Promise | 4th Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

1 When the king was settled in his palace, and the LORD had given him rest from all his surrounding enemies, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “Look! I’m living in a cedar palace, but God’s chest is housed in a tent!”

3 Nathan said to the king, “Go ahead and do whatever you are thinking, because the LORD is with you.”

4 But that very night the LORD’s word came to Nathan: 5 Go to my servant David and tell him: This is what the LORD says: You are not the one to build the temple for me to live in. 6 In fact, I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. 7 Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?

8 So then, say this to my servant David: This is what the LORD of heavenly forces says: I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be leader over my people Israel. 9 I’ve been with you wherever you’ve gone, and I’ve eliminated all your enemies before you. Now I will make your name great– like the name of the greatest people on earth. 10 I’m going to provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed. Cruel people will no longer trouble them, as they had been earlier, 11 when I appointed leaders over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.

And the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make a dynasty for you.

16 Your dynasty and your kingdom will be secured forever before me. Your throne will be established forever. (CEB)

Promise

Another text that comes to mind when I read this is Isaiah 55: “My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.” (8-9 CEB).

These words from the prophet Isaiah remind us that God is always more steps ahead of us than we’d care to admit. We might have our own agendas, but God has an agenda, too, and it’s not always the same as ours. We shouldn’t be surprised to discover that our agendas—no matter how honorable or righteous our intentions—can stand in contradiction to God’s own. In our text from 2 Samuel, King David has an idea. On the surface, it sounds honorable enough. Now that David is all settled, he wants to build God a house. He consults the prophet, Nathan, who tells him it’s a good idea and he should go ahead.

Yet, right there, the text leaves us with all kinds of questions. We know David’s story, and we know enough about people and human nature that we should be a little suspicious. Throughout history, people in power have used religion to push their own agenda. Over the past several years, we’ve watched in horror as some groups of people have pursued what they call righteousness through evil actions. So, while it appears that David wants to honor God, the statement leaves us wondering. (At least, it leaves me wondering). Might the king also want to build a house for God as a way to honor himself? After all, he’d be forever known as the one who built such a house. As long as it stood, it would be tied to his memory: an enduring memorial to King David of Israel.

And, why does David consult Nathan? Is it because he really wants to know what the prophet has to say, or is it because he wants a religious blessing for his pet political project? Nathan’s initial answer is a little odd, too. He gives David the blessing that the king wanted to hear without even attempting to consult the Lord about it. What we don’t know is whether this is Nathan’s genuine conviction or if he’s bowing to the will of the king like a good brown-nosing lap-dog. To Nathan’s credit, when God speaks to him—though he didn’t bother seeking the Lord’s counsel on the matter—he has enough courage to deliver the message to the king, even though it’s not a message the king will like.

It begs the question, how could both David and Nathan have misjudged God? They were both people of faith. They both knew Israel’s story. They’d lived parts of it. Yet, despite this, they both got God’s designs wrong. Everyone likes to think that God is on their side. But we, like David and Nathan, are prone to misjudging God’s character and purposes.

We should, perhaps, be a little hesitant to link God’s purposes with our own political agendas, like David, or our religious agendas, like Nathan. That doesn’t mean we should never act. But it means that, while we act in good faith, we keep an open heart and mind to the movements of a God whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts.

I tend to wonder where and how God is moving now. And, I wonder in what ways our human agendas and aspirations, however noble they might look, might be hindering the things God wants to do. One thing I think we should always expect from God is the unexpected. Another thing we can expect is that, if we do manage to get in the way, God will work around us. At the same time, God is good enough to post WRONG WAY signs on our path, extend forgiveness, mercy and grace, and invite us to come along with God again.

That’s what happens in this story about David. God’s response to David comes as a warning. The first oracle reminds David about God’s character and freedom. God neither needs nor desires a permanent dwelling, as if God could be contained. “You are not the one to build the temple for me to live in. In fact, I haven’t lived in a temple from the day I brought Israel out of Egypt until now. Instead, I have been traveling around in a tent and in a dwelling. Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (2 Sam. 7:5c-7 CEB).

One of the verbs used in verses 6 and 7 is (הָלַךְ) halak which is move, travel, walk. The Lord has always been a God on the move. Wherever God’s people were located, that’s were God could be found. Abram was at Haran when God told him to set out for the land God would show him. God didn’t wait for Abram to get to Canaan, God sought Abram out in another land. That verb, halak, is one of self-determination. God chooses where God will go, no one chooses for God. The Lord’s message to David is that God is the one who did the walking and moving about in the wilderness. God says, I brought…, I have been traveling…, my traveling….

