Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-17
It has been a different kind of week. First we had the directory photos. There were people in and out of the church all day on Monday and Tuesday. It was great to see everybody and it was fun – well, until the part when you had your own picture taken – but it did help create an atmosphere of chaos around here. And then, I went home and watched the World Series and the Cubs were playing. It was disorienting. How did this happen? My understanding was that the Cubs only played in the World Series in movies, like Back to the Future 2.
So it was already an odd week, but then I spent a couple of days working from home while window installers replaced our windows. The windows needed replacing - some of them in pretty bad shape – but at least we could put off washing them because we were going to be replaced before too long. Now I don’t have that excuse.
That’s the thing about houses – there is constant maintenance. You have to worry about upkeep. It’s not just windows; it’s roofs and furnaces and flooring and water heaters and air conditioners and toilets and sinks and sidewalks and decks. All on top of routine cleaning. If you are renting, maintenance can be a real issue; if you own a home, maintenance can be a real headache.
Where we live is important – for all of us. And as it turns out, our scripture this morning is about housing.
If you can remember back two weeks ago, we looked at the story of the Golden Calf. Moses was apparently taking his sweet time up on the mountain with God, and eventually the Israelites decided that Moses had just wandered off and abandoned them. They gave up on Moses and apparently gave up on God and sought someone or something else to worship, so Aaron took their gold and made the Golden Calf. This infuriated God, of course, but Moses talked God out of taking divine anger out on the people. The Israelites continued their journey through the wilderness, and eventually they crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land – though none of the generation that had been there to worship the Golden Calf made it to the Promised Land.
In their new homeland, the people are governed through a tribal system of judges. Judges like Gideon and Deborah and Samson and Samuel. But in time the people wanted to have a king – just like all the other nations. God said, having a king is not all it’s cracked up to be, you will probably regret it, a king will tax you heavily and make you work like slaves to build a big fancy palace and all the accoutrements of royalty, but the people insisted. “We don’t care,” they said, “bring it on!” So God gave them a king. The judge and prophet Samuel anointed Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul was tall and handsome and certainly looked the part, but in time was found to be lacking as a ruler and leader.
So God had Samuel anoint a new king. Samuel went to an unlikely family in an unlikely tribe and told Jesse to bring his sons before him. But God did not choose any of the older brothers, none of the more likely suspects. God chose the youngest, the shepherd boy David, to be king.
Of course, this anointing was very hush-hush, and it would be years before David actually took the throne. In the intervening years, David became a musician in King Saul’s court. He defeated the Philistine giant Goliath with his slingshot. He was a faithful servant of the king and then a decorated soldier. David’s best friend is Saul’s son Jonathan, and David marries Saul’s daughter Michael. But Saul became consumed with jealousy over David’s popularity. Saul’s soldiers chased down David and there was a bloody civil war. Given the chance, David refused to kill Saul, and finally, after years of fighting, David became king of the united monarchy. He has expanded the borders of the nation; he has consolidated royal power; he has taken Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it the capital city.
Not only was the nation becoming more powerful, David was becoming more powerful. He has more wives, he has more children, and he has a beautiful palace, built of cedars of Lebanon, built by carpenters and stone masons sent from King Hiram of Tyre. The Philistines became concerned about the growing power of Israel and of David once again send their armies against Israel. David again defeated the Philistines, just as he had before as a boy when he defeated Goliath.
Finally, David has the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem. The Ark contained the two tablets of the law. It represented the presence of God and it was the most treasured religious symbol of Israel.
At this point in his life, David is doing very well, exceedingly well. He has become king; he has established a new capital city and defeated military enemies. He has power and fame and the adulation of the people. But when David reflects on all of this, something is not quite right. He is living in a brand new, beautiful palace, but what about God? Where is God living?
To us this sounds like a weird question. What do you mean, where does God live? We don’t think of God as being confined to a particular place. But in the ancient world, the world David lived in, God was a very particular God. Each nation had its own God, and gods were attached to a particular location.
God’s home during the years in the wilderness, after the flight from Egypt, had been in the Tent of Meeting. The Ark of the Covenant was housed in the Tent of Meeting, or Tabernacle, a kind of portable sanctuary that was the center of worship for Israel. Back when Moses was taking so long on Mt. Sinai, part of what was happening is that God was giving him detailed plans to build the ark and the tabernacle.
For David, what it all came down to is that while he lived in a palace built of the finest materials, God had a big tent.
Habitat for Humanity has as its motto, “Building decent homes for God’s people in need.” David would turn that around; his concern was “building a decent home for the people’s God in need.”
So David made plans to build a proper home for God. It was only right. It was only fitting. And if in the process, this increased national pride and unity and made David even more popular and even more powerful, well, that was a price David was willing to pay.
