II Samuel 7-9, Psalm 92, Acts 7
Out of the depths of our sinfulness and obscurity God uses us to redeem others
II Samuel 7-9
Israel’s parliament chose hard-liner Reuven “Rubi” Rivlin” yesterday to serve as the 10th president of Israel. He will replace the more moderate and peace-seeking Shimon Peres, who steps down at the end of next month, shortly before his 91st birthday. Peres appears like a peacenik compared to Rivlin, his successor, who is opposed to the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state and envisions a “Greater Israel,” or a Jewish homeland stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, with an undivided Jerusalem.
Israel plays a complicated game of negotiating from time to time with the Palestinians only after being promised billions of dollars of foreign aid by the United States only to suggest proposals that are completely unacceptable to the Palestinians and then walking away from the table. The Palestinians fire rockets and mortars into illegal Israel settlements and are often their own worst enemies. Meanwhile American evangelical Christians fund new Israeli settlements in the bizarre belief that the Messiah will return in the Second Coming when Israel is completely repopulated by Jews. Shear madness drives the politics of the Middle East.
In 2 Samuel 7 King David dreams of building a Temple or structure to house the Ark of the Covenant, Israel’s most treasured possession. “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the Ark of God stays in a tent,” laments David. Every leader wants to leave his or her mark by leaving something enduring that will long outlast them. Tour Paris and you will see one monument, artistic creation or building after another commissioned by one of the presidents of France, who sought immortality in the nation’s capital. Ask any development director what is the easiest money to raise, and he or she will tell you it is for a building that can be named for the donor. Leaders seek to leave their stamp on history.
David’s dream was to build a Temple, which would endure for posterity. Nathan, his chief of staff or senior prophet, gave him the green light, but then awoke in the middle of the night from a dream in which God informed him that it would be one of David’s offspring, not David, who God envisioned to build the Temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yahweh commanded Nathan to tell 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 of your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. (2 Sam. 7:8-9)
Thus, God cut a covenant with David. He would ensure that David prospered militarily and conquered many peoples, but the building of the Temple to house the Ark would be a task left for his son Solomon to undertake. David took Nathan’s words to heart. He prayed humbly, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?” (2 Sam. 7:18)
When I attended the Yale Divinity School I always attended Morning and Evening Prayer in the Episcopal chapel of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale as well as the ecumenical morning worship service for Yale Divinity School students in Marquand Chapel. After the service in Marquand, I often walked outside the chapel doors which led to a small terrace overlooking the divinity school quadrangle that was modeled after the Lawn designed by Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.
As I looked out across the beautiful campus, I thought to myself, “Who am I to be here?” Countless people lead better lives, are finer individuals and are more worthy than I am to become an Episcopal priest. I had to pinch myself to believe that I was actually preparing to serve as a priest in God’s Church. Most of us have thought quietly to ourselves, “Lord, how is it that you have brought me here to serve you in this capacity. I am unworthy.” Truthfully, God always chooses the unworthy to serve him. We are not where we are because of our own merits.
In chapter 8 David unleashes his military genius and appetite for violence and conquering other peoples. He attacks and subdues the Philistines, the Moabites, King Hadadezer and the Edomites. He leads an army of 127,000 horsemen and 20,000 infantry. He kills 22,000 Arameans. He is a military machine. Like Hitler in the early stages of World War II expanding the Greater Germany, David expands Israel’s borders dramatically and cleanses the landscape of those whom he longs to rid from his empire.
Clearly, “David won a name for himself.” (2 Sam. 8:13) Israel reportedly reached its zenith of expansion under his command, and the boundaries of Israel were never larger. Jews to this day dream of reclaiming all of the land that David once oversaw. It is a temptation for every people, race and religion to dream of expansion, to worship of narrative of success, even at grave costs to others.
In a more compassionate moment, David seeks to reward upon any survivor of the house of Saul. He summons Ziba, a servant from the house of Saul, and inquires as to see if he can find any of the family of his beloved soul mate Jonathan. When informed that Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s crippled son, is living, David orders that he be given all of his grandfather’s property and eat forever at the king’s table.
David’s largesse was a mixed blessing. Like Joseph being lifted up out of a prison cell and brought before the Pharaoh, Mephibosheth was rescued from obscurity and rewarded with land holdings, but he was now under close supervision and careful scrutiny. The old adage that it is best to keep one’s enemies close at hand was being put into practice.
Mephibosheth had good reason to be scared. Mesopotamian rulers usually eliminated all of the members of the political opposition or family members of the previous ruler to avoid rebellion, coups and rival claimants to the throne. Ziba will later charge that Mephibosheth sought to reclaim the throne during Absalom’s rebellion. For now, David keeps Jonathan’s son on a tight leash, just as Babylonian and Assyrian kings provided for the “political guests” of the king, who ate with the king while their people were forced to pay taxes and provide soldiers for the king’s army. David was an astute military and political genius.
Devout Jewish men prayed twice each day. It took ten men or a mina to create a synagogue, which comes from the Greek verb “to gather together.” Men arrived at the synagogue before daybreak. When the first rays of the sun broke the horizon and entered the synagogue windows, devout men rose and began their morning prayers. Likewise, they returned to the synagogue at sunset to say evening prayers. Morning and evening prayers bracketed their lives.
