All Downhill from Here (2018-0708)

. 8 min read

Samuel 5:1-10
Corinthians 12:2-10)
United Methodist Church
8, 2018
Sunday after Pentecost
all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your
bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led
out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be
shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the
elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant
with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.
David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years.
At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he
reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.
king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of
the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the
lame will turn you back”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless
David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had
said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the
water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.”
Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”
David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the
city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater,
for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.
In the
73 days since its release, the Marvel Studios movie “Avengers: Infinity War”
has made more than two billion dollars in box office revenue. Notwithstanding
those especially gaudy figures, “Infinity War” is but the latest of dozens of recent,
wildly popular movies in the “superhero” genre. Even someone as out of touch
with popular culture as I am knows that we inhabit a cultural moment in which
superheroes are all the rage. Peculiarly dressed, extremely handsome and
well-muscled men and (increasingly) women, possessed of exceptional strength,
speed, acumen, and various other abilities, fight the forces of evil – and
occasionally each other – on the screens of theaters and televisions across the
country, while we collectively fork over billions of dollars to watch. Serious
journalists pen thousands of words about them, and scholars write articles in
academic journals about their characters and argue at national and even
international conferences about what our affinity for them might mean.

or not there’s any sort of causal relationship in either direction, the
popularity of these super men and women comports well with our current political
climate. Our elected officials and media pundits warn us that evil is on the
rise, that there are dangers in every direction, and insist that only
unyielding brute force, which they name as “strength,” will protect us. Bluster
and muscle-flexing rule the day. Strength is the name of the game, and all in
all it’s a great time to be a name-taker and a butt kicker.
easy in such a climate, when we read the stories from First and Second Samuel,
and especially the stories of David and his mighty men, to project our
disposition toward superheroes and strength onto what we read. Such readings
are certainly understandable; there’s something very nearly superhero-ish about
many of the exploits of David and his “mighty men.” But to read these stories
in that way is to ignore the last sentence in our text for this morning: “And David
became greater and greater, because the L
the God of hosts, was with him.” From slaying Goliath with his sling to
soothing Saul with his Lyre to defeating the armies of the Philistines, and
then Saul with the sword to consolidating his rule with the capture of
Jerusalem, David did what he did not by virtue of superior physical strength or
because his armies had more and bigger missiles, tanks, bombers, and
battleships, but because God saw fit to establish his reign over God’s people,
and because David was willingly available to God’s action.
ten verses, the first five in particular, digress from the flow of the
narrative of I and II Samuel; they sum up what has come before, and look ahead
to the final 33 years of David’s life as ruler over a momentarily united
Israel. In a sense, the passage describes an apotheosis – a high point – for
Israel as a nation among others; things had never been so good, nor would they
ever be this good again. It would, so to speak, be all downhill from here.
It is
important to keep in mind, when we read the biblical stories of the nation
Israel, that they include a pronounced underlying ambiguity toward the very
existence of Israel as nation among others. When the God of Abraham delivered
the Hebrews from bondage in Egypt, he did so in large measure that they would fulfill
his covenant with their ancestor Abraham by being a people whose singular life
together would witness to God’s loving intention for all Creation. The law – the
Hebrew word, Torah, is probably
better translated as “teaching” or “instruction” – given through Moses during
Israel’s 40-year wilderness sojourn had this as its goal, its telos. Nowhere is this put more
succinctly than in Leviticus 20:26: “You shall be holy to me, for I the L
am holy, and I have separated you from other peoples to be mine.”
Israel wasn’t all that keen about being holy, about loving the L
and demonstrating that love through justly loving each other, caring for the
land they had been given, and showing generous hospitality to the strangers who
came their way. They had their own ideas about what the people of God should
look like, and their elders said as much to the prophet Samuel. “You are old,”
they told him, “and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then,
a king to govern us, like other nations.” Samuel, who saw their demand as being
at cross purposes both with God’s plan and their own best interests, tried to
