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Sunday, July 22, 2018
Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:8-14a & Ephesians 2:1-10
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Dan Rather once interviewed Mother Teresa in the 1980s. He asked her, “When you pray, what do you say to God?”

“I don’t say anything,” she replied. “I listen.”

“Okay,” Rather said, taking another shot at it. “When God speaks to you, then, what does he say?”

“He doesn’t say anything. He listens.”

Rather didn’t know how to continue. He was baffled.

“And if you don’t understand that,” Mother Teresa added, “I can’t explain it to you.”[1]

I just love this conversation between one of the saints and one of the more recognizable journalists of our age. These are two people on very different paths. Until Rather shifts his worldview to experience the world that Mother Teresa experiences, they will forever be going in different directions.

N.T. Wright relays a similar story. Once he was in Cape Town, South Africa, and an elderly man who lived on the edge of the city arranged to have Wright visit his home. Wright had detailed instructions for how to get to this man’s house, but this was an era before Google Maps. It was dark and raining. Wright pulled onto the correct highway, but he was heading the wrong direction. It took him over ten miles to realize his mistake. He ended up in the wrong part of the city, and it took him quite a long time to recover from his error. He looks at his mistaken drive and sees it as a metaphor for how many of us go through life. In his words, “We live in a world where human beings, left to themselves, not only choose the wrong direction, but remain cheerfully confident that it is in fact the right one.”[2]

Both of our texts today circle around this theme. There is a right path to take in this world. It’s God’s path – the place where God guides, comforts, and leads. There are also many wrong paths. On each of those wrong paths, we assume control. We believe we are the captains of our souls, the directors of our paths. God has a plan for us, but it’s a gentle plan that never forces itself on us. What we’ll see as we dig in to these passages is that when we surrender to God’s way for our lives, God does far more for us and with us than we would ever have the strength to do on our own.

This summer we have been spending a fair amount of time looking into the life of King David. Today’s text is what Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls “the dramatic and theological center”[3] of both 1 and 2 Samuel. Here we have the third major covenant God makes in the Old Testament. The first was with Abraham, where God promises to make of him a great nation and to bless all the families of the earth through him. The second was with Moses, embodied in the giving of the Ten Commandments, a sign of how God’s people should conduct themselves. And now we get to David, the one held forth as the greatest of the kings of Israel. But it’s taken a bit for David to get here.

David has gone from the youngest in Jesse’s family keeping the sheep to becoming a notorious warrior. He has warded off Saul’s murderous attempts on his life. Following Saul’s death, David is anointed king over Judah, which is only a portion of the people who were under Saul’s authority. Another man named Ishbaal has been anointed king over Israel, and he fights with David over two years before Ishbaal dies. Still the house of Saul battles against David for several more years, until Israel finally anoints David as king. He, like Saul, rules over a unified Israel, and David conquers Jerusalem to make it the center of the nation.

David then brings the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem, after this symbol of God’s presence had spent decades with the Philistines. David is riding high. He’s gotten rid of his enemies. Those in his way are dead or silenced. The people love him, and he could do just about anything at this point and get away with it. (This does get to his head, as we’ll see in a week or so, but we won’t get ahead of ourselves.) Now he wants to build a Temple for God – both a faithful thing to do but a politically smart thing to do! But this is where things take a turn. God takes over and counters David’s intentions with God’s own plan. David didn’t realize he was heading the wrong way until God stepped in and turned him around.

