A Dynasty of Grace

When you think of the word “dynasty,” what comes to mind?

Some might think of the cheesy prime-time soap opera Dynasty from the 1980s, in which the Carrington family fought and manipulated their way to wealth and power. Others might think of the long dynasties of the kingdoms of the Far East (China’s Han and Ming dynasties, for example). Some may mention the great European dynasties, such as the Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns, or, in England, the houses of Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart, and Windsor. And then there’s the world’s longest surviving royal dynasty, the Yamato, which has reigned in Japan since 660 BC.

Here in the U.S., we tend to think of dynasties as related to politics or sports. Politically, the media often refers to the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes and Clintons in dynastic terms. In sports, we regard teams that win multiple championships over a period of years as dynasties. Think of the New York Yankees of Major League Baseball. My Yankees have won 40 American League pennants and 27 World Series, both MLB records.

So when we think of a dynasty, we think of success and power exercised over a period of time, leaving a mark on history. This is what constitutes a dynasty.

This Fourth Sunday of Advent is about the reboot of a dynasty – the royal line of King David.

David was anointed by Samuel to take Saul’s place as King of Israel. David was God’s chosen one and God preserved David when he was threatened by Saul and while he was leading Israel’s armies to victory against their enemies. David was the shepherd boy who slew the giant Goliath, became a mighty warrior and then, eventually, became king.

This brings us to 2 Samuel 7. David is finally secure in his house in Jerusalem, having captured the city from the Jebusites. He is now at rest. The fighting is over. The narrator interprets this rest as a gift from God.

This should be a familiar term for us, because the Old Testament speaks often of God’s “rest” as God dwelling with his people. With David at “rest,” the king now wants to build a temple for God’s glory to “rest” with him and his people there in Jerusalem. The glory of the God of Israel demanded something more than a tabernacle tent that the Israelites had carried with them since the days of Moses.

David’s motivation is the big question behind the text. In the ancient world, rulers often built temples for their local deities as a way of paying them back for giving them victory over their enemies. The temple was supposed to bring the deity’s protection to the king and his land, and the more permanent and luxurious the temple, the better the gods’ favor and, consequently, the longer the king’s dynasty.

But God puts the kibosh on David’s building project through the prophet Nathan. God tells David that a house is not needed; indeed, God has never asked for a temple throughout the story thus far. God had been moving with the people. This was very unusual among ancient Near Eastern religions. Usually the pagan gods were territorial; but the God of Israel is a mobile God!

David’s desire to build a temple, then, reveals that he might be trying to pay God back for what God had done for him. It’s a transactional way of thinking – I owe God a debt and the more I do for God, the more God will do for me in turn. Quid pro quo. This thinking was typical of the Canaanite pagan religions, and it is unfortunately typical of the way that some Christians think today!

How often have we prayed for something and inwardly made the promise, “God, if you do this for me, I’ll do that for you,” or the reverse, “God, I’ve done this great thing for you; now I expect a blessing.” It’s an “if / then” form of theology in which we try to make a deal with God. What happens is that we exhaust ourselves trying to hold up our end of the bargain.

But one of the things we learn when we study the Bible closely is that God doesn’t work in this transactional way. When we treat God like a cosmic vending machine, we’re disappointed when we don’t get what we think we deserve.

The truth is that we often receive things from God that we absolutely don’t deserve. Indeed, that’s the story of the whole Bible. God’s people repeatedly lapse into sin and idolatry, and yet God still loves and preserves them.

Of course, what we’re talking about here is grace: an unmerited gift from God. David wanted to build God a house to pay God back and as a way of ensuring God’s favor in the future. God tells David, however, that it’s not necessary. David hasn’t earned God’s favor. And in any case, David cannot repay God for preserving him and making him king. All of this is the result of God’s initiative on David’s behalf and on behalf of God’s people.

God does not need David to build him a house. In fact, God says that he will build David a house: not a dwelling of cedar, but a royal house, a dynasty. God will establish a kingdom that will always be ruled by a descendant of David. That promise does not depend on David starting construction. In fact, the physical temple will actually be built later by his son Solomon, who hasn’t even been conceived yet.

God’s covenant promise does not depend on human effort, goodness or consistency. It’s unconditional because God will be the one who makes it happen and will keep it for eternity. Notice the repetition of “forever” three times in the text to describe David’s kingdom (vv. 13, 16).

It’s not a covenant dependent on the good behavior of David’s descendants either. Most of them, in fact, will be abject failures. In other words, this will be a dynasty fully dependent on God’s grace, not on human performance.

Historically, most dynasties have a relatively short life. Kingdoms go bad. TV dynasties eventually get canceled. Great ball players retire.

The dynasty of David will be tested by unfaithfulness, excess and brokenness. At some point, it will appear that the royal line of David will be cut off forever. The sins of future kings will result in the expulsion of the people from the land in exile and the destruction of the temple.

But God’s covenant promise doesn’t fail. A new king from the line of David will arise, but not in the way anyone anticipated. He will be born in the obscurity of a stable in Bethlehem, David’s hometown. He will live in poverty, wander as an itinerant prophet and eventually die on a Roman cross.

He doesn’t look like a worthy descendant to most of his people, and yet he is the long-promised King who will sit on the throne of David forever, ruling not only Israel but the whole cosmos.

He will be the embodiment of God’s grace, love and forgiveness. Through him, the promise of God, the dynasty of grace, will be fulfilled.

It’s through Jesus that we experience this grace for ourselves. We can never do enough to earn God’s favor, nor can we ever do enough to repay God’s grace. We simply receive it and live in humble and grateful response to it.

As we prepare for the arrival of the promised King, may we rest in the knowledge that he brings God’s grace to all of us, even though we don’t deserve it. And because of that grace, we can become the people God created us to be.

We then become part of his dynasty – a dynasty of grace.