19th July 2015 - Hugh Perry
2 Samuel 7:1-14
This reading from 2nd Samuel is a key passage between David establishing himself as king and the further history of Davidic kingship. David wanted to build a house for God which is something that kings and cities like to do because it announces to the world that God is present in their kingdom or city. It also infers that God is on their side or even under their control. David is told by Nathan that God does not need a house because the divine presence is with the people but the temple will be built by David’s son. God through Nathan goes on to promise that David’s house will last forever. That is house in terms of an ongoing household or ruling family as in house if Windsor rather than David’s palace.
Maurice Andrew comments that it is likely that David was a successful professional soldier of the 10th century BCE, some of whose achievements formed the basis for at least some important aspects of the Israelite kingdoms.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
These reading are the lead up to, and follow on from, the feeding of the five thousand. The opening passage covers the return of the twelve who were sent out in last week’s episode and contain the only use of the term ‘apostle’ in Mark’s gospel. Morna Hooker notes that it is a classical Greek word for military or naval expedition but is also used in translating into Greek the Hebrew word for an authorised agent or representative and so properly describes the disciples returning from their mission. Hooker also draws attention to the fact that Mark’s readers would have been aware that the term was beginning to be used as a technical term in the emerging church.
Without the feeding miracle what we learn from these two passages is that wherever Jesus went a large crowd followed.
Our Gospel reading consists of the two sections either side of the story of the feeding of the five thousand and we could say that the main point of these two passages is to say that wherever Jesus went a large crowd gathered. That is not the experience of the church today. Certainly we can be envious of some of the larger independent congregations and try and turn our worship events into a rock concert to compete with them. But we should remember that even the mega congregations are a mere remnant of the selection of denominations in every town and suburb that had full churches every Sunday just a few decades ago. Furthermore not even Destiny can boast the crowds that John Wesley gathered in his open air meetings.
Declining attendance is a trend that all the churches are concerned about and some of the responses range from panic to despair.
I hold the Bible in very high regard so I was concerned when I foraged through the Bible Society material to find that they appear to be joining this panicky trend. Their theme for this year’s Bible month focuses on teaching children to appreciate the Bible and how to read the Bible to children. That may well be a noble quest but the Bible is important to adults as well as children. Furthermore there seemed to be a naivety in this response that suggested that all stories in the Bible are suitable for children. I certainly wouldn’t want to read last week’s lurid description of the execution of John the Baptist as a bed time story for my grandson. As a caring wee soul my youngest granddaughter has already written off her religious instruction teacher for suggesting that if they don’t give their life to Jesus they will go straight to hell. I am pleased that my son only pays half fees for her schooling otherwise I think he should insist on a refund for the time she spends in religious education, which appears to be turning her off Christianity. A similar approach to evangelism rocketed me into strident atheism when I was a teenager.
I was therefore pleased to see a quotation from C.S. Lewis on Nelson Methodist Minister David Poultney’s Facebook page
It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to him. We must not use the Bible as a sort of encyclopaedia out of which texts can be taken for use as weapons.
That is not some current scholar scorned by conservative fundamentalists. That is not written by Bishop Spong, Dominique Crossan or Greta Vosper.
That is a quote from C. S. Lewis, contemporary of Tolkien, academic and secular theologian, the darling of the Church of England and author of countless books of theology, science fiction and children’s fantasy.
Lewis is highlighting two very important points about the Bible. Firstly as Christians it is our core belief that Jesus Christ is our revelation of God. We image the unimaginable in what we can learn about Jesus from the Bible. It is through that image of Jesus that God speaks to us and informs our lives.
We also need to understand that although it is the Gospels that inform our understanding and belief about Jesus the rest of the Bible supports and informs the Gospels.
However the most obvious point that Lewis makes is that the Bible is not an encyclopaedia where we can look up an instant answer to how we must react in any particular situation. In fact if we just look at the parables of Jesus we discover they contain a multitude of suggested conclusions depending on the reader’s circumstance and world view.
The parable of the Good Samaritan has always been used as the classic example of selfless Christian service and inclusive caring for others. However it also asks questions about distractions from duty by unforeseen circumstances. The story confronts the purity code that prevented the intervention of the priest but failed to inhibit the Samaritan because the Jewish purity code was not part of his religious tradition. From our world we could also be concerned that robbery victim might be booby trapped. Time and time again we find that Jesus’ parables are not instant answers to life’s complexity but the Spirit of Christ calling us into an ethical debate.
