politics, cynicism, faith

Well here we go again – yet another federal election campaign. The evening newscasts will be filled to the brim with stump speeches and political panelists. The papers will give us all the latest polling data – who’s leading, who’s picking up steam, who’s falling into the basement of political opinion. The local candidates will be knocking on our doors. The political leaders will be making a swing through our city. Promises will be made. Opponents will be attacked.

From the sermon title for today, you’ll see where I want to start this morning – with the question of cynicism and politics. In a way, we all become cynics in the middle of an election campaign. A cynic, of course, is someone who is convinced that no matter what people say, no matter what people do, they are really only interested in themselves. The cynic says: People may look like they care, but if you dig a little deeper you’ll quickly discover that they’re only thinking about themselves.

It’s difficult not to become a cynic in the middle of an election campaign, isn’t it? But we always have a choice. When a politician makes some declaration – when a politician makes some promise – we always have a choice.

On the on the one hand we can be cynical – doubting that they mean what they say.

Or, on the other hand, we can choose to trust what they say.

Let me give you a couple of examples.

When the Conservative leader promises to get tough on crime we can respond in two quite different ways:

We can be cynical and say: “He’s just playing on our fears about crime to get our votes.”

Or we can be trust him: “Yea, he cares about crime rates and he’ll do something about it.”

When the Liberal leader says he’ll spend more on family health care, we can respond in two quite different ways:

We can be a cynic and say: “He knows the government will never be able to afford that, he’s just trying to get our votes.”

Or we can be trust him and say: “Yea, he cares about health care and he’ll try and do something about it.

In the middle of an election campaign, we all probably become cynics to some extent. There are two ends to the spectrum. On the one end is complete cynicism – we refuse to trust what people say. On the other end of the spectrum is complete trust – we accept at face value what is being said. In the mist of an election campaign, most of us are probably somewhere in the middle – a little cynical, a little trusting.

As we look again this morning at the narrative of First and Second Samuel, we should remember that this is in some sense a political text. There is some politicing going on in this narrative – in a way we should see this story as an ancient form of advertising. The text is saying something. The text is presenting a picture of David – it’s trying to convince us about who he is, and who he is not. And as we read the text – as we look at this picture of David – we are faced with the same choice as in the federal election campaign. Will we look at this text, this portrait of David, from a cynical point of view? Or will we look at this text with trusting eyes? Or perhaps we will end up somewhere in the middle between cynicism and trust.

Let’s get the basics down first. What is the text saying? What is the story trying to say about David?

Here’s the story. We remember that David has made a promise to Saul and to Saul’s son, Jonathan. And the promise was that he would show loving kindness toward their family, toward their descendents. He would be faithful to them. But it turns out not to be quite as simple as that. You see, shortly after Saul and Jonathan die, a number of Saul’s clan get together and crown one of Saul’s relatives as a rival king to David. Rather than accepting David as king – rather than accepting the one chosen by God and anointed by Samuel – they choose a king from Saul’s family. The result is essentially a civil war for many years between the clan of Saul and those who support king David. Finally, after much bloodshed, the clan of Saul is defeated, and David is left as the only king – at the end of the war the tribes of Israel are united in one kingdom. From Jerusalem David rules this kingdom and defends it against the Philistine threat.

Now when that civil war ended, and when the kingdom was united, David remembers his promise to Saul and to Jonathan. He remembers the promise to show loving kindness toward their family – he remembers his promise not to wipe out Saul’s name or descendants from the earth. The problem is that at this point most of Saul’s clan has been killed in the civil war, in their war against David. In fact, Saul’s whole clan might have been wiped out.

So the question is whether there is anyone left to whom David can show faithfulness for the sake of Saul and Jonathan. He asks his advisors: “Is there anyone left to whom I can show faithfulness.” Or are they all dead?

Well, it turns out that there is one member of Saul’s household left. He is in fact a son of Jonathan – it turns out he is a young man lame in both feet. He has a serious physical disability. David orders that this young man be brought to the royal court.  As the young man makes his way to the royal court he is no doubt desperately afraid. The young man – his name is Mephiboshet – the young man expects that David is going to kill him. When he arrives in the king’s presence, Mephibosheth throws himself flat on his face at the feet of David. David has destroyed almost all of his relatives in war. Mephibosheth expects the sword to fall across his neck – he will be the last one destroyed – the enemies of David will finally be taken care of.

But the sword doesn’t fall. Instead David says to Mephibosheth: “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always.” In effect, David sets Mephibosheth up for a life otherwise impossible for him – David gives him land, gives him a future, gives him political power, and gives him a place at his own table. David takes him in as a son.

A word deployed throughout this short text is the word hesed – a rich Hebrew word that means covenant faithfulness. David shows hesed. David shows covenant faithfulness to Saul, to Jonathan, to Mephibosheth. In that time and place it would have been entirely logical – it would have made the most sense, to simply kill Mephibosheth – to rule him out as a contender to the throne.  But David blesses him, helps him, and gives him a place at his own table. He honours his promise to Saul and to David, and embraces Mephibosheth.

