December 18, 2011

The Throne of His Father David

Passage: Luke 1:30-33

The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’

A story from the life of one family on Christmas—a mother writes: Every Christmas morning, when my kids were little, I read them the nativity story out of the big family bible.  When my son was old enough to talk, he asked me what a stable was.  I thought for a moment how to explain it to him in terms he could understand, and then told him, "It's something like your sister's room, but without a TV."

I can identify with this mother’s explanation having had firsthand experience with a child’s bedroom that was approaching “unfit-for-human-habitation” status.  Whatever the relative “fitness” of our children’s bedrooms it is clear that a stable is no place for the birth of a child.  It is true that not every expectant mother has access to sterile hospital birthing rooms; we would like it to be the case—if not, then at least in a clean, safe environment.  But reality is harsh and some are born in less than our ideal circumstances.

One expectation we generally hold, though, is that an heir to a throne would have the very best that is humanly possible.  We would be aghast to think of a child who might be born to William and Kate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge being born in any place that might pose danger to mother or child.  The angel Gabriel said to Mary of this child she would bear: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”  The heir to David’s throne—the throne of leadership of God’s people—is to be born; indeed this is the announcement that the King of kings and Lord of lords is to be born.  A few days from now on Christmas Eve we will gather again to worship a king born in a stable.

When Gabriel speaks of Jesus as heir to “the throne of his ancestor David” this is understood by Mary, by the first century Jewish world, by the first century church to mean the long awaited Messiah.  Of his kingdom there will be no end—this is the birth of the King of the universe.  You will recall the single-minded focus of our media when Prince William and Kate were married; this is just a foretaste of what is to come if a child is born to them.  Yet our world turns its focus at Christmas to anything except the child who is born.  As followers of Christ the child ought to be our single-minded Christmas focus.

1. “People want control of their lives, which we often think of in two ways – having power, and having choice,” Kevin Lewis wrote in The Boston Globe. “Are these needs related? A recent study finds that they may be, and that these two forms of control can be substitutes for each other. After thinking about being in a position of low power, people had a stronger desire to make choices from a larger number of options. Conversely, people offered only a limited set of options from which to choose were subsequently more eager to assume a position of power or buy a high-status item. Other studies showed that people are content as long as they have either power or choice.”

Is it possible that control is an illusion?  An accident or life threatening illness will very quickly reveal that we control very little; the contentedness we have supposedly secured for ourselves is shown to be a house of cards.  Is it possible that what we really need to do is surrender what little control we do have to someone else?  Isn’t this desire for control at bottom that age old problem of humans making themselves the measure of their lives and of everything else?  We tolerate God only in so far as we conceive that God will support our personal quest to make ourselves matter.

“Don’t be afraid Mary”, said Gabriel.  We are generally afraid to give control to someone else because we need to know they have what is good for me in mind.  We consider a person rich if she has one or two such friends in life that can always be counted on to want the best for them.  The lie of the enemy told in the garden that God’s goodness is to be doubted haunts humanity still.

Did God want good for Mary?  He was asking her to put herself in a very precarious position with respect to her marriage to Joseph—to say the least.  You could understand if she had hesitated.  “... and you will name his Jesus. He will be great ... and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.”   You are to bear the King.  I ever marvel at Mary’s faith—how willingly she surrenders her life to the King.

This same Lord Jesus would be born in any of us by faith in him.  Christmas asks us again—will you surrender to the King?

2.  There are other stories in the Bible of announcements to women of the coming birth of a child; in most of these cases the women have been longing for a child. Unlike these stories Mary has not been pining away for years to have a baby. She's not even ready to have a baby yet! She's still very young, having gained the physical ability to become pregnant in probably just the last year or so.

So Gabriel's announcement of an impending pregnancy was not the answer to Mary's prayers. It did not solve a long-standing problem with infertility. In short, this simply was not the time for Mary to have a baby. But that is at least partly the point of this story: it's not about Mary's time or plans but is simply and solely about God's timing, God's plans, and God's work. God is intervening in this world, upsetting schedules and re-aligning lives because that's what it takes to get God's premiere work of redemption accomplished.

