On August 5th, 2018 we had an Outdoor Worship Service, so unfortunately there is no video. Please enjoy some photos from the day and listen or read to the sermon below!
A lot has happened in the life of David. He’s moved from shepherd boy to king; from tending his father’s flock to overseeing a united kingdom; from a pasture to a palace; from a sling and five stones to all the military might within a monarch’s reach. But according to Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, nothing that has happened in the story of David to this point is as important as what happens in our passage today.
In today’s passage, the story of God’s covenant with David, we find what Brueggemann has called “the most crucial theological statement in all of the Old Testament.” (1) It’s near the end of our reading as the Lord is describing a covenant with David, promising that it will endure to his offspring and establish David’s throne forever. “When your offspring sins or fails, I will punish him,” the Lord says. But then the Lord says this in verses 15 and 16: “Nevertheless, I will not take my steadfast love from him.”
It’s a covenant without condition.
Chapter Seven opens with David, now simply called “the King,” relaxing comfortably at home. “Now when the king was settled in his palace,” the passage reads. It’s that moment in the story when things are almost too rested and easy, and you just know that the ominous background music is about to start and a new enemy or iniquity is about to appear. You can just sense that the king so settled in his house is about to be dramatically unsettled, maybe from an outside threat, or perhaps from some evil or abuse internal, maybe even something deep within himself.
But it will be several chapters before David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof, breaking his “hallelujah” wide open. For now, the text says he’s lounging comfortably, in his “house.” His house — it’s an important word that, you might have noticed, is used 15 times throughout the passage, but with several twists on the meaning. David, who has hishouse established as a palace in Jerusalem, says he also wants to build a “house” for the Lord. “I’m living in this strong and beautiful house, while the Ark of God stays in a tent,” he opines in verse 2. The Ark is the representation of the presence of the Lord. As we remembered last week, it contains reminders of God’s action on behalf of God’s people throughout the history of Israel’s salvation. David has had it brought to the center of Israel’s life in this new era, and now he wants to build a permanent home; to establish the centrality of God’s presence for all time, with stone and cedar and his own building plans; to build a house — a “house” as in a temple. He wants a place that is as stable and settled as he himself feels. David knows that the Ark represents a God who is mobile and free, meeting the people in new ways throughout their history.
We see this through the different Covenants God makes throughout the Old Testament. God’s covenant with David in our passage is considered the last of the great covenants of the Hebrew tradition, and it’s preceded by three others:
- First a covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 and the promise never again to send the destruction of a flood. “I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth”
- Second is the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, in Genesis 12, as the Lord says to Abram, “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
- A third covenant is made with Moses, of course, throughout the narrative of Exodus 19-24: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep ,y covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. God promises that Israel will be the chosen people, the treasured possession, with blessings extending to all.
These covenants speak of a God who is mobile and free; a God who is in motion. And David, I think, wants the motion to stop. If the God of the Ark is mobile and on the move, David believes that a God of a Temple will be fixed and permanent, and always near the king and his people. The prophet Nathan, making his first appearance in this passage, agrees at first, and so they plan to build a house — a temple — for the Lord.
But then God responds to both of them: “Are youto build me a house” You David?” The Lord bawks at the idea, for God has always tented with God’s people and can not be contained in any walls built by a king, nor anyone else. After all, the promise and permanence of God’s blessing are not dependent on any house that David would build with his own hands. “I will be near you, always,” the Lord says, “but not because of anything you’ve constructed… You are not building a house for me, David… I’m building a house for you.”
Again the word is used — house — but not in reference to a literal structure or building of stone; not a palace and not a temple, but instead a house meaning a dynasty, a blessed kingly lineage founded on the covenant of God with David: “I’ll give you a house, and… I will raise up your offspring after you, and will establish his kingdom…When he commits iniquity, I will punish him. Nevertheless, I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I’ve done before. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever.”
It would be hard to overstate the importance of this moment. It’s an unconditional promise. It’s a bold theological claim, unlike anything known in Israel to this time. It’s a new covenant, changing the understanding of God’s relationship to God’s people.
