The Lord's Home
December 16, 2012
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
(2 Samuel 7:1-16)
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
Why have you not built me a house of cedar?
Our reading from 2 Samuel today depicts a God who is a bit annoyed: after generations and generations, the seat of God, the Ark of the Covenant, does not have a safe repository to call home.
My brother has a theory (I’m not sure where he picked it up) about human values and priorities. He stated at one point, “You can tell the God people worship by looking at the tallest building in a city.” In the Middle Ages, that would have been the church. We certainly can see this phenomenon in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy—think of the Vatican. There are probably examples that argue against what he says, but there is something to it also. After all, the thing—or things—we value need people to manage and staff them, which in turn means offices and gathering spaces. In addition, certain places will become visible monuments of our care and love.
How striking Bill’s comment was to me when the Twin Towers fell, and how even more poignant it was when I spied, on a drive down the eastern seaboard, the growing skeleton of One World Trade Center. The tallest buildings in the world are built by banks and oil giants, and these buildings’ interiors reflect the values those institutions hold dear. Meanwhile, throughout our country, and especially in our cities, church building after church building is slowly crumbling.
But I digress. I do not want to talk, tempting though it is, about society’s going awry by focusing on building banks and commercial structures while churches fail. After all, we read in the book of Revelation that there is no temple in the New Jerusalem, for the Lord is the temple.
In our tradition, we understand the story of the tabernacle to be a narrative that describes our relationship to God. Our reading from 2 Samuel focuses on a time when the first command to shift the Lord’s home from a tent to a structure occurs, though it takes some time to accomplish this transition. And you might have noticed a parallel between the two readings, but our second reading is also about a home for the Lord: Mary’s womb and the physical world. In some ways, these readings are bookends. The command to build the temple and the birth of the Lord are the two ends on the timeline of the temple’s life.
The laws and regulations of the Levitical code generally focused on purity, and the center of purity was the temple that David was instructed to build (though the fulfillment of that task is ultimately reserved for Solomon). This is a shift to a more permanent external structure, a structure that cannot be picked up and moved around.
We might think about building the temple spiritually, as a shift to codified rules, rather than as being only about the structures. The building of the temple is the rise of a glorious, solid statement of the Lord’s truth. Before this time, even though God had given the Ten Commandments, the people had not necessarily understood them deeply. The priestly caste was a relatively young institution. It was much like the early days of the United States, when we had declared independence but had not yet developed the Constitution or the federal government.
The birth of the Lord is the beginning of a ministry that, while it does not deny temple worship, moves the center of faith to the individual’s judgment and life actions. The meaning of this is clear when the Lord refers to himself as the temple that will be destroyed and raised up in three days.
These two steps are part of the journey of the temple. The temple begins as an object without physical presence and ends the same way—but at the end, at the point we read about in the book of Revelation, we have gone through tents, two massive construction projects, and the Life of Christ. The absence of a temple at the story’s end is far different from the absence of a temple at the story’s beginning.
Jesus’ comment about raising a fallen building serves as an external reminder that we should examine our lives. What are our priorities and values?
I have recently been reading about the need to keep the Lord at the center of our lives and our being. Now, when I say “center,” I mean our ultimate focus and goal. This tradition teaches that a life in which the Lord is not the final goal leads a person toward damnation. That statement is probably shocking, as I do not often use such strong language about hell. So let me unpack that a bit. First off, I do not mean damnation in the sense of punishment, but rather in the sense of a person removing him- or herself from the Lord’s presence—which means removing oneself from the very essence of life.
How does this happen? The logic behind it is quite clear. Without a belief in something larger than ourselves, all we can understand is self. If we do not believe in the Lord or a greater power, how can we rise beyond our own selfishness? The reason for being good is, from this perspective, not tapping into a greater sense of relatedness to the Lord’s kingdom but boosting my own happiness. What is the fundamental basis for happiness, outside of sensory experience?
For a person who seeks the Lord, happiness is about more than sensory pleasure. It is about finding your purpose, seeking to utilize to the utmost the gift of life you have been given. The person who looks to the Lord desires relationships defined by a connection to both a higher power and the neighbor. The mind rises above the sensory world, which opens up the possibility that we can grow beyond ourselves. David was king because of his lineage—he was told that his descendents would rule Israel. On the text’s literary level, the pre-gospel texts express a strong belief that the Lord will express his favor or displeasure regarding a good or evil life in this world: to the person or the person’s children. This materialistic understanding of faith is not absent in the gospels, but it is less prominent. But the divide here is emphatically not between Judaism and Christianity. Just as some groups of Christians embrace what is known as the “prosperity gospel,” many Jewish traditions and individuals understand the messages of their scriptures to run deeper than that sort of materialism. I want also to be clear: I do not point this out to talk about other people and their faiths, but rather to educate you, my congregation, on your own lives. The scriptures are ultimately not about other people and their qualities. They are about us.
In our temple journeys, we move from a place of external worship to a place of intentional worship, and finally to a place of unconscious, involuntary inner worship. We build buildings and temples in our hearts and lives. We must ask ourselves, “In my life, what am I focusing on building?” Are we, spiritually speaking, building tall bank buildings or temples, or are we creating a unified community in service of the Lord? Our spiritual temples and our banks cannot be separated, because they are all part of one interdependent whole serving the Lord.
We might say that we are simply invested in exploring and learning, that we are shifting tabernacles. Or, if we were to invest a great deal of energy in our tradition’s doctrine, because doctrine is truth, we might see ourselves as the temple. It is even possible that you are struggling with finding ways to see charity and use in doctrine, in which case you might feel more closely linked to Jesus in the gospels. But who knows? There may even be a person who has transcended any such thoughts and so has perfectly integrated faith and life that every action they perform represents their love of the Lord. I doubt, however, that many of us will reach this state in this world.
We often prioritize one stage of spiritual temple building over another and then judge people—or ourselves—for the stage they’re at, but I want to make it clear that such thinking comes from a dark place. At every stage, people find God in our lives in the way they understand him. No one category is better than another in the eyes of the Lord. Our faith elevates us beyond this earthly existence. Each person of faith has made and is making a home for God.
What is your home for the Lord? Simply a place you think about on Sundays? Or is it something that impacts your life more fully? Is it time for you to build the Lord a new home?
Rev. Kevin K. Baxter