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Once in Royal David’s City

 

1st Samuel 16:6-13               Luke 2:8-11

 

“Once in Royal David’s City”: it’s one of my favourite Christmas carols.  Every time I sing it I recall the heart-warming and heartbreaking complexity of David’s life. David: born to be king. Jesus, David’s Son: born to be the king.

I: — Some people might say that the title “king” was all that David and Jesus had in common.
David, after all, was a military hero; Jesus never once threw a spear.

David had a lethal streak in him.  When he suspected that people were plotting against him, he assassinated them first. No one, however, found such a streak in Jesus.

David played power politics, and played power politics with consummate skill.  Jesus never had the chance, and wouldn’t have played political games in any case since his kingdom, he told Pilate, didn’t originate in this world.

Then what did David and Jesus have in common? They both had simple, uncomplicated rural backgrounds.         They were both country fellows, brought up far from the intrigues of the big city. David was a shepherd-boy. Jesus grew up in the home of a self-employed handyman, in Nazareth , a one-horse town light years from the sophistication of Jerusalem , the big apple.

In addition, both David and Jesus were what I call “earth creatures.” They put on their trousers one leg at a time, and didn’t pretend anything else. Their humanness, down-to-earth and earthy at the same time, was always up front.         They lived life exuberantly, affirmed life ardently, celebrated life boisterously, and everywhere relished a good time.

Jesus, we know, spent more than a little time partying. In fact he was accused of overdoing it. “A glutton and a drunkard” his enemies hissed at him.  Not only that; Jesus partied with the “wrong” people, the folk who sat loose to religious convention and moral custom.  When uncomprehending people asked Jesus why his disciples didn’t fast in principle, why his disciples didn’t mope around with sour faces and sunken cheeks, Jesus replied, “The bridegroom’s here.         My followers are at a wedding reception, not a wake.  Furthermore, Mr. or Ms. Questioner, why aren’t you in here partying with us instead of holding yourself aloof and forfeiting our good time?”

David was like this.  When the Philistines, who had captured the Ark of the Covenant, had finally been routed and the Ark of the Covenant returned to Jerusalem , David rejoiced. The Ark of the Covenant symbolized God’s never-failing presence with his people, Israel . So exuberant was David that he began to dance. He danced with such ardour, such utter self-forgetfulness, that his kilt flew up and he accidentally exposed himself.  The servant girls tittered at the preposterous spectacle of their king cavorting like a university student in a victory parade following the football team’s triumph.

Michal, David’s wife, was angry and embarrassed and disgusted – especially disgusted – all at once.  Michal, it must be remembered, was the daughter of King Saul.  She was a blue-blood, born to the aristocracy.  She always knew her husband to be low-born, but had married him anyway on account of his talent. Now he was behaving like a fourteen-karat oaf. She felt he had behaved un-aristocratically.

David had, and he couldn’t have cared less. “I was dancing before the Lord”, he tried to explain to his acid-tongued wife; “It was before the Lord that I danced.”   Years later Jesus would turn on his detractors, “When the king and his kingdom are here, are my friends and followers supposed to be sad sacks?”

David and Jesus had ever so much in common.  Both were winsome. Both attracted followers. Both drew to them those who would follow them anywhere.

 

II: — Blind Bartimaeus knew this. Bartimaeus had learned that Jesus was in the crowd.  “Jesus, Son of David”, Bartimaeus had called out.  A few days later, in the last week of his earthly life, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a flea-bitten donkey, and the crowds had called out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.

Son of David.  In what respect was Jesus the son of David?  Spelled with a lower-case “s”, “son of” is a Hebrew expression that means “of the same nature as”.  When people hailed Jesus as “son of David” they were saying that he mirrored David in several respects.  “Son of David” spelled with an upper-case “S” means “messiah”. Jesus is David’s son in both respects, both little “s” and capital “S”.  Jesus is David’s clone in many respects; and as David’s clone in the profoundest respects he is the long-promised messiah.

Bartimaeus knew this.  So did the crowds who hailed our Lord on Palm Sunday.  What did all such people expect from Jesus?  What are we expecting from him now?