Yes it’s true, the claim of this King on our lives—claiming something from us, something over us, something in us—his claim can feel like an intrusion.  “See, now is the acceptable time”, said the Apostle Paul.  As with Mary God’s timing with respect to the Saviour in our lives is immediate; it can mean upset schedules and re-aligned lives—this is God’s work of salvation.  In Paul’s benediction at the conclusion of the letter to the Romans he states that the very purpose of the coming of Jesus Christ is “to bring about the obedience of faith” in the lives of believers.

Christmas is relentless with its question—will we surrender to the King?

3. What was an Israelite king supposed to do? I say "supposed to do" since most Israelite kings didn't do what a king was supposed to do. Instead they lined their pockets and slew their opponents. David was different. David knew that an Israelite king had three responsibilities. The king was to protect the people, uphold justice, and serve as a priest.

David did them all; I draw your attention to David’s upholding of justice. Justice today means little more than seeing that criminals are convicted and sentenced. Not so with that justice which God decrees. As a matter of fact there is no Hebrew word for justice; the Hebrew word is “judgement.” The king was to uphold God's judgements just because the king was the agent of God's judgements. God's judgements, scripture attests over and over, are God himself setting right what is wrong; freeing those who are enslaved; relieving those who are oppressed; assisting those who are helpless; clearing the name of those who are slandered; vindicating those who are despised.

David did this. Those who had been set upon were set upon no longer. Anyone who "fleeced" the defenceless or exploited the powerless learned quickly that king David had zero tolerance for this sort of thing. When David himself was fleeing Saul's murderous hatred 400 men and their families gathered around David, "Everyone who was in straits and everyone who was in debt and everyone who was desperate." To be desperate is literally to be without hope; to be in straits is to have no way out, no escape. All such people found in this king one who would never disdain or ignore or abandon them.

Our world is an upside-down place.  Anyone who struggles, like King David of old, to redress the injustices of the world learns quickly how frustrating, absurd and heartbreaking the struggle can be.   When Gabriel said Jesus would be given the throne of David he was announcing him as the Messiah—he was announcing the birth of David’s greater son.

The whole world cries out for the son of David, however inarticulately or unknowingly, just because the world cannot correct itself. As a matter of fact, the world is not getting better and better, however slowly. Then is hopelessness the only sensible attitude to have? Not for a minute. The manger-gift is the son of David, the Messiah promised of old, the royal ruler who will right the capsized world on that Day when he fashions a world in which righteousness dwells.
Then you and I must never capitulate to hopelessness. Neither do we disillusion ourselves with naiveness. Instead we faithfully, patiently, do whatever we can in anticipation of that Day when justice is done.

Most of us have suffered some form of injustice in our lives.  Sadly, some have suffered abuse at the hands of those who said they loved them.  In our lucid moments we can also see that out of pain and insecurity, in attempts to control such hurts, we have inflicted injustice on others.  The King born in Bethlehem; this is the King you can trust to set things to right in that great Day when righteousness will rule.

We have also found that in serving this King we have been plunged into even greater conflict for now.  Our Reformation friend Martin Luther will smile at us and say, “I could have told you that; I always knew that the appearance of Jesus Christ provokes conflict.” And at such a time we shall have to find our comfort and cheer in that manger-gift, the child of Bethlehem, the one who came to the throne of David, who made Luther’s eyes light up like a child’s on Christmas morning.

4.  What If It Was Always Winter but Never Christmas?  I love this description of land of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  When the children in that story first come to Narnia they discover that it is always winter there but never Christmas.  This is an apt description of the world without the appearance of the Saviour.  But Christmas has come—and in a few days we will celebrate yet another wonderful anniversary of the birth of the King.

I wonder if we sometimes feel that just as the stable seems an unfit place for our King to be born we also think our hearts are an unfit place for him to be born.  We are painfully aware of the corruption of our hearts, of our wavering faith, of how quickly we can go astray.  Perhaps the stable is a parable for us all; just as Jesus forever changed that stable by his presence so he does our lives.

“... and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”