The King of Old

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A few days ago,
one of the newer members of our church
came through the office
and shared what recently happened
when he mentioned Advent
to an acquaintance.

“Merry Christmas,” the acquaintance had said.
“And a glorious Advent to you,” replied the St. Anne’s member.
“A glorious what-now?” asked his friend.
“A glorious Advent!
It’s not quite Christmas yet.
It’s the holy season of Advent.
So . . . a glorious Advent to you!”
To which his acquaintance asked, “What church do you go to?”
“Why, we attend St. Anne’s Episcopal Church,” said our member.

The acquaintance paused for a moment, then said,
“Huh. You must be liberals.”

Now that’s funny for a lot of reasons,
none the least of which is the fact that
when it comes to liberals and conservatives,
St. Anne’s is happily home to the full gamut.

But more importantly,
if you’ve been paying attention at all these past few weeks,
then you know that observing Advent is not liberal.
In fact, observing Advent . . . is very, very conservative.

Advent is not some new-age tradition
that we’ve just come up with.
It is age-old.

While all the rest of the world
in recent generations
has liberalized Christmas
by starting it super early
and drowning it in candy and commercialism,
we Episcopalians—and many others—
have quietly, intentionally
kept to the old ways . . .
ways that Christians around the world
have observed for over 1,000 years.

So yes, Christmas will come in just 36 short hours,
but for now, it is still Advent,
and we are preparing
for the coming
of our King.

* * *

Speaking of kings,
you and I are not the first ones
to long for a king.

Thousands and thousands of years ago,
the people of Israel also longed for a king,
and boy did they get one
when they finally got King David.

A friend of mine,
the renowned preacher Fleming Rutledge,
once opened an Advent sermon
with this startling question:
“Who is the sexiest man in the Bible?”

“Put your money,” she says, “on King David.”
“[King David’s] got it all.
He’s a real man’s man,
and a woman’s man, too:
handsome,
glamorous,
magnificent statecraft,
a lion on the battlefield,
a brilliantly gifted musician and poet,
a flamboyantly physical presence
yet deeply introspective and prayerful,
a man of action and a man of contemplation . . .
just recounting these traits,” she says,
“makes me go weak in the knees.”

King David did have it all—was it all.
King David was the king Israel had always longed for,
and through the prophet Nathan,
God told David in no uncertain terms,
“Your house and your kingdom
shall be made sure forever before me;
your throne shall be established forever.”

But if you know the story of King David,
then you know that’s not exactly how it turned out.

Sure, he was everything everyone had longed for,
but he had his own problems, too.

He committed adultery
and had the woman’s husband killed.

His favorite son tried to murder him,
and ended up dying in his arms.

As an old man, he shivered uncontrollably in his bed.
As Rev. Rutledge reminds us in that same sermon,
David is so weak and frail that they put a woman in bed with him,
not for the sake of keeping him “company,”
but simply for the sake of keeping him warm and alive . . .
a sad, pale shadow of his once-vigorous self.

In time, the thread totally unravels;
King David’s kingdom falls apart;
and as you might remember from my sermon last week,
within just a few generations,
the whole kingdom had forgets God altogether.

So much for the promised kingdom.
So much for the promised king.

* * *

Have you ever felt this way?
Have you ever been so sure
that God has made you a promise—
that God is going to work everything out—
only to end up thinking, “Well, so much for that”?

I know some of you have,
and I have a sneaking suspicion
that we feel it more this time of year than any other.

I was just telling someone a few days ago
that it has been my observation these last ten years
that the pastoral care load at St. Anne’s
always goes up at this time of year.

Oddly, it always starts with the time change in November.
Before you know it, the world is getting darker faster.
We’re crammed in our houses together.
We share germs, and get sick, and wind up in the hospital.
We’re under the financial stresses
that come with holiday purchasing
and making ends meet at the end of the year.
Relationships that are strained
feel even more strained.
We miss those who are no longer with us,
and we worry about the ones we have.

This is the time of the year—above all others—
when people call my office out of the blue and say,
“I know you’re busy,
I know it’s last minute,
but can I just come by and talk?”

And so we do.
And one after another,
I sit and pray with people
as they worry aloud and wonder,
“Why is this happening?
Why aren’t things working out?
Where is the kingdom we were promised?
Where is the king?”

Israel felt this way
for generations and generations
after King David’s death.

“Why is this happening?
Why aren’t things working out?
Where is the king?”

And yet they held on to the promise
that David’s kingdom would one day be restored.
Why? Simply, because it was promised.
Not just by the prophet Nathan,
but by God himself.
And when God makes a promise,
he does not break it.

* * *

Which brings us to today,
and to a young girl named Mary.

Mary and her soon-to-be husband Joseph
are descendants of old King David,
but at this point they are 28 generations removed,
and she is a nobody from nowhere.
The promise of the king is long, long gone.

But in today’s reading,
she has just learned from an angel
that she is pregnant,
and she runs to her cousin’s house
and bursts out in song:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.
My spirit rejoices in God my savior!
He has shown strength with his arm!
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones!
He has filled the hungry with good things!
He has helped his servant Israel,
according to the promise he made of old!”

Do you see what she’s doing?
Do you hear what she’s saying?
She’s speaking in past tense,
as though all of this has finally happened,
as though everything has finally worked out,
as though the King has already come!

Now, on the one hand,
this is something that pregnant women do.
There’s something about pregnancy
that puts the already in the not-yet.
When you’re pregnant,
you know you’re already a mother,
even though you’re not quite yet a mother.

But this is bigger than that.

What Mary knows—
what she already understands
just days after her conception—
is that everything has changed.
The promise has finally come true.
The long awaited King is on his way,
and unlike his great-great-great-great-
(insert 20 more greats)-grandfather King David,
his Kingdom will spread over all the earth,
and it will stand for ever.

* * *

So, here in the darkest of days
when life is often a bit harder to bear,
when we wonder what has come of the kingdom
and what’s taking God so long,
you and I keep to the old promises.
We keep to the old ways.

Why? Because these aren’t just any old promises.
These are the promises of God.

They are already,
even if they’re also not quite yet.

This is what God has done.
This is what the King has done.
He has come to the unraveled mess of our lives.
He is coming even now.
And he will come again.

Come, Lord Jesus,
and keep the promise.

Meanwhile,
to all the rest of you,
“Glorious Advent,”
and Amen.