So, that’s the story. That’s what the text is saying about David. That’s the portrait it is painting.

And here we go back to that choice. Just as we have a choice about how to respond to the promises made by our politicians – a choice about how to respond to the statements of Jack Layton and Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper – so we have a choice in how we respond to this narrative. Will we be cynical about this story? Or will we trust what the story is saying.

Here’s what a cynical response to the story looks like. Come on, you don’t actually believe David is showing covenant love toward Saul and Jonathan and Mephibosheth, do you? Can’t you se that he’s not really helping Mephibosheth. The only reason he’s bringing him into the royal household is so that he can keep his eye on him – so he can make sure that the last member of Saul’s clan doesn’t conspire against him. If Mephibosheth was just out there, somewhere, David would never know what he’s up to.  So he keeps his eye on him.

Oh, and there’s more. Do really think that if this young man wasn’t lame, that David would be doing the same thing? The only reason he’s being good to Mephibosheth is because Mephibosheth isn’t really a threat. If Mephibosheth was a stronger warrior, David would never have blessed him in this way. You want proof of this – just look ahead to chapter 16, where David begins to think that Mephibosheth might be working against him. What does David do then? He takes everything away from Mephibosheth – all the land, everything else – and gives it to someone else. It’s obvious: the narrative is just trying to make David look loving – make him look good – there’s a whole lot of political spin that goes into this text.

You know – it is the easiest thing in the world to be cynical. It takes no creativity to cast aspersions on people. It takes no energy to second-guess peoples words or motives. Ours is a culture, in fact, that specializes in doubt – a culture that specializes in casting aspersions, a culture that specializes in seeking the real hidden motives of other – and we just love to see those hidden motives exposed.

It is much harder to trust the other, isn’t it? It is much harder to accept the other’s words at face value. It is harder to accept that people have good intentions. It is much harder to give others the benefit of the doubt. Cynicism is so much easier in our culture.

Coming back to this story from Second Samuel – what’s the other option? Well, if we’re not going to be cynical, then perhaps we can give David the benefit of the doubt. The relatives and clan of Saul represent a very real threat to David. Even the lame Mephibosheth might end up as a threat to him (in fact, he does end up as a threat). Yet even though Mephibosheth might be a threat, David tries to show covenant faithfulness here. He tries to do the right thing – tries to keep his oath of loyalty – tries very hard to show love toward Saul, the Lord’s anointed – and to his family. If we take a more trusting approach to the narrative of David, we might point out that David had every option to simply kill Mephibosheth right then and there – no one would have objected to that. In fact it would have been perceived as very normal. But he chose not to. As hard as it probably was – he showed love, he showed respect, he kept his promise of loyalty.

So where do we come down on this story? Maybe, as with our politicians, we come down somewhere in the middle. We don’t want to give into utter cynicism – that would be too easy, too destructive, too unloving. On the other hand, there may be some basis for doubts about David in this story. Even in the case of David, the Old Testament doesn’t say he’s incapable of doing anything wrong. Soon enough we’ll come to the story of his sexual liaisons with married Bathsheba – we’ll see how he gets Bathsheba’s husband killed. David isn’t perfect. The narratives are pretty honest about David’s failings. And yet in his best moments, David gives expression to the covenant faithfulness of God.

In his best moments, David respects the law of God;

in his best moments, David worships God earnestly;

in his best moments, David embodies the love of God.

The moment when David embraces Mephibosheth – the moment when he welcomes him to his own table – the moment David adopts Mephibosheth as his own son – that is one of David’s better moments. In that moment he embodies the covenant faithfulness of God. In that moment, he embodies the love of God that reaches out and embraces and welcomes and forgives. He may not have done it perfectly. He may have done it with mixed motives. But in that moment he nevertheless embodies the love of God – a love that will come to full expression only in Jesus – through whom God adopts all of us as his children.

As we mentioned last week, as significant a figure David is, our faith is not ultimately built upon him or his life. God’s people have waited for a Son of David – one who would fully accomplish what David could only aspire to. God’s people have waited for a Son of David – one who could bring the freedom and forgiveness and belonging that David could only aspire to. In the moment that David welcomes a Mephibosheth, he points toward a love that would only come to full expression in Jesus – through whom God adopts all of us as his children.

Another way to say it is like this: we have all had our Mephibosheth moment – we have all been on the receiving end of the love that David aspires to in his best moments.

The Apostle Paul describes our Mephibosheth moment this way: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”

The Apostle John describes our Mephibosheth moment this way: “To all who received Jesus, to all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

In relation to Jesus there is no room for cynicism. Here there is room only for deep and abiding trust. A trust that in him we are welcomed to the table – a trust that in him we are forgiven – a trust that in him we are set free for resurrection life among God’s people. In him we are the beloved children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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