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Sermon, "Back to (Bible) School: History," 2 Samuel 7:1-12

Sermon 9/17/17
2 Samuel 7:1-12

Back to (Bible) School: History

            Today we’re looking at the books of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, that we consider History books. These include the books immediately following the Law books, the first five books in the Bible, up to the section of Bible that we call Poetry, which starts with the book of Job. So the history books of the Bible are Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Are you “good” at history? Was it a subject you enjoyed in school? I’ve always enjoyed history, but I often struggle with dates, chronology. I can tell you what happened, just don’t ask me when it happened. When it comes to the books of the Bible, I often have to remind myself of what is happening when. If you read our summer newsletter, you’ll know that I have been reading some of our biblical history books as part of my personal devotional time, particularly trying to get a clearer sense of chronology as I read. Chronologically, the biblical books of history take us from the time that Joshua, successor to Moses, leads the Israelites into the Promised Land, all the way to the time described in Ezra and Nehemiah, when the Jewish people are allowed to return to their homeland after a long time of exile in foreign lands. This covers a span of about 1000 years. We have 1000 years of history in these 12 books of the Bible.
The word “history” comes from a root word that means literally someone who is wise and learned. From there, the word came to mean “finding out,” figuring out the narrative.[1] To know your history, to know the story of where you came from, what has happened, to find that out is to be a wise, learned person. Sometimes we like to think of history as unbiased, as simply a statement of facts. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. Not open for dispute, just how it is, right? Of course, that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny, which we know from personal experience. History isn’t just facts – it is a narrative, a story, and a story always has a point of view. Think of biographies that you might read. Depending on who is writing the biography, they might tell very different stories, different histories, of the person’s life. Two biographies from different authors of any of our US Presidents might read very differently.
Many of you know that I’m my family’s genealogist. I’m the one who does the bulk of family research, and I try to keep good records, and figure out family puzzles. Sometimes, I make discoveries that surprise everyone in our family. Not long ago, while researching my great-great grandfather Julius Motsch, who became Julius Mudge when he came to the US from Germany, I discovered several things that no one in my family seemed to know. First, although we all knew that Julius changed his named from Motsch to Mudge, I found the passenger manifests from the ship he traveled on from Germany, and discovered that when he left Germany, he was listed as Gustav, not Julius! No one in my family remembers ever hearing such a thing. Knowing I should be searching German records for Gustav, not Julius, made my genealogical inquiries much more fruitful. I also discovered that Julius and my great-great grandmother, Mary Margaret Starr, actually divorced and remarried a few years later. I was shocked when I read about their divorce in a newspaper article from the early 1900s. Apparently, my great-great grandmother was accused of running around with other men, but apparently she and Julius reconciled. Surely, this was something that at least my great-grandfather must have known about, but I know that my grandfather had no idea that this had ever happened. It wasn’t a part of the history that anyone shared over the years, just like Julius never shared that he’d once been called Gustav. These things might be facts, but they were not a part of the history that we’ve told ourselves as a family.
We’ve also had a lot of conversation recently in our national dialogue about our history and how we tell our stories as a nation. In Charlottesville, Virginia, a white supremacist rally followed shortly after the renaming of a town park from Lee Park, named for Confederate soldier Robert E. Lee, to Emancipation Park, honoring the end of slavery in the United States. These events have opened a national dialogue about racism and history and how we tell our history. What does it mean to make a monument or name places in honor of people whose beliefs and views don’t align with the values we uphold, or at least try to uphold? Is it “erasing history” to rename a park? Or is it trying to tell a more truthful version of our history? Whose story are we telling in history? 
Think about how many of us learned about Christopher Columbus as a child. In elementary school, we learned about Columbus “discovering” America. We also learned that he was brave and thought the world was round, while others thought it was flat. It wasn’t until we were older, for me at least, that we learned about Columbus not really knowing where he was, ending up in the Americas by mistake, and that basically everyone already knew the earth was round. And later still, we learned that maybe Columbus wasn’t actually a very nice person, and maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense that we have a holiday named after him. Many communities and groups, including our Annual Conference, are now choosing to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day, instead of Columbus Day, a way to honor all the people who were living in these lands long before any Europeans arrived here. 
             These contemporary questions are the same questions we can bring to the biblical text of history. Whose story are we reading? What’s the point of view that we read in the Bible? What are the themes that are emphasized for us in this particular way of telling the history of Israel? In the scheme of things, on the world stage, Israel is a little nobody people. They’re a tiny nation. It’s hard to find much about Israel outside of the Bible from this time period. There are little snippets, written from the point of view of people who don’t really care about this little nobody people. But in the Bible, of course, they’re everything. Today, we turn to a text that’s key in Israel’s sense of history, identity, and future.
