Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

After celebration, there is rest. That’s what we expect, and that’s what we find in our first lesson for this Lord’s Day. Last time we witnessed a celebration. To be more precise, we saw David celebrating the victories that God gave to him. By bringing up the ark of the covenant, he made God the theme of the celebration. How could David not make God the theme? God’s been with him in all kinds of situations. God’s rescued him from his enemies. God’s answered his cries of distress. God’s given him rest.


David has come a long way. He has risen from the pastures in Bethlehem to the courts of the Jerusalem, which he has made the capital of Israel. After slaying Goliath, outmaneuvering Saul, conquering Ish-bosheth’s kingdom, and defeating the Philistines, David is settled in his own house. Now that he’s at rest, his thoughts turn appropriately to God. Just as he learned to listen to God to know how to act in a time of war, so now he turns to God in a time of peace to worship.


This ought to call to mind that human life is a rhythm of work and rest. That’s how God designed it. God tells his people in the fourth commandment that in six days they are to do all their work, and to rest on the seventh day. The day is reserved to enjoy God, to enjoy God’s provision, and the beauty of all that he has made. We should always keep in mind that God gives himself to his people to be enjoyed. This in fact is foundational to Presbyterian spirituality. Consider, for example, the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”


It’s David’s desire to build a house for God. He’s brought up the ark of the covenant into the new capital city of Jerusalem. He wants to make Jerusalem the dwelling place of God, where God can be worshiped in a special house built for him called a temple. David’s goal is to create a place where God’s people can live in peace, their lives centered around the praise of God in Jerusalem.


David confides this desire to the prophet Nathan (who is introduced for the first time here). At first Nathan encourages David to do all that he has in mind to do, but later withdraws his support. God had spoken to Nathan that very night to tell him that David’s building plan is not in accord with the divine will. David is not to build a house for God.


At first glance, this seems strange, doesn’t it? Who better to carry out this project than David? Who has more zeal, more devotion than David? God has blessed all that David has done. How much more would he bless David in a task so noble as building a house for him? Our lesson is silent, but when we turn to 1 Chronicles 22, we find an interesting explanation. There the word of the Lord came to David himself, saying: “You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth.” 


This text is fascinating, not least because it appears to contradict the idea that the God of the Old Testament is ruthless and bloodthirsty. To be sure, God raised up David, but it does not necessarily follow that God was pleased with all of David’s wars. Perhaps he was not pleased with any of them. At the very least, God did not want a man of blood to be the one to construct a temple. What does violence and bloodshed have to do with a place of worship? Recall our claim last time about the central act of Christian worship, which is the Lord’s Supper. Our fellowship around the table is a picture of our peace with God and with one another. We see that violence and worship have nothing to do with each other. They cannot be farther apart from one another.   


But perhaps there is another important reason. To build a house for God is David’s own idea. To be sure, it’s a good idea, but it’s nonetheless his own idea. There is no evidence to suggest that he went to God first to ask whether it was God’s will for him. At his best, David always asked God’s permission and guidance before he undertook any project. Here he seems to take matters into his own hands.


There’s something here for us to ponder. There are times when God’s people undertake a plan that’s obviously at cross-purposes with God’s plan. Then it becomes clear that we have to retrace our steps, to rethink our course. But there are other times when our course seems to us, as well as to others, to be good and pleasing to God. On the outside, our plan may be noble and praiseworthy, so much so as even to win the admiration of family and friends. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is congruent with God’s plan. As author Joseph Campbell has commented: “many people have climbed to the top of the ladder only to find that it’s up against the wrong wall.”


As Bishop Robert Barron observes, the fact that David is compelled to surrender his plan to God’s greater plan illustrates a biblical principle that we have always to remember: Our lives are not ultimately about us. We do not make our plans, put God’s rubber stamp on them, and presto they become God’s plans. That’s not how it works. We ask God about his plans for us. That is implied every time we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That is hard to pray and mean. Our hearts resist it. But, in the words of Bishop Barron, God’s plans for us are always “greater, more expansive, and more life-giving than our plans for ourselves.”


