(2 Samuel 7: 1-14; Psalm 89: 1-7)
When I was fourteen years old, I thought for sure I was getting an electric guitar for Christmas. I mean, I was convinced. It wasn’t a matter of “if;” it was a matter of “when” – and that “when” was absolutely going to be Christmas. I’d been playing my Dad’s acoustic for a couple of years, and it was nice and all, but the stuff I was listening to on the radio and the albums stacked on my bedroom shelf were full of songs that had electric guitars in them. And I wanted to play those songs.
I’d taken piano for three years. I took guitar lessons. My parents, musical people that they were, supported me in pretty much every musical venture and school arts endeavor I’d undertaken. The planets were aligning perfectly, y’all! I wasn’t even asking for a top-of-the-line guitar. It didn’t need to be fancy – because, as any teenage boy knows, any electric guitar is an awesome electric guitar. As December 25 neared, I even started writing songs on my acoustic imagining what they would sound like on the electric. So sure was I of what I would find under the Christmas tree on that glorious morning.
You see where this is heading, don’t you?
I’ve got to give my fourteen-year old self some props – I kept my cool, hid my disappointment behind smiles and “oh, just what I wanted!” It was Christmas, after all, baby Jesus born to the world; and the last thing that baby wanted to hear was some bratty teenager complaining about a gift he didn’t get. Besides, I knew I had amazing parents – still do, we celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last weekend – so there were no complaints. I know they’ll be reading and listening to this sermon as they do most every week, and I don’t want them to feel bad. I’ve gotten over my trauma – just kidding, Mom. Besides, I eventually got that electric guitar – 26 years later. Bought it myself. It’s the kind of thing you can do when you hit your 40’s.
But back then on that Christmas morning, it was confusing. Caught me by surprise – this “no” I hadn’t seen coming.
So what do we do when a much-anticipated hope becomes a dashed dream? And I’m not talking here about the little “no’s.” No one gets everything they want in life. Many of the “no’s” we encounter out are no big deal; we pick up and move on. But what happens when a heartfelt, earnest request, is not fulfilled? What do we do when the answer is no?
I ask that because it seems that the great King David dealt with this in our scripture day. There he was, the Golden Boy, everything seemingly going his way since he’d been a young lad, plucked from the fields and anointed king. There he was, celebrating; literally dancing in the streets, as the sacred Ark of the Covenant was ushered in to reside in its new home in Jerusalem. Everything going his way. Everything trending up.
And no one, least of all his mentor and prophet Nathan, faulted him in the least for wanting to see a new temple built in God’s name. Forty years wandering in the desert and another hundred carving out this Promised Land space. It was time, David declared, to set up shop; to give God a house so all could come and worship together.
It was part of David’s master plan: centralizing power in the former nondescript city of Jerusalem, giving God’s people a locale in which to place their hopes, their dreams, their faith. A political capital – but more than that, a religious center. Which brings David to the temple. Here I am, David tells Nathan, comfortable in this luxurious house of cedar, but the Ark of God sits in a tent. Let’s build God a home.
It was a good plan. It made political sense, religious sense. It was strategic, forward-thinking. It was faithful. It was the right thing to do.
But it was not a “yes” that David got. God’s response, though Nathan:
You’re going to build a ‘house’ for me to live in? Why, I haven’t lived in a ‘house’ from the time I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt till now. All that time I’ve moved about with nothing but a tent. And in all my travels with Israel, did I ever say to any of the leaders, ‘Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?’
You know, I read this to myself and I’m struck by the way God sound like an ornery curmudgeon who’s happy as can be with his rotor-dial phone and has no need for one of those shiny new smartphones, thank you very much. But God’s answer – I don’t need a house now. I will some day. Your son will be the one to build it for me. But not you. Not you. So thanks for the offer, but the answer is no.
We don’t get much on David’s response; there’s no ranting or raving, no hurt feelings, anything like that. But there’s still a part of me that wonders, kind of like Christmas all those years ago, if he was just playing it cool on the surface to mask the disappointment and even disillusionment inside.
No one likes to be told no, especially when what’s being asked seems reasonable, even admirable. But you take anyone’s life at any given moment, and you find people are dealing with this on an every-day basis:
- You’ve been with the company for over a decade. You’ve served as a faithful employee, doing all the things that need to be done, whether you liked doing them or not. You’ve done your time. All for this promotion, one you’re next in line for, one you’ve earned, one that others in the office say you’ve earned. Instead, it went to a younger colleague with half the experience and, one would assume, half the salary. But that’s just an assumption, because you really don’t know. You were never were given a reason why. You were only told “no.”