reason with them: “Look,” he said, “this isn’t what God wants for you. If you
have a king, you’re not going to like what he does to you. Your lives are going
change in some unhappy ways. Here’s some of what’s going to happen:
will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen,
and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself
commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground
and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of
his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.
He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give
them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your
vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male
and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his
work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
elders’ response drips with unintended irony: “No!” they declared, sounding a
bit like spoiled children, “but we are determined to have a king over us, so
that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go
out before us and fight our battles.” And Samuel, in consultation with God,
proceeded to make it so.
In the
first chapter of his book The Prophetic
, titled “The Alternative Community of Moses,” the great
theologian of the Old Testament Walter Brueggemann notes that it is difficult
for us to grasp, acculturated as we have become, just how different, how
radically different, God was calling Israel to be – not simply religiously, but
politically and economically – when he liberated them from bondage, and how
disastrously contrary to that calling the rise of the monarchy was. David, he
says, was an anomaly, whose genius lay in his ability to hold together Israel’s
vocation as a prophetic community with his reign as their king. When David died
and his son Solomon succeeded him, Israel became precisely what Samuel had warned,
such that her prominence as a nation came to stand clearly opposed to her
prophetic vocation. However wise and effective an administrator he may have
been, Solomon’s reign proved disastrous. When he died, no amount of national
pride could suffice to hold Israel together; regional rivalries reemerged, tensions
boiled over, and the nation divided, with corruption, conquest, and exile soon
to follow.
God, as
we know, did not abandon his fractured people, nor did he give up on his plan
for them to be participants in his work. The covenants God made, with Abram and
with Moses-led Israel were never revoked, and the trajectory of their
fulfillment was revealed before the nation fell apart. As David was settling in
to his role as king and enjoying his new mansion, it occurred to him that he
should build for God a house as palatial as his own. But God had other plans.
To David, God said “You think I need a house, David? Naw, I don’t need a house.
I’ve been living in a tent since long before you were born, and I’ll be just
fine staying there. But how about this? Instead of you building me a house, how
about I make you into a house – an everlasting legacy that is a testament to my
desire for Creation. How about I choose one of your descendants to establish my
reign, my kingdom. How about I make him the one through whom I restore the
brokenness of my beloved Creation?” That chosen descendant – that Mashiah (Messiah) – was of course Jesus
of Nazareth, whose followers became the church, Christ’s body, the same
peculiar gathering that we, joined to him and to each other in baptism, are
part of today.
world looks different from the perspective of this peculiar gathering, and life
is to be lived differently, according to a different logic. Another of our
lectionary texts for today, from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth,
offers us one way of understanding that logic. Insofar as the body of Christ
has superheroes, Paul would have to be counted among them. He writes in 2
Corinthians about his enigmatic “thorn in the flesh,” some kind of troublesome,
chronic, debilitating affliction that he petitioned God three different times
to take away. In God’s response and Paul’s embrace of that response we are
given the pattern for God’s work and our role in that work in a nutshell: To
Paul’s prayer, God responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is
made perfect in weakness.” Of God’s response, Paul wrote “So, I will boast all
the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and
calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
I am weak, then I am strong.” That was Paul’s superpower – weakness. Further,
it’s our superpower, as well; ordinary women and men, who are sad, sick, or
sinful, yet nonetheless available in their weakness to be vessels of grace to
those around them. If there’s a moral – or morals – to this story, it’s that if
we want to see God at work, we need to know where to look; if we want to be
partners in that work, we need to have a sense of what it is and what it
entails on our part. If we want to see God at work, we should look first not in
the halls of power of this or any other nation. We’ll most likely not find it in
the foundational texts of any government, however noble, nor the rhetoric of
any political leaders, however eloquent. Rather, we should look for God’s work
in the day-to-day acts of grace performed by God’s people – acts of generosity,
acts of hospitality, acts of love. Welcoming the stranger, giving them food to
eat, clothes to wear, and a place to stay; befriending the addict, encouraging
them and assuring them of God’s love; defending the powerless and speaking
truth to power on their behalf. Those who perform such self-emptying acts are
the true legacy of David and his mighty men, for when they are weak, then they
are strong.
In the
name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.