by Michael Usey; 2 Samuel 7:1-9 (NRSV)
It was a week to exhale, to sleep better, to thank God literally that our nation hasn’t yet succumbed to fascism–although we came pretty darn close. I for one was terrified that, when you have a cornered malignant narcissist with his finger on nuclear weapons of mass destruction, that many terrible things were possible. I’m certainly not endorsing any political party or candidate, but our former president was openly a fascist, who employed fascist tactics, hired fellow fascists, and used classic fascist rhetoric. Fascism is obviously a moral issue, so we’ve been outspoken against this American fascism that has come wrapped in a flag and literally holding a Bible (but not reading it). And of course it has not gone away just because we have new national leadership. We Christians will be fighting facsism and its twin Christian nationalism for a long, long time. Still after the infantile behavior of Donny Two-Times, it was a pleasure to have a leader speak in complete sentences and not have any after midnight tweets. As Biden said this week, “It’s time for us to grow up.” Indeed, it truly is.
Politics are not the gospel. It is not the good news. Our new president is not the messiah; we Christians already have one of those, and Jesus is quite enough for us. We have a new president–one who appears to take his Christian faith quite seriously–but we do not have a new country. Empire is still with us; the patriarchy is still real and powerful. Systemic racism is marbleized into the DNA of America. This is the very reason we’re reading and discussing The Common Good on Wed nights (at 6:30 on Zoom). What do we owe one another as Americans, and how as Christians should we act and work in this, the latest version of Empire?
The sermon for this Sunday is taken from the Book of 2 Samuel. If you want to look it up, it’s right after 1 Samuel. The two together comprise some of the first histories ever written, penned 1000 years before Christ, so this is slick historical stuff. It is political history, written by someone to record the reign of David. It may have been written by Abiathar, who was David’s companion during the wars, and when David was made king he made Abiathar his high priest. That would be equivalent today to a high ranking cabinet minister, after a president’s term, writing a biography of the president.
All of the kingship biblical histories are anti-monarchy. They all were written in part to show how Israel’s desire for a king doomed it, and how the best king (David) was not what YHWH wanted for the nation. But it is also great literature. The books bear Samuel’s name, but Samuel has only a bit part in this story. It begins with Hannah, Samuel’s mom, who counsels against kings. Then King Saul, the first king of Israel, who chose David, the shepherd boy, to be his armor bearer, and then later to sing for him and play the harp to ease his migraine headaches.
Samuel contains stories that are familiar to all of you. The wonderful story of David and Goliath. The beautiful story of David’s friendship with Jonathan, King Saul’s son. The sordid story of David and Bathsheba. And, the tragic story of David’s family’s disintegration, ending with the rebellion of his son, Abaslom, against his father, and then the death of Abaslom, and David crying in lament, “O Abaslom, Abaslom, my son, my son, would that I had died instead of you.” We read that passage at the funeral for Andrew Russoli.
It’s all there. All the passion and adventure, the tenderness and tragedy of the human drama, written with literary skill that is rarely matched, over 3000 years ago. So it is both one of the earliest written histories, and one of the classics of literature. You ought to read it if you are going to be a literate person.
But that is not why we read it in church. We read it in church because we believe that God can speak to us through these words, through words addressed to our situation, and our needs, in the 21th century. We do that by connecting our life to the story of the Bible.
At the birth of our own nation, the thirteen colonies came together to form a “more perfect union.” And our text for this morning marks that time when David brought together the twelve tribes of Israel to form one nation, with the capital at Jerusalem. So David was to Israel what George Washington was to America. Both of them, incidentally, were legendary military heroes. And both of them, after the wars, were elevated by acclamation of the people to be leaders.
But more significantly the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the framers of the Constitution, saw the parallels between America and Israel, and borrowed language from the Bible to describe what was happening in America. Such as, “A city set upon a hill,” or, “A light to the nations.” Or, and most especially, the images taken out of the Book of Exodus. They were used repeatedly. For instance, Jefferson, in his second inaugural address, said, I shall need, too, the favor of the being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life. America had come to this land, they believed, as Israel had come to the Promised Land, 3000 years before.
Benjamin Franklin proposed that the seal of the United States show Moses with his rod raised to part the Reed Sea. Thomas Jefferson suggested that the seal of America should show the children of Israel walking across the desert with a cloud leading them by day, and a pillar of fire by night. All of this directly out of the imagery used in telling the story of Israel.
