God’s Story, Our Story: A Longer Stride & a Wider Embrace

Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5

It was an ominous place.  Dark and foreboding.  Like that old abandoned house in your town growing up--do you remember it?  The one that everyone swore was haunted so it was best to just stay clear of it?  Well, this was Jerusalem.  A small, spooky fortress city that travelers avoided. 

To the east and the south, the city was naturally protected by deep and dangerous ravines.  But anyone who tried to enter the city from the west and north were stopped in their tracks by the terrible sight of two huge, demonic figures guarding the wall.

One was limping and looked like an evil parody of Jacob who had been lamed in his all-night wrestling match with the angel (Gen. 32:31).  The other was an equally evil parody of blind Isaac, who in his sightless old age had been deceived by his wife and son (Gen. 27:1).  They were awful-looking.  Distorted faces.  Creepy bodies.  Enough to give anyone the willies.

The legend was that anytime someone dared to approach Jerusalem’s city walls, the two figures would come alive!  They would slowly begin to move and loud moans and shrieks would sound from deep within.  It was an evil place.  The “demons of Jerusalem” were the favorite subject for scary stories around the campfire and parents used them to scare their children into obedience.  

The irony of it all is that the name “Jerusalem” literally means “City of Peace.”  And in fact the people that lived within those city walls did live quite peaceably.  They were called the Jebusites, and their terrifying demons managed to keep everyone away for centuries.  Nobody bothered the Jebusites in the same way that nobody bothers a black widow or a hornet’s nest. 

Nobody that is until David decided to make it his capital city.  It was the perfect location for his headquarters.  David had just been made king over Israel as well as Judah, the two divided Israelite kingdoms. 

Why did David choose this evil and foreboding place to be his base?  This location was perfect because it sat on the spine of land that connected the two kingdoms.  It would be strategic for uniting them under his rule.  Not only that, but David had been let in on a little secret.  Those two huge demons guarding the north and the west walls—they weren’t really demons at all.  They were mechanical statues—ancient robots you could say-- hooked up to a clever piece of hydraulic engineering. 

Here’s how it worked: someone had only to move a lever and the force of water from the spring, piped into place through an ingenious system of plumbing, would set the evil lame Jacob and the evil blind Isaac in jerky motion while moaning and screaming noises were contrived by Jebusite guards behind the wall.  It was an ancient version of the trick played by the little man behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz.  Nothing but a big fraud. 

David boldly commanded the capture of the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem.  His instructions were simple.  First smash the water pipe; that would disengage the demonic figures from their water source.  Then tear the Jacob and Isaac figures to bits, “the lame and the blind” (2 Sam. 5:8), and throw the pieces over the wall.  And that’s what they did.  Then they entered the city through a secret entrance and rather easily seized it from the Jebusites, whose bark was much bigger than their bite just as David had suspected.  From that day on it would be known as David’s City—a city that even to this day is the nucleus of religious faith.

This is the story that was circulating among Jewish scholars in the Middle Ages.  Is this story true?  Hard to say.  Most modern biblical scholars say it’s unlikely (they suggest that the phrase “the lame and the blind” refers to how well protected the city was that even the handicapped could defend it).[1]  Still, it’s a good story! And I think the playful imagination of these medieval Rabbis hit on something that is at the heart of the story.  This is a critical moment in the life of David and the life of God’s people. 

Do you remember David’s humble beginnings?  He was an ordinary shepherd boy, the family runt of a local farmer in Bethlehem named Jesse.  The LORD sent his prophet Samuel to Bethlehem with the assignment to anoint the new prince of Israel, the one who would replace Saul as ruler of God’s people.  To everyone’s surprise, God’s choice for future king was the least expected candidate—David, a nobody.  At this point God’s Spirit came upon David. 

But that was twenty years ago.  And now, after a whole sludge of battles and years of living life as a refugee out in the wilderness, God’s promise comes to fruition.  David is publicly inaugurated as King of Israel.  He has grown into his identity as God’s anointed.  In wrapping up this story on the capture of Jerusalem by David, the writer of 2 Samuel offers this wonderful phrase: “And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him” (5:10).

Another way to translate this Hebrew phrase is that David proceeded from that moment with “a longer stride and a wider embrace.”[2]  I like that.  A longer stride and a wider embrace.  It’s a phrase that indicates David’s maturity.  As opposed to merely changing, David grew in faith and in courage.  David’s story is really a story of growth.

Life is full of changes, for better and for worse.  As much as we’d love to freeze time and make it stand still at moments, the reality is that life keeps going.  It’s brings changes whether we are ready or not.

Change can diminish us.  It can leave us angry, scared, cynical, bitter.  In other words, it can make us less than we are.  So many people don’t know how to deal with change so they live in the past.  

But change can also be a catalyst for growth.  It can stimulate developing, deepening, lengthening, enlarging—our lives becoming more, not less.  And this is what the narrator calls attention to in David at this moment. 

