Sermons

2 Samuel 23:1-7 – Psalm 132:1-13 – Revelation 1:4b-8 – John 18:33-37                                                                                             

O Ruler of the nations, and their Desire, you are the cornerstone who makes us both one: Come and save the creature whom you fashioned from clay. Amen.

The “last words of David” that were read from 2 Samuel this morning are not heard often, and not studied much, I would warrant. This passage is part of an alternative track to the more traditional Old Testament readings in the Episcopal lectionary, and I’m glad we’ve been hearing this track over the past three weeks. Two weeks we heard about Ruth the Moabite, the undocumented immigrant who became the great-grandmother of King David. Last week we heard the story of Hannah, whose persistence and pain and hope made her the mother of Samuel, the priest who would anoint David ruler of all Israel. Today we hear from David himself – one of the most intriguing and complex figures in all of the history of ancient Israel.

I love these stories because they are about people whose paths are anything but easy and straightforward. They are flawed, messy, and also part of God’s work in the world – sort of like us!

And so I find myself thinking about these “last words” of David – they’re not really his last words, because he’s not finished going into battle and ruling and ordering people about. But David is nearing the end of his time as king, nearing the end of his life, and so these words serve as a kind of last testament, a last big speech that encapsulates what David’s reign has been about – or should have been about.

I read this last testament of David, and I wonder, if it is anything close to something he would have said, what is it like for him – what is he thinking and feeling? I wonder, as David is extolling the virtues of the ideal king “who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God,” if he is remembering how he took Bathsheba by force and had her husband Uriah killed in battle. I wonder if he is remembering how the prophet Nathan bravely held a moral mirror up to his face and showed David just how much power had corrupted him. I wonder if he is remembering how his love for his son Absalom blinded him to Absalom’s scheming and led to bloodshed within the nation of Israel. I wonder what it means that the king who is likening a just ruler to the sun rising on a cloudless morning, knows deep in his heart just how far from this ideal he really is.

And I wonder what it is like at that moment to know that in spite of all this, God makes an everlasting covenant with him anyway.

There is no such thing, after all, as an absolutely just leader, whether monarch or senator or president or priest. Whenever we humans get power or authority, no matter our best intentions, we will muck it up. I’ve been a camp counselor, a high school teacher, college and seminary professor, and priest, and each time, despite my best efforts, I have not always used the authority given to me as it should be used.

When I was teaching high school at Moses Brown, a Quaker school in Providence, I went to a conference with other teachers at Friends schools about the spirituality of teaching. All I could think about during the presentations and discussions was how far I was from this ideal picture of the “spiritual teacher.” Perhaps that’s why I wonder about David’s state of mind as he is praising the ideal king. Maybe you wonder too.

I don’t know if King David was feeling how far he was from being the ideal ruler, but I’m pretty sure that those who passed down the story to us in 2 Samuel were not only aware of it, but wanted us to think about it as well. Remember, Israel is not supposed to have a king – before Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he warns them that a human monarch will use and abuse them, take their personnel and crops, and literally lord it over them. And that turns out in many ways to be true, even with David, who is the best of the lot.

This picture of the ideal ruler that David describes – it’s actually more about God than it is about David, or any other human ruler. It’s not about present reality but about a distant horizon, one that we catch glimpses of here and now, but that we humans can never create or bring on our own. It’s about, really, the Advent horizon – God’s dream of justice and peace that can come about only when we humans face up to the difference between our justice and God’s justice, our peace and God’s peace.

I don’t know about you, but these days I find myself despairing of the difference between God’s justice and human justice, just as I despaired of the difference between the ideal spiritual teacher and my own halting efforts. But I also know that this gap between what we know God wants us to be and our own failure to live up to that dream, there’s pain but also grace there. And that’s the grace of Advent – Advent is, in a special way, about learning to live “in between,” as the Rev. Dr. Fleming Rutledge writes (Advent - The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, 2018, p. 7). We are in between the first Advent of Christ, whose birth, ministry, death, and resurrection turned the world upside down, and the final Advent, when the new creation will be fulfilled. Even the community that produced the gospel of John was living in between – they too fell short of God’s justice in their antagonism toward other Jews who did not accept Jesus as Messiah.

Their labeling of enemies as “the Jews” shows us just how “in between” they were.

Living in between is hard, but it brings with it the grace of what is true. And what is true is the power and love of God, which continues to bubble up even in the midst of the muck we humans make of the world. What is true is that living in between teaches us humility, but also hope. That’s why David’s “last words” paint such an idealistic picture – to remind us that God is the measure of what is just, and peaceful, and loving, just as in the gospel we are reminded that Jesus, not the Roman empire, is the measure of what it means to rule the earth. As we celebrate Christ as Ruler of Nations, our hope lies in the promises of God who continues to love us and free us from our sins, who was and is and yes, is to come.

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