Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-16
Our lectionary passage today comes toward the end of a long, convoluted story. The author of the story is known as the Deuteronomist whose writing covers about 400 years of Israelite history and includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. The Deuteronomist weaves together stories of disparate family relationships, the rise and fall of archetypal heroes, intergenerational warfare, and epic power struggles. If written in modern times, the work of the Deuteronomist might be seen as something like James Michener’s Hawaii or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
David wants to build a house for God, but God is having none of it. Instead, God says, “Aren’t I the God who went down to Egypt when your ancestors were slaves? Didn’t I travel over the deserts and the mountains with your fathers and mothers as they walked through the wilderness? I’ve been on the move as long as your people have been on the move. Have I ever asked anyone to build me a house?”
Then God says to David, “I have been with you wherever you went, vanquishing your enemies before you. This is my promise to you – I will make your name great and I’m going to give you a son. I’m going to be like a father to him and like any responsible parent I’m going to punish him when he acts up but I will never take my steadfast love away from him. Your house and your kingdom will be established forever and I will be with your descendents forever.”
What we know however, is that David’s kingdom didn’t last. Just 40 years after his death, the Israelites went to war with each other and split into two separate, quarrelling kingdoms – one of which would be destroyed by the Assyrians and the other by the Babylonians. For centuries to come Israel would be ruled by foreign powers: the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. When Jesus was born, he was born into occupied territory. The promise of a Davidic dynasty never became a reality.
Since January, I have been in the chaplaincy program at Wake Medical Center. As a chaplain I am called to be with families of the sick and dying, to be with patients as they die, and to be with people whose lives have been irrevocably changed by accidents or illness. Another part of my job is to be on the trauma team when someone comes in by ambulance.
One night just a few weeks ago I was called to the pediatric emergency room about 7 pm. The nurse told me that a 5-year-old child was coming in who had drowned at a swimming pool. The boy was still alive but his condition was quite serious. When I walked into family waiting room I saw that the boy’s family was Hispanic and I was grateful to see a translator in the room because I speak no Spanish.
I joined the family as they knelt in a circle of prayer. As the mother prayed, her hands were clasped under her chin and occasionally she would lift them toward heaven. The fervency of her prayer, the cadence of her words coming faster and faster, louder and louder became more desperate as she seemed to be asking God for a miracle. After the prayer the father paced, fell to his knees, held onto whoever was closest to him, sank into a chair, got up, and paced again. He grabbed each person in the room, including me, beseeching us in Spanish.
When the doctor came in to tell us that their son had died, the father slid down the wall to the floor. He grabbed the doctor’s hand and said, “Take my life, take my heart. Take me. Don’t take my son, my son, my son.” Through his tears he begged the doctor over and over again, “Take me. Take me.” As the translator told us his words it became almost like a litany – first, the father’s words in Spanish, then the translator, softly, in English.
I sat on the floor with the father and held him in my arms as he cried. I didn’t know what to do. Not being able to speak to the family, not being able to understand all that they were saying was very hard, but I could see the devastating grief in his eyes and on his face. Even if I had been able to speak the language what words would I have said? What words would have helped? There were no words.
Finally I took his face in my hands and turned it toward me so that he could see my tears. I wanted him to know that he was not alone, that I was with him in his pain, that even though I couldn’t understand his words I could share his grief. It is humbling to be in the presence of such profound sorrow. It’s almost like being in the ocean. The grief has its tides and movement, its ebb and flow. All I could do was to try to ride the waves of grief as they crested and broke. All I could do was try to keep the family, for that small moment, from drowning in their grief.
One thing I have learned during my time at the hospital is that death is always near. Some of us may live only a few years, others quite a long time, but at some point – whether in illness or through accident, or by violence – the body turns not toward life but toward death. There is nothing we can do to change this. And there is nothing God can do to change it. God either cannot or will not work against death.
I no longer believe in an all-powerful God. The more I know of God, the more I think omnipotence is of greater importance to human beings than it is to God. God’s power is too often defined in terms of reward and punishment – who is blessed and who is cursed. Sometimes I wonder if our own obsession with power has led us to attribute absolute power to God.
I’ve been reading a book on prayer called “In God’s Presence” by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. In it she talks about a God who is relational rather than all-powerful. She says,
“The world is always in the middle of its many stories…as the Quakers put it, ‘God meets our condition.’ The drunk for example, also receives the creative touch of God, and this touch reflects both the character of God and the reality of the alcoholic’s life… Faithfully God touches the addict in each moment, offering what good is possible – even though, given the context, the good may be barely recognizable as a good by an observer. The best, sometimes, is simply bad. But when one moves with the best, the next best may be a little better, and step by step, God offers modes of transformation. God’s touch is conditioned by the world, and limited by the world, so that God must ever adapt divine possibilities to the reality of who we are becoming in the total movement of our lives.”
In the passage we read today, we learn of a God who travels, camps, sojourns, wanders, guides, leads, provides, protects, and makes promises. It’s interesting that the promise that became foundational for Hebrew history was, “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” In the great sweep of Hebrew history this passage became the basis for messianic hope – that David’s descendants would again sit on the throne of the kingdom of Israel. The politicizing of this promise took precedence over another part of God’s promise, “I will not take my steadfast love from you.”
It is this part of the promise that is reminiscent of God’s promise to Abraham centuries before. In Genesis (17:7-8) we read,
“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”
This promise is repeated through succeeding generations to Isaac, to Jacob, and to Joseph. Then in Leviticus (26:11-12) it becomes a promise to all the people of Israel, “And I will make my abode among you, and my soul shall not leave you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God and you shall be my people.” This is the clearest Biblical statement of who God is. Every part of the Bible bears witness to this God who lives with us, walks with us, claims us.
In the moment before his death, in pain and despair, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” But we who know the rest of the story know that God had not forsaken Jesus. We know the promise as it is later proclaimed, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8)
I no longer believe in an all-powerful God. But I do believe in an ever-faithful God, a God whose love never fails us, whose presence is always with us. It is this loving, ever-present, always faithful God who is with us when we lose what is most precious to us, with us when our bodies are wracked with pain, with us when we lose our way into addiction or despair, with us when we take the tiniest step toward the light, with us when we must stop and rest, and with us when we are ready to journey on. This is the God who promises faithfulness and love, who says, “I will walk among you. I will be your God and you will be my people.” This is the God to whom we belong.