November 11, 2012 Sermon
Text: 2 Samuel 7:1-17 (The Story, Ch. 11)
Today’s Scripture reads like an HGTV (Home & Garden Television) script. There is David’s house – a palace! There is God’s house – a temple! And there’s another house for David, too – the surprise twist. There are houses, everywhere!
Houses matter to us. Think of the energy and time we put into maintaining our houses – making them our own. We decorate and repair and remodel. There are stores and magazines and even an entire television network dedicated to houses and the things we do to them – buy them, sell them, renovate, decorate, organize.
We care about our houses because they are a reflection of us. Who we are, what we care about, how we live – that’s all expressed, in one way or another, in our houses.
Did you know it goes the other way around, too? We shape and mold the places we live to fit who we are – but those places also shape and mold our identity. The places we spend our time changes, in some sense, who we are!
When we lived in Chicago, I worked quite a bit with homeless men and women. One of the things I learned is that dry, warm shelter is important, but to really thrive, human beings need more than that. We need some sort of space of your own, a place where we belong. And it isn’t just the people who share the place with us that matter – although they do matter, an awful lot! The place itself – the physical space – matters too. That familiar place affects who we are as human beings.
In fact, it affects us so much that homeless adults who are given a house first, and then asked to work on addiction, mental illness and medical problems fare dramatically better than those who are asked to address their problems before they become eligible for stable housing. “Housing First”programs, as they are called, give people safe, adequate housing before any other requirements are met. These programs are rare, and perhaps counterintuitive, but research shows that they are the most successful way to reduce the rates of not only homelessness but also addiction and mental illness. People who have a place to call home are better equipped to build a new identity, a new life for themselves. We human beings need a place to belong.
There is quite a bit of research on this, in fact. Sociologists have shown that human beings cannot form a healthy self-identity without some connection to a particular place. In the 21st century we may jet-set around the world in hours and connect across the Internet nearly instantaneously – but we still need the anchor of a familiar place to call our own. Our sense of self depends on it.
There’s quite a bit in the Bible about place, too. Some theologians have even suggested that place is the most central category of Scripture. They believe you can trace the whole story of Scripture by moving from place to place – from the garden of Eden to the promised land to the new heaven and new earth.
Whether they explain the whole Bible or not, the concepts of place and home certainly shape King David’s story. 2 Samuel 7 opens with the words, “After the king was settled in his palace…” That opening phrase tells us a few things.
It tells us that David is now well-established as leader of the Israelites, of course. That wasn’t always the case – some years before, he was the anointed king but found himself crouched in the darkness of a cave hiding from his predecessor Saul. David’s kingship was announced LONG before it was inaugurated. But here in 2 Samuel, David is settled comfortably into his palace. His reign is now well established.
In a broader sense, this opening phrase tells us that Israel’s identity has changed from a wandering people to a settled people with a king. God’s has been faithful to promises made. They lived in particular ways in the wilderness – and now that they are in the promised land, settled into their houses, farming the land, building up towns – life looks different. Their national identity is shifting.
And with that identity shift comes a shift in religious understanding, too. It is a natural thing – any significant change in one part of our lives affects many other parts of our lives too. A dramatic change in identity – brought about by a new place to call home – will naturally change their relationship to their God, too. Faith will grow and stretch.
King David is a good leader. He knows that his responsibilities go beyond military protection and political posturing. He understands that being king gives him moral and religious influence, and he wants to live up to his responsibilities. And so he proposes to build a house for God, to settle God into the land in the same way that he and his people have settled into the land.
It’s a good instinct. David’s plans are well meaning. He wants to do something for God. “Let me build God a house – a beautiful house, an extravagant temple, a house truly worthy of God!”
There’s only one problem with this plan: It isn’t God’s plan. The prophet Nathan hears from God: “Go and tell my servant David: ‘I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites out of Egypt to his day! I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling…Did I ever say…why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” (2 Sam 7:6-7).
God’s response reminds David, immediately, of two things. First, it reminds David of his own identity. Nathan doesn’t bring God’s word to “David the King” (as in 2 Sam 7:1 & 3). Nathan brings God’s word to “my servant David.” It is as if God is saying, “Remember, David – you are first my servant. Wherever you may live – in a tent or a cave or a palace – you are always my servant. That’s who you are.”
And then, David is reminded who God is. God says, “I am the one who rescued you from oppression, who stayed with you through the desert, who walked with you in the wilderness. And I will go where I wants to go.” No one – including the king – will determine where God dwells. No one will fence God in!
David has, it seems, been thoroughly set in his place. Remember, David, you were just a shepherd boy before I took you from the pasture. Remember, David, I’m the one who is in charge here. You don’t call the shots. You don’t tell me where to go. It’s the other way around. I’m the one who gives you a house, a place for my people, a home of their own.
But then – God goes on. God says, “David, you want to build me a house…but I’ve got something even better. I’m going to build you a house – a house that will last forever, that cannot be torn down or overrun by the enemy. ‘I will raise up your offspring to succeed you…your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me’ (2 Sam 7:12, 16).
God promises to build a household, a dynasty for David that will extend beyond political kingship right to the person of Jesus, who will himself become the dwelling place of God in human flesh, the tent of God (cf. John 1:14, “and the Word became flesh and tented among us.”)
It’s an interesting story, here in 2 Samuel 7. David thought he knew what would be pleasing in God’s sight – what God would want. Even Nathan, at first, gave religious sanction to David’s plans. These two men of faith – men who knew the story of God’s past faithfulness and wanted to honor God as best they knew how – still misconceived the character and purpose of the God they worshipped. Their desire to protect and provide a place for God to belong in their society was well-meaning, but misdirected.
This week, we voted in an election. In the days leading up to that election, we heard many voices calling us to vote in a way that would honor God. And I assume we did – all of us, whether we voted Republican or Democrat or third party. Whatever way we voted, I assume we voted that way because we believed it was the most faithful way to express our Christian faith.
Some of us, this week, feel like we’ve been rebuked like David. We thought we got it right, we thought we were doing the right thing for God – and we lost. Our efforts weren’t enough to move our country where we believe it ought to go.
Others of us think we did make some progress toward what we believe is a faithful future for our country. We also thought we were doing the right thing for God, and the election results seem to confirm our belief – perhaps like Nathan originally affirmed David’s plans.
Regardless of which way we voted, 2 Samuel 7 suggests to all of us that we may think we know the will of God – and still be wrong. And thus, it invites us to humility.
2 Samuel 7 also reminds us that God is not captive to human expectations, and that God often catches us by surprise. (What could be more surprising, after all, than the Messiah, David’s promised descendent, born to a poor girl in Bethlehem, and growing up in the hick-town of Nazareth, living among tax collectors and sinners?)
David’s greatness, I think, lies in his response to the unexpected. He doesn’t try to figure it out or explain it away. He isn’t shell-shocked by the sudden change of direction. He simply says: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?…Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have brought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it. Therefore you are great, O Lord God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you” (from 2 Sam 7:18-22). He remembers who he is, and who God is, and goes from there.
I don’t know if we got it “right” or got it “wrong” last Tuesday. But I do trust that God’s is still at work. I hope you’ll trust with me, and pray this week not about what we can do for God, but about what surprising, unexpected thing God might want to do through us.
So where might God be at work around us, in ways we wouldn’t expect? What new, surprising thing might God be doing here in this place?
While we listen for God’s answer to those questions, I hope we’ll respond as David did – remembering who we are, and who God is, and trusting the future to God.