 

[1] People then and now expect deliverance. The name “Jesus” is the English translation of the Greek “Iesous”, which Greek word translates the Hebrew “Yehoshua.”   “Yehoshua” means deliverer, saviour.  We all want deliverance. We all need it.

David had been no armchair dreamer.  David had done something. After his death there had intensified in Israel a longing deeper than the child’s longing for Christmas Day, a longing for the day when a clone of David would appear, and more than merely a clone. For David’s greater Son would deliver Israel from any and all who afflicted it. In the course of delivering Israel , David’s Son would bring righteousness and prosperity and contentment, everything the Hebrew word “shalom” gathers up, everything the bible means by “peace”.  All of us want, more than we want anything else, righteousness in the sense of right-relatedness everywhere in life; we all want prosperity not in the sense of riches but in the sense of richness; we all want the contentment born of God’s blessing.

In my own life I can find grounds to praise God for deliverance. If no one else is aware of what those grounds are, that’s all right, since there are aspects of the personal history of all of us that we do well not to advertise. At the same time, I’m aware that the Deliverer or Saviour hasn’t finished his work within me, and therefore like Bartimaeus of old I continue to cry out for the Son of David.

My heart aches for people who are habituated to anything distressing, whether chemical substance or character defect or psychological preoccupation or injury-fuelled resentment – anything. My heart is one with those who shout, “Don’t hand us a pamphlet or tell us to read a book or ask us to take a course; just tell us where there’s deliverance.” However much some of us relish intellectual subtleties, deep-seated habituations don’t yield to them. Where thinking is concerned we relish subtlety; where habituation is concerned we crave plain, simple release.

The Son of David has been appointed the deliverer of everyone. There is no addiction to which he isn’t equal.         If the community that he forms around him (i.e., the church) loses sight of this truth or simply loses confidence in him, parachurch groups quickly proliferate around the church.  These parachurch groups always feature a program as simple as it is effective. And the members of these groups can always point to people who have been delivered. These groups are a frequently-needed reminder that deliverance is the principal reason the church is in business.

We mustn’t think that only the substance abuser is habituated, like the booze-crazed or the cocaine sniffer or heroin injector.   Scripture speaks of subtle habituations, subtler to be sure yet every bit as deadly, from which many more of us need to be delivered: envy (what has a firmer grip on us than envy, and what is deadlier for us and others?), enmity, backbiting, gossip, slander, mean-spiritedness, stinginess, chronically negative thinking.  Just to contemplate the list (albeit partial) that scripture brings forward makes us realize that we don’t need religious fine-tuning or psychological finessing.  We need nothing less than deliverance.  In coming to church today we’ve come to the right place, for the Son of David has been given to us for just this purpose.

 

[2]         When Bartimaeus and the crowd around him; when you and I and so many more hail Jesus as Son of David we are expecting something in addition: we long to see justice done. Despite the brief but disastrous episode concerning Bathsheba and David’s shocking treatment of her husband Uriah (David, you will recall, when infatuated with a woman who happened to be another man’s wife, and when tempted to take her displayed the culpable stupidity that we all display when temptation turns reason into rationalization; David arranged to have Uriah murdered so that he could have Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife); despite his indefensible collapse David implemented and enforced justice in Israel in a way that Israel hadn’t known before and wasn’t to know after. The poor were protected (always the first responsibility of an Israelite king). The widow, the orphan, the resident alien – in other words, the most vulnerable people, the marginalized, any who were at risk because utterly defenceless – all these people had a resolute defender in King David.

On the other hand, those who fleeced the widow or exploited the poor or grew rich by grinding someone else into the ground – these people learned that this king couldn’t be bribed, wouldn’t be compromised, and remained formidable at all times.

We all long to see justice done.  The cry for justice that goes up from the dispossessed of the world is still a cry inspired largely by David and the Son of David.  Who has been at the forefront of the protests against injustice in Africa, in Latin America, in South Korea ? Christians.  What is the one institution that that all tyrants attempt to suppress? The church.  Who were the people who startled us Canadians several years ago with the near-hopeless struggle of so many fellow-Canadians?   The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.  Who established Mississauga ’s food bank? (It’s the model of food banks throughout Canada , and it distributes food every year whose market value is $12 million.)  Children of David, children of the Son of David.

