Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-17
Last Sunday our scripture included the birth of Hannah’s son Samuel. Samuel became one of the judges of Israel and a great prophet. And in time, 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.
God had warned that this king experiment might not go well. And in time 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. 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. In time, Saul became consumed with jealousy over David’s popularity.
So Saul’s soldiers chased down David and there was a bloody civil war. Eventually David became king of the united monarchy. He expanded the borders of the nation, he consolidated royal power, and he took 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. Finally, he 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, David is doing exceedingly well. He has become king; he has established a new capital city and defeated military enemies. He has power and fame and is loved by 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? In the ancient world, this was not a weird question at all. God was very much attached to place.
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. For David, what it all came down to is that while he lived in a palace built of the finest materials, God had a tent.
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. 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.”
Have you ever been given a gift that you really didn’t want? That you would never ask for? Sometimes we may give someone a gift that is really what we want more than it is what they want.
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.” 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.
King David inspired Israel to let go of tribalism and become a unified nation. He was 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 faith. David saw that Jerusalem should be a beacon to the nations. But he failed to understand that this would happen not through building an impressive temple, but by being 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 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.
Now ironically enough, today we will have our budget forum – we will be thinking very much about the institution, about the building, about structures. And these are important. Our church buildings and mission agencies and denominational ties and our history and heritage do matter. But these are not an end in themselves. And they certainly do not contain God.
God is always on the move, always active, always at work. God cannot be contained in a building or in any other box we might want to put God in.
I don’t know if you are counting, but today marks 32 Sundays in which we have been unable to meet together in our sanctuary. It is not just us. It is churches everywhere, all around the world. If we had not already learned it, it should be obvious by now that the church is not the building. The church is the 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 … 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 structures or institutions, but in God’s people.
Today is Reformation Sunday. On October 31, 1517, 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 about when we think of faith primarily as an institution.
Baptists are a part of what was known as the Radical Reformation. You might not think of us as a bunch of radicals, but for a long time, that is exactly what people thought of Baptists. And at our best, maybe that is who we are. The Baptists 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 – or not worship God - according to one’s conscience - 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. There is an anthem our choir sings, written by Baptist Ken Medema. I love the words:
Come build a church with soul and spirit,As we go to class and go to work and raise children and teach and build 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. God is building us into a family of faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.
come build a church of flesh and bone.
We need no tower rising skyward;
no house of wood or glass or stone.
Come build a church with human frailty,
come build a church of flesh and blood.
Jesus shall be its sure foundation.
It shall be built by the hand of God.