the Covenant - Making the Church
A sermon on 2 Samuel 5: 1-5, 9-10 by Nathan Nettleton, 9 July 2006
The church is formed when we ask Christ to rule over us and make a covenant with him to define the terms.
Last night at dinner, my daughter Acacia asked me whether it is hard to write sermons. The answer, of course, was that sometimes it's hard, and sometimes they come very easily. Sometimes I read the set scripture texts, and I know straight away what I should be saying. Other times I've got no idea. Sometimes I think I know, but then it won't seem to come together, and what I thought was going to be really easy becomes a real grind. Tonight though was one of the ones when I just couldn't believe my luck. A few weeks ago we made the decision to delay our annual covenanting rite, and we finally settled on scheduling it for tonight, and then this week I look at the scripture texts, and there in the first reading, King David and the people of Israel are making a covenant!
Now, just because there is an obvious link, it doesn't mean the sermon is going to write itself. The fact that the word "covenant" is present in both places does not guarantee that what we are doing here tonight has any real relationship with what a young king and a fledgling nation were doing three thousand years ago! Fortunately for me though, I think there is a link, and I think it is a link out of which God has something to say to us tonight.
The story we heard read to us earlier is a crucial turning point in the history of King David. It comes a couple of years after the death of King Saul. The nation had split in two and although God had promised that David would rule over all the tribes of Israel, only two of the twelve tribes had accepted him as their King. The other ten had crowned Saul's one remaining son, Ishbaal. But now, Ishbaal has been assassinated, and there are no descendants of Saul left except for a crippled infant grandson named Mephibosheth. There is simply no obvious leader to take the throne in Israel, and the elders are somewhat desperate to avoid the descent into power struggles and feuds that so often takes place in the the event of such a power vacuum. They see that there is no real option but to patch up their differences with the two southern tribes and ask David to rule over them too. Now none of that background sounds anything much like us, so just take it as a bit of free biblical education. What happens next is what I want to focus on.
One more bit of background though, to help justify the link I am making. One of the methods that has been used for interpreting the Bible down through the years is known as typology. When we say that the crossing of the Red Sea is a "type" or a "model" of baptism, or that the sacrifice of Isaac is a "type" or a "model" or a "foreshadowing" of the death of Jesus, we are using typology to interpret the Bible. Now typology has got a lot of bad press among many biblical scholars, because when it is misused, it sounds as though the crossing of the Red Sea or the sacrifice of Isaac meant nothing until they were "fulfilled" in the later events, and that's obviously stupid. But that's not really what typology is about. Typology is really only saying that there are patterns in the way God operates, and patterns in the ways people respond, and we will often understand things better when we compare them to one another and let different examples of the same pattern inform and illuminate each other. Now I tell you about this, because what I am about to do is a typological interpretation of this story.
Typology has often been employed to make comparisons between King David and Jesus the messiah, and this story is a good example of how we can see a common pattern between the two, a pattern which helps us to make sense of both. The people of Israel have tried to do without David, especially since to turn to him for help would require them to give up some old resentments and rivalries. So too, people mostly try to do without Jesus, and often because they recognise that they cannot turn to him and hang on to their culturally comfortable prejudices and divisions. The people of Israel turned to David and asked him to be their king because they could no longer hold things together without him. Chaos and violence were threatening to consume them, and they were desperate. So too, it is often desperation when things are getting out of control that causes people to turn to Jesus and ask him to take charge. The image of the shepherd king is the classic bit of David/Jesus typology. In this story, the people remind David of the promise made to him by the Lord God: "It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel." In this story it serves to alert us to the fact that we have now followed David all the way from his shepherding of a little flock going baa in the fields to being shepherd of the whole people of Israel. When Jesus was named as the good shepherd, the allusion to David would have been obvious to all, and a statement is being made that this is not one who rules by force and lords it over his people, but one who tenderly leads and cares for the people. The Israelites were saying it as much in hope as anything, but we can approach Jesus as one who has already proved his credentials by laying down his life for us, his sheep. Yes there is a definite pattern here in the qualities God looks for in those who will lead God's people, and another pattern in the ways we seek to avoid such a leader, but eventually recognise our crying need for that anointed leader.
And then we come to this matter of making a covenant. "The elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel." The translation we heard described it as making a deal. Others speak of making an agreement or a compact, but the original language calls it a covenant. What sort of covenant would this be? What would its content be? Well, I can't give you any specific details of the content, because we have no indications, but we can talk generally. The ten tribes of Israel are virtually on bended knee here begging David to step in and become their king. He doesn't especially need them, but they need him. If he is going to agree to take on all the extra work and responsibility of ruling over twelve tribes instead of just two, he needs to know the terms and conditions. He needs to know what he is letting himself in for. And so, really, do they. So the covenant is about spelling it out. It defines what the king can expect from the people and what the people can expect from the king.
We use this language regularly in talking about our relationship with Jesus the Messiah. Every Sunday we hear his words: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." Jesus promises to nourish us with his own self-offering. Placing his own body in the firing line of the world's violent rage and hostility, he saves us, his people, from the destructive chaos that would otherwise consume us. Every week when we accept that bread and cup, we are giving our "yes" to the covenant; we are renewing the covenant, or reaffirming our covenantal vows.
In this congregation, we have chosen to have one worship service a year when we spell out the terms of the covenant that we are agreeing to be bound to our Lord by, and tonight is the night. And the reason we normally do this on our church anniversary is another thing that is apparent in this story of David. The covenant is the thing that makes us a congregation, just as the covenant with David was the thing that reunited the nation of Israel and bound it together as one people. In a sense then, there is a covenant that precedes the one they make with David. They must first covenant with one another in order to be able to come to David as a people who are united in their commitment to abiding by the covenant that he agrees to make with them. What we are doing is essentially the same. If we were all to approach God in our own ways and without reference to one another, there would be no church here. Whether or not it is even possible to be a lone ranger Christian I'm not sure, but it is certainly not the normal way Christ deals with us. I've no doubt that if the Israelites had come to David one at a time, each asking for his protection, he would have rightly said that there was no way he could rule over every individual separately, and that he could rule over them as a people or not at all. Christ calls us together as a people, bound together by a covenant with one another, and then together as a people we are able to enter into the covenant relationship that Christ offers us.
So there is nothing new in what we are doing tonight. People have been covenanting together to place themselves under the lordship of the anointed one for thousands of years. And our Baptist forebears put a strong emphasis on covenanting as the way a congregation comes into being. So tonight, when we commit ourselves to our covenant, we are forming our church for another year, and placing ourselves together as one people under the rule of Jesus the Messiah.