By Jenny Andison
“The promise given was a necessity of the past; the word broken is a necessity of the present.” —Niccolò Machiavelli
“Better a broken promise than none at all.” —Mark Twain
“It’s useless to hold a person to anything he says while he’s in love, drunk, or running for office.” —Shirley MacLaine
Those remarks reflect a deep cynicism about promises. We live in a world of broken promises, from the vacuous promises of face creams and sports cars to the painful broken promises of friends, spouses, and colleagues. We live in a world where the President of the United States can’t be trusted to mean the words that he says in public, and then chastises the press for believing the words in the first place.
And so, it is understandable that we would come to the Bible with a healthy dose of sophisticated cynicism, because it’s full of stunning promises, made, not by L’Oréal, Porsche, or Donald Trump, but by God. And while cynicism may abound, our daily lives are deeply shaped by the promises that are made to us by our parents and partners, by our jobs and careers. They have such power to mold the direction of our lives.
The question is, “Which promises will we let do the molding?” As we look at our Old Testament reading from 2 Samuel, we are going to see one of the most stunning promises of God — the promise of unconditional faithfulness to us through Jesus Christ — and my hope is that we will see how this promise can shape us for the future. Regardless of where you are on your spiritual journey today (either new and spiritually searching, or already learning how to follow Jesus), each of us has a future that we need to live into. Let’s remind ourselves what is going on in this passage. King David, who reigned in 1000 B.C., has spent most of his adult life consumed with violence and war. He first comes to our attention as a young boy who kills the mighty Philistine giant Goliath with a single stone from his sling. He has fought the Philistine army, battled with his predecessor, King Saul, in a civil war, and has now finally established the boundaries of his kingdom of Israel by defeating neighboring kingdoms that sought to encroach on his land.
But for now, the fighting has settled down some and David has some time on his hands. The narrator sets the scene in the first verse: “After the King was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies …” David was also feeling a bit guilty. Once he had successfully conquered Jerusalem, the King of Tyre had offered to build him a suitable palace in Jerusalem, in which he now lived. But at the same time, the earthly symbol of the presence of Almighty God, a God whom David undoubtedly loves, is housed in a simple tent, not like the palace that David is now twiddling his thumbs in.
God’s glory requires something more, David thinks. We need to make God great again. We must build a palace! He runs his idea by the prophet Nathan, who quickly agrees: Good idea, King David! Go and build God a beautiful house. But that night God intervenes. Who do you think you are?, says God. I don’t need you to build me a house. I didn’t need a house when I rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. I didn’t ask you to build me a house when I led my people through the wilderness to the promised land. And I haven’t asked you to build me a house now. I’ll let you know when I need a house, and in fact, I am going to ask your son Solomon to take on that task.
After this rebuke for getting ahead of himself (a word to all of us, especially bishops, to make sure we take our good intentions to God in prayer), God unfurls this wonderful promise to King David. It’s called the Davidic covenant, and it is one of the most important parts of the whole Bible. Through the prophet Nathan, God promises to David an everlasting covenant — an unbreakable relationship between God and David — that through David’s descendants would come the long-awaited Messiah and (as if that wasn’t enough) also a new kingdom that would last forever.
What is startling about the Davidic covenant is that no conditions need to be met by David or the nation of Israel for it to be fulfilled. The reliability of the promise rests entirely on God’s faithfulness and does not depend at all upon David or Israel’s behavior. Jesus is coming, says this covenant, and Jesus is going to invite people to follow him. Jesus is coming and will offer God’s forgiveness and mercy. Jesus is coming and will inaugurate a new kingdom of justice and peace. And none of this we need to earn, none of this promise rests on our behavior, or on whether we are good enough or holy enough. It all rests on the grace of God, given to undeserving sinners.
This great promise to David was of course fulfilled, and we get to live on the other side of that promise. We do so in the knowledge of our faithful God, whose promise to never leave us or forsake us, is made real and alive in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, in the Jesus who is present with us this very morning, present in the Scriptures, present in the bread and wine, present in one another, and present here in the power of the Holy Spirit!