We could argue that the letters of Paul and other early church writers are instruction on the Christian life. But we should always be aware that, although they were written for instruction in the Christian life for leaders in the early church, they were written from their understanding and world view.
They are an import part of the Bible and the only reason that I haven’t so far preached from them is because I am so totally gripped and fascinated by the Gospels and the Old Testament.
However I do think it is important to remember that the Epistles are letters from church leaders of a particular time and just as church leaders disagree with each other today I am sure people disagreed with Paul and other writers of the biblical letters.
They were written before the Gospels and were obviously not considered totally adequate by the early church because there were a whole host of Gospels written to address the perceived deficit. Those early Gospels range from simple collections of Jesus’ sayings to fanciful descriptions of meetings with the risen Christ. Interestingly the four Gospels that tradition has chosen as sacred scripture pay tribute to that diversity of all the gospels but avoid the extremes.
Mark joins the sayings of Jesus with a basic but extremely well constructed narrative that gives context to the sayings. Matthew and Luke expand that narrative, adding to it and endeavouring to correct any misunderstanding they feel might arise. John writes from the perspective of a meeting with the Risen Christ and John’s Jesus seem to drift through the suffering that Mark’s Jesus encounters with excruciating pain and agony.
It is however not the detail, the sentences, the words or any part of the Gospels or even any part of the Bible that introduces us to the Risen Christ but the stories.
The power of any literature from the Bible to the Chronicles of Narnia or Voyage to Venus is in the thoughts and ideas expressed in story. Screwtape Letters does not give us indisputable facts about the Devil and his dastardly demons any more than the movie Bedazzled that betrays Peter Cook as an inadequate Lucifer tempting Dudley More as a shy day dreaming fish and chip shop owner.
Both contain humour and story that opens the human mind to its foibles and not only ask questions about people’s behaviour but challenges readers and viewers to review their own self-discipline.
The important learning in today’s reading from 2nd Samuel is not so much about the history of Hebrew monarchy as its universal message that there is likely to be trouble when powerful people seek to align their ambitions with the divine plan. In this reading Nathan experiences misgivings about David’s plan for a temple. Those misgivings are resolved after a good night’s sleep. I am sure many of us facing difficult dilemmas have woken in the morning with a much clearer understanding than we had on the previous day.
David expressed his ambition to Nathan and Nathan gives a somewhat ambiguous approval. Nathan said to the king ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for Yahweh is with you’. (2 Samuel 7:3)
Then during the night Nathan’s brain processes all the information that is swirling in various files and rearranges it as a clear understanding of the dangers of the king’s proposal along with a way Nathan can express his reservations to David without incurring the king’s lethal displeasure. Many of us who have had a similar overnight clarification of thought count it as a spiritual experience. It is so common that contemporary wisdom suggests we should sleep on important decisions. Nevertheless it is startling when such clarity of mind hits us.
Understanding how Nathan may have reached this point of confrontation with David and his persuasion to abandon his ambition does not disguise the very important and universal message contained in the story. Kings, Queens, Ayatollahs, presidents prime ministers and even CEOs who claim divine sanction, or even worse, to appear to control God by providing hospitality to God are dangerous.
There is also an expression in this story of the very Hebrew concept that judges and kings rule within the confines of divine law. That is a concept by which our own constitutional monarchy has evolved and means that even prime ministers are not allowed to pull waitress’ pony tails.
All those thoughts come from the imagination while reading the story and are not spelled out in the narrative itself.
Furthermore the story’s leading about the ambitions and dangers of absolute monarchy and military heroes opens our imagination to questions about a divine way to order the human community. These stories from the Hebrew text open us to the introduction Jesus gives to so many parables recorded in the Gospel: The kingdom of God is like..........
In reading those open ended parables and allowing the gospel narrative to grip our imagination we get a glimpse of the Jesus we call Christ. As we allow those glimpses to process in our mind we may well wake one morning, after some adrenaline filled moment or in a time of extreme peace with a clearer picture of who we are, and who we are called to be.
Those are the moments God speaks to us, the moments we can, as Christians agree with C.S. Lewis, that it is Christ himself who is the true word of God.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p.224.
 Morna D Hooker The Gospel According To Mark (London: A&C Black1991), p.162.