David shared his plans with the prophet Nathan. When you read the text, it’s very interesting. David doesn’t even get to his idea. He says, “I’m living in a house of cedar, but the Ark of God stays in a tent.” He doesn’t get any farther than that; Nathan the prophet simply says, “Go ahead and do what you have in mind.” But after initially giving his thumbs-up to the project, Nathan went home and slept on it. God spoke to Nathan, and Nathan passed the word of God on to David.
And essentially, here is what God says: “I’ve never had a house before, and I don’t need one now. A tent has always been good enough. Through generations of the Hebrew people, I have never, not even once, said to the leaders of Israel, “Build me a house of cedar.” God says to David, “I don’t need no stinkin’ house!”
God never asked for a house in which to live. Now, God did ask for a number of things. God had asked for justice for the poor, for debts to be forgiven, for faithfulness. God had asked for devotion. There were the Ten Commandments – God had said, “Honor Me, honor your parents, keep the Sabbath, don’t murder or lie or steal or covet or commit adultery.” God would call for mercy and kindness and justice through the prophets. But there was never one word from God about, “Build me a house.”
God says, “Don’t build me a house. Instead, I will make you into a house.” But God was not talking about a place to live. God was talking about building David’s descendants into a great people. Just as the covenant had been given to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and just as a covenant had been spoken to Moses, this was God’s covenant with David.
King David was astute in establishing himself as a monarch and inspiring Israel to let go of tribalism and become a unified nation. He was both a wise and charismatic leader. He saw that to truly be a national capital and to truly unite the people, Jerusalem also needed to be a center of religious authority. David saw that Jerusalem should be a beacon to the nations. He failed to understand, however, that a true beacon would be not an impressive temple, but a holy people.
But you know what? Building an impressive temple is a heck of a lot easier than becoming a holy people. Building structures is the easy part. Building a community, a living, breathing community of grace and compassion and welcome and integrity and openness and faithfulness - that is much taller order.
The ironic thing is that the building God had in mind would bring greater glory to David than any buildings made of the finest cedars of Lebanon. Years later, the temple ultimately built in Jerusalem by David’s son Solomon lie in ruins along with the second temple that was built a few hundred years later, but the House of David continues to this day. One of David’s descendants, Jesus of Nazareth, continued the house of David, and all of us here this morning are spiritual descendants and part of that house.
The strongest structures are not necessarily those made of wood or stone or bricks and mortar. Yet so often, our answer to God’s call over the centuries has been to build something. To launch institutions, to build temples, to establish hierarchies.
When we do this, we can spend our time and energy serving the institution, and God can kind of get lost in the process. It can become all about the institution.
Does this mean that we should give up our church buildings, give up our denominational ties, give up our history and heritage?
As we sit in our comfortable renovated, air-conditioned sanctuary, you can believe I’m going to say “No.” We have just hosted our regional gathering here in this building. It was a wonderful weekend, and the ties we share with churches and with individuals in our American Baptist family are important. Institutions and buildings can be important. But this story should at the very least give us pause and make us think. The Church is not a building, but a people. As Paul puts it, “The God who made the world and everything in it does not live in shrines made by human hands.” In Ephesians 2, we read,
You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:19-22)
Did you catch that? WE are built into a dwelling place for God. God does not live in buildings, but in US. We should look for God not in buildings, not in institutions, but in God’s people.
Today is Reformation Sunday. 499 years ago tomorrow, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, an action that signified the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther was essentially arguing against the abuses and the kind of fossilization that can come with the institutionalization of faith.
Next year will the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. As Baptists, we are a part of what was called the Radical Reformation. You might not think of us as a bunch of radicals, but for along time, that is exactly what people thought of Baptists. We went further than Luther and many of the Reformers in holding to believer’s baptism, a very non-hierarchical church structure, and the idea of soul freedom – that each person is absolutely free to worship God according to the dictates of one’s conscience, or not – which leads to an emphasis on the complete separation of church and state.
Problems can come about when we focus too much on institutions and structures. I love the choir anthem this morning. “Come build a church of soul and spirit, come build a church of flesh and bone.” I love our building, but the building is not the church. The church, of course, is the people.
It was David’s son, Solomon, who would build the temple in Jerusalem. And there is nothing wrong with having structures. In a church full of engineers, I don’t have to convince you of that. But we need to remember that buildings are tools for ministry, means to an end, not an end in themselves. In the same way, wherever we live – our houses and apartments and dorm rooms, along with all of our institutions – congregations and denominations and schools and clubs and organizations and even states and nations - are to be means to achieve ends, not the end in themselves.
We have a wonderful facility built for the worship of God, for educating in the faith, for equipping people for service. It is a wonderful place to gather, to sing, to pray. But God is not bound by these four walls.
“Come build a church with soul and spirit; come build a church of flesh and bone.” As we go to class and go to work and raise children and teach and nurse and build and engineer and troubleshoot and volunteer and share and cook and give and encourage and support and pray and help and cry and laugh and sing, we are the church. And God is there, right there with us. We have built this house of God, but more than that, God is building us into a community of faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.