The Christmas Kingdom

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 12/24/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 & Luke 1:26-38. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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What’s all this about a king? This is America; we don’t live in a monarchy. We don’t long for a strongman to come and rule us. We don’t need a dictator. That’s not our image of good government, peace, and prosperity.

But for most of human history, for the last several thousand years, the model of kingship has been the primary way in which people conceived of social order. Having a truly good, righteous, trustworthy king would mean living in a just and peaceful society. 

This is the origin of the whole idea of messiah. God promised Israel good government, and a stable line of blessed rulers, forever! Given how hard it is to get good government in our own society, we can understand how appealing this promise has been, and continues to be.

In our reading this morning from Second Samuel, David wanted to build God a house, a temple to dwell in. But God turned David’s ambition on its head: Instead of having David build him a literal house, God promised to build David a figurative house – a dynasty that would ensure peace, justice, and protection forever.

We don’t live in an age of kings, but God’s promise to David isn’t hard to understand: David wanted to use the power of the state to build a great monument to God; God’s answer was to say, “I will create from you the kind of state that will be the engine of a great society.”

It turns out that God cares a great deal about the shape of human society. God cares about good government – peace, justice, and social harmony. And God has a strategy for bringing about that peaceable kingdom: God’s direct presence with his people. God’s good government is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

But Emmanuel is scary, because it doesn’t look anything like the normal kind of human government that we are used to. Israel wasn’t really excited about the loose confederation of prophets and tribal judges that God used to govern Israel in the early years. Divine government was too uncertain, too intangible, too disorganized in the face of the violent threats that Israel faced from neighboring societies like the Philistines. Over time, Israel started to demand a more advanced, centralized government – a monarchy. 

But God never wanted his people to be ruled over by a human king. God always wanted to govern his people directly. It was only with great sadness that God permitted his people to establish a monarchy under Saul (see 1 Samuel 8).

God wanted to be the monarch, to rule his people directly, through the voice of the prophets and the decentralized leadership of the judges. Knowing this, it’s fascinating that God promises David not just a kingdom, but an everlasting kingdom ruled by David’s own descendents. What is going on here? One minute, God seems like a holy anarchist; the next minute he’s making monarchy central to the DNA of Israel, forever. Why?

God is up to something here. All is not as it seems.

For a long time, David’s descendents ruled Judah, but they had a very mixed record. Eventually, the throne of David was destroyed altogether, and Judah was carried off into Babylonian exile.

Eventually, Israel returned from captivity in Babylon, but the Babylonians were still in charge. Israel would remain under the domination of foreign powers – with a brief independence under the Maccabees – until finally they were conquered by the Roman Empire.

It is in this age of Roman domination that we find Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem, giving birth to Jesus.

At this point in time, the people of Israel are once again longing for the messiah, the good king of the line of David that God had promised them through Nathan.

There were lots of pretenders to the throne, lots of little messiahs who would rise up in rebellion to Roman power only to be crushed by Caesar’s legions.

This is how the people of Israel thought that they would get their freedom. They imagined that this is what good government and independence from foreign oppression would look like. Above all, this is what they believed God had prepared for them: A human ruler, a son of David, a proper king for a free and independent Israel.

But God is up to something here. All is not as it seems.

In our reading from Luke this morning, we hear about the angel that God sent to Mary, to announce the coming of the liberator, the messiah. The angel promised that Mary’s son would rule on the throne of his ancestor David, and that “of his kingdom there will be no end.”

This was always the most remarkable part of God’s promise to David through Nathan: An everlasting kingdom.

We know that all things come to an end. Sometimes Democrats are elected, other times Republicans. Oceans rise, empires fall. Life is change. So what would an everlasting government look like? What will God do to bring about a kingdom without end?

We get so hung up on the virgin birth, as if that were the greatest miracle. Indeed, that is Mary’s first question to the angel: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” But the great miracle of Jesus’ birth isn’t the immaculate conception – it’s the promise of unending good government, a society of peace and justice, a trustworthy king who will reign forever.

God knew that David wanted to build him a house, a Temple to live in, rather than the humble tent which God had dwelt in during the years in the wilderness. But God promised that instead he would build David a house – a ruling dynasty that would never end.

No one could have imagined the way in which God would carry out this promise. No one could have foreseen that a human being would be Beth-el – the House of God, the living sanctuary of God’s presence on earth (see John 1:51). God keeps his promise of human kingship, but he subverts our very understanding of humanity. God keeps his promise, but not in the way we imagined! God redeems our short-sightedness and weakness so beautifully.

As followers of the God of Israel, our story is one of redemption. It’s a story of God taking the mess we’ve made, and transforming it into something beautiful, something life-giving, something holy. The crucial thing here is, God doesn’t just throw away what we’ve done. God doesn’t do a hard reboot. God doesn’t wipe the slate clean. (He promised he would never do that again after the Flood.) Instead, God takes the situation – broken, as we have left it – and mends it, transforms it into something new and amazing. Something we never would have thought of ourselves.

Jesus is the messiah: He is the fulfillment of the promise that God made to David through Nathan. He is the king who sits on the throne of David forever. Jesus is the redemption of God’s dream, which has always been to lead his people directly. Jesus is God’s word to us, saying, “Yes, I will give you a king to rule over you forever. I will give you the human king whose face you needed to see and whose hands and feet you needed to touch. That king will be me. I will come to you. In you, I will build my house.”