Sermon: One Last Word

Wouldn't you like your last words to be this good? I don't know about you, but my main goal for my last words is not to embarrass myself. If I could pull off something like David, I would consider that quite an accomplishment.
Some people's last words are more memorable than others. Take American presidents, for example. History has recorded many of our presdients' final words. Some of them are wonderful and thoughtful. Consider the last words of Zachary Taylor:

"I am about to die [he gets bonus points for amazing self-awareness]. I expect the summons very soon. I have tried to discharge all my duties faithfully. I regret nothing, but I am sorry that I am about to leave my friends." Then consider his successor, Millard Fillmore, whose last act on his deathbed was to take a spoonful of soup, and whose last words were "This nourishment is palatable." (By the way, congratulations, you now know more than you will ever need to know about the life and times of Millard Fillmore.) When I think about what I want my own last words to be, it's nice to know that the bar has been set so very low: a man can become president of the United States and go out saying "That soup is pretty meh." I want something a bit more than meh. It'd be nice if my last words could be as good, and as confident, as King David's in today's scripture. I would have to feel pretty solid about my life and my death to start off by saying "I am a man anointed by God; I am a man strongly favored. The Lord's Spirit speaks through me, his word is on my tongue." That is some swagger right there; that's a boast that might make Kanye West say "Whoa, let's take it down a notch." But of course, if anyone has every had the right to speak out like that, it is probably David of Bethlehem, the giant-killing poet, the shepherd boy who became King. When David was a little boy, the nation of Israel was a jumbled, tribal collection of people scattered across vaious pastures and farms. By the time we to today's passage, Israel is becoming a proper nation, and a power. Through David, Israel has established a strong capital city in Jerusalem, and a powerful army, and a comfortable surplus of wealth. He has rooted out all the various folk religions and superstitions that people practiced in their homes; he brought the Ark of the covenant into Jerusalem and established the priests and the city as the authoritative center for worshipping the One True God. Above all, under David, the nation has flourished. In the centuries to come, the Israelites would look back and see that David's reign had been kind of golden age. Sure, it sounds pretty cocky when David says something like "A good ruler is like the sunlight that makes the grass grow and makes the raindrops gleam," but that's exactly how the Israelites were under David. It ain't bragging if you can back it up. The Hebrew scriptures talk a great deal about glory - and the glory of God is usually described in terms of a bright and poweful light. When David describes a light that makes everything gleam and grow, he is saying "these are the glory days." But even as he says it; even when David is most confident in what God has done through his life, a few more complicated feelings sneak into his mind. David starts by describing the glory that comes when a king has a right relationship to God and then in Verse 5 that he says "Yes, my house is this way with God!" (2 Samuel 23:5, CEB) Or, at least, that's one translation. The King James Version puts it very differently: "Although my house is not this way with God." Most translations split the difference, and get closer to the original Hebrew, by making this line a a question, and not a statement: "Isn't my house this way with God"? This is a question you can ask in a lot of different ways. You can ask it with swagger, in the same way you might shout: "Are you not entertained?" Or you can ask as if you aren't sure you want to know the real answer, and so you're trying to force agreement ahead of time "Isn't my house this way... Don't you think?" It's ambgious. As it should be. Because here at the end of his life, the truth is that David has been an ambigous leader for his people. On the one hand, there's all the good stuff we've mentioned. But maybe you know about some of the bad stuff, too. We haven't been reading 2 Samuel together, but if we had, you'd have seen plenty of bad stuff. David has used his power in some horrifying ways. He's coerced a woman into adultery with him, and then had her husband murdered. David's children have done horrific things to each other and his own son rallied much of the country into rebellion. When David says "God has made an eternal covenant to keep my family on the throne of Israel" that sounds like good news for David, but maybe not for every one else. If the reign of a good king is like cloudless skies, and soft summer rain, and sunrise gleaming over everything that grows, then what happens when things are a bit more ambiguous? These last words of David are only good news if there's a good king. Brothers and sisters, hear the good news and hear the last word. Jesus Christ is King. In our church we call this Christ the King Sunday, it's the last Sunday before we start telling the story of Jesus all over again from the beginning. This day is our last word on the subject of Jesus, and the last word is Lord. That is the Christian message in a nutshell. Before we talk about heaven or hell, before we talk about loving our neighbor, before we talk about sin and forgiveness - before we talk about ourselves at all, the first and last thing that we have to say is that Jesus is Lord; Jesus is in charge; Jesus rules. Everything else comes from that, as surely as every piece of life on earth can trace it's energy back to the sunlight. Whenever I talk to someone who wants to be baptized, one of the first places we go is to Romans 10:9 which says, "If you confess with you mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Now, there's a lot that verse doesn't say, but then again I assume that no who starts to follow Jesus has any idea what they're getting into; there's not one of us that has it all figured out. Incidentally, this is why we will baptize infants, and the mentally challenged and anyone who won't run away from the water. Of course the don't know what they are getting into; no, they may not know what they're doing. But if Christ is Lord, they (and we) don't have too. The story starts with Jesus, not with us. None of us is exercising our will when we start to follow Jesus - we are letting Christ be Lord, ruling over our own will or any other power in this world. And as we grow and learn, we continue to let God's will reign. We say things like "where you go, I will follow. What you ask, I will do"