The same verb is found in Genesis 3:8 where God walked through the Garden of Eden looking for Adam and Eve who had hidden themselves. God goes where God wills, and God walks where we are. One of the problems with David’s decision to build a temple is that David is choosing for God. David is attempting to take away God’s self-determination, God’s ability to walk where God chooses to walk. David’s trying to contain God in one place: and since David is choosing the place, it becomes a place which David can control. But how do you contain the uncontainable and control what can’t be controlled? God tells David, I don’t need your house.

That leads to the question God asks in verse 7, Throughout my traveling around with the Israelites, did I ever ask any of Israel’s tribal leaders I appointed to shepherd my people: Why haven’t you built me a cedar temple?” (CEB). Here, the king is reminded that God was with Israel long before David lived. If God didn’t need Moses, or Aaron, or Miriam, or Joshua, or Caleb, or Deborah to build a permanent temple as a dwelling, then God doesn’t need David to do it either. If God wants someone to build a temple, God will be the initiator of that project.

This part of the warning reminds David that, though he is king of Israel, he’s still a little human being who needs to remember his place in God’s kingdom. God will not be controlled. God will not be domesticated. God will not be contained. God’s sovereignty and self-determination will not be infringed upon by a mere human. When God decides to have a temple built, it’ll be God’s choice, not David’s.

The second oracle changes significantly in tone. Instead of, “This is what the Lord says” (1 Samuel 7:5 CEB), it changes to “This is what the Lord of heavenly forces says” (1 Samuel 7:8 CEB). Instead of addressing David intimately, God speaks as one who holds the power of heaven’s armies. David gets an earful of a reminder about where he came from and how he got where he is now. God made David king. God took David from the pasture and following the flock. God has been with David wherever he has gone. God chose to walk with David and set him up as king over Israel. God is the one who gave David victory over his enemies and who settled David in his house. It’s God who will make David’s name great.

What’s more, God reminds David that it isn’t only him whom God favors, but all of Israel. The Lord says, “I’m going to provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so that they may live there and no longer be disturbed. Cruel people will no longer trouble them, as they had been earlier, when I appointed leaders over my people Israel” (2 Samuel 7:10-11 CEB). Then, God turns the tables completely. Instead of David building God a house, God will make David a house—a dynasty—that will last forever. Sometimes we forget that God has plans, too. God is way ahead of us in the planning stages and, more often than not, God’s plans surprise us.

Something else we should note about the books of First and Second Samuel themselves, is that the texts weren’t compiled during the days of David and Nathan. They were compiled during the years of exile in Babylon when there was no king of David’s line settled anywhere resting from their enemies. There was no temple; it had already been destroyed. It would have been important for the people living in that exile to hear that God might not be confined to the ruins of a building located in Jerusalem. That was actually a prominent theme of Ezekiel, whose visions described God moving about in a chariot with omnidirectional wheels rising up from Jerusalem and moving across the earth. The claim that God’s presence cannot be contained opens the possibility that God is there with the exiles, too.

Think about it this way: The exile to Babylon called God’s power into question. If God couldn’t prevent something as horrible as the exile from happening, then maybe God didn’t have a whole lot of power after all. Yet, the claim that God’s covenant is forever opens the possibility that God’s promises would continue after the exile ended. The exile also made people wonder if God really cared about them. It made them wonder if God had heartlessly turned against them. (We tend to think that way, too, when tragedy happens). But this story’s claim that grace was God’s answer to David’s arrogance—that grace is God’s answer to all human arrogance—suggests that God will always act in a way that redeems and saves.

Here, a people who were in the hell of exile, sought alternative answers to their questions about God’s power and love. When the evidence before them suggested that they might as well give up on God, they began to look at the world in a different way. Instead of forcing the world—or God—to conform to their already-made answers about what God should be doing and how God should have acted, they opened themselves to new ways of understanding how God works in the world, and how God’s love is made known.

As we approach Christmas Day, I want to leave us with a few questions:

What are our assumptions about what is pleasing to God, and how might God be nudging the church to move in new and unthought-of directions?

What are the ways that we—like David—seek to enshrine and confine God?

How receptive are we to the idea that God acts in ways that catch us by surprise?

This holy day we’ll celebrate tonight and tomorrow is just such a surprise. God was born as a human being to be Emmanuel—God With Us—which was, I might add, a most unexpected move on God’s part. The mother of God was a peasant woman in a backwater town in a backwater region of a mighty empire. Yet, this birth moved the whole world in a new direction.

I might add as a final note that one of the most significant verses of the New Testament, John 1:14, says, “The Word became flesh and made his home among us” (John 1:14a CEB). A better translation might say, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled” or “tented, among us.” It’s a reference to the tent in which God traveled with Israel long ago. Jesus Christ became the new tent in which God moves, walks, and travels among us. It’s a reminder that when God came to be Emmanuel, it wasn’t to sit idly in a permanent home or human kingdom. Jesus told us that “Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20 & Luke 9:58 CEB).

God came to walk with us. God came to move among us and, importantly, to get us moving in ways we might not have imagined.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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