All of the change he underwent in his life between that day he was anointed by Samuel 20 years ago till now didn’t so much change him as much as grow him.  He lengthened his stride; he widened his embrace.  He grew up into his identity and vocation as God’s anointed one. 

Let’s talk about both of these things—a longer stride and a wider embrace.  David lengthened his stride.  What does it mean that David lengthened his stride?  He did the unexpected when he took Jerusalem.  Remember the story I shared at the beginning?  Jerusalem was avoided territory—a den of superstition and ghost stories.  Nobody saw Jerusalem as a strategic site for the royal city.  But David did.  And he lengthened his stride by taking a giant and risky step into Jerusalem and cleaned out the abominations, turning it into a holy place.          

Robert Kennedy famously said, “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’  I dream things that never were and ask ‘Why not?’”  David was somebody who dreamed things that never were and asked “Why not?”  David looked at Jerusalem and saw not what it presently was but what it could potentially be.  Others saw a dark, demonic city.  David saw a holy city on a hill that would be a light to all the nations.  This kind of seeing is a sign of maturity.  It’s about perspective.  It’s being able to look at situations, places, people, even ourselves and see the potential for holiness.  So many of us fail to see the big picture because we can’t get beyond what we immediately see before us.  A sign of growth is the ability to see things in a way we have never seen them before—from God’s perspective rather than our own.

Along with this, lengthening our stride is about acting on that vision.  We take steps, even if they may feel like giant steps, to trust God and act in ways to help make that potential a reality.  More and more, David put his confidence in God, and steps that maybe started out as small, clumsy baby steps eventually grew into a smoother, bolder, longer stride.

Lengthening our stride, put most simply, is about growing in our love for God and our trust in him.  It is about taking risks, getting outside our zones of comfort, being bold and courageous in our faith.  Many years ago I saw the artist Michael Card in concert, and he said something that has stuck with me.  He said something to the effect that at every concert, he takes the risk (against the natural disposition of his heart) to attempt something that he knows if God doesn’t show up, he’ll fail.  This is what it means to lengthen our stride.  It is to take steps of faith that put ourselves out on the line so much that if God doesn’t show up and empower us, there’s no possible way we’ll succeed. 

I think lengthening our stride also means that we must confront some of the darkness and ugliness in ourselves rather than just side-stepping around it.  David didn’t dance around the two demons at the city gate; he confronted them—called their bluff, dealt with them.  He cleared the city of idolatry.

In a sense we can say that we all have our demons or our idols that we must confront.  The figures that stand at the gates of our hearts and try to intimidate and prevent entrance.  But if we are going to grow, then we must have the courage to take a good look at ourselves and confront the demons.  Name them.  And in the name of the LORD, we call their bluff and deal with them. 

Second, David widened his embrace.  If lengthening our stride has to do with growing in our love for God, widening our embrace has to do with growing in our love for others.  David widened his embrace by including more and more people under his rule and his love.  He gathered all of God’s people, not just those who were on his side or who had helped him out during the difficult years.  David’s maturity translated into generosity—into reaching out to bring peace between the northern and the southern sides.

When we grow, the circle of people we include in our life broadens.  We see people as God sees them—created in his image and therefore possessing intrinsic value.  We embrace them for their potential in Christ; we don’t scorn or judge them for what we feel they are not.  True Christian growth does not lead to irritability or impatience or exclusion but to generosity, graciousness and hospitality.  We seek peace; we don’t stir up hostility. 

When we grow we lengthen our stride and widen our embrace.  We venture into new territory and include more people in our lives.  We serve more and we love more.  And although change can be a catalyst for growth, it is not the same thing as growth.  Our bodies change, our interests may change, our activities may change, as a church our programs and staff and facilities may change.  But just because we experience change, this does not automatically mean that we will experience growth.  Growth is something we must be intentional about.  It’s about becoming more of who we are in Christ, not less.  David, the shepherd boy of Bethlehem, becomes the shepherd king of Israel. 

How are you handling the changes in your life?  Are you becoming more or less?  Let God help you lengthen your stride and widen your embrace.  Christian discipleship is about growing into the full likeness of Jesus—becoming like him in all we desire, think, say and do.  No matter how much our stride lengthens and how much our embrace widens, none of us ever fully arrive on this side of the grave.  We are always called to keep growing.  Just like God anointed David to be a king, so we have been anointed as subjects of Jesus, the eternal King.  We have been marked at our baptism as disciples, followers of Christ, children of God.  But we spend the rest of our lives growing into this marvelous and grace-filled identity.

I love the way the Message paraphrases these words of Jesus in Matthew 5:48:

In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up.  You’re kingdom subjects.  Now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity.  Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

Or in other words…lengthen your stride and widen your embrace!

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

 

[1] This playful interpretation of 2 Samuel 5 is taken from Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall, pp. 131-4.

[2] Ibid, p. 135.

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