7/8/18: Between "If" and "Nevertheless," 2 Samuel 7:1-17
Between “If” and “Nevertheless”
Sixth in the series, Holy, Broken Hallelujah
First Lesson: Psalm 89:20-37
Second Lesson: 2 Samuel 7:1-17
Rev. Scott Dickison
Much has happened since we last saw David on the field of battle with mighty Goliath.
David’s defeat of the Philistine giant won him the hearts of the people and sparked a meteoric rise told over the remainder or 1 Samuel and the opening chapters of 2 Samuel, from shepherd boy, to giant slayer, to musician in Saul’s court, to advisor and general, to enemy of the king, to fugitive of the king, to mercenary for the dreaded Philistines, to conquering hero, to king.
Saul is dead and David has seized the throne. He has conquered Jerusalem, a town of the Jebusites, another Canaanite tribe, and declared it his capital, bringing in the ark of the covenant—the great symbol of divine presence and power, strong enough to melt the skin off the bones of Nazis if you believe the Indiana Jones movies—at that time housed in the tabernacle, this moveable tent, that David and the armies of Israel had paraded into Jerusalem to great fanfare, even dancing before it—scandalous! And so the stage has been set: A new king, in a new capital city, and so in David’s mind all that remains is the building of a new temple to house for all eternity the God who has brought them this far, which is where we find ourselves this morning. And I’m indebted here to Walter Brueggemann in his magnificent commentary, which I’ve mentioned many times before.
And as our passage opens, you can almost feel the turning of a page to a new chapter, not simply in the book of 2 Samuel but the life of Israel: “Now when the king was settled into his house (not David anymore, but simply “the king”), and the Lord had given him rest from his enemies around them, the king said to the prophet Nathan”—the new royal advisor, who we’ll hear from in the coming weeks—“See how I’m living here in this beautiful house, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”
And Nathan, talented counselor for the king that he is, understands what David wants to do without him actually coming out and saying it: he wants to build a house for the ark, meaning a house for God—a proper temple, a permanent home for God in this new royal, holy city. Nathan responds, one gets the feeling, how he often would respond to the wishes of the king: Go, do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you. But that night, the word of the Lord would come to Nathan with a new plan and a new promise. There would be no temple—at least not yet. God would do David one better. God would promise him a dynasty, that his line would continue through the generations. But what’s more, God’s promise of blessing would take on a new depth.
I’ll give you a house, God says, and when your days are fulfilled and you lie with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, looking ahead to Solomon,and will establish his kingdom. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I’ve done before. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever.
Brueggemann claims this unconditional promise of God to David is “the most crucial theological statement in the Old Testament.”
It’s the most crucial theological statement because it has changed the nature of God’s covenant, God’s relationship with the people. Up to this point, God’s presence and provision in the lives of the people was conditional: Ifyou love the Lord your God, walk in God’s ways, observe the commandments, then I will bless you. But ifyou don’t—if your hearts turn away and you’re led astray by other gods, then you shall perish. Up to this point the covenant between God and the people was a conditional one, with clear expectations and possible outcomes.
But now that has changed. Now the relationship between God and God’s people is grounded not in the great “If” of our obedience, but in God’s gracious promise, as Brueggemann puts it, of “Nevertheless.”Yes, there will be times of distance or darkness or correction along the way, but these won’t be permanent. In the end, as Paul would later put it: nothing can separate us from the love of God.
This is big! The whole story has changed. The whole ground upon which the people of God would live their lives is different. It’s suddenly more steady, more firm. God’s love, in the story to this point, has always been described as steadfast and faithful, but now there’s something else there—something beyond faithful. A kind of no-matter-what-nesshas been added. This promise of God here in 2 Samuel is the root of some of the most profound images and testimonies we have in scripture and in our faith: that in the end, light conquers darkness, in the end, love conquers fear—that the worst things are never the last things, as we say so often here. The ground has shifted. God has done a new thing—blessed be the name of the Lord!
And yet, Brueggemann says this: it’s critical to recognize “that while the covenant of “if” is “silenced” in this new covenant of “nevertheless,” it has not been completely “nullified.” In other words—it hasn’t been removed completely from the books, and in the pages to follow in scripture this “If” would reappear. Voices within scripture would continue to argue that, steadfast as God may be, there are nonetheless limits to God’s patience. That in the end, lines are set and that is that. There are times—these voices from scripture would say—when God’s presence truly does leave us. And this continues beyond scripture and into our own lives. How many of us have felt the weight of this “if?” Have you looked at the world and wondered if “nevertheless” was really anything more than a children’s story.