Everyone is aware that while segments of the church led the campaign for the abolition of slavery, other segments of the church campaigned to retain slavery.  In other words, the church didn’t speak with one voice on this matter. Still, the gospel that the church cherishes transcends the church and therefore can always correct the church. And the church’s gospel has certainly inspired the cry for justice.  To speak of the gospel is always to speak of him whose gospel it is, Jesus Christ. Christians can’t consistently embrace Jesus Christ and deny justice to their fellows.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred in Nazi Germany for his opposition to Hitler, pleaded for justice and stood with those deprived of it.  For this reason there is now a plaque attached to the tree in Flossenburg from which he was hanged.  The plaque doesn’t read, “In memory of one who dedicated himself to social justice.” It reads more simply yet more accurately, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren.”

King David was renowned for the justice he enacted. We who cling to his greater Son are ever looking to Jesus Christ for that justice which we must now do ourselves.

3]         There’s one more reason why we, like the ordinary people in Jerusalem before us, have hailed Jesus as Son of David.  We know that David was an ordinary person from an ordinary family in an ordinary town – and was wonderfully used of God.  We are ordinary too. We aren’t ashamed of our ordinariness, because we have learned by now, I trust, that people who don’t own their ordinariness are highly dangerous. (More on this in another sermon.) Ordinary as we are, and unashamed of it as well, we too want to be used of God.  We don’t pretend we’re outstanding and don’t even aspire to be outstanding. But neither do we want to live and die without being used of God.  We know we can be, and are going to be, just because God has always used the most ordinary humans – like David of old, like the Son of David.

Moses – he was the child of a despised minority.  Moses had a speech impediment as well: he stuttered.  He remains the most formative figure in Israel to this day.

   Rahab – was a Canaanite woman who hid Joshua’s spies in her home and afforded them hospitality. Rahab was a prostitute. Rahab is written up in the heroes of faith in the book of Hebrews.

          Amos – “I don’t belong to that clique of religious professionals who forge careers for themselves by saying what people and the politicos want to hear”, Amos thundered.  “I’m just a cowboy.” Amos was a prophet whose searing word can still penetrate the hardest heart.

   David – a shepherd boy who found Saul’s armour cumbersome and went out to face Goliath with his slingshot. His own people had said to David, “Don’t be foolhardy: Goliath is too big for you to hit.” “If he’s that big”, David had replied, “then he’s too big for me to miss. Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

   Jesus – so very ordinary that people smirked, “He can’t be much; nothing significant ever comes out of Nazareth .” Yet used of God as no one else can be just because he alone is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

I’m aware of two features of us that we often think will preclude us from being used of God.  One is our psychological quirkiness; the other is our sin.  David had both. So have all Christian leaders, not least of whom was the leader of the 18th Century Awakening and whose stamp is found everywhere on the English-speaking church and society since him: John Wesley.  Wesley could communicate with the lowest-born even as elsewhere he often appeared peacock-proud. Sin?  Quirkiness? Wesley, hugely deficient in self-perception, was often laughably unwise and sometimes dangerously unwise, especially in his relations with women.  Yet who has been more tellingly used of God?  The truth is, all God’s servants are quirky and clay-footed.

We long to be used of God ourselves.  As spiritual descendants of David and his Son we know we’re going to be.

 

To speak of David and the Son of David, as we have this morning, is to suggest that only one generation separated the two men.  In fact David and Jesus are separated in time by 1000 years.

David and Bathsheba had a child, their first. A son.   They had great hopes for the child.  But the child died in infancy, breaking their hearts.

One thousand years later a child was born who fulfilled their hopes in ways beyond their wildest dreams.         This child wasn’t merely a great king, not even the best king.  This king is King of kings just because he is the Son of God.  Having been raised from the dead, the can never die.  Alive, he greets us this morning, and therefore we hail him with undiluted, unreserved joy.

And it’s all because of what happened once in Bethlehem , once in Royal David’s City.

 

                                                                                              Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Advent 05