Building and the Presence of God

Preacher: Nathan Hosler

Scripture: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Ephesians 2:11-22

In the beginning as God created, a wind –the spirit of God swept— hovered—over the face of the deep.

The first people—Eve and Adam– “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…” A swoosh of grass? Crunch of leaves?

Abraham and Sarah are met by three travelers with news of a child.

Moses meets God in a burning bush. The consuming fire contained in a non-consumed shrub.

God liberates and then leads the people from Egypt as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.

On the mount of Sinai, the people stand before God—with great fear and tumult.

Then Moses begins to go before God and report back from the meeting—at times even veiling because of the residue of the divine radiating with such intensity, such ferocity.

At the time of wandering in the desert, God gave instruction to build a tabernacle—a worship center that was mobile (though presumably heavy with all that wood and gold).

God moved with the people. Or the people moved with God. They moved together. If not nomadic then at least on the move. Eventually, however, the people and God arrive at the land promised. And though God is still worshipped formally, or primarily, in the tabernacle, it doesn’t move any more.

The people, now settled, begin to accrue the things of settled people. They move past the prophet, priest, judges set up for leadership to a king model (to be like other legitimate nations, of course). At times, the text records God’s explicit displeasure at these so-called improvements.

Last Sunday we saw the movement of the ark of the covenant—the material signification of the presence of God—moved. With King David dancing in worship and celebration. The connection between political power consolidation and worship being hard to clarify or separate.

Today we continue with this unfolding story. David, now able to slow down and rest after a time of warring, has time to think. He, the second King of Israel, now lives in a house of cedar. Cedar, a luxury good, imported from Lebanon is a kingly residence. On reflection [timeline not indicated] David feels, or appears to feel, concern about the uneven reality of residences—the unequal lodging arrangements between himself and God—a glaring discrepancy. Perhaps a bit embarrassed he says, seemingly genuinely, to the prophet Nathan—”See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God is in a tent.”

The prophet appears to think this a legitimate concern and valid idea. He does not challenge David for cynically wielding power or trying to contain the divine or anything like that. He says, sounds good, “the Lord is with you.” He gives his blessing—what one commentator calls a building permit.

However, that night God speaks a different word. God doesn’t challenge motivation or criticize but simply says—it isn’t you. David, you are not the one to build my temple. I’ve been moving around since you left Egypt and have not requested permanence or an upgraded dwelling. God says, your son will build me such a temple. Instead of you building me a dwelling—a house, I will grant and establish your house and your kingdom.

Nupanga Weanzana, writing in the Africa Bible Commentary notes, “God restrained David’s ambitions…David might want to do something great for God, but through God something great had already been accomplished.”(Weanzana, “2 Samuel,”  Africa Bible Commentary, 387).

Walter Brueggemann, renowned Biblical Scholar, considers this “the most crucial theological statement in the Old Testament.” The unequivocal blessing of David’s line. The desire to build a temple, a dwelling—or at least meeting place—of God is not denied, just delayed. God’s presence, at once mobile, moves towards association with a particular place.

The technical theological term for the appearance and presence of God is theophany. We have the wild and unpredictable appearances of God. This is regularized and routinized as the scriptures progress. One might say that the process for interacting with God becomes more predictable—at least until Jesus. The people know what to do, when to do it, and where. While there are always criticisms of people equating doing the proper process while living with injustice there is not, in general, a rejection of this worship infrastructure.

As we prepared to begin meeting and worshipping in person this story seemed to be thematically relevant. The church building isn’t a temple and there is no king and the church was built long ago—however, the consideration of a place designated for gathering in worship is on point.

What then are we to make of the passage in Ephesians?

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Formed as we are in understandings of individualism, ahistoricism, mobility, consumerism, and work that, for most of us, does not relate to the land, we may read Ephesians as highlighting and enforcing our disembodied presence—a dislocated presence. While we may live lightly—we also must live grounded and rooted.

Palestinian theologian living in Bethlehem, Munther Isaac, writes, “By no means, however, does this Christo-centric interpretation of the land negate the importance of the land in Christian theology. Land is still important. Commitments to the goodness of creation, to the bodily resurrection of believers, and to the incarnational theology demand the commitment to place having significance” (Munther Isaac, From Land to Lands, From Eden to the Renewed Earth, 354).

We rightly expect that God’s presence is not contained in a nation, a people group, or this building (or zoom). That we don’t expect that God to be limited to such places does not mean that God isn’t present there/here or that the place or building does not have a role to play. As some of us begin to regather in the physical address we have the opportunity to again consider our call and vocation at 337 N. Carolina Ave SE.

However, neither God, nor our call to ministry is limited to this particular structure or community or city. The is a dynamic tension between being rooted in place and also free and bound to others across borders and identities.

 The just adopted compelling vision of the denomination reads,

“Together, as the Church of the Brethren, we will passionately live and share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ through relationship-based neighborhood engagement. To move us forward, we will develop a culture of calling and equipping disciples who are innovative, adaptable, and fearless.”

Let us go, listening to the Spirit and listening to others. Rediscovering our call and vocation wherever we are planted. Amen.

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