David wants to do this for God, but God stops David in his tracks and tells David of a different plan. From verses 5-16, the Lord is the subject of 23 active verbs, an average of almost two verbs per verse. “This is about God and what God alone can do for David,” writes Doug Bratt. “What David is all about is not what he can do for God but what God has done and will do through David but for God’s glory, not David’s.”[4]

God’s covenant with David is all about what God will do in and through him. David’s work is relinquishing control so that God can accomplish the work. Of course, the story of David – and the story of all of us, really – is that we keep trying to take the reins back from God. As Eugene Peterson writes, “God’s word to David through Nathan was essentially this: “You want to build me a house? Forget it—I’m going to build you a house. The kingdom that I’m shaping here isn’t what you do for me but what I do through you. I’m doing the building here, not you. I’m not going to let you confuse things by launching a building operation of your own. If I let you fill Jerusalem with the sights and sounds of your building program—carpenters’ hammers, masons’ chisels, teamsters’ shouts—before long everyone will be caught up in what you are doing, and not be attentive to what I am doing. This is a kingdom that we’re dealing with, and I am the king. I’ve gotten along without a so-called house for a long time now. Where did you ever come up with the idea that I need or want a house? If there’s any building to be done, I’m doing it.”[5]

I find that directly impacts how we view ministry here at First Pres. The temptation is always present for us to do more on our strength. If we only had more volunteers, then ministry would be easier. If only we provide this programming, then we’ll see spiritual growth. If only the building had a space for this, then we’d be successful. It is so tempting to run a ministry on our own strength. Even as a pastor, I struggle daily with this temptation. What can I do differently? What can I do better? How can I encourage the staff in their ministry? How can I manage the personalities around me? But in all my doing, I am tempted to leave God out of it. I am tempted not to seek how God can and will use me, you, all of us to accomplish far greater things than we could on own strength. We all want control.

“Control is an illusion,” writes Skye Jethani, “but what is the alternative? How can we be set free from fear apart from our feeble attempts at control?” Jethani finds his answer in a story of Henri Nouwen, who was a Dutch priest, professor, and author. Nouwen once went to see a trapeze troupe in Germany. He attended a performance out of curiosity and found himself transfixed by the artistry of the acrobats. But in the flying and spinning Nouwen saw more than an exhilarating show — he saw theology in motion. Nouwen observed that the flyer — the person soaring through the air — is really not the star of the trapeze performance. While everyone is focused on the flyer’s aerial maneuvers, they sometimes fail to see that the maneuvers are only possible because the flyer fully trusts that he will be caught. Everything depends on the catcher. This led Nouwen to a new way of understanding his life with God. “I can only fly freely when I know there is a catcher to catch me,” he wrote.

To more fully engage his new metaphor for the Christian life, Nouwen was fitted with a harness and ascended the trapeze himself. The sixty-something former Yale and Harvard professor giggled as he flew. And like a child, after each descent to the net, he would ask to go up again and again. Knowing he was safe allowed any fear of heights or injury to be replaced with childish joy. He said, If we are to take risks, to be free, in the air, in life, we have to know there’s a catcher. We have to know that when we come down from it all, we’re going to be caught, we’re going to be safe. The great hero is the least visible. Trust the catcher.

Nouwen’s trapeze exemplifies faith. Faith is the opposite of seeking control. It is surrendering control. It embraces the truth that control is an illusion — we never had it and we never will. Rather than trying to overcome our fears by seeking more control, the solution offered by LIFE WITH GOD is precisely the opposite — we overcome fear by surrendering control. But surrender is only possible if we have total assurance that we are safe. We must be convinced that if we let go we will be caught. This assurance only comes when we trust that our heavenly Father desires to be with us and will not let us fall.[6]

Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” N.T. Wright offers us a slightly different translation of this verse, “God has made us what we are. God has created us in King Jesus for the good works that he prepared, ahead of time, as the road we must travel.” The road we must travel. God prepared us for good works ahead of time. God created us. It’s all God’s plan, and it’s all in God’s hands. Trust the catcher. You are safe, and you don’t need to be in control. Your life is an undeserved gift. Your salvation is all grace. Let Jesus take the wheel and get the car going in the right direction.

[1] Jethani, Skye, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God, 114.

[2] Wright, N.T., Paul’s Prison Letters, 18.

[3] Brueggeman, Walter, First and Second Samuel, 253.

[4] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-4b-2/?type=old_testament_lectionary

[5] Peterson, Eugene, Leap over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, 160-61.

[6] Jethani, Skye, With, 119-121.