Surely Thomas Cranmer had this in mind when he produced the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and called for all clergy and laity as possible to gather each day for Morning and Evening Prayer. Today, many clergy and some laity still maintain this faithful practice alone at home or at church. This creates a Benedictine rhythm to one’s day that allows all of the actions and events of the day to be transformed by prayer. God often seems present to those who pray like this. The Psalmist writes:
It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to your name, O Most High:
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
and your faithfulness by night. (Ps. 92:1-2)
When we pray each day, we experience what the Psalmist describes when he says, “How great are your works, O Lord! Your thoughts are very deep!” In Psalm 42:7, the Psalmist writes, “Deep calls to deep…” Our Creator speaks to the deepest part of us when we meet God faithfully each day in prayer.
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, once famously said, “Going to church is not an efficient use of one’s time.” To people like this, prayer may seem like a waste of energy. But to the initiated, prayer is the best use of our time. It can spare us much trouble and offer enormous insight, strength and comfort.
Verse 12 hearkens back to Psalm 1, the key for interpreting all of the psalms. Psalm 1 tells us that those, who delight in the law of the Lord are, “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” (Ps. 1:3) Likewise, Psalm 92 tells us that “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” (Ps. 92:12)
Finally, we are told that “the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.” (Ps. 92:15) This is a great, succinct depiction of God. To progress on the Christian journey, one thing is necessary. We must stop interrogating God and trust in the Almighty. We were not put on earth to act superior to our Creator. If we view God with suspicion and distrust, God will not reveal himself to us. God humbled himself in Jesus taking on the form of human and dying upon the cross for our sake, but God will not repeat this act each time we put God on trial in the courtroom in our mind.
Learning what to love in life is one of our greatest tasks as we strive to follow Jesus. St. Augustine said that the Christian life revolves around what we love and in what priority we love them. If we say that we love God but we give more time, money and talent to a dozen other things, than clearly God is low our list of loves. If we love God first and offer God the most significant share of our time, energy, talent and money, then our other loves will fall into their proper place and never be shortchanged.
In Acts 6:13, the false witnesses who testify against Stephen, a man called to serve as a deacon, and they accuse him of “saying things against this holy place and the law…” They are more interested in “place” and “law” than in the Holy Spirit. The followers of the Apostles chose seven men who were “full of the Spirit.” This mattered little to their opponents, who were more committed to the Temple and to the Jewish Law. Sometimes, we Christians act in similar ways. We embrace and worship our buildings and our traditions and cannot see when God is doing a new thing among us.
Standing before the Sanhedrin, Stephen gave his final testimony. He summarized Jewish salvation history, recounting how God appeared to Abraham and called him to become the father of a great nation. He spoke about Joseph and Jacob, and he added details not found in the Old Testament such as that Joseph invited Jacob and all of his relatives to come to him, “seventy-five in all…” (Acts 7:14) and that “their bodies,” not just Jacob’s body, were brought back to Hebron to be buried with Abraham and Sarah. These details do not appear in Genesis.
Stephen relayed the story of Moses and the burning bush and how an angel appeared to Moses and the voice of God spoke. Once again, he added details not found in Exodus 3, adding, “Moses began to tremble and did not dare to look.” (Acts 7:32)
Soon, Stephen transitions from a recitation of Jewish salvation history to accusing his accusers of opposing the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the chief protagonist in the Luke/Acts narrative. To violate the Holy Spirit, is to violate the heart of the author’s theology and to oppose the core of the Holy Trinity.
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53) Stephen’s accusations mirror Jesus’ words found in Matthew 23:13-36.
These are words that a preacher reserves for the moment that it is clear that he or she is being run out of town! Stephen’s accusers were enraged, but he looked up to heaven and “saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” This was a mystical moment for Stephen. He witnessed God’s shekinah or glory and saw Jesus watching over him. He gasped, “Look, I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56)
His persecutors could not tolerate this. They dragged him out of the city, circled round him, dropped their coats and pelted him with stones. Normally, when a person was stoned, the victim was buried in the ground up to his neck, leaving only his or her head exposed to be pelted by stones. This was a more spontaneous killing.
Like Christ before him, Stephen forgave his assailants and then experienced a profound connection with God. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” he said, before falling to his knees, adding, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60) How many of us have refused to forgive family, friends or strangers for acts that pale in comparison to what Stephen found it possible to offer forgiveness?
Lurking behind the mob of angry stone throwers was a young man named Saul. Those who stoned Stephen laid their cloaks at his feet. Saul took part, even if passively, in the killing of Christianity’s first martyr. The chapter closes with the words, “And Saul approved of their killing [Stephen]. The stage is now set for what will become the most important conversion in Christian history. Saul, a man who loathed “members of the Way” or Christians, was about to be transformed by God.
The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. (Ps. 92:12)
Who are your enemies? Whom do you seek to keep a watchful eye upon? Do you pray twice a day? Does prayer seem like time well spent or does it seem like an inefficient use of your time? Have you ever offered your testimony to others about your faith in Jesus and what he did to atone for your sins? What prevents you from bearing witness to your deepest beliefs? Is there a Saul in you, who has participated even if passively harming others? Can you trust that God can work through you, sinful as you may be, to transform the lives of others through God’s grace working in you?
Holy God, you take us, who are always unworthy of your love and grace, and empower us to be instruments in your hand so that we might touch with compassion the lives of others around us. Help us to remain humble and forever thankful that you have brought us out of lowly pastures to places of power, respect and leadership to serve you each day of our life. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania