Sermon for Sunday July 22nd 2012
2 Samuel 7:1-16
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
‘the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him’
Earlier this week I was at a lecture given by our own Andrew Bradstock, who is Professor of Public Theology, about the place of theology ‘in the public square’, or about the validity or otherwise of the Religious voice when it comes to the issues of our day. Well it raised lots of issues for me, but one in particular was very pertinent to our readings today, that of the use of language.
Of course Christians have been told for a good number of years, that if they are going to be able to communicate their faith, they need to adapt their language to that of their hearers. ‘It’s no good’, we’re told, ‘using lots of religious words which mean nothing to many people’. Yet, alluring as such a statement sounds, it reveals a flawed understanding about the nature of language. For whilst too frequent a use of the word ‘propitiation’ or ‘eschatalogical’, might possibly lead to people changing the subject, and the very mention of Sin, hell and judgement may well not see you invited back to elegant dinner parties, actually the very fact that as Christians we use different words is a signifier that we are a people set apart – we are different. What we say and how we say what we say Should be a significant sign of our status as citizens of another city – in exactly the same way that all the nations of the world reveal who they are in their speech. Which is not surprising as we are all made in the image of God who is characterised as the God who speaks, and whose speech reveals his nature.
But of course we do share many words with those amongst whom we live – two thousand years of Christian life has meant that words have become part of the language of entire cultures. Thus words such as Love, as Forgiveness, as Justice, as Grace, as Mercy – and as Peace – have become words that those around us use. But herein lies the problem – for as societies have adopted words they have, as we all have a tendency to do, they have used them to their own ends, to their own purposes. In other words, we may well say the same word, but mean something very very different. That when a Christian uses the word Mercy, she has the image of Christ upon the Cross and the mercy of God in view, that when a Christian uses the word Justice, he has the Justice of God in view – revealed in Christ upon the Cross, that when a Christian uses the word Love they point to the cross and the Love of God is in view, that when we use the word ‘Peace’ . . . well you get the idea 🙂 – but such is not the meaning of these words in contemporary culture.
The language of Christians is shaped by the revelation of God in Christ Jesus, and if it is not, then it is not Christian language. [And indeed if I might digress slightly for one minute, I believe that IMMEASURABLE harm is done to the cause of the gospel by the church adopting the use that the wider society makes of words which we have bequeathed them. In this regard, for example, I am always Extremely wary and concerned when Christians start throwing around the word Justice, both conservatives and liberals, who hijack it to their own ends – asking for either more harshness or more tolerance, using it to their own political ends in ways which are utterly divorced from that Justice of God which declares us Guilty of sin and yet Justifies us by faith in Christ]
And so it is with today’s subject – Peace. Peace, or to use the Hebrew Word Shalom as Andrew said in his lecture, is a word embodying a profound sense of human well-being, but one which can only be understood in the light of a way of life together which has God at its heart. Shalom, the Peace of the people of God which is taught in the Old Testament, is breathtaking in its scope – it transcends our understanding. I have spoken frequently about the Jubilee which Christ comes to fulfil – that Economic and Political vision which was so challenging that we cannot begin to have a degree of sympathy for the children of Israel in their failure to comprehend the word of the lord and live in obedience to it. It is an Otherworldly Peace. It is outside of our comprehension – it is as I say every week as I pronounce the blessing of God, ‘The Peace the passes all understanding’. And we find that so difficult not only to comprehend but to begin to imagine.
I remember noticing in my youth that my Vicar was obviously troubled by it and so when he pronounced the blessing he would say, the ‘The peace that passes understanding’, dropping the word ‘all’, as if to suggest that if we tried hard enough or we were intelligent enough we might perhaps get a grasp on it. But it is not just the Economic dimension of that peace that we cannot grasp, ‘that their might be no poor among you, it is also the Political, or perhaps to put it more helpfully, the Social dimension (for what is Politics if it is not the ordering of life together?). I remember once preaching on the theme of Peace, of Shalom as set forth in the Old Testament in terms of deep, rich and life giving relationships between the generations. Well I don’t know if I did a very good job – or perhaps the idea was too far fetched for one older member of the congregation came up to me afterwards and said – I’d have a lot more time for young people if they didn’t insist on playing on their skateboards on the road past my house! 🙂
Well without realising it, my brother, who was ironically a professor of linguistics, had put his finger on the problem. He was using the word Peace, in the way in which the world around us used it – he wasn’t using it Christianly. Now I don’t mean that he was being unChristian by not wanting the young people outside his house – that is not for me to judge – but that his use of the word Peace was that which our secular liberal societies hold up as the Goal – the guiding Principle of Life. That Each must enjoy the Liberty to do precisely what they want – With One restriction, that their activity must in no way impinge upon the Liberty of another. To express it in another way, that vision of Peace is that Everyone has a large enough Sound proofed room to be able to play whatever music they want at whatever volume they want. It is an ideal of peace which is hopelessly individualistic – that declares the cause of humanity to life together and to share life together to be a Hopeless pipedream, and leads to political agendas which serve one purpose alone, to prevent all conflict. No richer vision of human society than the right to do what we want provided we do not harm others – and that my friends really is an Ideallistic Utopia – for it is only possible if we are not human. So it must deny our humanity – it is not peace – it is actually a vision of Hell – of everyone keeping their distance for we cannot live together. It is a grotesque distortion of the Peace of Christ. That is the world in which we live
