A House for God

December 21, 2014   2 Samuel 7: 1-11   Luke 1: 26-38

Rev. Catherine Purves


     “Home Sweet Home” – how many of us warm to that thought?  Having a place you can call home is not just part of the American dream.  Surely, this is a universal human desire:  to have a place, your own place, that you can call home.  Ideally, home is where you feel safe and secure.  It is where you put down roots and where you envision your future.  Home is where birth and life and death happen.  When a house becomes a home then something really remarkable has happened, because then what was just a building has become the place where you belong, where you can rest and grow and find joy, the one place you will long for when you find yourself in places, far or near, that aren’t home. 

     When King David returned from his endless military campaigns against Israel’s hostile neighbors, he brought the Ark of the Covenant home to Jerusalem.  Samuel says, “the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him.”  It was a time of peace, a time for building and not for war.  The first thing that David did when he returned to Jerusalem was to build for himself a house of cedar. 

     The word ‘house’ in Hebrew is a very versatile word.  It can simply mean house, or it could mean palace or temple or even dynasty or lineage.  It is actually used in all of these ways in our passage from 2nd Samuel.  Cedar was a highly prized wood in the ancient Near East, and it seems that David’s ‘house’ was more like a palace, that is, a home fit for a king, a place from which to rule, a place that would, in a sense, demonstrate his right to rule, now that his military might was not constantly on display.

     David’s suggestion to the prophet Nathan that he would like to build a house for God is perhaps not as straightforwardly generous as it appears.  In this instance the Hebrew word ‘house’ may mean temple.  Ancient Near Eastern monarchs would often build elaborate temples to house their gods.  This would also strengthen the king’s rule and, it was thought, secure the favor of the gods.  Perhaps this is why David’s plan was so harshly rejected by God:  “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” God said.  “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day…”  

     This is just one more instance when the God of Israel demonstrates to his people that he is not a domesticated god like the idols of their neighbors.  This God was never carried from place to place by the nomadic tribes, like a kind of charm or talisman.  If the Lord travels with you it is because the Lord has decided to be with you.  And in the same way, once the people of Israel had settled in the Promised Land, building homes for themselves, and a palace for their king, the God of Israel could not simply be housed or contained in a man-made temple.  Israel’s God would never be appeased by sacrifices or manipulated by prayers.  The Lord’s grace or favor couldn’t be bought, though it would be freely given.    

     Building a house for God was a rather dangerous thing, if in the construction of that house you were unknowingly (or knowingly) trying to restrict the freedom of God to come and go, to bless or to judge.  Only God can decide to make a home for himself among his people.

     As people who were this very morning drawn to this house of God, we should perhaps consider our own motivation in both building this house and in seeking God here.  Our Old Testament reading warns us that this is not a warehouse where God is stored, so that when we decide we need God’s presence we can come here, knowing that God will be constantly available in this place.  This is also not a pure religious enclave in the midst of secular society, God’s holy place, as if God is only interested and involved in so-called spiritual things.  This house is not a place where we try to sell God to those who come here to browse through our religious wares.  This house is not a safe house where you go when your world is falling apart, a place that you can ignore when you’re not facing a crisis in your life. 

     If this is God’s house, it is simply a place where God has chosen to be when faithful people gather for worship.  It was built, after all, not to house God, but to provide a home for us where we can train ourselves to seek and to praise and to serve the God who needs neither a palace nor a temple.

     Having said that, we must add one thing more.  At the end of that story about David’s plan to build a house for God, not surprisingly, God has the last word, and it is an unexpected declaration of promise.  Having rejected David’s offer, God makes David a counter offer:  “Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.”  In this divine declaration the third and final meaning of the Hebrew word ‘house’ is implied.  God is promising David a dynasty.  The house of David will be all those who are descended from David.  Here we have our link to the Gospel reading for today, and we can see why this particular Old Testament passage is to be read on the 4th Sunday of Advent.  God will not let David build him a house, but God will create a dynasty for David.  And there will be a future king, descended from David, through whom God will choose to make a home for himself among his people.

     As we turn now to the New Testament, we hear the familiar words of the messenger, Gabriel, who declares to Mary that, though she is a virgin, God will give her a child, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  “You will name him Jesus,” the angel tells her, “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.”  That was a lot for a peasant girl to understand.  In fact, it’s a lot for us to understand. 

     This was half a millennium and four empires after God had made that promise to David.  But in God’s time, now, a house of flesh and blood was being conceived in which God would dwell.  Through this child, Jesus, God would make a permanent home among all God’s people.  As the Gospel of Matthew explains, “they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’”

     It is interesting to compare Mary’s response to this unbelievable news with King David’s initial impulse to create a house for God.  While David was eager to build an edifice, a temple, a symbol and proof of God’s presence, Mary was simply willing to welcome God’s will for her life.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary was willing to be a house for God so that the whole of her life would be taken up with God’s plan for her and for the world.  On this 4th Sunday in Advent, it may be useful to ponder whether in your own life you are more like David, the builder king, or more like Mary, the faithful servant whose life was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

     In just a few days we will all be returning to this house of God to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.  On that night we will remember that our God does not need a house made by human hands.  God does not live where we want him to live, like some tribal deity who is there to meet our needs.  But, in the freedom of God’s grace, God has come to us in the person of his Son.  And this is where God lives now, not in a temple, or a cathedral, or even a humble church, but in a baby and in a man who, by his love and the giving of his life, has allowed us to find a home again in God. 

     Now, we can live in Jesus, because he has chosen to live among us and in us.  Now we have a home where we can rest and grow and find joy, a home where birth and life and death happen, where we feel safe and secure.  This is where we have put down roots and where we can envision our future.  We live in Christ, and this is the place where we truly belong.  Home, sweet home.