A first glance at this week’s lectionary readings:
IN 2 Samuel, David, still high on his worship of the living God last week, wants to take things a step or three further, and build a temple in which to house the ark of the covenant, the symbol (in the true and living meaning of symbolic elements: the thing that points beyond itself and which also embodies the thing to which it points) of God’s presence with the people of promise, the people of God’s choosing.
David’s professed motive seems sound: humility. He does not think it fitting that the king should live in a prouder building than the Living Presence of the Living God.
Nathan, the prophet, concurs. “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
But that night, the Lord puts Nathan straight.
Nathan is not afraid to contradict the king. In chapter 12, he sets David up to be hoist with his own petard, uncovering his guilt in the matter of Bathsheba and her poor, murdered husband by means of a parable. He is loyal, nevertheless; in 1 Kings, he is the one reported to have alerted David to the plot to subvert the succession of Solomon. Familiar from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus”, Nathan the prophet, along with Zadok the priest (and others) anointed Solomon king.
Nathan is a prophet of the court, a man trusted to tell the truth about the word and will of God. He is frank, loyal, and faithful: everything you might want in a prophet. Yet, on this occasion, he was wrong. He spoke too soon.
David is reminded through Nathan’s late night encounter with the Lord that it is not for him to choose the way forward. It is not for him to decide where God’s presence will stay, or stop moving. God is not leaving David: the promise of an abiding household and an abiding presence is repeated, as it was to Abraham, to Jacob. God is with David; but God will not be fenced in with cedar or gated or built up or set in stone. Not until God chooses.
But why doesn’t Nathan, the one trusted to tell the truth, understand this sooner? David comes to Nathan for a God-check, a gut-check with one he trusts to keep his gut aligned with God’s, and Nathan is momentarily dazzled by the image that the king presents. Perhaps he is still reeling from seeing David dance into town in front of the ark, the picture of religious ecstasy; and ecstasy which Nathan may yearn for himself. He has been swept up on a wave of emotion and experience, and he has forgotten to find his feet, to ground himself in prayer, before taking the next step forward.
Worship is wonderful. Ecstatic experience is a gift. It cannot be a distraction from discernment. God knows the way forward when we come back down to earth, and we could do worse than to check with God, with our prophets and trusted prayers, before letting our emotions run away with us. Worship, in the end, is supposed to find its end in the glory of God, not in our own emotional experience. It is for God to choose us, and to teach us the ways that God wants us to work in the world; it is not for us to choose to teach God what to do next.
David, speaking with all apparent humility, still needed one lesson more in that important virtue. So did Nathan, his impatient prophet. What do we, or our parishes, need to run by a God-check, and not just a gut-check, before discovering God’s will for our way forward?