As Christmas approaches, talk around living rooms and around dinner tables often revolve around traditions. When does your family open gifts? Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? Which church service do you attend? The one with the pageant, the one with candle light, or the one on Christmas morning? Do you hang stockings for Santa to fill? What is the traditional Christmas feast at your house? Ham? Stewed Oxtail? Curried Goat? Something else?
Our churches too are filled with such nostalgic conversations about tradition. “We will dim the lights and sing Silent Night in the candlelight, won’t we?” “We will have poinsettias again this year, won’t we?” “The pageant will be the traditional story, won’t it? – with the angels, the shepherds and the wisemen?” “We will have a carol sing this year, won’t we?” These are just some of the questions that I have heard at and around St. Mark’s as Christmas draws near. And, the answers for those who just can’t wait – yes, yes, yes, and yes!
In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, King David announces to the prophet Nathan his desire to build a house – a temple – for the Lord. It seems wrong to David that he should live in a great house built of cedar and that God should still dwell within a tent. During the night, however, Nathan receives word from God saying that this is not what the Lord desires. In fact, God tells Nathan, never have I asked for a house of cedar; moreover, God continues, “I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place . . . the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”
So what do the Israelites do? They build a house of cedar – a temple – for God. A temple so elaborate, in fact, that it takes 7 ½ years to complete. To be sure the building of the temple doesn’t take place until the reign of King Solomon some 10 to 20 years after King David’s reign ends; but, there is no indication that God has, in this interim period, changed God’s opinion on the matter. Moreover, this is not the first time in the history of the Israelite people that the people ask God for something, God says “no” and the people do it anyhow. In fact, that’s how Israel got their first King! But we’ll save that story for another time.
In the building of the temple a deep and rich tradition around ritual worship begins. Chapter upon chapter of Scripture focus on the right way to worship God: who can approach the throne of God in the temple, who can serve as temple priests, what the priests should wear, what sacrifices are appropriate for various occasions and circumstances, and so on. This tradition of “how to” worship God is one that carries into our present day whenever congregations engage in conversation – or sadly sometimes debates - about how we should worship, the “right” way to worship, or, as it is frequently heard in churches, “the way we’ve always done it.” And there are two times of year when these conversations reach a climactic pitch: Easter and, you guessed it, Christmas!
Psychologist Michele Brennan suggests that the reason holiday traditions become so important is that they help build
“a strong bond between family and our community. They give us a sense of belonging and a way to express what is important to us. They connect us to our history and help us celebrate generations of family. . . . They keep the memories of the past alive and help us share them with newer generations.”
And so, when someone decides to try something new or different, it can feel as though a part of our identity is being stripped away. Rationally, we know that is not the case: my family is still my beloved family even if this one Christmas we eat dolmades instead of ham and my church community is still my beloved church community even if this year my favorite Christmas hymn doesn’t get sung. But on an emotional level, such small things can really move us. And so, the way we do things becomes a habit, becomes an expectation, becomes a tradition.
And, I LOVE tradition. When our Confirm not Conform students gather for class, our session begins with a series of statements and an invitation for students and leaders to stand on a line in the room. One end of the line represents “Strongly Agree,” the other end represents “Strongly Disagree.” Last Sunday night, one of the statements was, “I like things to stay pretty much the same.” When I moved to toward the “Strongly Agree” side of the line, I heard one of the students exclaim, “Pastor Debra! That’s really bad!” Now I can only assume that the reaction had to do with the fact that I am constantly encouraging all of us to accept change as a normal part of how we do things – in fact, I would love for us to make a tradition of change! But here’s another fact: I too find change incredibly challenging. I, like most people, when it comes to traditions – especially around the BIG holidays – I like things “the way they’ve always been.” But I also know that when I give in to that desire, I run the risk of closing myself off from God’s invitation to new life.
King David wants to build a temple for God. And God says “No!” God tells King David, through the prophet Nathan, that it is God who wants to make us a house. God wants to set the parameters for our life with God. God does not want to be boxed in – by a temple, by our church walls, by the way we’ve always done things. God wants to make us a house, God wants to dwell in us and reshape and reform us again and again. Can we make room in our hearts and in our minds and in our souls for that sort of transformation – room to receive God’s gift - even amidst the candlelight, the poinsettias, the pageant, and the carols?