This Old House

SJF • Advent 4b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSG

The Lord spoke through the prophet Nathan and said to David, “The Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name.”
I’m sure that most of us here have seen at least one episode of the PBS TV series “This Old House.” For anyone who hasn’t, it involves a group of experts with a big budget doing massive renovations on different houses of different styles in different parts of the country. One can get quite an education watching this program and learn a good bit about plastering, woodworking, electrical installation, roofing, and heating and air-conditioning. Almost, I must say, as one can learn by being the vicar of Saint James Fordham!

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But on this last Sunday of Advent we are called to think of a different kind of house, or rather two different kinds of houses: one of them indeed something like those on “This Old House” or even more like Saint James Church, made of stone and wood and plaster; but the other of a different sort altogether, made of flesh and blood.

Both of these houses are referred to in Nathan’s prophecy to David. King David, you may recall, had wanted to build a permanent house for the ark of the covenant — a grand temple of stone and cedar as a suitable dwelling place for that powerful and dangerous vehicle of the presence of God. The ark had been carried through the wilderness and housed in a tent and a tabernacle — but never in a house of stone except for that brief time when the Philistines stole it and put it in the temple of their false god Dagon. The wrath of the true God came upon them almost as dramatically as in the Indiana Jones movie about that self-same ark. The Philistines of Ashdod couldn’t get rid of that ark of the covenant soon enough, stricken as they were with plagues, and the statue of their deity Dagon fallen flat on its face. So eventually — after trying to palm it off on four other Philistine cities with similarly disastrous results — they sent it back to Israel with gifts by way of apology.

Given that, one might think twice about building a house for the ark of God to rest in. But David had a mind to build just such a house. However, as he would soon learn, God had other plans, and instructed Nathan to tell David that he was not the one to build God a house of stone. This task would fall to his offspring; as indeed it did when Solomon built the temple that his father had only dreamed of.

But Nathan also spoke of another kind of house: that house of flesh and blood I mentioned a moment ago. The Lord said that he would make David a house: meaning a house in the sense of a royal heritage, a dynasty, like the House of Windsor or the House of Hanover. This royal lineage would not be a house of stone, but a house of living flesh and blood, a chain of inheritance and a royal bloodline that would be passed down from generation to generation. David would not end like Saul — a king with no one to succeed him. No, David would be the first monarch of a kingdom that would last for ever, a royal house that would stand for all time.

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So what happened? Within one generation after David, due to Solomon’s infidelity — as he was led into idolatry by his many pagan wives — the kingdom of David that was to last for all time ceased to be. The kingdom was first divided, the Twelve Tribes split up like a torn and ruined garment, and then after many years of ups and downs, taken off into captivity — Israel first and then Judah, and after returning home from Babylon only marginally ever able to reestablish itself for a brief time, before the Romans finally smashed it once and for all.

And that might have been the end of it all but for one thing. And that is the other house I spoke of: the one of living flesh and blood, of ancestral descent in the royal line. For God would raise up a Son of David, not Solomon, but long after Solomon and his immediate heirs had lost the earthly kingdom. And the throne of this Son of David would endure for ever — for his throne is notan earthly throne, but a throne set in heaven.

So it was that the angel Gabriel went forth to that town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a young woman engaged to marry a man of the House of David. Her name was Mary, and it is said of her that she too was reckoned to be of David’s line — since the angel assured her that Joseph would have nothing to do with the conception of this child but would be his foster-father, and yet that the Lord God would give this child the throne of his ancestor David — his ancestor through Mary “according to the flesh” (as Saint Paul would say to the Romans), even more importantly than through Joseph by adoption.

And so the house into which this child was born was no mere house of wood and stone; it was a house of flesh and blood — this old house of flesh and blood that traced its lineage back long before David, long before Moses, long before Abraham and the patriarchs, back to the beginning when flesh and blood was first made from the clay of the riverbank, and the breath of God breathed life into it, and it became a living soul.

This old house of flesh and blood had seen much damage since those early days; the telltale damage that came from the disobedience of Adam and Eve — the cost of deferred maintenance when we get our priorities out of order. Yet God kept his promise that this old house of flesh and blood could be renovated and restored.

And just as in the TV program “This Old House” the homeowners give the producers permission to come into their homes and do their work of restoration, so too the restoration of humanity begins with just such permission being given. Undoing the disobedience of Eve and Adam, Mary of Nazareth says the words that open the door to transformation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Mary opens the doors of this old human house and lets God in, to do his wonderful work.

God could make this old house new: working in human flesh the wonder of the incarnation, so that within the womb of Mary of Nazareth, in that house of flesh and blood God himself would be pleased to dwell: the son of God, now in flesh appearing.

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This renovation can happen in our flesh too, this same renewal can come to our own blood — our dilapidated houses can be restored and rebuilt. Our renewal can take place when we allow our Lord and God, by his daily visitation, to purify our consciences, to enter our hearts and take up residence there, in what at his word and work can become a mansion prepared for God to dwell. One of my favorite hymns — and we’ll be singing it at the end of our worship today — contains the wonderful verse addressing God in just this way: “Come, abide within me; let my soul, like Mary, be thine earthly sanctuary.”

God wants this invitation. God will not force this restoration upon us: God has given us the dangerous gift of free-will and we can choose to bar and bolt our doors and pull down the shades and turn out the lights and pretend we’re not at home when he comes to the door and knocks. We can pretend we’re perfectly happy with the falling plaster and leaking pipes and peeling paint of our unrestored spiritual selves.

Or we can accept God’s offer to make us new, to restore and renovate us after his own image, in the likeness of his Son, adopting us through him into that royal lineage of the House of God. God wants our tumbledown bungalows to become palaces and temples and mansions of his habitation. God wants us commoners to be adopted into the royal family, to share with Jesus in the royal priesthood of the kingdom of God. And God will do it if we let him. For he is, as Saint Paul said, “able to strengthen us according to the gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.” May we be strengthened to accept his invitation, day by day to invite his visitation, opening our hearts to say with blessed Mary: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”