A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 18 July 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Readings of address: 2 Samuel 7. 1-14a
You may have noticed that a couple of years ago we started a tradition at St Martin’s called Ask the Vicar. Originally it gave children in the congregation a chance to have their questions heard and their searching cherished by the community. During lockdown it went online. Since we opened up again it’s become a Tik-Tok phenomenon, with people all over the world joining in and sending in questions they long to be taken seriously. There seem to be two kinds of questions: those arising out of curiosity, like Is God fat? or Why does God move in mysterious ways? And those rooted in profound heart-searching, like How can I trust God?
When we read the Bible, it’s easy to forget that it was written by people who had the same questions we do. We can easily assume the Bible was written by people who were certain, and we, because we’re flaky, further away, or far more sophisticated, are the ones who have the questions. But that’s not how it works. If you take a passage like this morning’s Old Testament reading, you can see it’s an account of profound heart-searching about the most important questions of all: the ones that affect not only our own lives but the whole meaning of everything.
I bet you know the old joke about a man who goes to see a lawyer. The man needs legal help. But he hasn’t got much money. So he decides to check out the lawyer’s terms before he goes any further. He says to the lawyer, ‘What do you charge?’ The lawyer replies, ‘I charge £1000 to answer three questions.’ The man’s surprised and troubled. He responds, ‘Don’t you think that’s rather a lot of money to answer three questions?’ The lawyer nods, ‘Yes it is.’ Then she asks, ‘What’s your third question?’
Second Samuel chapter 7 is about three questions. This may look like a story from 3000 years ago about a powerful king trying to legitimise his regime by building a grand temple to the God who underwrites his authority. But it’s much more than that. The three questions that emerge in this passage are perhaps the three great questions of faith. One theologian even calls this passage ‘the most crucial theological statement in the Old Testament.’ (WB, First and Second Samuel Louisville: John Knox 1990, 259) I want to look with you at the three questions this passage addresses to see how they resonate with our faith today.
The first question is, Where is God? That’s the most obvious question this story’s about: Where is God? The two tablets of stone on which were written the Ten Commandments were a wedding ring for God and Israel. They were carried around in a heavy structure known as the ark of the covenant, and wherever that ark was, Israel believed was God among them. David sees his stable period of kingship in the newly conquered city of Jerusalem, uniting the northern and southern tribes, as the perfect moment to make a grand and permanent home for the ark of the covenant, enthroning God and at the same time enshrining his own leadership.
But the prophet Nathan expresses ambivalence about the project. He points out that God, the Lord of heaven and earth, can’t be contained in a building. God isn’t a creature under our control, and God’s purposes are not exhausted by our needs. Nathan goes to the heart of the ambiguity of our human quest for God. On the one hand we want an answer to our questions about ultimate meaning, perpetual truth, final purpose – we want to know why there’s a universe, how we came to be here, and whether it’s all a cosmic accident. On the other hand, no sooner than we sense we’re getting an answer to these timeless questions, we’re trying to control that God, to limit that truth, to put it in a building, make it our creature for our use and purpose, no doubt developing merchandise and patenting the brand.
Where is God? God’s not far away, located in a control room beyond the stars, manipulating a digitalised array of levers and pulleys; neither is God in a box, strictly controlled by us, invoked to justify our every power-grab and assertion of will. To find God we have to set aside all notions of control, that God is a device to hasten our desires, and all ideas of use, that God exists to fix the unresolved parts of our lives. God is utterly other than us – and yet, as Nathan says to David, God is with us wherever we go.
Here’s the second question. What does God want? Here’s a perpetual question: What does God want from us? David wants to build a temple for God. It doesn’t seem at all clear from what Nathan’s saying that that’s what God wants. But David has a mindset that faithfulness is doing lots of things for God, and faithfulness for a rich and powerful king must mean doing very big things for God. Look at this mindset more carefully. One of the hardest things in life is being in a relationship, with a boss or family member or a romantic partner, where you can’t fathom what the other party really wants. If you long to win their favour, you’re going to end up in a habit of doing things or giving things or saying things somehow to mollify, placate or distract them. But all the time you’re in a perpetual cycle of fear, confusion, bewilderment and guilt. This is how Sigmund Freud described religion. He saw it as a constant pattern of guilt and inadequate strategies to assuage that guilt. The trouble is, some religion is like that. It’s about a faraway God with irrational demands that you can never meet – and a perpetual sense of failure for which you always feel guilty. David’s gesture of building a temple is a political manoeuvre to shore up his regime. But on a faith level it looks very much like the grand, ultimate gesture that says, ‘God, now I’ve done this, you can surely never take your favour away from me.’ In other words, it’s a form of bribery. These kinds of gestures aren’t about a real relationship: they’re about offsetting damage, given there isn’t a real relationship. It’s saying, ‘I’m going to do so much for you that you can never reproach me, regardless of whether it’s what you really want.’
