July 18, 2021

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Promises, Promises

The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

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8 Pentecost (Proper 11) Year B

2 Samuel 7:1-14a (and b)

 “…[T]he 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.”

Those of you who have been following my latest sermons are probably aware that I’ve been on somewhat of a mission–to shine a little less rosy light on King David; pointing out the Biblical storyteller’s subtle ways of showing us that David was not necessarily the golden boy the Sunday school coloring sheets led us to believe. For all of that, I’d like to offer two takeaways from all of my David-bludgeoning: First, David was human. We have put him on a pedestal, which does us all a disservice. David was as flawed as anyone, and struggled between doing the right thing for the right reasons, the right thing for the wrong reasons, and the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. Confused? Welcome to the human race. That being said, my second point is this; that there is a big difference between being used by God–which involves humility, vulnerability, and self awareness– and using God for one’s own purposes—which stems from pure hubris. David, like any of us, struggled with knowing the difference. And making the distinction between the two is the chief lesson for us now, not only in our personal, but in our national lives as well. So we need to see David as not so much a role model as an extremely valuable cautionary tale, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. 

So, today David is getting a bit of a break. Today we talk about promises.

“The Lord had given [David] rest from all his enemies around him…” 

David looks around and sees an abode worthy of an earthly king; beautiful, luxurious, redolent of cedar, and thinks, surely God deserves something at least this grand after all God has done for me? Surely God deserves more than a measly tent?

The prophet Nathan has a particular role here; to misinterpret God’s response to David’s proposal: Nathan says, go ahead and build a temple, “…for the Lord is with you.”

We see in Nathan’s error an embodiment of the tension in the entire Samuel narrative; the tension of trying to negotiate the difference between what we think God wants and what God actually wants. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, we think we hear God clearly, but then we, like Nathan and David, discover–to use my favorite phrase to live by– that God is God, and we are not. 

So God refuses David’s offer: “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day…[D]id I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

You see, this was much more significant than God getting an accommodations upgrade. It was addressing a conflict between God’s presence—with Israel, in Jerusalem, with David—and God’s freedom to move about as God pleased. If God remained in the tent, God remained transitory. God could pull up stakes and leave. But if God is in a temple, then Israel, Jerusalem, and David can rest easy because God can’t go anywhere. Just like the gods of the neighboring peoples. 

(Pregnant pause.) 

Wasn’t there something a few weeks ago about Israel wanting a king so as to be like other nations? 

Oh, David. Have you learned nothing? 

But I said we’re giving him a break. Much more important, God gives him a break; a transformational break that will have consequences for the people of God in both the Jewish and Christian households from this point on. 

God says that, rather than have David build God a physical house, God will instead establish a generational house for David—a family dynasty and a great name—and God will plant the people of Israel in their own place, safe from their enemies. And further, David’s offspring—Solomon—will ultimately build the temple. 

The relationship that God establishes between Godself and David’s offspring is that of father and son. It is tempting to see this as a predictor of Jesus, but it is not. Rather this is a promise of an indissoluble relationship. God is saying that the relationship between God and God’s people is no longer conditional as it was since the time of Moses, i.e. if you will serve only me, then I will be with you and care for you. If you disobey and run after false idols I will desert you. This new relationship is no longer conditional; God is declaring God’s presence and care into perpetuity. 

This is huge. 

It is huge for people of faith in both the Jewish and Christian households because it is a promise of messianic hope. As Walter Brueggemann writes: 

“That hope believes, confesses, and trusts that God will keep God’s promise of righting the world and that the promise will be kept within the historical process through a historical agent. This promise, then, is not one among many for Jews and Christians; it is the decisive shaper of both these communities who trust God’s work to become visible within the historical process.“ (emphasis mine)

As I said, huge. Jews will articulate this as Messiah. Christians will articulate it as God With Us. 

But wait. We know that the history of Israel is anything but smooth sailing from this point on. We know that eventually David’s royal dynasty comes to an end and that Israel is sent into exile. How does that fit in with God’s unconditional promise to David? 

Well, we find it, as we did last week, in the bit that’s been left out of today’s reading. Our assigned passage today is verses 1 through 14a; it cuts us off in mid-verse. Here is the first part of verse 14: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” Here is the second half: “When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.”

Well then. 

God’s covenant is unconditional…but just as with a parental relationship it does not ignore consequences of the choices that David and Israel will make in the future. 

So God’s people are given both promise and tension; the promise of God’s presence no matter what, in tension with the fact that “no matter what” includes times when God will seem—but not be— very distant.  

There is a temptation here to do what the Lectionary has done—to ignore this latter warning of chastisement. After all, it puts us in an uncomfortable place of pondering the events of history and coming to a dangerous conclusion that the Jewish people were somehow responsible for the horrors visited upon them throughout the centuries. The error in this lies in the fact that the teller of the Samuel narrative was writing in the midst of the Babylonian Exile. The statement at the end of verse 14 was not a prediction of a future event; it was elicited by what was happening in the moment and an articulation of the fundamental question of why bad things happen to good people. For the storyteller to have let God’s unconditional promise stand alone without the tension of God’s warning of chastisement would have made God a liar. Because bad things did happen to Israel and God did seem silent and absent, and the storyteller simply asked, “Why?” So this is much more about the question than the answer. Which is not much of an answer to the tension of the historical events since the 6th century BCE. So, no, the Jews were not responsible for the evil of the pogroms and the Holocaust. And Yes, the Jews, and anyone with a shred of compassion, to this day plead to understand, why?

So, to return to Nathan’s oracle; it is a message of hope interwoven with challenge. And we are challenged to understand that hope isn’t hope unless it faces challenge. 

This is the hope of our baptism.

I’m always excited for baptism Sundays. Maybe it’s because in Baptism we are tapped into something momentous: By water and the Spirit we are welcoming one of God’s beloved children into the Christian family and equipping her to be part of the healing of the world. We’re tapping into God’s promise of unconditional presence, no matter what. 

One of the most foundational statements of the Baptism service is found in the fine print and never spoken in the liturgy, and I want Anita, her family and godparents to pay special attention: 

The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”

Anita Cierra, God is never going to let you go. 

We make promises too, to help sustain Anita on her journey, because she is human, and she will struggle with how to meet life’s challenges. So we will promise a framework for her life in Christ—a Baptismal Covenant that guides her not only in the faith of the Body of Christ, but what that looks like in her daily life; worshiping, proclaiming the Good News in word and action, doing the work of healing the world, and when (not if) necessary, asking forgiveness of God and others. And when she stumbles, we promise that we will be there for her, supporting her in her life in Christ. 

And all of it, with God’s help. Because God never lets us go, either.

That’s a promise.