In the Christian life, it is God who initiates, we are the ones who follow; it is God who calls, we are the ones who respond. Grace comes first and shapes our response every step of the way. This in fact is what God emphasizes in the message he has Nathan give to the king: “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.” Note God is the active subject of all the verbs here (“I took you…I have cut off your enemies…I will make your name great. God acts through grace and David responds—in that order.


When this order prevails, divine blessing follows. “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” (2 Sam. 7:10–11).


What follow is a promise that is at the heart of this lesson. Indeed, it is at the heart of the Old Testament. Its meaning is revealed only in the New Testament. The promise is that the “Lord himself will establish a house for you.”


This is a striking reversal. It turns out that it is not David who will build God a house; rather, it is God who will build David a house.


There is a play on words here. House is used both in the sense of a physical dwelling and of a dynasty, that is, offspring that will continue David’s line. The immediate reference here is to Solomon, the Son of David, who succeeds him. And it is Solomon who builds the literal house, the temple named after him.


But there is something far greater in view here. The royal line, which begins with Solomon, will last forever. In Psalm 89, God avers that David’s line will continue forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure. And God’s steadfast love will rest on him, and his covenant with him will stand firm forever.


What could all this mean?


Let us turn to our gospel lesson in search of our answer. There Jesus and his disciples take a voyage to a secluded area. Just as David before him, Jesus too wants to give them rest. But as soon as they arrive, crowds begin to come to him from everywhere. Mark tells us something about Jesus’ reaction that is revealing. Jesus saw the crowds, and he had compassion on them. For to him they were like sheep without a shepherd.


In Israel, the king is like a shepherd. That David was taken from the pasture, from following the sheep around—that is not accidental to his role as king of Israel. The manner in which the king was to exercise his rule over his people is like that in which the shepherd tends his sheep. The king was to shepherd God’s people Israel. This means, among other things, that he was to protect them and care for them. The shepherd goes after strays. He binds up the injured. He leads them to running water. He brings them to rich pasture.


Jesus wanted to be seen as the good shepherd. What doesn’t occur to us whenever we think about this familiar image is that it is a royal one. To say of himself that he is the good shepherd is to say that he is king.


Now when we return to our Old Testament lesson, we understand its significance. Nathan’s prophecy is about Jesus Christ. When the first Christian preachers and evangelists tried to make sense of Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, it is only natural that they would turn to this text and to the promise that God made to David through Nathan the prophet. Jesus is the last and greatest king of David’s dynasty. That is why he is called the Son of David, whose throne God has established forever.


We live in a day when many people are passionate about social and political causes. They argue passionately about what is right and just for this group or that. They rally behind this leader or that. These people are also to be found in our churches. Christian communities have been divided over social and political issues, as we all know. But on this Lord’s Day there is a message to us that we all need to take to heart: There is one house, one leader, one kingdom that will outlast and overrule them all. In the words of Stan Mast, one time pastor at LaGrave Avenue Church in Grand Rapids, it is the promise of God that determines history, not the power of political leaders. That’s why the Psalmist warns God’s people not to put their trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground, and on that very day their plans come to nothing (146:3-4).


When we put our trust in Christ, where it ought to be, then we will have the right perspective. We will see things in their proper place and know how to distinguish the important from the less important and the trivial. We will be less concerned about who is in office than about the One who is on the throne. We will be less concerned about our neighbor’s political affiliation than about their relationship with God. We will be less beholden to cable news than to the gospel of Jesus Christ. 


When the people came to Jesus like stray sheep without a shepherd, they were certainly seeking healing, but they were also looking for proper leadership. That is why he began to teach them many things. Is it not the same today? Obviously it is.    


Let us seek to renew our allegiance to Jesus the king. Let us be sure that we are not giving our allegiance to mere men, who are dust and return to dust. That is not only foolish; it is also makes us out to be traitors. Amen. 


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