Truthfully, I was unsure where to go this week for us as a parish. I feel like we have spent enough time on our discussions of faith and the effects faith in God through Christ should have on our lives, our outlooks, everything about us really, these last couple weeks. Usually people come in or call to talk about last week’s sermon. So far, in my short time at Advent, people have wanted to chat about my sermon every other week but one. And just so y’all know, I’m not talking about the “attaboys,” “good one, father’s,” or the “that’s the best one yet’s.” I am far more concerned with how you all reflect on the sermons and the teaching even as you read Scripture and then examine your lives. I think for us as a parish and for us as individuals, those are far more important. So imagine my disappointment this week when nary a comment came my way. I’m not disappointed that there were no discussions, mind you. I’m disappointed that I am not sure where we are this week. It makes the crafting of a sermon that much more difficult, particularly when we as Episcopalians have been stuck on a subject for a couple weeks. Our lectionary is supposed to move us along, is it not?
Our choices for reading this week were certainly interesting given that lack of dialogue. We could focus on Mark, and I could call you to leave everything and follow God. But that seems a bit premature. We could focus on Paul’s mystical experience and leave ourselves wondering why we have not had one ourselves. The reading from Samuel is incredibly tough. I know some of my colleagues who have been away these last couple weeks were even wondering why the editors chose that passage from 2 Samuel in the first place. I even considered the psalm and its wonderful image of God’s holy city, Jerusalem. But I was not sure yet how to tie that image to our collective lives here in Nashville. In the end, since it was the 4th and we are all about heritage this weekend, I decided to have us look at the passage from 2 Samuel. History is only so good for us if we use it to understand our present and to shape our future. That certainly seems to be a lesson included in today’s readings.
We have blown through the narratives of Samuel rather quickly since the Feast of Pentecost. We have touched on the call of the prophet, on the peoples’ desire for a king, the anointing of Saul, the rejection of Saul and the anointing of David, and David’s battle with Goliath. It sounds like a lot to cover, and it is, but we have skipped tons. As always, I encourage you to pick up the books at home and read in between the selections of our lectionary editors. For example, this week we pick up at the end of a civil war. Essentially one tribe is supporting David. Saul’s son, Ish-Bosheth, has the support of most of the others. More strange to our ears is the fact that many of those fighting to keep Ish-Bosheth king realize they are fighting God. The couple chapters before us include David taking back Saul’s daughter, whose betrothal cost him a hundred Philistine foreskins, the murder of Ish-Bosheth’s general and king-maker, and finally the murder of Ish-Bosheth. To say that those men get an unexpected reward is the height of euphemism!
Now, following this civil war and the murder of the pretender, the tribes of all Israel come to David. They remind David that they are, like him, descendants of Abraham and Jacob. They may be very distant cousins at best, but they are still family. They acknowledge that God has anointed David as king over all Israel, even though Saul was alive and still king. Better still, they acknowledge that David was the one who led them to victories under Saul. So they ask David to fulfill his role as shepherd and as king. It is an interesting request. God has different expectations of His kings than do the people of Israel or the surrounding “ites.” God, in fact, warns Israel that the king they choose will use them, will take their daughters as wives and concubines, take their sons to fight his wars, take their wealth to pay his sycophants, and take their produce to feed his aristocracy. Saul does precisely all that. He rejects God and, unlike David who sins quite a bit, even refuses to repent.
Now, of course, everyone wants the fighting to stop. So they ask David to be God’s shepherd of them. And we are told that the elders of the tribes make a covenant with David and that David makes a covenant with them. Then we are given this little bit of disjointed history. David reigned over Israel for forty years, 7 years and six months at Hebron and thirty-three years at Jerusalem. The only problem with that, of course, is the fact that Jerusalem still belongs to the Jebusites! So, and our lectionary editors skip this part, David marches on Jerusalem and takes the city via the water system. I suppose our editors skip over the section because of the references to the “lame and the blind” not being able to enter the palace. But David takes the city and begins to improve on its defenses. From that time forward, the city becomes known as the city of David.
Some of you may wonder why David takes the city. It is ok. Scholars do from time to time. Is Jerusalem part of the Promised Land? No. It was outside the land granted to the tribes of Israel as an inheritance. But people being people, how do we feel when somebody famous or important is from our home town? Prophets and judges would routinely set up their center in the lands of their family. It gave to the tribe from which they were descended a special feeling of privilege. It also made the other eleven somewhat discontented. On the cosmic scale, it’s like our brothers or sisters reminding us that they are/were mommy’s or daddy’s favorite. It’s cosmic because now that authority is “proof” of God’s favoritism, right?