So, how can this covenant — this unbreakable promise — shape our future? In the messiness of our real lives, at work, at home, with our children and grandchildren? It’s important to remember the difference between the common love of God and the covenant love of God. The common love of God is the belief that God loves everything he has made, creatures and creation. Now this may seem obvious, but many Eastern religions and Western philosophical systems are based on a fundamental rejection or critique of our earthly existence.
Not so in the Christian faith — “God so loved the world” — and the foundational Christian belief that God created humanity in his own image gives all human beings dignity. This is no trivial thing. But the common love of God, his love which is given to everyone, doesn’t actually require us to enter into a relationship with God, and we are given perfect freedom by God to choose our response.
We can respond to that Love with a Yes. Yes, I want to relate back to the God who loves me. And then we enter into a relationship with God, a covenant. Normally in a covenant there are promises made by each party, which is why the Davidic covenant is just so sparkling and wondrous. God makes all the promises. And in any relationship there is going to be guidance and correction, in this case from God. In the next verse from 2 Samuel, God says that he is going to be a Father to the Israelites, lovingly correcting and guiding them.
Within the unbreakable covenant, there is still going to be a call to obedience, for the sake of our long-term joy and flourishing. In any truly personal relationship, the other person needs to be able to correct you or contradict you, even. For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won’t have a truly intimate and loving relationship. You may remember the movie The Stepford Wives, in which the husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands. A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant and beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal.
Within the covenant love of God, there is a call to obedience. If you don’t have a God who can correct you, even contradict you, then you have a Stepford God — a God essentially of your own making — and not a God with whom you can have a genuinely loving relationship. Only a God who can challenge and correct us is a God worth getting to know.
So, how does this covenant love of God shape our lives for the future? Well, if you enter into a relationship with someone, you get to know their character, and in this case, in a relationship with God, our hearts will then be shaped and transformed by God’s character, which in turn affects our relationships at work, our marriages, and our friendships.
God’s covenant love, love that can challenge and shape us, springs from his willingness to so completely identify with us and our broken human lives that he came to earth as one of us, and then was willing to suffer pain and death on our behalf, as Jesus died on the cross. This was utterly selfless, which (if we are honest with ourselves) is the opposite of our patterns of behavior. We look at another person and say to ourselves: Well, I’ve got needs that have to be met, physical and emotional, and if this person is willing to meet my needs, open doors for me, affirm my choices, then that is a good relationship for me. I want this person to build me up, to fit into my agenda, to serve my glory. That’s our ego talking, of course.
Plato once said, “Human love is the child of poverty,” because we are so broken. We search for love out of our poverty. We are attracted to people who will build us up. We call it “love” when in fact it’s actually a hunger for someone to build our ego up. Take a close friendship or a marriage, for example. They usually start with ego-driven stuff: the person is good-looking and therefore fulfills a physical desire for you, or is a good listener and makes you feel heard. But eventually any good marriage or lasting friendship is going to need to move beyond what your needs are and move into the desire to seek their joy, their happiness.
Imagine, at work, having the kind of heart that is not crushed when someone else gets the promotion or the affirmation from the boss that you were wanting. God’s covenant love can shape you into being the sort of person who is genuinely happy when someone else gets ahead. God’s covenant love can also shape your church into being the kind of church that is willing to set aside its own preferences and traditions when they get in the way of serving a changing neighborhood.
God’s covenant love can shape your church into being the kind of church that yearns for more and more people to know the love of God in Jesus. Albert Einstein is attributed with the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
God has a job for your church: to be transformative in the lives of others and to be a light in your neighborhood, as God used King David and the Israelites all those years ago. And there are times in life when we have to choose which promises in life will shape us. King David chose to have faith in God’s promised future, and we are inheritors of his trust. This morning as we take the bread and the wine, we are being tangibly reminded of God’s covenant love for us, and that God goes before us preparing the way. Take and eat — food for the journey into the future. Thanks be to God.
The Rt. Rev. Jenny Andison is a bishop suffragan in the Anglican Church of Canada’s Diocese of Toronto.