“The Annunciation Window in the UCH Sanctuary” by Guido Nincheri.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 7:1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,
7:2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."
7:3 Nathan said to the king, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the LORD is with you."
7:4 But that same night the word of the LORD came to Nathan:
7:5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?
7:6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.
7:7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why have you not built me a house of cedar?"
7:8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel;
7:9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth.
7:10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly,
7:11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
7:16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 1. The Hook: Family at our Fingertips
Many of you already know that I grew up on a dairy farm in central Ohio. The 100-acre farm has been in the Hamilton family for three generations.
I have very fond memories of my time there, and before the pandemic set in, I would return to the farm with my family once or twice a year to visit my parents, brothers and sister, and extended family.
My mother is a frequent traveler and has come to visit us when we lived in Massachusetts or here in Vermont several times. Like many farmers and perhaps especially dairy farmers, however, my father does not get out much.
As kids, we joked that Dad was a hermit, a designation that he fully embraced over the years. I wonder if he was simply preparing the 2020 pandemic, practicing social distancing all those years.
But even though my Dad is a homebody, and I’ve lived several hundred miles away from the farm for nearly 20 years, we are close.
We usually speak by phone about once a week. Sometimes the conversations are mundane: we talk about the weather, our football teams, or some piece of broken farm equipment he is currently working on. Sometimes we talk about our jobs, family news, or some new homesteading idea we’ve recently read about. Sometimes the conversations are hard: a health scare, politics, difficulties in life.
And recently, my Dad turned in his 14-year-old flip phone for a brand-new smartphone that has video calling. The first time I called him on his new phone, he was out at the barn and didn’t even know his phone could make a video call, remarking, “If I knew me and the mess here, I would have cleaned up first.” Now I see him about every week, get a tour of what he’s working on, joke about how gray his hair has gotten since the pandemic began.
It’s rather incredible that the first transcontinental video call took place over fifty years ago. In 1964, the Bell Picturephone was exhibited at the New York World’s Fair. There, Fair visitors could talk to and see Disneyland visitors in Anaheim, California. While the concept was met with great fanfare, the role out of this new technology fizzled out.
Commercial service started in June of that year with calling booths in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Customers needed to schedule their allotted 15 minutes of screen time in advance and had to pay $16 per call, equivalent to $120 in today’s money. The high price, limited coverage, and scheduling issues sunk the Picturephone, and by early 1968, the company abandoned the endeavor altogether.
Today, many of us rely on video conferencing. We chat with family in other parts of the world. Our children go to school using video conferences, and company meetings are held on platforms like Facebook Messenger, GotoMeeting, and Google Hangouts. Today’s worship service is presented over Zoom, which has seen its shares jump by over 500% since the beginning of the year.
While it cannot replace being physically present with those we love, work with, and worship with, seeing other faces can make us feel more present and connected than an old-fashioned phone call. And, no matter where we are, video calls have allowed many of us to be present this year as grandkids celebrate birthdays, as loved ones pass on, and as couples get married.
2. The Text:
Our story from 2 Samuel is not talking about the value of video calling, but maybe something adjacent. The story describes an interaction between David and God about the importance of place, presence, and divine care.
We might remember David as the young man, a shepherd, who was brave enough to take on Goliath. We might remember his close friendship with King Saul’s son, Jonathan. We might remember that he was musically gifted and that he was the most important King in Israel’s history.
In today’s lesson, David has come to power, and finally, after years of fighting, there’s peace in the land. David sits in his palace and reflects on how he has a permanent residence, but God does not.
The Ark of the Covenant, the physical representation of God at the time, dwells in a moveable tent. It has done so for generations, ever since the Hebrew people were liberated from Egypt in the stories of our Scriptures.
This tent, called the Tabernacle, traveled with God’s people as they wandered in the wilderness, faced war and famine, and gained land of their own. It went where the people went, so in a very physical way, God was always present.
But David, now no longer a wandering shepherd, has gained experience in the world. He’s traveled to other parts of the ancient Near East and has seen how other local deities have extravagant temples built in their honor.
Why shouldn’t God finally get a permanent abode as well?
The other character in our story is Nathan, a prophet of God, and likely the only one in David’s powerful circle that can challenge David’s intentions and actions.
Here, he speaks for God, reminding David that God provides for him, and not the other way around.
He reminds David of his pastoral upbringing and the nomadic nature of God’s people with this beautiful line:
I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people, and I have been with you wherever you went.
God’s place, Nathan reminds David, is with God’s people, wherever they roam.
3. The Point: God is present wherever God people are
This story from 2 Samuel is handed down to us by David’s descendants who were exiled from their homes and living in a foreign land sometime after these events. The Temple, later built by David’s son, Solomon, has been destroyed, and all that’s left are the stories and practices of a people with a common heritage.
I can imagine then how this story might come to mind when those religious scholars sat down to record the story of their most famous king.
The idea of place is really confusing these days. I’ve been in one place, my home, more this year than I’ve been home at any other time in my life. Because of the pandemic, I either see less of or none of my usual places: a movie theater, family farm, store, a friend’s home, a restaurant. Like most, the novelty of being home alone, tied to one place, has already worn off, and I miss those other places. I miss the people of those places. I miss the experiences those places seemed to generate.
4. The Word in the words:
It will be pretty weird this week on Christmas Eve when, instead of preparing for two or three Christmas Eve services with full crowds, I will come into the Sanctuary, sit by myself, and share a worship service over Zoom. Likely, you will realize the weirdness of this all too because you will not be able to drive down to the church for worship and caroling either.
And Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as we’ve always experienced them, will be different too. Even if we host Christmas gatherings in our homes and are in our usual places, the place is missing the right people, our people, the ones we choose to share this special time of year.
5. The Comfort/Challenge: God with Us
But I remain hopeful this Christmas season. Stories like the ones from 2 Samuel and today’s gospel lesson, the Annunciation, remind me that we can still be present with one another, even when we are not in the same place.
More than that, though. God is present with us wherever we are these days.
In fact, it seems that God prefers not to be pinned down at all, stuck in a specific place like a temple, worship hall, or church sanctuary.
And God doesn’t really need you to clean up your house or shovel the sidewalk before God showing up. God’s not picky. God lived in a dirty tent for years and seemed completely content in doing so.
God goes with us where we go.
We get a similar message about God in the story of the Annunciation. Certainly, God, the creator and sustainer of all things can only be accessed by esoteric mystical experiences, or in heaven, beyond the boundary of death.
Not really. In the Annunciation, God is present in a powerful but completely normal young woman and a baby born to modest means during a time of great conflict.
If God shows up to a little stable in the backwoods of the world, two-thousand years ago, why wouldn’t God also show up now in all of our lives, and homes, and Zoom calls, and home offices, and messy living rooms?
God is at home where you are right now.
And maybe in some small way, those that we love and miss this time of year are too.
While we are apart for this brief time, may we find ways to be present with one another this Christmas season. May we use all the resources at our disposal and remember to call, write, text, videoconference, wave, yell, or send smoke signals to those we love. And may we feel the presence of an ever-loving and close God, a God that prefers to travel with us, wherever we are. Amen.