No, Jerusalem is outside the covenant lands. It is, in modern language, a District of Columbia. It was not part of Maryland or part of Virginia. It was it’s own place, separate and apart. David will not be seen so closely associated with the tribe of Judah. His city is in a place outside the Promised Land. His authority and his power and his glory will be shared equally by all the tribes. There will be no tangible reminder that he belonged to one tribe and that they, just by virtue of his birth, share in his glory.
Those who have been engaging with me in Bible studies are probably already sick of the reminder, but the purpose of Samuel is not simply to give us a history lesson. To clarify that better, I should say that the history lesson that the author of Samuel is wanting us to learn is not so much concerned with those things that we teach and learn in history classes today. Let’s face it, how many of us know our ancient Israel geography well-enough to know the locations of all the cities mentioned in Samuel? How well do we understand the dates? Heck, how well do we understand the names of the places and the people involved, many of which give us insight as to the purpose of the book?
What is the purpose of this lesson? Look at our last verse. What does it say? Does David become great because of his military genius? His trade acumen? His dogged determinedness to see Israel elevated on the world’s stage? No. The author is clear that David becomes greater and greater because the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him!
Think of that commentary for just a second. There are a number of scholars who like to point out that much of what we call the Old Testament was written as propaganda to justify the rule of the Davidic line. There is a strongly accepted idea out there that because David won, he got to write the history. We should feel sorry for Saul and his family because David was an usurper. We should feel sorry for all the “ites” and the Philistines because David stole their land. But is that the testimony of Scripture? Is David elevated because of his power? His genius? His skills? He goes from being a shepherd tending his father’s flocks to a king tending the Father’s flocks because God has chosen him! If these “history” books are mere propaganda of the winners, they are not very good. We are reminded over and over of the sins of David. Repeatedly, we are shown that David’s failures cost lives, lots of innocent lives. Yet Scripture holds them up to us constantly. Why?
And David’s life simply mirrors the life of Israel. Are Abraham and Sarah chosen because they were young and beautiful? Because they were star-crossed lovers? Because they like to travel? What elevates the standing of the matriarch and patriarch in the eyes of their descendants? Their faith in God. When they had no reason yet to believe, still they trusted the Lord. Like David, the journey of their descendants was not what they likely expected. But they trusted that God would fulfill his promises to them, even if her laughter had her changing diapers at age 100!
The modern equivalent of what is happening in these history books would be as if someone did a history book on Reagan and recounted the Iran Contra every few pages or did a history book on Clinton and reminded us of the Lewinsky affair every couple paragraphs. Who does that? Who does that when one is interested in propaganda rather than truth? No one! We hide the faults of those whom we want to elevate by propaganda and put forward their successes. We “paint their actions in the best light.”
I suppose that the nudge to this sermon began in Bible study on Monday. One of the ladies commented that, for her, David’s story was a reminder of the patience required when serving God. When the group asked her to continue her thought, she explained that it always helped her to remember that it took twenty-five years or so for David to realize the fulfillment of God’s promises to him! She’s right, you know. David was anointed king by Samuel somewhere around age thirteen. He is not made king by the elders of Israel until he was thirty-three. David spent twenty years on this arduous path to the throne. Many times, his predecessor wanted to kill him. You and I would say that David would have been within his rights to slay Saul. But David is obedient. David is so obedient that he even sings to Saul, the king trying to kill him, when the evil spirit sent by God claims his mind. David finds himself jerked around by Saul, he finds himself on the run, he finds himself placed in impossible situations. But he trusts God and God’s promises. Today, we read of the fulfillment of those promises.
All of this story, taken together, should give us a bit of improved perspective as we face the day and the future steeped in our faith. What do I mean by such as a statement? First, we are given these stories as a reminder of the fact that God keeps all His promises to His people and to us. With the coronation of David by the elders, Israel has truly become a nation. How long ago was that promise made to His people Israel? Long before they were a people. Back then, there was a husband and a wife, Sarah and Abraham. Think of the journey. When only seventy existed in this family, they went to live in Egypt. Eventually, they were enslaved. Then came the events of the Exodus, then Joshua’s rule, then the rule of the Judges. This fulfillment has been years and generations in the making. Do you think people along the way wondered if God was in control? If God was powerful enough to keep His promises? If God even wanted to keep His promises.
Tom reminded us in Bible study this morning about the fulfillment of Jesus’ creation of His Bride, the Church. We happen to be reading the same passage from Mark as our Gospel lesson this week. Tom remarked about the ridiculous notion that fishermen and a few others could be counted on to become the Church. Today, of course, we see the beginning of that transformation. These fishermen and others go out preaching the Gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons. In many ways, they claim the benefits of His coming passion far better than many of us in today’s Church. And we have the benefit of the Cross and Empty Tomb to inspire us!
