A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 18th July 2021, The Seventh Sunday of Trinity
2 Samuel 7:1-14a
The past week has seen our two foremost political leaders trying to get back on their feet as we prepare to move into the next stage of our journey through the pandemic. Boris Johnson, keen to embed his election victories in the north into a permanent political legacy, has returned to his “levelling-up” agenda. Kier Starmer, still rebuilding after a difficult election loss under his predecessor, embarks on a painful journey of listening to voters who once voted Labour, but who have become disenchanted. And in the lower leagues of English political life, the Greens and the Liberals continue to struggle to break through. Perhaps only in Scotland right now is there a political party that can count on its legitimacy, but even there, in politics nothing can be taken for granted.
That’s why, ever since earliest times, politicians and kings have looked for physical legacies: grand projects, works that will last beyond their generations, Millennium domes, and temples. Whatever the era, it’s often the building projects that grant legitimacy to regimes ancient and modern. I’m struck when talking to colleagues about the things they have done in their parishes, how often the major achievements are counted in bricks and mortar, rather than lives changed.
So it is with King David, whose journey from obscure shepherd-boy to king of a united Israel we have followed these past few weeks. His enemies are dead, the nation is reunited, the Ark of the Covenant is in the City of David. So much has been achieved; and so, now, David begins to think to the future and about legitimacy. “See,” says the king to his in-house prophet Nathan, “I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” The emerging idea of a Temple is David’s big legacy project.
It is to David’s credit that the decides agains the building of a Temple when the word of the Lord comes to him through Nathan. Like almost all of us sometimes, in big and small ways, he has a choice to make between his own agenda and that of God’s. It is very much part of what makes him a great king that he listens to what God says. For God says that he will not be tied down in the way that a Temple would do. He is a God who travels with his people, and whose freedom is not to be constrained. Remember, the name YHWH literally means, “I will be who I will be.” The risk it would appear is that a house of the Lord will domesticate God; the problem with religion is that it becomes a tool of control by the religious on others. And this is not what God wants David to do.
One of the things that excites me about reading the Old Testament is the way in which it explores the challenges of faith in God in the midst of political and social realities. The big difference between the Old and New Testaments is not – as is often unfairly said – that the Old is full of blood and retribution, law and gore while the new is full of peace and gentleness, grace and love. No, the big difference is that the Old Testament often is written for the majority and for a whole people, while the New is written for a minority living against a majority world with a starkly different worldview. Both of these perspectives – the majority world of the Old and the minority world of the New – have their places and gifts for us to ponder.
One of the questions that we might ask ourselves about David’s desire to build a temple is about how much it is done out of genuine piety and how much is for his own political legitimation. We all want some form of legacy: is it driven by ideology or ambition or by theology and holiness? I think it’s very easy to be both overly-pious and overly-cynical here. How do we separate the two? frankly, it’s impossible. The world of the bible, particularly in the Old Testament, never seeks to sort these two agendas out. High faith and political interest are always intertwined, because we can only be people of faith in God as broken, fallible people. Once commentator notes that the inextricable link of faith and politics is an extreme case of “the word becoming flesh.” We have become familiar with the way in which faith can become so political that it loses its heart – The Crusades, Al Qaeda and some of the extreme Trump Evangelicals share common ground if not quite common means; but we must also be able to see the equal risk of faith becoming so apolitical that it has nothing to offer the world, which Scripture reminds us “God so loved…”. The cost of an incarnational faith, where the world becomes flesh, is (as in the case of King David) that faith must always risk the contamination of politics. You and I, in much smaller ways, will face real decisions between principle and expedient, between personal gain, ambition and doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord. There is no escape from the challenges of such decisions.
But what should inform the sort of decisions that we, like David, have to make? Can we escape the need to be calculating at all? Well, in at least one way, the bible passage today offers us a way forward. Because in what follows, we begin to hear the first echoes of the Gospel of Jesus.
When God speaks to David about this temple building, he does so through an oracle he speaks through Nathan the prophet. After reminding David of God’s dealings with the boy who would become king, God switches the subject with a great play on words. Instead of a house for God built by David, God will build a house of David, a dynasty. David will be legitimated, but not by building God a temple, but by a line of descendants – one, we should note, that Scripture traces right down to Jesus.
And as God makes this promise to David, so the language changes. It has been noted by many scholars that it is at this moment in the Old Testament that so much turns. The focus isn’t just on David’s earthly descendants but on God’s relationship to humanity through David.
We can characterise it as a shift from “if” to “will”. Up to this point, God has always been committed to his people, right from the Exodus. It is called God’s covenant, his solemn and binding promise that he will always keep. But the language of the covenant has been the language of transaction, “if” you do this, “then” I will do this. One thing for another, this for that, strings attached.
But, with David, the “if’ disappears. Now it is “will”. “I will give you rest.” “I will make you a great name.” “I will appoint a place” And so on. This is the basis on which we dare claim and believe that when it comes to our place with God, it depends not on us, but on God’s promise. No “ifs” remain. And only one “but”. But God. Whatever David does and by extension through David and Jesus, whatever we do, is not the last word on God’s commitment to any of us. It’s as though God signs a blank cheque to King David. It’s not as though there are no expectations, and certainly not the case that there will be no consequences, but at this moment in the Bible, I think for the first time, God commits to those consequences as not being terminal. This is the moment where God’s grace begins to shine clearly forth.
Living a life for God, following the path of Jesus Christ is not, and never has been, an escape from the world. Even those who retreated to the monasteries in the so-called Dark Ages realised that. It is always an engagement with the world. At its heart, Christians are able to do this because we know that God is there for us, for us (what an amazing claim, listen to it again: God is for us), on our side, for ever ready to give us another chance, to pick ourselves up and to offer us one more “but.” “But it’s not all over for you, sister, brother.” “It’s not all over for you because ‘I will’. “I will give you rest.” “I will give you another chance.” “I will love you for ever.”
Whatever the complexities and challenges of our decision-making landscape, whatever the ambitions and legacies we seek to build, whatever temples we try to create, whether about faithfulness to God or engaging in our own little but of empire building, God is for us, just as he was for David. This doesn’t excuse us from the times when the empires are more about us than is entirely healthy; it doesn’t exempt us from the demanding call of Jesus to put others before ourselves; and it doesn’t absolve us from accepting the responsibility for our actions when they spill out into damaging consequences for others and ourselves. But it does promise us the freedom to know that, even if we do put ourselves before others, or before God, he will always be for us. That’s not just God’s promise to David, it’s the message of the cross and it’s the gift of the Eucharist.
And because of that for us promise, it is God’s deepest desire that, when faced with all the complexities of living in this broken world, “God is for us” might be all we need to do the right thing. Amen.
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