But see how radical is what Nathan goes on to say. This is what makes this passage the theological crux of the Old Testament. In fact, the most vital thing is the word Nathan doesn’t say. Nathan doesn’t utter the word ‘if.’ Think about the covenant between God and Moses: it’s dominated by the word ‘if.’ If you keep my commandments, you will prosper. The whole thing’s conditional. If Israel keeps its side of the bargain, God says ‘I’ll keep my side of the bargain.’ ‘If’ is the tiny word that echoes all through the Old Testament to this point. Now just think for a moment about the power of that tiny word ‘if’ in your life. If you get a decent job and finally bring in enough money, I will love you and stay with you. If you pursue a certain form of education and training, I will help you pay for it. If your behaviour improves, I’ll buy you a new phone. ‘If’ is a word that dominates lives; and a word that overshadows many lives of faith. Nathan abolishes ‘if.’ There’s no ‘if’ in what God says to David through Nathan. Imagine a relationship that has no ‘if.’ Imagine a love that replaces the word ‘if’ with the word ‘always.’ What does God want? Not a series of conditional demands we struggle to fulfil. God wants to be with us always. No ‘if’: always.
So to the third question. Can we lose God? If God is with us, and what God wants is to be with us always, can something still go wrong? It’s a very legitimate question. Inside each one of us there’s two voices. One longs for things to turn out well. The other whispers, ‘It can’t last.’ Recall your moment of greatest joy: was there a piercing terror that it would all be snatched away from you? Second Samuel is the zenith of Israel’s power and faithfulness: it’s the high watermark of the Old Testament. And yet it’s written in the knowledge that years later it all disintegrated. How can we place our faith in God if we’re beset by the fear that it won’t last – that at the moment of our death we’ll lose everything? Here Nathan uses two words that answer our question. He says ‘forever.’ God’s commitment to us is forever. It’s not dependent on our behaviour, it’s not dismantled by our mortality, it’s not derailed by the changes and chances of this fleeting world. Then Nathan says, ‘I will raise.’
This is where the Jewish and Christian reading of this story part company. The Jewish reading is that one day there’ll be another David, a messiah, who’ll restore God’s people and redeem the earth. The Christian reading is that there has been such a person – that these words are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus did experience the alienation of God’s people and Jesus did experience the alienation of God. Everything that might jeopardise the word ‘forever’ was embedded in his passion and death. But God raised Jesus. That raising demonstrates the fact that we cannot lose God. God and forever aren’t just two things it’s nice to have: they’re the same thing.
And this is the point where we realise the significance of the three questions that emerge in this passage. Where is God? What does God want? Can we ever lose God? I think it’s fair to say they’re the three questions that really matter – the most important questions of all, for the universe and for each of us personally. The answer to all three questions is one word: Jesus. Where is God? God is with us in the one who expresses and embodies everything God means to us and everything we mean to God. What does God want? God wants to be with us in Christ. God’s not especially interested in us offering gifts or making sacrifices, if such acts express our suspicion that we don’t know what God wants and are resorting to bribery instead. What God wants is our companionship in Christ. Can we lose God? It sometimes feels like it, and in the way we treated Jesus we went as far as we can imagine towards doing so: but God raised Jesus, and showed us that nothing can finally separate us, so we can give up worrying.
The people we find in the Old Testament aren’t faraway characters in arcane stories. They’re seeking the deepest meaning in life and the truth about God, just as we are. They ask profound questions, just as we do. Just like Ask the Vicar questions, some are curious, and never find an answer; some arise from profound heart-searching. To be a Christian is to trust that those most profound questions have found their answer in Christ. The real challenge is not to ask the questions – but to live the answers.