            In our text for today, we find ourselves in 2 Samuel. Samuel was the last in the line of Judges of Israel, the leaders of Israel in the time between their formation as a nation and their first King, Saul. Samuel was a judge and a prophet, a spiritual advisor for the people. Samuel, acting on God’s commands, anoints first Saul, and then, when Saul fails to follow God, David as king over Israel. But it takes a long time between Samuel anointing David and David actually coming into power as king. In fact, by the time David becomes king, Samuel has died, and a new prophet, Nathan, acts as spiritual advisor to David. Here in chapter 7, David has finally been named king over all Israel, and he tells Nathan that he wants to build a temple for God. After all, David is now living in a palace, a house of cedar, but God, represented for the people in the ark of the covenant, a container that holds the Torah, the law, the book that represents God’s relationship with Israel, God in the form of the ark of the covenant gets carried around and housed in a tent. David feels like this isn’t right. If David has a house, a palace, then God should have a house, a temple.
            At first, Nathan tells him, “Yes, build this. God is with you.” But shortly after, Nathan returns to David, after receiving a vision from God. God says, “Are you the one, [David], to build me a house to live in?” I’ve never lived in a house, but have been moving about, God says. And in all the time I was moving among the Israelites, have I ever said, “Why haven’t you built me a house?”
            God continues, “I took you out of the pasture where you worked as a shepherd boy and made you the leader of Israel. I’ve been with you wherever you went. Through me, you’ve been able to defeat your enemies. And I will make you a great name. I will make a place for my people Israel, and plant them there, and give them a time of peace from their enemies. And I, says God, I will make you a house David. God continues, just after our text closes, to say that God will make David and his house, his descendants “sure forever,” David’s kingship, his line, “established forever.”
            The message that Nathan delivers to David from God might seem simple, but it is a very important statement for Israel’s sense of identity and their hope for the future. Nathan’s words are sometimes known as the Dynastic Oracle.[2] A dynasty is when one family stays in power over a long length of time. And what God says through Nathan here in this passage is that David and his descendants will be established as the family who rules Israel forever. That’s a significant promise! And so during later times in Israel’s history, when there was a disruption in power in the line of David, when the people were conquered by foreign rulers, when someone in the line of David wasn’t ruling Israel, the people looked for, longed for a time when a descendant of David was king again. When people were imagining a messiah, that as an anointed one, a king, they would imagine someone who would restore the throne of David, restore someone from the House of David to the role of king. You can imagine, then, why some of the gospels writers take great pains to show us that Jesus is a descendant of David. The gospel writers wanted to demonstrate that in Jesus, a descendant of David, these words of promise made way back in 2 Samuel are fulfilled forever. Whoever else might rule on earth, Jesus is the ruler, the ruler from the house of David, and yet the highest of all, a ruler beyond even beloved David himself. This passage, this bit of history has a big meaning, big significance in the story of Israel, in the story of the church, and how the early church tied itself to the promises of God’s covenant, how we tie ourselves to that covenant.   
            The other part of this text that I find compelling is God’s insistence: I’ve never asked you to put me inside a building! I’ve been just fine where I’ve been, moving among you all this time. Now, God eventually does allow David’s son Solomon to build a temple, and it serves some important purposes for the people of Israel, drawing them together as a worshiping community. But the point remains: God wants us to remember that God has always and will always be with us, and maybe trying to box God in, limit God to dwelling in a stationary place isn’t the best idea we’ve ever had. It might seem like we’re trying to make a special place for God in our lives. But sometimes it’s really a sign that we want to get God into our lives in a controlled way, where God can be involved in certain parts of our lives and not others. In this text, I think God reminds us that that is not how God works. God doesn’t want a corner of our world, a corner of our hearts. God wants us to know that God is already in all of it, our whole world, our whole lives. How will we let knowing and trusting that change us?
            As we see how God is at work in the story of Israel, as we remember that God is not boxed in, but on the move, as we give thanks for God’s promises that we see fulfilled in Jesus, ruler of all our days, we get a sense of the richness of biblical history. And we can ask ourselves: what is the story of our own lives? What is our history with God? When we look back over our days, and we look to the future, where do we see God at work in our lives? Our own history is the story of our identity. Who am I? Who are you? How are our lives shaped as disciples, as people seeking and struggling and growing in faith through the years? Just as God promises to David, so too these promises are for us. For all of our days, in all of our stories, God is with us, beginning to end, to beyond. How will we let that promise shape our history, and our future? Amen.


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