Old Testament:1 Samuel (7:1-14a)
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
The Response: Psalm 89:20-37
20 I have found David my servant; *
with my holy oil have I anointed him.
21 My hand will hold him fast *
and my arm will make him strong.
22 No enemy shall deceive him, *
nor any wicked man bring him down.
23 I will crush his foes before him *
and strike down those who hate him.
24 My faithfulness and love shall be with him, *
and he shall be victorious through my Name.
25 I shall make his dominion extend *
from the Great Sea to the River.
26 He will say to me, ‘You are my Father, *
my God, and the rock of my salvation
27 I will make him my firstborn *
and higher than the kings of the earth.
28 I will keep my love for him for ever, *
and my covenant will stand firm for him.
29 I will establish his line for ever *
and his throne as the days of heaven.”
30 “If his children forsake my law *
and do not walk according to my judgments;
31 If they break my statutes *
and do not keep my commandments;
32 I will punish their transgressions with a rod *
and their iniquities with the lash;
33 But I will not take my love from him, *
nor let my faithfulness prove false.
34 I will not break my covenant, *
nor change what has gone out of my lips.
35 Once for all I have sworn by my holiness: *
‘I will not lie to David.
36 His line shall endure for ever *
and his throne as the sun before me;
37 It shall stand fast for evermore like the moon, *
the abiding witness in the sky.’”
The Epistle: Ephesians (2:11-22)
Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands—remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. 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.
The Gospel: Mark (6:30-34, 53-56)
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Today’s first reading has been a very influential one for both Jews and Christians. It presents God, speaking through the prophet Nathan, as giving David an unconditional pledge. God will build a “house,” that is a dynasty, for David, one that will never end: “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” While the reading itself obviously had nothing to do with Jesus, who would not even be born for another 1000 years, Christians quickly appropriated it to affirm their faith in God’s lasting presence in the risen Lord.
Psalm 89, which served as our response to the reading, reaffirmed that promise to David — at least the part of the psalm that we prayed together. But that part is not the whole psalm, and it certainly is not the whole story. In speaking of David, the portion that we used ended with verses 36 and 37, which speak of David’s descendants:
“His line shall endure forever and his throne as the sun before me;
It shall stand fast for evermore like the moon, the abiding witness in the sky.”
God’s promise to David is forever. That’s great. People love it. We love it.
The problem with it begins in the very next verse, in fact in the very next word. Verse 38 begins, “But”: “But you have cast off and rejected your anointed.” And the psalm then goes on to describe the way that the king, the descendant of David, had been defeated (maybe even killed), how his throne had not endured, how the city of Jerusalem had had its walls breached and had been left in ruins by its enemies. In the mind of the psalmist, the impossible had happened. Apparently “forever” just isn’t what it used to be. Essentially, the psalmist confronts God with the insistence: “This is what you, God, promised. This is the unconditional covenant that you made. But this is what really happened.” The psalmist, whoever he or she might have been, gives voice to the question that must have been burning in everyone’s heart at the time: how could this possibly have happened? How can we make any sense of this?
This passage holds up to us a dilemma, a tension that pervades the Bible. Passages like this one assert God’s promises as totally unconditional. No matter what happens, God will always stay with and protect God’s people. But there are other biblical passages that make those promises conditional: they come with an “if.” God’s opening words to Moses at Mt. Sinai, for example, begin: “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” That’s a big “if.” As we heard in one of our readings a few weeks ago, Saul had failed the “if” test; and that is how David became king in the first place.
These two types of promises, one unconditional and the other conditional, are complementary aspects of God’s relationship with us. They are sometimes referred to as God’s love, on the one hand, and God’s justice, on the other. Neither is complete by itself. The two stand always in tension with each other.
Some Christians, especially those who try to take the Bible literally and like to pull individual verses out of context, try to pick one of the two without the other. Some take a light, airy, completely unrealistic approach that “No matter what happens, no matter what I do, God is going to take care of me.” Others take a stern, moralistic, and very judgmental approach — usually judging and condemning others rather than themselves, of course — and warn of the consequences of not living according to their own, very narrow interpretation of the bible, warning of judgment and punishment. Yet a truly biblical faith, and so a truly Christian faith, takes both aspects of God’s relationship with us, the conditional and the unconditional, into account.
We celebrate our conviction of God’s unconditional love and of God’s unconditional grace, given freely to all. But at the same time, we acknowledge that our actions do have consequences. Whether we interpret those consequences as acts of God’s judgment or simply as the natural results of the choices that we make and the things that we do, we realize that the things that we do matter, and we can’t just pretend that they don’t.
It’s there that God’s mercy comes in. We do have to live with the consequences of what we have done. Yet God is always there to help us make a new beginning. Grace and mercy are fundamental characteristics of God. I think that the best explanation of the two that I have come across came not from a distinguished theologian, but from the great Cincinnati Reds’ manager, Sparky Anderson, who once explained: “Grace means getting what you don’t deserve; mercy means not getting what you do deserve.” It’s hard to top that definition.
The two are flip-sides of any true, loving relationship. Think, for example, of the love of a parent for a child. As parents, you love your children unconditionally and always will. Yet at the same time, you know that they need to take responsibility for the choices that they make and learn to live with the consequences of their actions. You strive to be there with them when they do make mistakes, even serious ones, helping them to pick up the pieces and start again. Your protection for them is both unconditional and conditional. To put it in biblical terms, you are there with grace for them all the time, and there with mercy for them when they need it.
Perhaps this dilemma, this tension, is there in the pages of the bible to remind us of the dual nature of the love that God has for us and of the love that God calls us to have for other people as well. Ours is a call to extend to others the same grace and mercy that God extends to us and to them.
As Walter Brueggemann (First and Second Samuel, page 259) puts it, both the “forever” and the “if” are: “present in the bible, in our own lives, and in the very heart of God… God’s conditional requirement and God’s unconditional promise belong to biblical faith. Both belong to God’s character as known in Israel. Both are crucial to the fullness of our human life. Both matter to our life with God and with each other.”