It was John F. Kennedy who once famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you… but what you can do for your country”. In its day this was quite a national rallying cry and it has been one of the texts which perpetuate the myth of the allegedly young and self-confident Kennedy era.
My point in mentioning is not so much the nationalistic point he was trying to make but the rhetorical device he used. You see, behind it lay an implicit criticism that people were perhaps assuming things were the other way around. Crudely, this was a well-aimed criticism of what we might term `free-loaders`… It was a call to action… to make a contribution to the life of the nation. And what I`m really getting at is that he was telling people to look at things from the totally opposite angle… In direct contradiction of what might have been commonly assumed.
Now, I find this time of year provides us with numerous opportunities to make similar (and significant) rhetorical points… Not least because peoples` understanding of what Christians believe about Advent and Christmas IS so often the opposite of the truth. For example, let`s nail a very simple (and again significant) one. Associated with the giving of presents at this time of year, you might have heard these words: “Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake”.
We hear this particular song wherever we go at this time of year and the words and somewhat irritating tune drift by us. What irritates me somewhat is the way we allow these lyrics to go unchallenged. I mean, the implication in the words of this song are that UNLESS you`ve behaved yourself you won`t get any gifts. In other words, that Christmas gifts come with conditions attached; and this of course is a travesty of the truth. Behind all Christmas giving is the giving of God; who “Gave his only son”. The absolutely essential point being that He God gives… not because we are good but because HE is good. It was, as Scripture says, that “Whilst we were yet sinners ..Christ died for us” (Romans 5.8) So, it is not true that God helps those who help themselves… He helps those who CANNOT help themselves.
Now what I`m getting at this morning is that one of the central characteristics of an authentic faith is this ability to hear commonly voiced assumptions; that is to say, things we might regard as natural, common sense or just plain obvious… and pause long enough to realise that they are the opposite of the truth. One of the things we need to pray for is the grace of `alertness`; of knowing when to pause and question what`s going on.
Now, we were presented with a prime example of this in our Old Testament reading this morning (2 Samuel 7.1-7,16). We heard part of the story of King David. He was enjoying a momentary pause in leading the people in battle; he was reviewing his own interior decorating and the relative comfort in which he lived… and suddenly recalled that the Ark of the Lord (containing the commandments) resided in a tent. This didn`t seem at all a sufficiently honourable or respectful thing. This moment of reflection led David to want to do something religious… he wanted to do something for God; so, he thought of building a House, a more permanent residence for this representation of the Lord`s presence with his people. David has a conversation with the Prophet Nathan, (whom we might imagine sees a big donation coming!) and Nathan immediately says … “Well, that would be great. Go for it!”. However, that night Nathan receives a word from the Lord which reverses all of this. Nathan tells David, on the contrary, “The Lord will make YOU a house”.
Here, as I say, is an example of the complete opposite of what appeared to make sense. The heart of it…. and I really want us to get hold of this, is this contrast between what we do for God as opposed to what HE does for us. So, let`s extract a couple of things to pray with.
Firstly, notice that although Nathan responded instinctively and from an apparently logical and pragmatic point of view… He came back to David having had his mind changed. Why? Well because the Lord rehearsed for Nathan something of how things had been in his dealings with Israel down the generations. It became clear that institutionalising things in `A House of Cedar` had never been a priority…. or appeared on the Lord`s agenda. A tent had been more than adequate… indeed it reflected more of the Lord`s heart and character than Nathan appreciated. In other words, Nathan listened not just to the presenting situation, he asked whether this automatic desire to start a building project was really a reflection of the heart of God and his purposes for his people.
This is beautifully illustrated for me by St. John, the disciple, who we are told, had rested close to the heart of Jesus at the Last Supper. When John wrote the opening lines of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word… and the word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth” (John 1). The word he used for `dwelt literally means `pitched his tent. I don`t think that`s coincidental.
But secondly, and I repeat, the point that emerges from this episode is the singular importance of realising that what matters is NOT what we do for the Lord but what he desires to do for us. This is especially important as the spirit of anxiety and busy-ness appears to take a tighter grip on the life of the Church. Many siren voices are telling us to do this, that or the other but what`s needed more often than not, is the spirit of Nathan, who at his best realised the significance of pausing and refusing to accept that the easy and obvious path was necessarily the will of the Lord.
What I`m saying is that the mark of authentic faith; a faith which like St. John and Nathan dwells close to the heart of the Lord will recognise that sometimes the opposite is true. This passage holds before us something fundamental when it comes to seeking the Lord`s guidance. Maybe it would make a considerable difference to our decision-making if we were to ask:
“Which of the paths before me will lead me to better reflect and make present to others what I have come to know of the heart of God?”
And, “Which of these paths is about my desire to do something for God (as commendable as that might be) and which will leave me open to what HE wants to do in and through me?”