King David fell prey to such a misunderstanding. Mistaking absence of conflict for the Peace of God. There he was, he had taken the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and we read “the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him” The LORD had given him rest. David confused the absence of Conflict as Peace and not Rest – he thought he’d made it – he thought he’d made it – and then he cast around and Saw “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” David had it in mind to do something for God . . . the God who owns everything – ‘the cattle on a thousand hills are mine’. It is Ludicrous when seen like that – to do something FOR God – ‘what can I give him, poor as I am?’. God asks one thing of us – Love evidenced in obedience – that we so love him that nothing delights us more than to do his will. Whereas David fundamentally misunderstands who he is and who God is ‘Go and tell my servant David:’ Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” It is not your job to make a house for me David, rather I will make a house for you – the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. David has foolishly thought that as King he was in charge – that he could do as he wished – that he could even do God a favour. And he had made a fundamental error, for the LORD had given him rest – but not yet PEACE. David might have sat back on his throne and thought ‘God is in his heaven and all is well with the world, now what can I do’ But when God is in his heaven and all is well with the world, there will be nothing unfinished – everything will be complete.
This was why the Prophets who spoke so much of the Shalom of God were always on the alert – always alerting Israel, always denouncing its Kings for declaring their great political and economic projects, their millitary triumphs as The End, as if They ushered in the reign of God’s Peace, when there were poor in the land, when the hungry were unfed, when the blind could not see, nor the lame walk, when the dead were not raised. As God’s FInal prophet says – ‘why do you say Peace, Peace when there is no Peace?’.
I have alluded off and on to the Old Testament vision of God’s peace, Shalom. We see David himself does not recognise it and it is Nathan the prophet who speaks GOd’s words to him to keep him in his place. And here as in so many ways we Must recognise that the Life Death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. As St Paul says in our Epistle, that the peace of Christ makes us ‘members of the household of God, built upon the foundations of the Apostles and the Prophets’ That that Peace which Paul declares so beautifully in the epistle is the Fulfillment of the Old Testament promise of Peace. And, this is why the Peace of God which passes all understanding is NOT some disembodied Spiritual glow, some gnostic immaterial spirituality, only made possible because we have forgotten our roots, we have forgotten that the work of Christ is not to give us the warm fuzzies in good times and bad – NO!
HE is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. Our failure to recognise the peace to which we are called as the fulfillment of the Old Testament is a failure to recognise the peace of Christ – it is to re-erect the barrier of hostility, that has made that story ours and has grafted us into the rootstock of the Patriarchs and the prophets. The Peace of God, not a warm feeling – it is as concrete as the flesh of Christ, it is the Body of Christ – it is a New humanity, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets
When Jesus comes on the scene – as we read in our Gospel – things are far from that reality. The people were ‘they were like sheep without a shepherd;’ – Everyone doing their own thing – no ruler – no King, no shepherd of the flock – and so he began to teach them – to proclaim the Kingdom of God, the Peace of God. Not Yet had that peace come – but the signs of its coming in HIm continue – And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed – once more as a few weeks ago we read that Jesus and his disciples cannot get rest, they cannot eat together – that SIGN of the Peace of God – the Eschatalogical feast – Until ‘ on the night before he died’, when at last at supper with his friends he broke bread and gave it to them saying, take eat, this is my body given for you, and shared the cup of wine saying Drink this all of you, for this is my blood of the New covenant, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Enacting the covenant by which he made Peace – making the two one – breaking down the hostility between Jew and Gentile – and between humanity and God.
You may have seen the theme of this sermon – Making Peace and wondered if I was ever going to talk about what we do in this regard. Firstly we must sit and ponder the error of David and the LORD’s question Are you the one to build me a house to live in? NO! One shall come from your line – He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
Christ has built the house, He IS the house – He is Our Peace, we do not make That peace that passes understanding, no – what is for us as St Paul goes on to say is to ‘make every effort to Maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of Peace’ The peace that passes all understanding. This is no easy thing – for it involves us in building up our common life – in exercising all that is right and proper as the household of God, in doing Justice, Loving Mercy, Practising forgiveness, Loving one another as Christ has Loved us – holding before us Always, not the world’s view of these things, but the true meaning of these things as revealed in our crucified and risen Lord. And Living ever deeper into the reality of his Peace
This is the work of the church, these are our common disciplines that order our life together as members of the household of God, by the mercy and forgiveness and Love of God made present in Christ Jesus, the chief cornetrstone And the Dwelling place – in whom we are being built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God..
‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us thy peace’