A Sermon Preached at Choral Evensong by Canon Simon Butler
2 Samuel 23:1-7
This Sermon was preached at Choral Evensong as part of Canon Simon Butler’s final Sunday as Vicar of St Mary’s
The Lectionary has given me the last words of King David as recorded in 2 Samuel 23 as a text for my final sermon as Vicar of St Mary’s. That presents me with both an opportunity and a challenge. The challenge of course is that one gets delusions of grandeur and equates one’s own ministry with that of the biblical character. It’s probably why I’ve avoided the second reading tonight, which are the last recorded words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. I’m not even going to go there. The Emperor Vespasian’s famous last words remind us of the danger of hubris, “I think I’m becoming a god.” Perhaps his forbear Claudius’s last recorded words are better, “Oh dear, I think I’ve made a mess of it.”
But there’s an opportunity too, because in as much as the preacher’s job is to draw people’s attention to the biblical witness to the works of God. There’s a commentary on this passage in my devotional bible which reminds us of this opportunity, “David’s final words manifest a kind of piety that we would want to hear from a great king as well as what we wish we might say at our own death.” So this passage, and my words as a preacher, are meant to come together in biblical wisdom for our life now. But please, remember, I’m not comparing myself to David!
David’s recorded final words are, of course, words about his own work as God’s anointed king and they speak to us not just of what it means for a biblical king to rule in the name of God, an appropriate theme for this Feast of Christ the King, Christ the Son of David, but also of what it means to serve King Jesus and to minister in his name as the baptised People of God.
Three themes dominate these words of King David. The first is that of God’s involvement in the rule of King David. This king is not chosen by the People. It seems strange in our democratic time to think of a rule not being elected, and we see even in Scripture the dangers of kingship out of control. The Emperors of Ancient Rome, whose dying words I’ve quoted, are also good models of the way in which the twists and turns of dynastic power and populist mood effect the role of the king.
And yet, despite all this, despite the warnings about kings that God had given the People of Israel when they asked for a king, David is God’s Anointed King.
But the consequence of having a king anointed by God is that they are empowered, and held in place only by God’s faithfulness. On the one hand this is a statement that legitimises the rule of King David, but at the same time it reminds the king and all who he leads that he is not autonomous or self-made. We see in the life of King David – perhaps most of all in his murderous plot to win Bathsheba for himself – the danger and the limits of royal rule.
Dare I suggest that we – whether priest or baptised disciple – exercise our ministry only by the same commitment of God to us? We who are baptised or ordained are asked to live in the daily knowledge of God’s call to us, to know our place among God’s saints is only given by grace, and is never to be presumed upon. This is particularly important in Christian traditions that invest significant authority in individual figures – in our case our bishops and clergy. The dangers of clericalism, and the temptation to confuse the authority we are given and our human tendency to crave power and control, are a particular risk when invested in individual people, be they vicars of bishops.
Which is where the second theme is of central importance. For King David, the one whom we are told “the spirit of the Lord speaks through” is also the one is also told to “rule over people justly, ruling in the fear of God”. The antidote to power, whether it is the royal power of kings or the religious power of bishops and clergy, is ruling justly. To rule justly, or to lead the people of God, or even to be a disciple of Jesus is to have an interest in justice, in what you might call public wellbeing. David is charged with attending to matters of justice and righteousness to attend to public wellbeing, not for his own aggrandisment, but for the sake of the weak, the powerless, the vulnerable and the marginalised. When David is called rule ‘in the fear of God’, it means that the ruler rules know whose servant the king is. A king, with all the earthly power of life and death at his disposal, must in God’s name use that power for justice and mercy.
Church life is, sadly for some, a place where the vulnerable can be taken advantage of. It can be a place where people want to exercise power for their own ends, whether that is a desire control others or to gain meaning and purpose. This is why safeguarding is a central element of what we do, an expression of our commitment to justice and wellbeing. The challenge for any church leader, lay or ordained, is to continue to hold that ‘fear of the Lord’ close to our hearts, lest we should allow our own sinfulness to become an exercise of negative power over others. I have every confidence in the lay leadership of our church to lead well in the coming months, but I encourage you to remain committed to justice and mercy as you lead the people of God in this place.
The third theme that comes out of the final recorded words of King David are perhaps the most enduring of all. God “has made an everlasting covenant’ with King David and, through him, with the People of Israel. This everlasting covenant runs through the Old Testament like a golden thread which, even when hidden away by the lack of faithfulness of many of David’s kingly successors, never breaks. The everlasting covenant that God makes with his people is a commitment of God’s never-ending fidelity to his people that ultimately is demonstrated in the coming of the King of kings himself, who binds the whole of creation to God’s love through his death and resurrection. In this way David’s place as a King and our place as priests and people is not as part of some historical institution like the House of Tudor or the Julio-Claudian dynasty of Rome; it’s part of an unfolding of an unbreakable and unswerving commitment of divine love that flowers most fruitfully in Jesus the King and which he tends now into everlasting life as his church, the People of God, the Body of Christ the King.
When we gather in this place, as we have done together over the past twelve years, we enact this commitment most powerfully of all in the celebration of the Eucharist. In doing what Jesus commands us we are not simply enacting a piece of historical religious habit, even though the risk is we become habituated to the reception of the sacrament. No, what we are doing is continuing to celebrate and make present this unbreakable promise of divine love, so much so that, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says these defining and unshakeable words: I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.
And that’s why any priest or pastor or any disciple of Jesus can leave a beloved community with sadness, but ultimately with confidence. For, as it was with King David, as it was for the early church, and as it will be for me and for you, both in this passing moment of farewell but more profoundly still at our own departure from this world. We remain within God’s unbreakable covenant of love. We remain bound together in the love of our great High Priest, and in the service of our everlasting King Christ. Though separated by geography or more profoundly even when separated by death, as Paul writes, so powerfully, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
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