Friday, July 20, 2012

Unconditional Conditional Grace (2 Samuel 7:1-17)

I’m a bit of a control freak. 

I tend to have a plan with three points for everything.  

Really, I just want things done the right way.  And of course, I usually think the right way is my way.  

Now, you’re not allowed to laugh at this one .  Not that I’m trying to control you or anything, just a recommendation.  

If you don’t think I’m a control freak, that’s good.  That means one of two things: either I’m getting better or I’m getting better at hiding it.  Maybe those are the same thing.
Some of us are loose and free, but for most of us, one of the hardest things in life is letting go of control.  We want to control our present, past, and future.  If we’re really honest, we want to control our family, friends, and pets.  We want to control our bosses, our employees, and our customers.  We want to control our food, our weight, and our appearance.  We want to control the environment, the weather, and global warming.  We stop short of trying to control the stars and planets - but only because we’re too busy trying to control everything else.
Control is hard.  Being out of control is one of the worst feelings out there.  But one of the most basic lessons with God is that we are not in control.  God is.

2 Samuel 7:1-17.
When King David was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all the surrounding enemies, the king summoned Nathan the prophet. “Look,” David said, “I am living in a beautiful cedar palace, but the Ark of God is out there in a tent!”
Nathan replied to the king, “Go ahead and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.”
But that same night the Lord said to Nathan,
“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord has declared: Are you the one to build a house for me to live in? I have never lived in a house, from the day I brought the Israelites out of Egypt until this very day. I have always moved from one place to another with a tent and a Tabernacle as my dwelling. Yet no matter where I have gone with the Israelites, I have never once complained to Israel’s tribal leaders, the shepherds of my people Israel. I have never asked them, “Why haven’t you built me a beautiful cedar house?”’
“Now go and say to my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies has declared: I took you from tending sheep in the pasture and selected you to be the leader of my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have destroyed all your enemies before your eyes. Now I will make your name as famous as anyone who has ever lived on the earth! 10 And I will provide a homeland for my people Israel, planting them in a secure place where they will never be disturbed. Evil nations won’t oppress them as they’ve done in the past, 11 starting from the time I appointed judges to rule my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.
“‘Furthermore, the Lord declares that he will make a house for you—a dynasty of kings!12 For when you die and are buried with your ancestors, I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong. 13 He is the one who will build a house—a temple—for my name. And I will secure his royal throne forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. If he sins, I will correct and discipline him with the rod, like any father would do. 15 But my favor will not be taken from him as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from your sight. 16 Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever.’”
17 So Nathan went back to David and told him everything the Lord had said in this vision.