Up to this point, whether with Noah, or Abraham and Sarah, or Moses and the wanderers in the wilderness, God’s presence was understood to be conditional. You hear it in the promise made to Moses in Exodus: “Ifyou will obey… If you will keep my covenant.” “If” — a conjunction introducing conditions that follow. Two letters that seem simple and straightforward enough on their own, and yet are rigid and strong enough to construct entire systems of limitation, and great houses of stone and cedar. If you love the Lord your God, ifwalk in God’s ways, if you observe the commandments, then I will bless you. But ifyou don’t, if you don’t measure up, if you’re say like Saul and his sons, then you shall perish.
This moment in David’s story — in Israel’s story — is so crucial and so unprecedented, because God’s covenant with David takes the “if” away. It replaces it, in fact, with what Brueggemann has termed the “nevertheless” of God’s covenant. (2) “When he commits iniquity, I will punish him. Nevertheless, I will not take my steadfast love from him.” In this unconditional covenant, the relationship between God and God’s people is grounded not in the great “If” of our obedience, but in God’s gracious promise, represented in a “nevertheless” form of grace, and nearness, and a divine love from which nothing can ever separate us.
I hope that you’ve come to know this covenant love. I hope you’ve come to believe that it extends to you. Yet I know that so many of us struggle our entire lives to believe the kind of covenant described here is more than an ancient story; that it speaks the truth not only of the house of David but of God’s relationship with each of us. We might know in our minds of the unconditional love of God but all we can hear so often in our souls is “If.”
If we could just build something grand, then we would know the nearness of God.
If we could just go somewhere else, or ascend to some lofty place, we could ensure that God would remain with us.
If we could just change this or that, if we could just tweak or clean up our lives, then we’d find our way from the edges of God’s work somewhere to the center. If we could just be more obedient, if we could just walk in God’s ways, if we could be faith to God’s commandments, then we would be blessed with God’s love and approval.
And some of us spend our whole lives trying to hear the word God speaks to David: “Nevertheless.”
When we don’t hear the “nevertheless” of God’s grace or believe it for ourselves, we’re especially prone to decide it doesn’t apply to others. We end up spending our energies sorting who is in and who is out; who has a seat at the table of our Lord; who we have space for in the houses or temples we construct “If… if” we end up saying to them.
It’s a word I find myself using as a parent, “If…” For instance, lately a certain darling 3 yr old has taken to frequent midnight footsteps down the hall into our bedroom where he wedges himself into the middle of the bed. Never very cuddly during the day, in the early morning hours he can’t seem to get close enough, noodling his head ever deeper up under my chin, burrowing a trench where he finally comes to rest. Well, the other night I finally gave up and retreated. I left my bed and went to his bed. That’s where he found me the next morning when he said, “Daddy, I don’t want you to sleep in my bed.”
I’ve wondered with Jenny if maybe we need to incentivize staying in bed. “If you will just stay in there, I will give you anything you want.” (3) Its a tactic we might use with any number of behaviors: “If you will do this, then I will give you this good thing, I will provide this thing that brings you joy, I will offer in return what will make you happy, if you do your chores, or use your manners, or do well in school.” And when I say it, I’m forgetting, of course, the far greater truth, expressed once by an ancient father in a story Jesus told: “All that I have is yours, and everything I am is for you.” The good things I have to give you I don’t give you because of what you’ve done; I provide them for you because of who you are. Because you’re my child.
It’s easier for me with my fare-haired boy, I suppose, than with other children of a living and loving God; or at least the evidence of my life, and the corporate life of our society would suggest this. There’s so much condition, limitation, negotiation at work in our lives and the life of our systems in this world.
Brennan Manning, in his book Ragamuffin Gospel, tells a story of Fiorello LaGuardia, former mayor of New York City (and namesake of everyone’s favorite airport!). He was a colorful character as mayor, known to ride on fire trucks, take entire orphanages to baseball games, go on the radio and read the Sunday funnies to the kids. So it wasn’t out of character one night in January of 1935, when the mayor turned up at a night court, dismissed the judge for the evening and took over the bench himself. Within a few minutes, a very old, very poor woman was brought before the bench, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges. “She’s got to be punished to teach other people around here a lesson,” the shopkeeper said. LaGuardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law says so; ten dollars or ten days in jail.” But even as he pronounced sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket. He extracted a bill and tossed it onto the table saying: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a city where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Baliff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.”
