2 Samuel 7:1-18: I enjoy camping in a tent, but not on a long term basis. As a child I remember long family camping trips as we traveled around the country to various national parks and KOA campgrounds, sometimes even 5 weeks in a summer! Now I would enjoy a long weekend or maybe a week, tops. A sleeping bag on the ground is only good for so long, and returning to a comfortable bed in a house with solid walls is always welcome after any camping trip.
Every time I pass the tents along the overpass by MLK Blvd, I wonder what it must be like to live in a place that is not established,
not firmly rooted to the ground, not protected with thick walls or a heater in the winter wind. I counted 9 separate tents the other day. And then there was the man sleeping outside of the tent wrapped in blankets wearing his toboggan. I know there are multiple reasons for staying in a tent long term. Some are legitimately afraid of life in a homeless shelter, concerned about theft or assault. Some are dealing with some form of mental disability. Maybe it is just plain stubbornness or pride. For many, I suspect it is the joyful freedom of complete mobility, not being tied down to a place, and living life with no one telling you what to do.
The mobility and freedom of life in a tent was what God was used to. From the day God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, God traveled around in a tent, never once asking for a permanent abode. God had never wanted to be boxed in, encased in a specific location, tied down to a shape imagined by David or anyone else. God will not be contained or domesticated. God doesn’t like to be told what to do either. God is free. For generations, wherever the people went, God was there with them. The ark of the covenant, the holy box which held the stone tablets of the ten commandments, had always been mobile, traveling with the people of God wherever they went.
Now home was Jerusalem, and King David has established the city as the center of his kingdom. He has built a palace for himself, made of expensive cedar wood. The wandering ark has been found, and King David had it brought to Jerusalem with great ceremony and respect. So now what? Living in such a fabulous house, he is feeling bad that the very symbol of God’s ongoing presence with the people is housed in a tent. He wants to build a house for God, a temple.
You could call this a political ad for David and his kingdom. First of all, he is looking good because he brought the ark of God to Jerusalem. Just having it in the neighborhood is enough of a reminder that God is with them. It is a reminder always of God’s promises to them. Kind of like having this solid marble baptismal font here in front of us. It reminds us all that we belong to God. Or the carved wooden table. It reminds us that the meal we share is a way to proclaim Jesus as our Savior. They are symbols, reminders, of our connection to God, and of God’s promises to us. Without them, we would feel something was missing in our place of worship.
Not yet content, David wants a location for the ark, a solid, visible, permanent location. It could be a way to demonstrate his faith in a visible way, or it could be his attempt to solidify his political image even further by building an appropriately majestic house for God. A temple. A holy space worthy of respect. And boy, will he look good in the eyes of the people of Israel, and in the eyes of neighboring nations.
We meet Nathan, a prophet who kind of serves as the king’s pastor, gives the go ahead on the building permit. David had not exactly said what his plan was, but Nathan reads his mind–go ahead and do it! Be a house builder for God. But then God has a conference with Nathan and rescinds the building permit. God wants nothing to do with a house yet. The timing is not right. A temple will be built someday down the road, after David dies. Not now.
The message is this: instead of David building a house for God, God is going to build a house for David. And God means a dynasty, descendants who will carry the royal power and authority from generation to generation. David’s sons who will live as God’s sons, looking to God as their father. Without end. That is the kind of house God builds. A family of leaders. Many of them end up wandering away from the ways of God, but God makes a promise to never take God’s steadfast love from the house of David. David’s dynasty and David’s kingdom will be made sure forever.
The same word in the Hebrew, beth, like Beth Shalom (house of peace) or Bethlehem (house of bread), is being used in this passage for palace, temple and now dynasty. David is in the construction business. So is God. God is in the business of constructing the leadership for God’s people, building a solid foundation of faithful leaders to lead them for generations. God promises to never remove his faithful love from David’s descendant. New Testament writers, especially Luke, look to this promise of God as being fulfilled in the coming of the messiah, the birth of Jesus, born into the family of David (at least as a step son).
Like David, we love to build buildings we call houses of God. We want to build something that is “worthy of God’s glory”. You know the history of this building… it was to be the chapel, the small worship space that was built off the main street until funds could be gathered to build a large sanctuary befitting God’s glory closer to the street, perhaps like the one the congregation left behind on Lafayette Square. Look at the preponderance of spires and steeples and mammoth structures that dot our city. How many church buildings do we have on Rt. 40 west of Hilton? Many of us are building rich but cash poor, inhabiting inherited magnificent structures which we are unable to keep properly maintained with our current operating budgets. Just last night I was telling a woman about a church which meets in a theater in Chicago. She said, “Oh, just until they get enough money to build their own building, right?” I actually do not think that is the goal in that case, but she verbalized a very common assumption that to be a “real church” we must gather in a space dedicated for worship. We often assume that when a congregation is worshiping in a small, rented space, it is only for the length of time they need to gather the resources to build their own building.
We build houses for God. Sometimes I wonder if we are building them more for ourselves than for God. God builds another kind of house. God builds a house of people who carry on the commandments from generation to generation, families which commit to following God’s paths and teaching them to their children. The temple built for God in Jerusalem eventually was destroyed and rebuilt and destroyed again. The kingship of David’s family did finally end. But God’s house lives. God’s house does not depend on a particular place. God’s house depends on people.
Today we remember the people who have gone before us in the life of faith. The saints of God, the holy ones who have been pieces of the house built by God. They have acted like windows to show us how to live in the world, or doors to show us how to be welcoming of the stranger, or served as the furnace to show us how to provide a warm, comfortable space for others, or the front porch to show us how to be a listening place. The saints have had a role in our own spiritual formation. Some we have known personally. Some are our forefathers and foremothers we have never known. Like the man whose life is remembered in the gift of this baptismal font. Or the names on the stained glass windows around our sanctuary. Or the people who made it possible for this church to have an elevator. Each was a life lived giving honor to God, each was a brick or a nail or a window or a floorboard in the house of God.
We like to call this building the house of God. We treat it with respect, we find it a place of peace and solace in times of grief, we find it a place of joy and hope for life. But we truly can not contain God in a building. God is bigger than any building, no matter how majestic it might be. God’s message to David was that God has no need for a permanent dwelling place. God instead will build a different kind of house for David. Going beyond just the dynasty of one king, God’s house is the ongoing stream of generations committed to sharing God’s love, to living God’s justice, to singing God’s praise, to being God’s peacemakers. You get the idea. That is the house from which God will never remove God’s steadfast love. That is the house which will carry on forever, even when a place of worship is destroyed or a building is sold or a longtime pastor leaves or significant donors move away or die. God’s house of people stands on the shoulders of the saints who have gone before us. God’s house of people stands on the shoulders of the Biblical fathers and mothers, like David and his grandmother Ruth, like John and his mother Elizabeth, like Tabitha and Peter and Nicodemus and Priscilla. God’s house of people stands on the shoulders of believers through history, the shoulders of our own loved ones who have shown us the way. We are God’s house, as in a house built by God. And we stand today in gratitude to God, the builder, and to those pieces of the great house of God who have gone on before us. Thanks be to God.