America is not Israel, and this imagery has been used to further the heresy of Chrsitian Nationalism. The Hebrew Bible was not written to Americans. The so-called ten lost tribes of Israel did not come to the Americas, as our LDS (Mormon) siblings believe. We read these ancient texts to see both the blessing and the warning in them for us, but they are not addressed to us. We need to be clear about this. And Wednesday’s inauguration was indeed powerful, but did you notice that there were way too many Christian worship elements and not any of the other faith traditions that America emcompasses.
David’s history is written specifically to say that to live under God, means to remember that you live by grace. So be humble, seek justice and mercy, remember that God is God, and that you are not.
Our text opens with these words. “Now when the king dwelt in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies round about …” What a phrase, “Rest from all his enemies round about.” That means David is on top now. He is at the summit of his career. Later, of course, will come the decline of his power and the disintegration of his family in tragedy, but now he is on top of the world. His enemies are defeated. The last, the most tenacious of the native peoples, the Philistines, have at last been defeated under the sword of King David. He has no rivals now. He had done what nobody else in Israel had been able to do before him, not even the mighty King Saul. He had united the twelve tribes of Israel. He is a legend. He was the “giant killer.” Now he has won all of his victories, “and the Lord has given him rest from all his enemies round about.”
The result of David’s great military victories was incredible wealth, for “to the victor goes the spoils.” David took great advantage of that. And moving from a nomadic existence, where they had practically no possessions, and must by necessity live from hand to mouth, they now live in an agrarian society where you can accumulate wealth.
And they had the advantages of international trade. They were located on the most profitable trade route from east to west. They were on what is called “the fertile crescent.” It was a great highway of commerce. So Israel became wealthy under King David. The wealth can be seen in the description of David’s house. He built for himself a house fit for a king, a royal palace, constructed with the finest and most expensive material in the world, the cedars of Lebanon.
Situated in his fine house, one fit for a king, David notices that there is no temple for the worship of God. The center of worship for the Jews at that point was the Ark of the Covenant, which was just a box, really. That’s all it was. They carried the Ark of the Covenant around with them as they roamed the country, beating up all the tribes in Canaan. It was a symbol of God’s presence, so they took it with them wherever they went.
It was just a box. It was a symbol of God’s presence; they thought it was where God dwelt. It used to be all right. I mean, it is all right for a nomadic people. In fact it is the most practical thing. If you’ve got to carry the presence of God around with you, then it is best that God be in a box. That will work just fine.
But Israel is now settled in a rich agricultural land. And they have a beautiful king, who lives in a beautiful house. They want to be sophisticated. They want to be like other nations. This is the central theme of the kingship narratives and the reason why Israel is destroyed. Other nations all have grand temples for their gods. Look at the beautiful temples of Greece. Here is Israel’s God, living in a box.
David’s conscience begins to bother him. He lives in a palace made of cedar. God lives in a box, parked in the palace driveway. You would think that if David’s conscience really bothered him, David might say, “I will move out of the palace into more humble dwellings. I could provide better for my people.”
But that is not the way kings thought. He had a different idea. He calls Nathan, the prophet, to propose that God ought to dwell in quarters as grand as the king. This means the construction of a magnificent temple in the middle of Jerusalem, the capital city. He calls Nathan, his prophet, to get his blessing.
Now you’ve got to remember about prophets in those days. Prophets were advisers to the kings. You were not a king without a prophet. They were called prophets, but we would probably call them seers, because they looked into the present situation, and they could see God’s path for the future. So they were crucial to kings to know what they should do and what they should not do. So if you were a prophet, and you wanted to work for a king, you were advised to tell the king what he wanted to hear.
But David chose Nathan to be his prophet, which is amazing. Nathan is not like any of the other prophets. He is the first of a new breed of prophet who stands against the king. From Nathan on, prophets will not be those who stand with the king, and say, “Yes.” They will be those who stand over against the king, and say, “No.” David summons Nathan. “Tell God what I am about to do for God. I know that God will be so stoked and happy.” Nathan says, “Eh, well, I’ll get back to you.”
The next day Nathan appears before David. “Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in?” I don’t live in houses. All these years I have been moving around in an ark, living in a tiny box, in a tent. And I will continue to live that way, for I cannot be confined. I cannot be possessed. I cannot be domesticated. I will not be Israel’s God. I won’t be anybody’s God. I won’t even be America’s God. I don’t live in temples built with human hands. I don’t live in national shrines.
