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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/22/2018

We don’t celebrate another church anniversary here until October, but we’ve celebrated enough of them for many of you to know the basics of Bethany’s history, that following the arrival of Swedish immigrants to work in the mines in the late 1860’s, it wasn’t long before the Lutherans among them began to hold worship services and then it wasn’t long before there were plans to build a church. That’s the beginning of our story, part of Ishpeming’s story, but it certainly isn’t unique to us; when you read about those who settled new communities anywhere, Jamestown or Plymouth as well as those who moved further and further west, it’s always said that one of the first things they did was to build a church.

I talked last week about how, for whatever we do, motives can be mixed and that was probably true for those early church builders as well. There may have been a real desire for worship at least for some, but could part of the motivation also have been the idea that, to be safe, we’d better try to ensure that God is on our side as we settle this community? Building a church would be a way to provide physical evidence of their faithfulness.

The same phenomena was true in the ancient world; rulers built temples to help provide legitimacy for their regime. For the ruler, it was a way of saying and demonstrating that, “I’m on God’s side and…God is on my side.” King David wanted to build a temple. In last week’s reading he moved the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem which perhaps, at least in part, was an act intended to help to religiously legitimize his regime. Building a temple would have seemed to be a logical next step.

The prophet Nathan, who shows up here for the first time and who will continue to play a role for awhile, approved of David’s plan only to have the Lord himself appear in a dream to tell Nathan, “No, this is not the plan.” The reason for the plan’s rejection seemed mostly to be about the nature of the Lord as a God who would not be confined or co-opted by anyone or by anyone’s temple. This was a God who was defined by freedom, freedom to move among all the people of Israel, so David was not to build a temple.

In the sequence of things it’s kind of an odd turn in the narrative because despite the rejection of David’s plan, the temple would eventually be built, but as the text says in verse 13, it would be David’s son who would build it, that son being Solomon. David’s rejection though is then followed by what could be understood as the theological center of this whole narrative, a new theological claim and one of particular interest to “justified by grace through faith” Lutherans.

Through Nathan, the Lord first reminded David of the past saying, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be prince over my people Israel. I have been with you; I have cut off your enemies from before you.” Then, the graciousness of the Lord is moved into the future: “I will make for you a great name; I will appoint a place for my people Israel; I will give you rest; I will raise up offspring for you; I will make for you a house.” In case David isn’t sure, in case we aren’t sure, with the repetition of the pronoun “I” there’s no question about who’s in charge of the past and the future and also… the conversation has shifted; it’s no longer about David building a temple for the Lord, instead, the Lord will make a house, a dynasty for David.

That unexpected turn sets the stage for a turn that is even more unexpected. Prior to this, the relationship between the Lord and the people of Israel was conditional. To remain in relationship, there were ethical requirements, conditions for the people. In other words, God’s faithfulness depended on the obedience of the people. As classically stated in Exodus, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” If followed by then; whether or not the conditions are clearly defined, it’s the nature of most agreements; there are expectations; that’s how the world operates.

What happens with David though, is the “if” disappears. The lectionary cuts off today’s Second Samuel reading before it really gets to the disappearance of the “if,” but the psalm articulates it pretty well. Echoing what we’ve heard in the Samuel readings, the psalm reviews the Lord’s choice of David as his anointed and tells of the Lord’s divine presence with David. Also echoing Samuel, there’s the announcement of the promised dynasty of David being “forever.” “I will establish his line forever and his throne as the days of heaven.”

The psalm isn’t quite done with “if” though. There’s another reminder of it in verse 32; “If his children forsake my teaching and do not walk according to my judgments; if they break my statutes and do not keep my commandments, I will punish their transgressions with a rod and their iniquities with the lash.” Nothing surprising there; if/then is what we expect. Following that though, comes verse 33 that begins with the little word “but” and I’m always reminded of Walter Brueggemann standing right here and saying to pay attention to what comes after “but.” So let’s pay attention: “But I will not take my love from him, nor let my faithfulness prove false. I will not break my covenant, I will not lie to David. His line shall endure forever.”

There you have it: the “if” is gone. Are there consequences for disobedience? Yes; it says I will punish their transgressions. But (pay attention to what comes after but) but there is no act of disobedience that will cancel the covenant. I will not take my love from him, his line shall endure forever. Justification by grace in other words. The relationship is entirely dependent on God’s grace. The words that recur throughout the psalm are faithfulness, steadfast love and forever, faithfulness and love being words having to do with God’s grace and promise to David, forever being a word that says that it’s grace that has no end.

It’s a crucial theological statement, maybe the most crucial theological statement in the Old Testament. It almost sounds too good to be true. Important to remember though is that while the “if” is gone in this statement, it’s not nullified. Instead, proper interpretation of this material means to acknowledge the tension of “if” and “but,” the tension of conditional and unconditional. We acknowledge the tension because it’s there; it’s there in the Bible, it’s there in us and apparently it’s there in God.

One of the things I find intriguing about the Bible is that this kind of tension exists and there was no effort to edit it out. You can try to smooth the tension out and make it say the same thing and some people do just that but especially when it comes to conditional and unconditional covenants, we’re called to live in and with the tension because we need both kinds of covenant. If our relationship with God was strictly conditional, “If you obey, then I’ll be your God,” we’d be driven to despair at our inability to always obey; we’d always wonder if we’ve been obedient enough; our only hope would be in ourselves. On the other hand, if the relationship was strictly unconditional, at least for some there would be little motivation to live as God would have us live. In that case, the hope of being fully human would be diminished, fully human meaning being in a loving relationship with God and with the neighbor. To be who God want us to be, we need both kinds of covenants; we need the grace of the unconditional, and we need the demand of the conditional.

The “forever” of the Lord’s promise to David is also worth noting because it too is about hope. For the people of Israel this was their lifeline. It’s from this “forever” part of the promise to David that brought about the idea of a messiah, an agent of God who would emerge and set things right once and for all. It was this faith that sustained them and brought them hope through difficult times and there were plenty of them.

For Christians, we find the promise fulfilled in Jesus, a different kind of messiah but still a source of hope in difficult times. The truth of the resurrection tells us that there’s always hope, that new life is possible even out of the most devastating brokenness. “Forever” tells us that the God revealed in Jesus, while sometimes seeming to be hidden, is still in control and always will be.

The “forever” of “I will not take my love from him, I will not break my covenant” still stands without conditions. It is pure grace. But (and pay attention to what comes after but) but that grace comes with God’s hope and expectation for us, hope and expectation that we remember and live out with the tension of the “if” of obedience. It’s tension that Luther talked about as law and gospel and it’s tension that is at the heart of a life of faith.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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