I know that events in the world sometimes seem to be chaotic. In the last couple weeks I have had long conversations with brothers and sisters who lament and who cheer the decision of the courts, who lament and who cheer the developments in our national church, who lament and who cheer the decision to tear down a flag whose meaning has been co-opted by bigots, who are proud and who worry about loved ones serving the cause of freedom in locations that seem so far from our beloved shores. If anything, our times resemble the times described in Scripture. The world is always in a process of rejecting God. We read every Christmas Eve that He came into what was His own and that His own rejected Him. And then we are shocked when something happens in the world to proclaim that God does not care, that God is not able to keep His promises, that God does not love us, that God is even real!
Stories such as David’s or the disciples remind us that God really is in control. Part of the reason these stories were retained is so that we could find encouragement in them. If David is our brother in his great-great-great-great (however many) grandson Jesus Christ, then his story is part of our family’s story—The story of redemption. And just as our brother had to live in faith as if God would make him king over Israel despite all the evidence to the contrary, you and I are called to live a life as if we are sojourners in this land, a people set apart and called to a Feast by the Father. In that way, all the stories of the saints who have gone before us can serve to exhort us, to encourage us to keep living in the sure and certain promises of God. Nothing, no power of the Enemy no plotting by humans not even our deaths can prevent Him from fulfilling His promise to each one of us! Nothing.
Of course, even as we look back and remind ourselves of the stories of God’s faithfulness, we are given eyes to see the present and understanding to not fret too much about the future. For all the fulfillment described in this passage, is David’s construction of the city the sacred city described in the Day of the Lord? Of course not. We still have not seen that city. In a couple chapters, David will forget by whose hand his strength increased. David will sleep with Bathsheeba, murder her husband, ask God to punish Israel for his sin in a census, and any number of other sins. He will act like anyone except one who knows that God put him on the throne. Unlike Saul, though, He will repent. When God reminds him that he has disobeyed, David will repent. But he will still have to live with the consequences of his sins. Forgiveness, David will learn, as we all do, does not mean that we get a pass on the consequences. We just get a pass on the ultimate consequence, death and separation from God.
Should we as Christians, trying to be faithful to God, be concerned about the world around us? Absolutely. But should we be surprised when the world acts in ways that reject God? Of course not. But we need to be looking at the worldly evidence with faith-filled eyes. This day that we read about in the life of David should never have happened. How could Israel ever become a nation? There were too many other nations arrayed against it. At times, super-powers defeated it and enslaved it. What of those super powers? Egypt? It is around but not nearly as influential on the world scene. Assyria and Babylon? Gone. Persia? It’s culture impacts us, but as a nation it is no longer. Greece? Rome? Each of those countries believed themselves blessed by the gods and the expression of all that was best in humanity. If we have begun the death throes in this country, as some worry, should we be surprised? And should we really worry? We read in Scripture that God saw His people through it all! He will, no doubt, see His people through the issues of today. This existence, my brothers and sisters, is not even close to that to which He calls each and every human we meet.
How about our church? Well, seeing as how David, the man after God’s own heart committed more than a few sins, maybe we should quit wringing our hands so much and get back to work. We skipped a civil war between last week’s reading and this week’s reading. Should we really be surprised that there is bickering in our midst? Yes, errant decisions cause tremendous pain and suffering for God’s people, but it is in pain and suffering where God anoints His servants and calls the world around them to repent. It is in those moments when we think things cannot be redeemed that God delights in showing His glory and His power.
One last note, and I have skirted its edges this morning. I know that Carola spoke at some length with you about it during the interim. She has shared she did, and some of you have asked about it. What our beloved sister on Monday captured about David is a theological understanding expressed in Caola’s teaching among you. David lived for more than two decades certain that God would make him king. Even though the king was alive and circumstances still confessed that David was anything but king, David lived a faithful life, trusting in the promises of God. You and I have been speaking of worldly events this morning. We have spoken mostly of past events, history, and the present. All of these events, of course, give us glimpses and peeks into the ultimate fulfillment of those promises. You know it as the tension between the already and the not yet.
Good. I see the nods. Brothers and sisters, we sometimes act as if this world, as if our surroundings, are the best for which we can possibly hope. How sad is that? You and I are promised that we will be present with our Lord, as was Adam and Eve so long ago, for all eternity. Such presence is described as a Wedding Feast, a banquet. It is described as a place with no crying, no suffering, and no death. Given the world that we live in, how can we really ever begin to understand such a promise? And, yet, that is precisely the promise He makes. And He calls upon each one of us to live in this day, in this age, in this place, aware of our surroundings, ministering to those caught in its vicissitudes, but with an eye on that ultimate fulfillment. We can face privation, pain, suffering, disappointment, national upheaval, and even death itself, because we know the God who anointed David, the God who sent out the disciples two by two, the God who raised Jesus back to life that wonderful Easter morning, the God who pledged Himself to each one of us has promised. And He always, always keeps His promises.