Lives of Faith: King David, John the Baptist, and Us

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday after Pentecost + July 12, 2015

Texts: 2 Sam. 6:1-5, 12b-19; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:14-29

This morning we’ve read about two men of great faith: King David and John the Baptist. When we’re trying to figure out how to be faithful people of God, when we try to get an idea of what trusting God and submitting to God might look like, we often turn to these great men. David: the small boy with enough faith to bring down the giant Goliath, the king who trusted God to protect him against his enemies, the composer of many of the psalms. John: the great baptizer and fearless preacher, the voice in the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus, the leader willing to step aside when he saw Jesus coming. These two men are so, so different — David wears a crown and rules a kingdom; John dresses in camel hair and eats locusts — but both show us how a person  might live in faith.

They also remind us that living a life of faith can lead to drastically different outcomes.

I’d guess that most of us hope that if we are faithful, God will give us lives that look more like David’s. David went through a lot of pain: he spent years on the run from King Saul and his sons; he suffered the deaths of his best friend and some of his children; his son went through a rebellious phase, where he tried to take over the throne. But overall, David’s faithfulness leads to blessings. He wins his battles. He’s made king of two kingdoms. He’s rich. He’s popular. When he gets old and sick, a beautiful young woman cares for him until he dies quietly in his own bed. And before he dies, God promises him that his dynasty will last forever. (See 1 and 2 Samuel).

This is what we hope for from a faithful life. There may be hard times, God might call us to repent, but if we truly trust in God and seek God’s will for our lives, we will be blessed. God may not lead us where we were planning or hoping to go, but God will lead us somewhere even better.

But the story of John the Baptist reminds us that the faithful life can lead to different places, too. John was a miracle baby, born to parents too old to have children, born to fulfill prophecies. God created John to have a special and important role, to prepare the world for the coming of the messiah, for the fulfillment of God’s promises. While we don’t know much about John’s life, we know that he was faithful to his calling. And he was successful: he pulled in great crowds of people and had a big group of devoted followers. Even so, he lived down by the river and ate bugs dipped in honey. Even so, he suffered for his preaching (cf. Lk.1:5-25; Mk. 1:1-11).

When he was arrested, for a while his followers must have held out hope that God would redeem this chosen one: King Herod seemed to respect John and his preaching. He protected John and listened to what he had to say. Maybe John’s disciples hoped that the King himself would repent and be baptized, and then John would be in a position of real power. Society would be transformed, and there would be a great revival.

But instead, a young woman entrances the king and his guests with her dancing, and she makes a request, and John loses his life. If God saves him, if God blesses him, it all happens after death.

Marble sculpture of St. John the Baptist by Igor Mitoraj at Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome.

John’s story reminds us that being faithful to God does not guarantee us a good, blessed life. God certainly does bless us and love us and care for our well-being. But when we hear the story of John the Baptist, or the prophet Jeremiah, or Peter and Paul and Andrew, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jesus Christ himself, we must remember that God’s will is not something simple and happy. Being faithful and obedient does not guarantee us anything; it is risky.

I’m reading a book right now that says welcoming God into our hearts is like welcoming a stranger.[1] After all, God is holy, God is something beyond our grasp, something we can’t predict. Welcoming God into our hearts and lives and is like welcoming a stranger into our homes. We can’t be sure what’s going to happen next.

God might ask us to change something major in our lives. God might ask us to give up something we like or even something we need. God might ask us to be uncomfortable or humble. God might ask us to go against popular opinion, to do things that aren’t socially acceptable. God might even ask us to do things that are dangerous to our reputation or our standard of living or our lives themselves. God might ask us to suffer. Sometimes God leads us to blessings like David’s, and sometimes God leads us to a life like John’s.

Here’s the good news in all this: through faith God changes us, makes us willing to live as God calls us to live, whether that means we become like David or like John. It’s not too different from our experiences of falling in love or starting a family or forming a deep friendship. We know these relationships will demand a lot from us: our kids will wake up in the middle of the night with aching stomachs; our spouses will have surgery and need extra caretaking; our best friend will call, crying, while we’re trying to get dinner ready. Yet we find ourselves committed to these relationships because of the deeper meaning they add to our existence.

Can you imagine John the Baptist saying, “Man, I really wish I hadn’t called out the king and his wife. Then I wouldn’t have been arrested, and I’d still have my head”? Can you imagine St. Peter saying, “I wish that I hadn’t preached the gospel. I wish I’d just gone back to fishing after Jesus died. Then I wouldn’t have been martyred”?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer left Germany for the U.S. in 1939 to get away from the Nazi regime. He knew he couldn’t swear an oath to Hitler, and he knew that would get him in deep, deep trouble. So he avoided the problem by accepting an invitation from Union Seminary in New York. But he couldn’t stay. He felt God calling him to the dangers of resisting the Nazi regime. And though I’m sure he was conflicted and terrified, God gave him the strength and the courage and the peace to answer the call, to live the faithful life like John the Baptist.[2]

God might give us a life like David’s, or God might give us a life like John’s, and very probably we will relate to both men at different times in our lives. But as we read their stories side by side, we should remember that whether we end up like David or like John, that is not the point. We don’t become Christians because of what it will get us. We become Christians because God claims us. God sweeps us up into God’s love for us and for our neighbors, and for all of creation. And God fills us with that same love, so that by God’s power we are able to repent, to make sacrifices, to love the rejected, to be courageous when we face sin and evil.

God gives us the faith we need to welcome God into our lives, and though we don’t know what will happen next, we still trust this God who won’t let us go. We trust this God who wouldn’t let us go even when he was threatened, even when he was arrested, even when he was killed. We welcome this God because, like Martin Luther said, we can do no other.

[1] Caputo, John D., The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013), esp. ch. 3, “Insistence and Hospitality.”