Anxiety, hate, fear, violence—the evidence for “If” in our world is strong.
Doug Thompson was telling me recently about a documentary about an expedition to plunge the depths of underwater caves—hundreds and hundreds of meters down into the darkness—that went catastrophically wrong, with the divers dying and then the rescuers sent to bring them back up dying as well. They’d all gotten so disoriented by the thick, impenetrable darkness that they’d gotten tangled in their lifelines. One of the divers who eventually made it down to collect their bodies remarked, There are some places on earth where dark truly does overcome light.
The testimony of “if” continues, in Scripture and beyond. And so, Brueggemann confesses, we’re left to “struggle with the tension of ‘if’ and ‘nevertheless’ that is present in the Bible, in our own lives, and in the very heart of God.
The tension of “If” and “Nevertheless.” The tension between God’s expectation of our obedience, our walking in God’s ways, our keeping the commands for justice and compassion, and the great gospel hope of gracious, unconditional love. And we might like to think this all would have been settled in Christ, but I think we’ve all seen in different ways how these questions of the limits of God’s love and patience weren’t put to rest in Christ, but instead were intensified.
Depending on where you find yourself within the Christian tradition, it’s possible to understand the life, death and resurrection of Jesus as God’s resounding and jubilant “Nevertheless!” Or God’s final, gut wrenching plea for “if." And both are found in the New Testament.
Will you look at Paul when he says he is convinced, that “nothing can separate us from the love of God, not height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation…”
Or is it Jesus in John when he says God so loved the world that God gave the Son, that ifwe should believe in him we should not perish. But if we don’t…it’s not clear.
Is it like the prodigal son who seems to receive his father’s forgiveness before he even takes his first step home, or the king who in the end must separate the sheep from the goats…
There’s a tension here.
The spectrum of “if” and “nevertheless” continues today. Far to one side there are plenty of Christians who cling to the divine “If” and wield it violently—seeming to relish in the idea that God’s love and patience might run out for some. And then, of course, on the other extreme you’ll find an empty shrug of a “Nevertheless” that would render God impotent in the face of the hardships of life and the reality of evil.”But as with most things, most folks find their place somewhere in between these poles of “if” and “nevertheless.” Sometimes where we find ourselves depends on the day—who’s cut us off in traffic, or what nasty email we’ve read or catastrophe we’ve seen on the news. How long it takes to put the kids to bed, God help us.
Or, if before sneaking out of the room, we manage to see the way their faces look when they’re sleeping. Or if we feel the coolness in the air after it rains, or see how the world comes alive at sunrise, morning by morning…
There’s a tension here, in the Bible, in life, and perhaps even, “in the heart of God.” And so this is where faith is and can only be lived: in this tension between “if” and “nevertheless.”
And I wish I could tell you which it was! I wish I could tell myself. But here’s what I believe and what my best reading of scripture and life and the world points to.
I believe God’s hope is “nevertheless.”
I don’t believe God hopes for “if.”—I believe God longs for nevertheless.
I believe God’s great dream for the world is nevertheless—that, come what may and in the end, God longs to draw all things and all people together into one—I believe the witness of scripture says this is God’s hope, that this is what God wants more than anything.
And I believe the witness of scripture also teaches us that, more than anything, we’re to want what God wants.
God wants peace and love and justice and mercy and compassion and wholeness and reconciliation for all people, and so I believe this is what we should hope for—and not only hope for, but order our lives around. It’s what we should work for, what we should pray for. It’s how we should be church together—it’s the standard we should hold for ourselves: to want and pray for work toward what brings wholeness to our lives, to our communities, to our world—this is what we’re called to do, because this is what Christ did and what the Spirit continues to do with and without us.
And so we should live as if
in the end, love wins over fear.
As if, In the end, light overcomes darkness.
As if, In the end peace waits out violence and anxiety.
As if, In the end, right conquers wrong, justice conquers oppression and then finds its home in mercy.
We should live as ifin the end, nothing can separate us from the love of God—the best version of the Christian faith stakes its hope in the nevertheless-ness of God’s love, it longs for nevertheless, it wants desperately nevertheless, because this is what God wants.
That’s what I believe.
Which leaves just one question, which may be the great question behind all of scripture and all of faith, which is this: Does God get what God wants?
Walter Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Samuel , Interpretationseries, 253-259
Brueggemann’s commentary from this same series on Genesis 17 and the binding of Isaac speaks to this same dynamic, 190-191