Then, this line. “You cannot build a house for me, but I will build a house for you.” That is a wonderful example of the irony of biblical revelation. God cannot be grasped, cannot be held on to, or possessed. But God is the giver of all good things. God is the God of grace, who in this instance reminds David that he is king, because of God’s grace alone. “You cannot build me a house, but I have built you a house.” That is to say, a dynasty. I don’t need your support. You need my grace. I don’t need you to defend me. You need me to support you. So be humble, and remember who is God, and that you are not.
Interestingly, David’s son, Solomon, as soon as David dies, will ignore all of this and build the Temple in Jerusalem. As a result,the nation will split in two, and each half be alienated from the other permanently, and each will be in jeopardy once again from their enemies. Eventually both nations, Israel and Judah, will be taken away in captivity.
The author of 2 Samuel is convinced that the downfall of David’s house, the division in the nation, and the invasion of foreign armies, is because they forgot their humble origins, that they depended on grace for their existence, and began to think that they had all of this power and prosperity by their own effort and virtue. So they now believed that they could do what they wished with what was given to them.
So after the Bathsheba incident in David’s life, Nathan returns once again to the king, and condemns him for this arrogant use of power, and predicts what is going to happen. From Nathan on, the prophets, not the kings, will become the most significant figures in the history of Israel. After Nathan, none of the prophets will work for a king, nor will any king ever hire one after Nathan. We named our kids after Hebrew troublemakers and truth tells: Hannah, Zachariah, and Nathan. The prophet Nathan is the one who had the chutzpah to tell David no once again. The prophets will come to the capital, at least one prophet in every generation, for 400 years, to roar like a lion, “Thus says the Lord: Remember who you are, and who God is, and live humbly, do justice, and love mercy.”
This is what the Hebrew prophets continually said to the nation:
- You have received mercy, so be merciful.
- You have received a bountiful land, so be generous.
- You have been freed from slavery, so see to it that all people are free.
- You were once foreigners, refugees, sojourners in other people’s lands, so be hospitable to all who come to your land, especially to the oppressed and to the poor.
Later the author of Deuteronomy will summarize the message of the prophets, by saying, “Beware, lest in your hearts you think `My power, and the strength of my hand, have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God.” So this week, as we celebrate a new president, I suggest to you that America celebrates an idea, a vision. For in a real sense that is all that America is. All America is is the idea that people can live happily, and prosperously, and in peace with one another.
The founders of this nation chose biblical images to express that idea because they saw that what had happened to them had happened before to Israel. A small group of refugees, given freedom, and placed in a bountiful land, and called by the God who gave those things to them to use them now to make a difference in this world. That is where all this business about “a city set upon a hill” and “a light to the nations” came from, as well as that slogan that is on your dollar bill, novus ordo seclorum, a new order for all the ages.
The story of David is told to explain what happened. This great dream, this band of refugees, in a couple of centuries became a great nation, with great wealth. Instead of using what had been given to them to make life better for everyone, it was seen as something that they had earned themselves, to use as they pleased. It began within the king’s house itself. You could see the first crack in a sordid affair in the king’s house. Followed then by warring factions, the fragile bond that held this diverse people together fell apart, and the kingdom of David was no more.
David’s Israel is gone. But the idea remains that there might some day be a time when all people can live happily and prosperously, and in peace with one another. That was Israel’s dream. That is where we Christians first read about it. But it is the dream in the heart of all people everywhere. And it was embodied into our Constitution 245 years ago, waiting for that time when the nation would remember that it was the Lord who gave us all we have. So we must use it humbly to make it possible for all people to live happily, and prosperously, and in peace with one another.
There were lots of good moments in Wednesday’s inauguration. I don’t know if you can say there is such a thing as a holy moment in such a secular celebration, but Amanda Gorman’s poem comes about as close to it as I think I’ll ever experience. Her poem was so many excellent things wrapped in one beautiful moment: it was a blessing, and a celebration, and a warning, and a challenge. I hope those of you who are educators will bring it to your students to consider it carefully, because each time I’ve read it this week, I’ve caught some of the beautiful subtle things she did–the powerful echoes she used to pack her phrases with elegant power. She ended with words that I hope school children everywhere will soon memorize:
We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful. When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.