Monday, August 20, 2012

Our God Will Not Be Contained

This sermon is part of a series I did for the Deer Creek Charge on the story of King David. I won't post the whole series, just parts of it. I hope it gets you interested in the story from 1 and 2 Samuel to check it out for yourselves!

Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a (NRSV)
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.”

Sermon: Our God Will Not Be Contained

We're continuing to study David this week! Again, I encourage you to read along during the week in first and second Samuel. David's is the longest continuous story in the Bible, and we won't do it justice in just the few weeks we'll look at it in worship. But at least it will give you a taste of the story if you don't know much beyond David and Goliath!

Let us pray:
Patient Teacher,
We give thanks for another opportunity to explore your love for us
through the story of David. May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight. Amen.

David wakes up one morning, and in the style of his dance, he is overwhelmed by the way God has loved him. I don't know if you have ever felt that way, when you wake up one day, the sunshine kissing your face, feeling rested and full and content. There isn't always a reason, you know. Just sometimes you get caught up in beauty and realize how beloved you are.

This is how I see this scene in 1 Samuel. King David has successfully and somewhat peacefully brought together Judah and Israel, scattered, fragmented tribes of people who have dispersed since being led into this land of milk and honey from Egypt. He has suffered persecution, and also already committed some evils or at least questionable acts like his own involvement as a mercenary soldier among the Philistines who killed his beloved friend Jonathan. But he has also felt overwhelmed by the presence of God in his life, and I don't mean overwhelmed in a bad way. I mean completely covered by the beauty of God's presence. And so we read today how he gets caught up in that moment, looks at the richness of his own life and wants to give back to God.

So he speaks to Nathan, a fascinating man we too often forget about. Nathan is a prophet. You will notice if you read through the Old Testament especially in Samuel and Kings, though also in the books called The Prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, that prophets accompany kings. See, God did not want to give the people a king. Samuel, the priest and prophet who anointed David, did not always want to give the people a king. God was supposed to be their king! But the people were stubborn, and living under intense violence, and so God gave them a king. However, as we saw with Saul and will see with David, and as we see with our own politicians consistently in both parties, with power comes corruption. Prophets are supposed to keep kings honest. We see throughout David's rule that though he can be corrupt, he does listen to and take the advice of the prophet Nathan. And so here he seeks out Nathan to run by his idea.

So here's King David, living in what is essentially a palace, a house of cedar, having grown up sleeping in sheep pastures when he was shepherding. And he remembers dancing in front of the Art of the Covenant, that box, that, while beautiful in and of itself, has been housed under a tent. And he thinks to himself, and then asks Nathan what he thinks, “Aha, God doesn't have a fancy house like me. I can build one, an offering of sorts for all God has done for me!” So it is a piety that can be twinged with a little guilt. Nathan agrees that this would be a good idea, at first.

But as so often happens with all of us, God laughs at David's plans, coming to Nathan later that night to say so. David, like we often do, is missing the point, and God turns the tables on him. I really like the way Kate Huey, a United Church of Christ pastor, paraphrases God's response:
Hey! Did you hear me complaining about living in a tent? No, I prefer being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place.” God then turns the tables on David and says, “You think you're going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I'M going to build YOU a house. A house that will last much longer and be much greater than anything you could build yourself with wood and stone. A house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after 'you lie down with your ancestors.'”1

There is a lot to unpack here, though I think Rev. Huey has presented the conversation in a way that makes a bit more sense to us. God turns the tables on David, reminding him that, though he means well, God cannot be contained. Here is David, with his assumptions that God should live in the wealth that he as a king lives in.

Last week, we talked about how David moved God to the center by bringing the Ark of the Covenant from gathering dust in his brother's barn to his new capitol city. As we remember from last week, the Ark of the Covenant was not a boat, like Noah's Ark, but it was from way back in the time of Moses when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. It was a beautifully crafted chest made of wood and covered in gold that contained reminders of how God provided for the Israelites: a jar of manna, Aaron's staff, and the ten commandments were found within. And since it was created, the Ark traveled beneath tents. And as the Ark was mobile, it symbolized God's mobility, the fluid ways that God could interact within the community, which in and of itself in the time of the escape from Egypt was a mobile community.

David was bringing in a time of supposed stability, though. Finding the Ark a new home, Jerusalem, was part of that stabilization. And it is funny--- I spoke last week about how sometimes we just need to be undignified, like David was when he danced in front of the Ark with all his might glorying in God's presence with him. And then this week we read about how David was trying to make God a bit more dignified by putting God in a real house instead of a tent. And God points out how silly David's assumptions are. God prefers being mobile, flexible, responsive, free to move about, not fixed in one place. And God is, in effect, choosing to be homeless.2

We don't understand that choice. David probably did not either, but did not have the time to process it before God proposed alternate plans. But we do have time to look at this choice this morning, and it is the piece of the scripture that has captivated me since I first read it.