So the following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, with 50 cents coming from a red-faced shopkeeper, who had come there seeking justice. (4)
I recalled that story, seemingly so distant, as I learned this week that Greensboro is currently listed as the city with the 14th highest Food Hardship Rate of any city in our country. “Food Hardship Rate” refers to the inability of American households to afford adequate food, and is charted regularly by the Food Research & Action Center. (5) And we live in a city where those stats are true. Where households can’t afford food. And how often do we view people who are poor, or suffering, or forgotten and just think “Well… if”?
If they follow this rule, or if they go to this training, or if they attend this class, or if they show some evidence of employment or sustainability, or if they’re working hard enough, well then…
I’m not sure we ever come free of the “if” of this world our entire lives. It reappears in David’s story. And it even reappears at times in scripture and in Christian tradition, as voices arguing that, faithful though God is, there are nonetheless limits to God’s patience. That in the end, lines are set and that is that. There are times — these voices say — when God’s presence truly does leave us. This “if” continues beyond scripture and tradition and into our own lives. The story of God’s love is one where the hungry is fed, the thirsty given water, the stranger welcomed in, the naked clothed, the sick visited, the prisoner sought out, the lost found, the wanderer welcomed home. Yet these are the very ones to whom God’s people can so often say “If.”
We end up struggling with the tension of if and nevertheless for our entire lives. But as we do, we remember that God’s desire is already known. God hopes for nevertheless. God longs for nevertheless. God’s plan for the world is nevertheless. God’s call to God’s people is nevertheless. When David is at his absolute low, nevertheless God extends such grace to him, and God offers the same to each of us.
God is a God of nevertheless. God is a God of the unconditional. That’s why this covenant with David forms the common hope of Judaism and Christianity, which we believe is ultimately and compellingly and finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ.
In fact, these words from 2 Samuel 7 are often read on the fourth Sunday of Advent, as we anticipate God’s promise to be with us for all time through the Messiah. It’s the same day we read of the angel Gabriel announcing that Mary will give birth to a son, Jesus will be his name, the anointed one… the son of David. The one whom, the gospel of John says, became flesh and lived among us. More literally translated, the verse reads, “The word became flesh and tented among us.” (6) Vulnerable, human, ever fragile, and still mobile and and on the move, finding us wherever we are and helping us to release all the conditions, limitations, and “ifs” we’ve known and instead know the far greater truth:
That, yes, the wages of sin is death, but nevertheless the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
That “the one who believes in me will still die, but nevertheless they shall live.” (John 11:25)
That, yes, we will often feel separated from the love of Christ, considered as sheep to be slaughtered, but nevertheless nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
That, yes, we will be lost and wandering. “I’m not worthy,” we will reflexively say, nevertheless there is one who says to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe, a ring, sandals. Start the fire for the fattened calf. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this child of mine was dead, but nevertheless is alive again; they were lost, but nevertheless is found.” (Luke 15)
If we can believe it of David, then we can believe it of ourselves. And if we can believe it of ourselves, maybe we can believe it for all those beloved of God, until the last one is home and the celebration begins.
Despite our fumblings and failings; amidst our limitations and conditions, nevertheless the loving covenant of God endures. Forever.
- Interpretation: 1 & 2 Samuel, p. 259. This sermon is indebted to Brueggemann’s entire commentary on this passage.
- Ibid., p. 257.
- A nod to Jim Gaffigan, “Mr. Universe” and his comedy on “Four Kids!”
- Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, pp. 91-2.
- “Food Hardship August 2018” (frac.org/wp-content/uploads/msa_foodhardship_2016_2017.html)
- Insight from Linda Lee Clader, “Fourth Sunday of Advent: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, p. 79.