A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
October 23, 2016
2 Samuel 7:1-17
Since our last episode, when Hannah was singing praise to God as she left her toddler Samuel in the temple, a few things have happened. Samuel grew up and became a great priest. “The Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground”. (1 Sam 3:19)
Samuel ends up anointing Saul as king over Israel. Saul was a donkey herder before he became king, and apparently the handsomest man in the land, which just proves good looks will get you somewhere. Or at least out of donkey herding.
It turns out donkey herding while handsome is not, in and of itself, qualification for leadership of a nation, and Saul was a problematic king. To be fair, he never asked for the job, and he did try.
Also, the people themselves were a bit unsure about who they wanted or needed to lead them. They were convinced they wanted a king, even though God said, “are you really sure about this, because I think you’re wrong”. And then they had a king, and wondered, “whose idea was this?” while looking at God, while God very clearly wiped his hands clear of the whole thing, regretting he had made Saul king.
So God called up another king. It had worked so well the first time. What could go wrong?
This king was David, the youngest son of Jesse. Before being anointed as king, he ends up moving into the palace and becoming the best friend of Saul’s son Jonathan, and later the husband of Saul’s daughter Michal. Saul loved him. David ends up being Saul’s favorite harpist, and more successful at leading the army into battle than Saul had been. Saul was jealous of David.
It doesn’t take a family therapist to see how this is going to go.
If you have not read 1 Samuel in a while, I invite you to do so.
The story of Saul and David is full of intrigue and drama. It is Dynasty, Dallas, and Scandal all rolled in to one show from which we can’t look away. There is also a sense of inevitability in the narrative—we know David will become king the minute he enters the story.
The struggles between these two personalities is timely and entertaining. Saul ends up dying after a battle with the Philistines. And David is grieved. He cries out over the loss of his king and rival. “How the mighty have fallen and the weapons of war perished”, he cries. (2 Sam 1:27)
No matter how much David had wanted a peaceful transfer of power, there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David. Scripture says “David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker”. (2 Sam 3:1) Eventually, when David was 30, all of the elders of Israel came to him and made a covenant, inaugurating him, and ending the fighting over the throne, uniting the kingdom once more.
The prophet Samuel had died while David and Saul were fighting over the throne. But a new prophet rose up. Nathan makes his first entrance in today’s passage. David finally gets a pause from all the fighting, and is able to look around his new home in the newly conquered “city of David”. And he calls to Nathan and says “I’ve got this lovely cedar home, but the ark of God only has a tent”.
I can think of a few reasons why David might make that observation. Perhaps he feels guilty about his big entertainment center with the surround sound speakers.
Maybe he just feels uncomfortable to be living in a palace. He was a shepherd. And then, even though he lived in Saul’s palace, he spent more of his time with troops, on the road, in tents. “Local boy makes good” is a nice headline for the newspaper, but I can imagine how uncomfortable it might be to transition from having nothing to having everything.
When he makes that comment to Nathan, I wonder if he’s seeking absolution. “Is it okay, Nathan, that someone like me could have a house like this while God lives in a portable box?”
Nathan’s answer is interesting. I don’t know how he knows what is on David’s mind. The text doesn’t tell us, exactly. But he says, “Go, do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you”.
Personally, I’m surprised they didn’t teach Nathan in Prophet School that you should never tell someone to do everything that is on their mind.
Maybe I shouldn’t speak for you, but “everything on my mind” would lead to trouble. Am I alone? Didn’t think so.
In any case, one can understand why Nathan would say “for the Lord is with you” to David. David’s the one sitting in the new palace in the new City of David, king of the hill, and by all metrics, the one possessing God’s favor.
And perhaps Nathan was also trying to get on the good side of the new king? That’s not a very prophetic stance, but it is certainly a human one.
But that night, just as the news is hitting the streets about David’s new building plan, the Lord comes to Nathan and says, “slow down, buddy. Go to David and tell him he’s not going to build me anything. Are you writing this down? It’s quite a long message”.
God asks Nathan, and David, if they are the one to build God a house. God says he understands why they have some anxiety about real estate. David fought for this throne for a long time. Israel, had been under attack and on the move for longer than they could remember. God understood why they would want to have something tangible to look at to see their strength. God told Nathan he understand why David wanted to build God something permanent, strong, and impressive.
But don’t put your faith in buildings. The things you build will not last. The apostle Paul describes it this way in 2 Corinthians:
“because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
Building things, per se, is not the problem. David’s son Solomon will go on to build a temple, but it was destroyed by the Babylonians, some 400 years before Jesus was born. Jesus would look at the next Temple and predict its destruction. “Not one stone will be left upon on another”.
As we are preparing a building project here, this passage is a reminder to us about motives. Are we building it as a monument to look impressive to the modern day Philistines, to keep them from invading our space or to convince them that the “rightness” of our belief is proved by signs of our prosperity?
Or are we building it so that we are better equipped to be built into what God is dreaming for us?
It is not our own building projects that will save us. It is what we allow God to build in us, with us. God says to David, the “Lord will make you a house”. David himself is to be built by God. It isn’t what David builds that matters. It is what God builds in David that is eternal.
This is a passage on one level about building a dynasty, a promise that David’s descendants will sit on the throne of Israel. Forever. We won’t have to read much further before we see the problems with the dynasty that raises concerns about the promise.
When we get to Advent, just a short month or so from now, pay attention to the way Jesus is connected to David. The messiah, the anointed one, is seen as the person to fulfill God’s promise to David.
On another level, though, I wonder if God is calling David to stay open to God’s work, God’s promise to build something with his very life. I often give David a bad rap. His behavior does not measure up to his giftedness. He steals wives. He tolerates the rape of one of his daughters by one of his sons. He pits his family members against each other.
David is a flawed hero. A flawed hero who loves God. I do believe there is sincerity in this desire to build a temple. He has, after all, moved the ark from someone’s barn and brought it to Jerusalem. His better angels, when he remembers to pay attention to them, lead him to praise and faithfulness.
When David seeks good advice, surrounds himself with Nathan and other wise people, he does well. In this passage, he starts out seeking Nathan’s advice. And the next day, when Nathan reports back about God’s message for David, do you wonder if Nathan hesitated to deliver the message? We’ve all seen the political leaders who don’t like to be corrected, who refuse to acknowledge error, and who surround themselves with ‘yes men’.
I want a Nathan in my life. I want someone to show up and, with the appropriate level of kindness, tell me when I’ve gotten it wrong. And I pray that I listen when they appear in my life with a message from God.
After Nathan reported God’s news to David, the text says, “Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come. May this be instruction for the people, O Lord God! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord God! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have wrought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O Lord God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears.”
This is David at his best, being flexible, moving from building planning to praise and gratitude. Offering praise for a God who has delivered him so far and who has promised to deliver his family in the future. Offering gratitude for a God who knows David for who he is, and who loves him anyway. This is David allowing God to build him as a house, strong walls of gratitude and a sure foundation of grace.
The image of building is used often in scripture. Jesus famously tells Peter, “on this rock, I will build my church”, referring to Peter himself, and giving him his new nickname, Rocky.
The writer of Ephesians picks up this theme too. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (Eph 2:19-22)
Like David, we are to be built by God, and built into something for God. Are we willing to be built? If Nathan showed up and told you to adjust course, would you hear him? Would you be willing to let God change the plans?
Our stewardship campaign begins in a few weeks, and this passage reminds me of how we come together to contribute what we have so that we can be “built together into a dwelling place for God”. Individually, we have a piece of what is needed. Together, with Christ as the cornerstone, we are joined together, a holy temple in the Lord. Grateful to be one of God’s building blocks with you.