I think the reason why I was so captivated by God's insistance on freedom of movement was because too often we see our own buildings trying to box God in. We complain a lot in institutional church meetings and in seminary about people's attachment to church buildings. I've worked some in cities like York, Pennsylvania, and Newark, New Jersey, where the church is so focused on keeping an old building up and running that they cannot devote sufficient time and energy to mission and outreach. And even if the building is not a financial burden, sometimes congregations are so inward focused that the church building becomes a sanctuary away from the world, rather than a place to invite people in to meet God. It is like pulling teeth to remind people that *“The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people.”*

But our God is a God who cannot be contained, a God who shows up in mysterious people and mysterious times. Our God makes home not out of a building but out of people we would never expect, people like David, and people like us.

This is where God's promise to David comes in, when God says, in Rev. Huey's words, “You think you're going to build me a house? No, no, no, no. I'M going to build YOU a house.” God refuses David's gift, a gift that shows an obvious misunderstanding of God's purposes, much like we see the bumbling of the twelve disciples over and over again in the Gospel stories, but then this surprising homeless God does something more surprising. God promises to build David and house, a lineage, one protected and nurtured by God. David thought a house would be a way of abundantly providing for God. But God says no, mobility is abundance, and demonstrates that abundance by promising to build David a house.

And so God provides David with an unexpected abundance when God promises David a house, a dynasty. I admit I am uncomfortable with this part of the story. Hasn't God already noticed that David messes up sometimes and it probably wouldn't be a good idea to promise his line a throne forever? And doesn't God know that just because you are born of some fancy dynasty doesn't make you a good ruler? Where's the democracy, God?

But I think this is more about hope, abundant hope, hope of abundance, than it is about the divine right of kings. To return again to Rev. Huey's paraphrase, God says that God will build “[a] house that will shelter the hopes and dreams of your people long after 'you lie down with your ancestors.'” And on top of this, God says, “I will be a father to [your offspring], and he shall be a son to me.”

This is “the core of Messianic hope in the Old Testament.”3 It promises us that God's presence with us endures, and more than that, that there is something more to come. For us, as Christians, we understand yet another twist: God's throne is like God's house building skills--- the throne looks different than what we expect. Jesus is a king we do not expect. This house God builds does not follow the pattern of, for instance, English kings who become more and more corrupt. God turns our understanding of this house, this dynasty, for David on its head.

And God part of the way God does that is by expanding this promise into more than just a biological family. When reading the Old Testament, we see that even if this is a promise to David specifically, it extends to all Israelites, it is a hope for all Israelites. This hope God offers all people, a hope of a different way of living, one we cannot often imagine but one we have tasted, even briefly at times. It is a way of peace and security. A way of abundance.

In the Epistles in the New Testament, we read this house metaphor even more expansively. The author of Ephesians writes in chapter two verse twenty-two: “you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” (NRSV) Here, we see that this house is not just within David's family, not just within the Israelites, but that God has built a house in all of us.

Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, a United Methodist pastor and blogger writes:
You are a house. God has chosen you as a tent to move about and live in. Your opponents are also houses of God. And we all are a house where God lives, not in any of us alone, but in the sacred space among us. Be mindful of this mystery, for it is the foundation of a great and powerful dynasty.4

I love this. God has chosen each of us, each of our bodies in all their problems, as a dwelling place, rather than a house of cedar. And such a reminder tells us that we aren't the only dwelling places. God can use each of us with all our faults, the way God used David with all his, and the way God uses those we might not like as much.

The hope of the dynasty, then, is a hope that one day we will see that sacred space around us and find abundance all around us. It is a hope that one day we will stop trying to contain God, to domesticate God by saying God only belongs in Church, or that God only belongs to us Methodists and not to Presbyterians, or that God only belongs to us Christians. God has broken out of those containers and said, “I will build YOU a house. I will move and dwell within you AND your neighbor AND the guy who lives down the street you may not like as much.”

God provides for us in ways we never imagine, just as God did for the Israelites in the wilderness, just as God did for David. And just as God does for us today. God shows a mobility and freedom that provides us with an abundance and unity we would never expect.

Let us pray:
Our God-Who-Will-Not-Be-Contained,
We don't always understand your ways of abundance,
presenting you instead with gifts we think you'll like but gifts that end up boxing you up. Be patient with us.
Remind us that you have chosen us as your dwelling places,
and guide us to living into this un-contained abundance. Amen.

1Kate Huey, “Wherever You Are,” Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Weekly Seeds, Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ, 22 July 2012,
2“God's choice to stay homeless, however, surprises us.” Joni S. Sancken, Proper 11 [16], Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, eds. Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 332.
3Richard W. Nysse, 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Commentary on Alternate First Reading, Seventh Sunday After Pentecost,, 19 July 2012,
4Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “I will make you a house,” Unfolding Light, 20 July 2012,

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