we need a money back guarantee?

Perhaps the real Laws of Expectations are a little more elusive than these web hucksters are letting on.

King David might give us a big amen to that.

This morning’s Gospel was the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, God’s biggest proposal yet to humankind.  In this announcement, Gabriel speaks of the connection between Jesus and the house of David.  It’s an allusion to what we heard this morning in 2 Samuel, so before we jump into Christmas, let’s spend a moment considering this Old Testament passage.

We’re tempted to think of David this time of year in romantic terms: as ‘the sweet psalmist of Israel,’ but in point of fact he’s not always so sweet.  Sure, up to now, the Book of Samuel has been chronicling the rise of David’s kingdom; good times.  But as winners are often want to do, David more and more sees these victories as his accomplishments, not anything God had anything to do with.  Nevertheless, ever the politician, David wants it to at least look like God is on his side, so he goes to Nathan the Prophet and says, “Look here, I am sitting in a house of cedar, while the Ark of God is sitting in a flimsy little tent.”

A house of cedar – that’s key – because we’re not just talking about New England cedar shake, we’re talking great chunks of cedar; huge timbers suitable for the house of a king, or a God.  That kind of lumber is no longer found in the hills surrounding Jerusalem; in a bit of ancient ecological recklessness they’ve been picked clean.  No, you have to go way up north, deep into the mountains of Lebanon.  David imports cedar the way we in our age import Middle Eastern oil, and for exactly the same reason: power.  In David’s world, cedar is a luxury material for king’s palaces and royal temples.  The aroma of cedar is the smell of power.  If you have cedar, you’re a player, and David is a player. That’s why David wants God to have a big cedar house: he wants God right next door, in a contained place where God can be a prestigious and useful neighbor, just slightly less powerful than himself.

These are David’s expectations.

But God’s Law of Expectation is a bit different.  God responds to David’s generous offer by asking, “Did I ask you to build me a house?  I’ve lived in a tent ever since I brought Israel out of Egypt.”  What God wants of David is faith; faithful leadership of Israel, not some architectural power trip.  Having already given David victory over his enemies, God says to David that his “kingdom shall be made sure forever.”  This is a covenant, a promise.  But God might as well save the breath, for David isn’t listening.  David soon will demand more and more promises of God, more military victories.  Sadly, he will become ever more compulsive in trying to secure what God has already granted to him.  And when he’s done, David, like Saul before him, will be terrorized even by the thought of God.

Perhaps David should have stayed in the tent.

Which all begs a question of us: in a season so much about our own expectations, how willing are we to allow God to be in a tent?

It’s a timely question, for over these past few months our tolerance of tent dwellers has all but evaporated.  In Dewey Squares around the country, the Occupy protest struck a chord.  Now admittedly, it has not always been easy to sort out the notes in this chord; the substance from the theatre.  The Occupy protest has intentionally not produced a list of demands, to the frustration of many.  To fill the gap, the media focus has been on the most colorful and fringe protests, instead of the real issues.  They highlight drug busts and lack of showers, while ignoring pleas like the one I saw that read, “99% + 1% = ONE” – a statement if ever there was one about our common interests and need for unity as a people.

Whatever happens next in the downtowns around this country, it is terribly important that that core message not be lost.  Margo was right: the Occupy movement has put an exclamation point on the fact that wealth in our country is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few.  It’s worth repeating: there are 46.2 million people in the United States that live below the poverty line. To put a face on this number, that’s more people than live in New York, New Jersey and every state in New England, combined.  And that number doesn’t include those “near poor,” an additional 51 million who live with incomes less than 50% above that poverty line.

Compounding this reality is another harsh reality: we live in a time and place of historic deficits.  As a nation, we must now make hard choices about how to balance needs and resources, burdens and sacrifice.  These choices will be economic and political, true, but they will also be moral choices, for whether we want to admit it or not, budgets are moral documents.

As Episcopalians, those called to a via media, or middle way, we have an incredible opportunity to lead these conversations, as Episcopalian Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, in framing the budget decisions in the context of how they impact the poorest and most vulnerable among us.  We can be the ones to protect those who do not have powerful lobbies to speak for them.  We need to talk sensibly about the policy choices that confront us.  We can start with asking, “What would Jesus cut?” and then work together to find the answer.  There are plenty of good ideas, but we need to raise the level of discussion beyond sound bites.

Margo’s sermon last week quoted a 19th century German theologian.  I want to go back to a fourteenth century, to a German mystic, who asked a question: “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my own time and culture?”  I love this question; to me it is the question of Advent.

I suspect by now most of us have our plans for Christmas.  We know where we’re to be and who supposed to be there with us, we know what’s for Christmas dinner, and what we’ve got or still need to get to put under the tree.  Expectations for Christmas, for our lives and for the direction of our lives, are very important.  There is nothing wrong with us doing some planning, but as we make our plans, let’s remember what happens with King David’s plans.  God’s plans for us can be very different from what we imagine; from a life in cedar homes.

So next Sunday, when the flap of the tent (or the door to the manger) opens to welcome us in, what do we expect to see in the face of our new-born Savior?  Will we see him caught in a web of poverty and deprivation?  Where will we find Jesus this week: in the safety of a cedar crèche, or camped in a barn on the edges of our comfort zone?

Truth is there can be no Law of Expectation found on the internet that will answer this question.  We all face incredibly complex choices.  But through Christ, we can be present to all of God’s possibilities, and find the grace to listen, the faith to persevere or change our minds, and compassion when we act.

Thanks be to God!

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