- Since your sophomore year in high school, it’s been your dream college. It probably had something to do with both your parents going there and practically indoctrinating you since birth. Your first onesie bore the school logo and colors; your family attended homecoming every year. Some might say you only wanted to appease your parents, but a long time ago you gained a love for this school that was all your own. But you’ll be loving it from afar next year. So many wonderful applicants, including you, the letter said. But apparently, not wonderful enough. It’ll be different colors you’ll be wearing in the fall – colors that, every time you look at them, will tell you over and over again that the answer was “no.”
- You’d been praying beside the hospital bed every day for the past week. Your loved one had been lying there. And you had believed, really believed, that your prayers would make a difference – even when the doctors told you it wasn’t looking good, even when friends and family gently advised you to prepare for the worst. But you were not at all prepared when the worst came. The hospital chaplain who’d been coming by all week came to see you a few hours after he died. Through tears you told him, I just don’t understand. I prayed and prayed and prayed, chaplain. Why didn’t God save him? Why did the answer have to be “no?”
That last scenario actually happened some years ago, at a hospital where I served as a summer chaplain during seminary. It was I who’d been visiting the woman all week, listening to her fervent prayers and trying to console her in the waiting room. All these years later and I still can feel her grief over her husband’s death, as well as her confusion and hurt when the answer was “no.” And I’m honestly not sure which one of those two stung her more.
There are some great things we do in the church and as people of faith, but helping people deal with the “no” answer is not one of them. We’ve concocted all kinds of cute little sayings we throw out there, hoping they’ll provide some “comfort” – the most notable perhaps being: When God closes a door, he……….. opens a window. I’ve never quite understood that, to be honest. Are we trying to get inside or out? And what if the window is too small? But I digress.
Some others we tend to throw out there:
- “No sense crying over spilled milk.” (which begs the question, does anyone actually cry over milk that has been spilled, and if so, why?)
- “Time will heal all wounds.” (but what if it doesn’t?)
- “Count your blessings.” (kind of the equivalent of, “hey, look at this bright shiny object I have here and not the mess over there you were looking at before!” Comfort by distraction!)
- “God never gives us more than we can handle.” (are you really sure about that?)
- And then, of course, “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
If you’ve used any of these before, take heart: I’ve done the same.
What about this response? I’m so sorry. That’s it. Not trying to rationalize anything. Not trying to make someone feel better with words of wisdom. Just being with them in their disappointment, in their loss, in their grief. A promise of presence.
See, I think that’s kind of the response David gets. No temple in his future. Bummer. But what is there for him? A “yes” of sorts. Not a window! Something different. A “yes” to David’s family, his lineage, his legacy. A promise of presence. A promise to be right there with him even in the “no.” A gentle reminder to fulfill not his hopes and dreams, his agenda, but God’s. All of which made it clear to the golden boy king: it wasn’t about him. It never had been. That’s the thing. It had always been, and always would be, about God.
I mentioned that last weekend our family was in Raleigh celebrating my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was almost a year ago that I phoned my brother to make plans. We came up with some pretty great ideas. A big party, renting out a place, catering food, my old band from Mount Airy performing, maybe a hundred people there. We called my parents and asked them to hold the weekend open because there was going to be a big party, a big celebration. What kind of celebration, my inquisitive mother asked. A big one, Mom, just trust us. I do trust you, she said, but what kind of celebration?
So I told her, and over the course of the next few months that big celebration with a rented place and catered food and four-piece band and a hundred people became a small gathering for eighteen in my parent’s backyard, beverages courtesy of the NoDa and OMB I brought in a cooler, and food courtesy of, well, my mother. Because she wanted to make something. The boys provided an acoustic set of Fall Out Boy covers in the living room. It was not at all the party I envisioned a year before. And it was absolutely marvelous. It was exactly the way it should’ve been.
When the answer to some of our hardest and deepest questions and requests is “no,” it is almost as if another kind of “yes” germinates out of it. Something much deeper than a window. Something we rarely see in the moment. A “yes” to another career path, another school, another life trajectory without a loved one but with many other loved ones. And, if nothing else, if nothing else, a “yes” to a stronger presence of God in our lives; a God who forever promises to be with us every step of the journey, whatever the answer may be.
May we find faith to listen for and receive God’s “yes.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
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