As we have already seen, Advent turns time on its head; Advent heaves ordinary expectations upside down. We begin Advent with an anticipation of the end and end Advent with an expectation of fresh beginnings. The First Sunday of Advent follows hard on the heels of the last Sunday of the Christian Year, with its anticipation of the consummation of the age and the full inauguration of God’s reign. The Fourth Sunday of Advent ends with a heightened expectation of fresh hope in the birth of God’s Messiah on the verge of Christmas.
2 Samuel 7 brings these ending and beginning movements of Advent together in a single story about a king who is in his prime, having accomplished every personal and political goal he has set for himself. David is “settled” and at “rest”; he has bested his enemies and has overcome the various challenges of political life. In a very real sense Israel is now enjoying the full benefits of a stable kingship. These are the things it sought when its leaders set out on the path toward kingship (1 Samuel 8), a clear leader, a unifying force, a standing army to protect the nascent nation. You might say that the “kingdom of God” has arrived, except that it hasn’t. God has been clear about what Israel’s longing for a king represents: “No, they’ve rejected me as king over them.” Israel had tried to escape the uncertainty of a future in which their prophets and judges “got old” like Eli and Samuel, and a time when the prophet’s children “didn’t follow in his footsteps,” “tried to turn a profit, accepted bribes,” and “perverted justice.” (1 Samuel 8:1-2, CEB) They longed for the false security of royal succession.
Throughout my traveling around in a tent with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple? …I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be leader over my people Israel. I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone…. (1 Samuel 7:7-9, CEB, paraphrased)
Now it is David’s turn to have anxiety about the future, about losing what has been so hard to win. David longs for permanence. What appears at first to be a genuine effort to “glorify God” by building a magnificent temple in Jerusalem–a “thank you” gift to the LORD for the blessings David has received–can also appear to be the latest effort of a shrewd king to insure the allegiance of Israel’s diverse tribes by setting God’s feet in cedar cement. Until this time, the representation of God’s presence in Israel (a chest or box, 2 Samuel 7:2) has been mobile. God has been living in a “tent” that is as easy (or easier) to strike and move as it is to set up and maintain securely in place. Until David brought the ark (or chest) to Jerusalem, it had in fact moved from town to town and tribe to tribe as God raised up leaders to save his people. (See 2 Samuel 6) But since the move to Jerusalem, the ark hasn’t budged, despite its symbolic residence in a tent. David’s longing for a cedar temple in which to house the ark represents a permanent “house” for God to live in–a domestication of the LORD.
David may be ready to settle down, but God isn’t. This time, unlike the “yes” that came to the prophet Samuel, God says “no” through the prophet Nathan. To the people’s request for a king, God had said: “bad idea, but go ahead and comply with their request anyway.” (1 Samuel 8:7, 22) To David’s request to build a temple, God says “good idea, but no.” God’s answers to prayer–accommodating and not–preserve both God’s sovereignty and Israel’s life. God accomplishes what David desires by saying “no” to David’s request–and thwarts Israel’s desires by saying “yes” to their prayers. God establishes David’s house (or dynasty) by rejecting David’s desire to establish a house for God. (There is some unavoidable ambiguity or ambivalence about David’s ultimate desire, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.) God provides a place for Israel and rest from its enemies by saying “yes” to their request for a king and a “no” to their king’s request for permanence.
Ultimately, if we can use such a word, David’s security and Israel’s future rests with the as-yet-unborn leader whom God will “raise up.” (2 Samuel 7:12, in a section of the chapter that the lectionary skips; this “raising” has its ups and downs, its rewards and discipline, like the raising of any child. See the first and second halves of Psalm 89.) The time will come when David will die as Eli and Samuel had before him. David will eventually give up and let go of whatever control he has. When he does, what endures and remains will be the promise of God. It is the word of God spoken through the prophets Samuel and Nathan–God’s yes and no–through which God will establish an eternal and everlasting kingdom. In other words, God will reign despite every human effort to establish another king in place of the LORD. And God’s reign will fulfill–ultimately, eternally, forever–the hopes of Israel, and David, and you and me. So the end of Advent is as its beginning and time is again upside down, or right side up! …and we continue to wait for God’s work to be completed in us and in the one who is to come as the world spins round and round.
Higgs boson, the “God Particle,” almost captured? (Le Monde, simulation of the Higgs boson, 12/13/2011, http://www.lemonde.fr/planete/article/2011/12/13/la-chasse-au-boson-de-higgs-touche-presque-a-sa-fin_1617905_3244.html). Higgs boson, “God particle,” close to caputure? (Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2011/1213/Higgs-boson-God-particle-close-to-capture-scientists-say).
Is this just another form of cedar cement, trying to get God to stand still and let us have control?