Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 07/22/2012

After attending the open house at the synagogue down the hill here a week ago Saturday, I was looking at their website and there was a link to their denomination magazine, the equivalent I suppose of our Lutheran magazine.  Out of curiosity I clicked on it and I was surprised to see a name I recognized.  It was an article by Mark Shapiro who was, and I think still is, the rabbi at a synagogue in Springfield, Massachusetts not far from the church I served when I was back there.  I didn’t know him real well but did have a little contact with him, enough that when I saw the name it rang a bell. 

Rabbi Shapiro had the bold and, I would say, somewhat risky idea of giving the members of his congregation a survey to find out what they really believed, not what they thought they were supposed to believe, but what they really believed.  It was done anonymously with mostly multiple choice or agree/disagree statements and the article was about the results, some of which were a little surprising; for example there were a fair number of his members who said they didn’t believe in God.

Reading about this made me think that conducting such a survey might be kind of interesting (stay tuned) especially if people answered it honestly which apparently Rabbi Shapiro’s people did.  In Judaism it is a little different because, unlike Christianity, there aren’t creeds and confessions and doctrines that provide the agreed upon “right” answers concerning what you believe so it might be a little easier for them to be honest than it would be for Christians even in a church like this where we do invite you to think about things.  Even if you think about things, you still know the church has made decisions about what constitutes correct belief and that would be bound to have at least some influence on your responses.

Here’s one for you though, a question that might be on my survey:  Is God’s love, forgiveness and acceptance of us a) unconditional; God loves us no matter what, or is it b) conditional; it depends on us believing and doing certain things?  I won’t ask for a show of hands for each choice, but I think many of you know that the “correct” Lutheran answer is a, God’s love is unconditional, but I’ll bet that many of us, despite knowing that’s the correct answer, if we’re honest, would say that we really believe answer b, that there has to be at least some responsibility on our part, some conditions, something we have to do.  According to the Bible though, the correct answer is neither one of those.  According to the Bible, the correct answer is “yes” or “both.” 

The whole tradition of Moses and the commandments and the law is about obedience, conditions.  “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.”  If you obey my voice; the key word “if” is in there which is a conditional word, to which the people respond a couple of verses later, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  They understand; they accept the conditions.  That’s from Exodus.

But then we get Second Samuel.  Things have moved along in this David narrative that we started back in June.  Remember how the people insisted on having a king and the Lord went along with the request even though he didn’t agree with it?  Saul was chosen as king but wasn’t fully obedient so David was anointed to be the future king while he was still a young boy.  Some years later he becomes king, first of the southern kingdom of Judah but then king of all of Israel.  His power was consolidated and with today’s lesson his power is consolidated even further as the “if” of condition is removed from God’s promise. 

At the end of today’s reading, through the prophet Nathan, the Lord says of David, “I will be a father to him and he shall be a son to me.  When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings.  But I will not take my steadfast love from him.  Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever.”  The “if” of condition is gone, and theologically that’s huge because it changes the relationship.

This new unconditional covenant with David starts and ends with God, with God’s steadfast love, his hesed in the Hebrew.  That means that while God has expectations of us, we also have expectations of God because the “if you obey my commandments” part of the agreement is gone. 

The two covenants, conditional and unconditional, then exist in tension because the introduction of this covenant with David didn’t make the one with Moses go away; it’s still there and the prophets of the Old Testament, not to mention John the Baptist and Jesus in the New Testament, remind us of those expectations, specifically the call for repentance. But here’s the difference; with the conditional Mosaic covenant, the need for change was always on the human side.  If things weren’t going well it was the responsibility of the people to say, “What are we doing wrong?  What do we have to do to change in order to get back on God’s good side?”  

With the unconditional covenant made with David, the response can be different.   With that one, if things aren’t going well the people can say to the Lord, “Wait a minute; you said there would be punishment, we can accept that; but you also said that punishment wouldn’t be the last word so get on with making things right.  Remember, you promised, and you said forever!  Your reputation is at stake here.”

You see the difference?  With the conditional covenant the responsibility for keeping it is with the people; with the unconditional covenant, the responsibility for keeping it is with God.  It makes possible what we get in Psalm 89, the psalm appointed for today, one that is closely related to today’s verses from Second Samuel.  The trouble is, the verses of the psalm appointed for today stop before things get interesting. 

The verses we sang this morning are a strong affirmation of the covenant of Second Samuel: Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him; I will establish his throne forever; I will not remove from him my steadfast love or be false to my faithfulness; I will not violate my covenant.  There are no conditions, just reassurance of the promise, reassurance of the divine commitment and that’s the last word of our reading today; but it’s not the last word of the psalm. 

In the very next verse, what isn’t supposed to happen is happening; “But you have cast off and rejected your anointed; you have become enraged at him.  You have broken your covenant with your servant.”  That’s the very next verse after all the steadfast love forever stuff.  Something happens between verse 37 and verse 38 and that something has to do with the grim reality of life.  The promise of the Lord and the facts on the ground don’t match.  In the historical context of the psalm what happened was probably the invasion of the Babylonians and the destruction of Jerusalem but as we read it, it’s whatever has happened recently that causes us to question the truth of God’s promises; we’ve all been there.

Remarkably though, the psalmist doesn’t see this as nullification of the promise but instead challenges the Lord with the apparent conflict between promise and reality and calls on the Lord to make it right.  “How long will you hide yourself?  Where, Lord, is your steadfast love of old, which you promised David in your faithfulness?”  There’s no self-reflection here on the part of the psalmist, no wondering what he or she has done wrong, but instead the call is for the Lord to close the gap between his reputation and what is currently going on.  This psalmist won’t give up on the promise and won’t let the Lord off the hook because the promise represents hope, hope for change.  Only the Lord, being faithful to the promise can make things right and the psalmist, even in lament, has faith in that possibility.

This unconditional promise to David becomes a key piece of our theology.  The idea of a messiah from the house and lineage of David comes out of this and obviously that’s pretty important to us.  Also out of this comes the doctrine of justification by grace through faith which, especially for Lutherans, is also pretty important.  It’s the doctrine that tells us that we can’t keep all the “ifs” of the conditional covenant, that our only hope lies in God’s grace and what we understand that Jesus has done for us; that’s why “a, unconditional” was the correct Lutheran response to my question.

The reality though is that the two covenants exist in tension.  As I said, the unconditional covenant with David didn’t make the conditional covenant go away and that’s good, because we need both.  It’s the dynamic of Law and Gospel that Luther talked about although I think it’s better referred to as Gospel and Law because Gospel comes first.  The gospel is the unconditional covenant, God’s unconditional acceptance of us because of what Jesus has done for us.  That’s where we start.  The law then represents the conditions that guides our response to the unconditional gift we’ve been given and that response is important. 

So I’ve given you the correct answer.  The question now is, do you really believe it?           

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
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