A little child proudly presented her painting of the birth of Jesus to her teacher. “Wow, this is wonderful,” the teacher exclaimed. The child explained who everyone was, “Here’s Mary and Joseph. Here’s the baby Jesus. They’re riding on a donkey. They’ve left Bethlehem and are going to Egypt.” The teacher was impressed with the attention to detail and smiled and nodded. Then the teacher noticed something in the picture and asked the child, “What’s this here?” The child replied, “It’s the flea.” “The flea?” the teacher replied. “Yes,” explained the child, “because when the angel appeared to Joseph to tell him to go to Egypt because of nasty Herod, Gabriel told Joseph to take Mary and flea.” So, there you go, an unappreciated extra animal in our crib scene this year!
I want to talk about someone else who is in the background of our Christmas celebrations and that’s King David. He lived about a thousand years before Jesus was born but he gives his name to the city in which both he and Jesus were born, though some thousand years apart. For this reason on this holy night the angels appeared to the shepherds in the field and said to them, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah the Lord,” (St Luke 2:11). When the angel appeared to Joseph to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, as we heard last Sunday at Mass, he reiterated that Joseph is son of David (St Matthew 1:20). But it’s not just the birth narratives which link Jesus to the ancient King of Israel: time and time again when those individuals step forward from the crowd seeking healing they utter those words, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” (eg. St Luke 18:38).
I want to say something about who David is and then why it’s significant that Jesus is known as David’s Son.
David’s most famous perhaps for that wonderful account in I Samuel 17 when he comes face to face with Goliath: definitely a Sunday school favourite! Little boy with sling knocks out big bully before they have chance to be locked in combat. Wonderful! Everyone has a soft spot for the underdog (which is presumably how Matt Hancock did so well in “I’m a celebrity”!). And David is definitely introduced in the Bible in these terms of being the underdog. Samuel the prophet has been sent out to anoint a king. Jesse’s sons are sent for and Samuel is given advanced warning that God does “not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,” (I Samuel 16:7). Samuel goes through the sons of Jesse and David nearly gets forgotten, after all he’s the youngest and he’s got work to do tending the sheep. As well as being a shepherd, David was also a musician from his youth and hence his association with the Psalms, the great song book in the Bible.
David is anointed King of Israel but gets things wrong nonetheless. He sinned and most notably with Bathsheba who was married to Uriah the Hittite. As is often the case, sin becomes a spiral with things getting worse and worse and David tries to conceal his adultery by ensuring Uriah dies while serving in the army (II Samuel 11:14). Nathan declares God’s verdict, however, and David is to know the consequences of his sin: “I will raise up trouble against you,” says the Lord, “from within your own house.” David’s response is contrition and so his life is spared, (II Samuel 12:13-14). God is indeed quick to forgive us our sins when we say sorry to Him, indeed God is so quick to do so He has already sent down His Son to be born for us, to die for us, and to be raised up that we might know eternal life.
And in part as a consequence of his own decisions David goes through bad periods. One psalm ascribed to him begins, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever … How long must I bear pain in my soul?” (Psalm 13:1-2). Chief among the hardships of David was the death of his son Absalom, having been injured in battle. David weeps bitterly lamenting that if only he could have died in the place of his son. The grief is particularly poignant because Absalom had been leading a revolt against his father King David and one of David’s own soldiers killed Absalom. We see then that David’s status as King and being the Lord’s anointed was not to spare him such sadness. We should know God still looks on us with His mercy and love when we are sad and feel that life has turned against us.
So, there’s a bit about King David. What does this tell us about our Lord Jesus Christ, whose birth we have come to celebrate?
First, then, David was King, but there were also many kings after him. What is significant when it comes to us thinking about the Christ-child whom we have come to pay homage to today is that David was told his kingship shall not end: “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever,” Nathan the prophet is to inform David (II Samuel 7:16). This is fulfilled with the kingship of Jesus, David’s son, who is Lord for ever! The Gospel accounts are very clear on this: the Shepherds and the Wise Men don’t just go to be entertained, to take a quick selfie with the child or to see their friends, they go to bend the knee, to worship, to put their life on a new footing with new priorities and fresh hope, under this new-born king.
Our Lord’s kingship is eternal for He was present at the Creation of the world, ever-splendid, ever-glorious, ever-giving. Goldfish, it is said, have memories of only a few seconds, which is why you mustn’t overfeed them, because they’ll just keep eating having forgotten that they have already eaten. We human beings are not meant to be like that. Mindful of our past, the things we try to make sense of, we will also be aware of the invitation to share in eternal life, a future with God. When we gather for worship we will be lifted out of the present, we will indeed be lifted out of time altogether as we offer that which is timeless, that which is eternal. We hear often in our worship the phrase, “for ever and ever,” to which we usually respond, “Amen,” affirming that we do indeed know that we are caught up in this timeless act, the eternal purposes of God, which can only be done by offering ourselves in submission to God’s will.
Secondly, just as David was the youngest of his brothers and therefore not ordinarily destined for great things according to the standards of the day, so we will observe in this solemn feast of Christmas that some things are not how we might expect. No fanfare, no one to welcome Jesus, no one even makes a bed for the Lord of Heaven and earth: He is laid in a manger, the animals presumably told temporarily to stop eating from it while this vulnerable child is placed there. Jesus was not born as part of a ruling class, rather as one of the marginalised. His people had been subjugated by the Roman Empire and they weren’t even a very significant part of that Empire, just a troublesome backwater and the presence of King Herod in the birth accounts reminds us that this part of the world was a place of political struggle and discontent.
Often in life we will delay introducing God into our life until we have got things sorted. We need to do this or earn this amount of money or sort this relationship out or help someone else get their life in order and then we’ll be able to turn to God. We compare him perhaps to a parent coming to visit our room at university or an imaginary scenario of the King coming to our home and we think of the tidiness, the flowers, emptying the bin, all the things we’d do to get it ready. One of the reassuring things we learn from our Christmas celebrations about the way God works is that He comes to us in the midst of the chaos, despite the woeful inadequacy of our following of Him. He comes to us and shows that high places and rough roads can be made smooth by His grace, if we are willing to be changed by the immensity of His love. Just as He came even to that poor shepherd boy David who was nearly forgotten by his dad and the prophet Samuel.
Jesus’ lowly birth puts to shame our demands for comfort ahead of our duties to love God and neighbour. Elsewhere the Psalms bids God remember King David’s hardships (Psalm 132:1) and we too as we gather to celebrate with joy and wonder the coming to earth of the Saviour, should recall the cost of that salvation. Everyone loves a cute baby, well the one whose we celebrate today, Christ Jesus our Lord, didn’t just come for us to go all soppy about. He came to die a terrible death to save us from our sins. May the life of King David teach us something about his foremost heir, Christ our Lord, whose kingship is eternal, whose birth was extraordinary in being among the poor and outcast, and who has come to be among us, the Word made Flesh. Amen.