This story is about God’s unconditional conditional grace.  This is one of the most difficult and most beautiful themes in the Bible, so let’s take it one word at a time.
GRACE.  David’s story is fundamentally about grace.  God chose David when he was a shepherd and slowly guided him from the pasture to the palace.  David was very appreciative of this blessing, so he wanted to build a palace for God.  David wanted to build a beautiful temple for the Ark of the Covenant - the physical symbol of God’s presence with Israel.  (Note, by the way, that David was only interested in building a temple for God after David had secured control over his own affairs.)
Then comes grace lesson #1: God is in control - not us.  David is the king.  Everyone obeys everything he says.  Even Nathan, the prophet says “Go ahead and do whatever you have in mind.”  Maybe David wants to earn some points with God, “Look at this beautiful temple I built.  Now you better protect me.”  We aren’t sure exactly what his motives are, but we know David is used to being in control.  
But David is not in control when it comes to God.  God works in ways that we do not expect.  Sometimes, God gives us the red light when we expect the green light.  God moves people when we think they should stay.  God closes doors we’re trying to beat open.  God’s ways are beyond our ways.  God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.  If we were in control, we would do things differently.  But one of the fundamental lessons of grace is that we’re not.  We’re not in control.  God is.
The good news is grace lesson #2: God’s way is better.  Newsflash: God is smarter than us!  God knows more than us!  God sees more of the big picture of our lives and our world better than we do.  Even more than that, God loves us more than we love ourselves.  God chooses what is best for us, not what feels good at this moment.  God makes us eat our vegetables.
Nobody would have picked David as king of Israel.  David would still be out in the pasture chasing sheep.  Israel would still be following an incapable leader and losing battles to their enemies.  Instead, David beat Goliath, and Saul self-destructed.  Slowly, slowly, slowly, through lots of steps that no human would have chosen, David became king of Israel.  Now, thousands of years later, all Jews consider the greatest king of Israel who ever lived.
But not only that, God lavishes his grace on David.  The Hebrew word for “house” is really the key to this passage.  David says, “I have a beautiful cedar house, but God only has a tent.”  David wants to build a house for God.  God says, “Are you the one to build a house for me?  Have I ever said I need you to build me a house?  Actually, I’m going to build a house for you - a dynasty of kings.  After I build your royal house, your son can build a house for me, but everyone will know that I established your house first.”  
We cannot give more than God.  God always gives more.  God always gives first.  God always gives last.  
When we try to control things, when we try to earn points with God, we just mess it up.  Life is grace.  We are not in control.  We cannot control our destiny by being faithful or smart or careful or disciplined.  We can’t even control our future or our present by going off the rails and living without any boundaries at all.  Giving into the uncontrolled pursuit pleasure creates also comes from a desire to be in control and creates a form of slavery to our worst motives.
  Life is a continual flow of God’s grace.  We can’t control it or direct it or escape it.  The best thing we can do is to let God’s grace control and direct us.  That will lead to more grace and more blessing and more love than we can ever imagine.  The fundamental lesson of grace here is this: We are not in control, but God is, and that’s better.  
Remember, this story is about God’s unconditional conditional grace.  Let’s talk about the UNCONDITIONAL part for a little while.  There are two key words explaining God’s unconditional grace: forever and father.  “And I will secure his royal throne forever.  ... I will be his father, and he will be my son.  ... Your house and your kingdom ... will be secure forever.”   
God is making a permanent commitment to David and David’s descendants.  Saul failed, and God rejected Saul.  But God promises David that he will never remove his favor or blessing or grace from David’s family.  It is unconditional.
Think about a parent and children.  That is an unconditional relationship.  I will always be Emma and John David’s father.  No matter what they do, no matter where they go, no matter if they succeed or fail, I will always be their father, and I will always love them - no matter what.  
Recently, I read a story about a brother who stabbed his sister to death in an argument.  What really impressed me was the family’s response.  They said, “We love both our children, and we are sad for both our children.”  They said they will continue loving the son even as they grieve in deep pain because of his actions.  That is unconditional love.  That is the kind of love God has for David and for us.
But God’s grace is also CONDITIONAL.  Look closely at verse 14: “I will be his father, and he will be my son.  If he sins, I will correct and discipline him with the rod, like any father would do.”  Now that’s kind of polite language, but basically God is saying that if David’s son gets out of line, God will beat him.  God will punish the king (and the nation) for misbehavior.  
OK, now let me be clear.  I am not a big fan of parents beating their children.  I think other forms of discipline are usually more effective.  But every parent knows that they cannot give their children everything they want.  One of the most fundamental tasks of parenting is correcting our children when they are wrong and guiding them into the right paths.  And punishment or consequences are a key component of correction and discipline.  Anything less is bad parenting, which leads to spoiled children.
God’s eternal commitment to David’s family is not a mushy nice-no-matter-what philosophy.  God is eternally committed to David’s family and to Israel.  That means David’s family and Israel will represent God to the world.  God’s reputation is always on the line in Israel’s actions.  God’s people create God’s reputation.  So God says, “Look, I’m not going to let you drag me through the mud and destroy my work of redeeming the world.  If you get off track, I’ll try to correct you and guide you back to faithfulness gently.  But I’ll beat you back to faithfulness if I have to.  We’re in this together - forever - from here on out - whether we like it our not.”
Make sure you catch this. Sometimes grace feels nice and pretty, like “having a homeland ... in a secure place where they will never be disturbed.”  But other times, grace feels like getting a beating.  Sometimes, discipline is the best way that God can love us.  
I heard a story about a Christian community group in Latin America that helps explain this.  A small group of men in a poor community committed to follow Christ together no matter what.  They met together each week for prayer, sharing, and Bible study.  They opened their hearts to each other.  They gave each other the authority to challenge anyone in the group about their behavior or attitudes, and they used that authority often.  The result was that their families and community began to change.  Together, they all began to be healed through God’s love.  They were unconditionally committed to each other.
But then, one of the group members had a major crisis.  He ran a small auto repair shop.  Several major bills came due at the same time.  Several big customers were unable to pay their bills.  He fell behind on his rent at the shop and at home.  And, to make matters worse, the government revoked his small business license.  The police came to his shop, beat him up, and told him to board up the windows and move out.  He knew the next step was losing his home.
Then, he disappeared for three days.  His wife and six children were frantic.  Finally, someone found him drinking away his sorrows at the local bar, the place where he was a regular customer before Christ changed his life.  
Three of the men from his small group went to the bar to bring him home.  He refused to go.  He said he was going to drink himself to death because he nothing left to live for.  They tried to reason with him, but he was too drunk and too depressed to think straight.  Finally, they told him they were going to take him home whether he liked it or not.  He was a big guy, and he decided to fight.  His three best friends in the world ganged up on him.  They fought him until they knocked him out, and then they brought him home to his wife and kids.  
They nursed him back to health and sanity.  They helped pay his back rent.  They mediated with his collectors.  They worked in his shop while he was recovering.  They saved his business.  They saved his family.  They saved his life.  Sometimes, grace is nice.  Other times, grace is a punch in the face.
Nothing stops God’s unconditional conditional grace.  God is unconditionally committed to us, but how grace feels is completely conditional.  It depends on the condition of our lives and on the circumstances of God’s plan for us and on our place in God’s mission at the current moment.  But - no matter how it feels - it’s still grace.
But remember God’s grace is UNCONDITIONAL.  God is unconditionally committed to us through Jesus Christ.  My favorite verses in the whole Bible come in Ephesians 1: “Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes.  God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ.  This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.  So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son.  He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave us.  He has showered his kindness on us ...” (Eph. 1:4-8).  
God loves us all as dear children.  We have rejected God and wandered away.  But God came to earth in Jesus.  God redeemed us through his own blood.  God has showered his kindness on us.  God will not stop until we return home.  But even then, God will not stop.  God will not stop until he reshapes us to be like Christ.  For all of our lives, God will shower his unconditional conditional grace on us.  Sometimes, God will woo goodness out of our hearts like a gentle gardener.  Other times, God will beat us into goodness like a blacksmith working iron on an anvil.  But through it all, God will shape our hearts and our lives to be more full of his unstoppable love.  
Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah King in David’s royal line.  Jesus said that he would reestablish God’s temple in his own body.  Now God’s temple is not a building, but a people.  The Church of Jesus Christ, all who are in Christ, everyone who puts their faith in Christ and lives in Christ - we are all the new temple.  God’s Spirit lives and breathes in us.  
We are the living evidence of God’s presence in the world.  Collectively we are the new home of God’s covenant with humanity.  We - you and me and all Christians everywhere in the world, in all of our brokenness and grace - we are the house that God is building for his Spirit. It is beyond our control, but it’s better that way.  We are the home for God’s unconditional conditional grace that is transforming our world.  God is unconditionally committed to us - whether we like it or not.  

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