We let Jesus regin, because the alternative is that we rule. And when we rule the world around us, and the hearts within us, even our best results are ambiguous. We strive and we try and we do our very best, but even our best accomplishments sow the seeds of our next struggles. The author Wendell Berry once wrote

"The smartest and most educated people are the scientists, for they have already found solutions to all our problems and will soon find solutions to all the problems resulting from their solutions to all the problems we used to have. That seems to describe all of our best attempts at anything. Our best attempts at fix people end up smothering them or driving them crazy. Our best attempts to fix ourselves make us prideful and impatient towards other people who can't pull themselves together.
Soon after David asks that ambigous question - "Isn't my house like that with God"? - he begins to reflect on what a people look like when they are not right with God. Instead of green grass and gleaming rain, he says "despicable people are like thorns, they cannot be carried by hand." A thorn is an inherently defensive adaptation. Thorns are all those ways we say "do not touch." And we grow our defenses tough and sharp. Some of us put a fine point on our sarcasm, and our self-righteousness. Others of us hide our true selves in thick brambles. We devise all kinds of ways to make sure that no one can touch us unless they will not challenge our reign, we do everything we can to make sure that we have the last word. We want our lives to be one mic drop after another. We know that even a king like David can't be trusted, so we trust only ourselves, and our common sense. No one can touch us, and so no one can rule us. And it seems so safe that way. At the very least, it's palatable. For a time. But of course, all the green things of the field can use the light of the sun to grow; in time, a thorny vine with nothing green on it will wither and die. The same heat that brings life will burn the thorns up where they are.
And yet. No matter how many thorns we grow, the sun keeps gleaming, the gentle rain keeps falling, softening the ground, and Jesus is still Lord. David says that the rebellious people are like thorns, they cannot be touched execpt by an iron bar or the shaft of the spear. But we are told that when Jesus became king he carried the thorns as a crown and he was conquering the world at the exact moment he was pierced by a spear. This is what the reign of Jesus looks like, the continually offer of good gifts, of the grace we need to live in the light. Most of all, he gives himself. And this is what makes him a king unlike any other. He is the one who has given everything. He even gave us the last word. When we insisted on being in charge, he let us silence him on the cross. But then, on a Sunday, the sun rose again in the garden, and Jesus had one more thing to say. He rose from the grave and now reigns with God- a gleaming, burning, raining light that will not be stopped. Jesus is Lord because Jesus always gets the last word.
I'm tempted to end with a pointed, unambiguous question. I'm tempted to ask "So, have you given Jesus the last word?" But here's the thing. Jesus will have the last word whether you "let him" or not.
So I think there's a better question. Who are you listening to?