Sermon for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
July 22, 2018, 8:30 AM Proper 11B
האתה תבנה לי בית לשבתי: כי לא ישבתי בבית למיום העלתי את במי ישראל ממצרים ועד היום הזה ואהיה מתהלך באהל ובמשכן: בכל אשר התהלכתי בכל בני ישראל הדבר דברתי את אחד שבטי ישראל אשר צויתי לרעות אל עמי את ישראל לאמר למה לא בניתם לי בית ארזים:
Are you going to build me a house for me to live in?
I haven’t lived in a house since the day I brought the children of Israel up from Egypt until today. I’ve been living in a tent and in a tabernacle. In all the places I’ve gone with the children of Israel, did I ever say one word to a single tribe of Israel I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why haven’t you built me a house of cedar?”
(2 Samuel 7:5b-7)
The LORD could have been a little more polite about it. After all, it’s not as if David had just proposed mass murder or wholesale apostasy to Baal. He had, rather, modestly looked at his own new digs in ancient Jebus and commented that maybe the LORD of Hosts deserved something a little better than a scruffy nomad’s tent for the divine residence. David’s new palace was festooned on the inside with cedar from the Lebanon, and on the outside it fairly gleamed with the brightness of its newly cut limestone builders.
David was the first ever king over all the central highlands of Palestine, and he meant to make the glory of his capital city reflect the glory of his new role. He had conquered ancient Jebus, also called Jerusalem, modestly renaming it the City of David; and he had spared no expense constructing a proper palace for his exalted status. After all, a palace wasn’t just a residence for the king but also the place where the king did business, where the court rituals took place, where his counselors discussed weighty matters of state. It was also the supreme court of the land, the place where all appeals from the courts that met in Israel’s city gates came for their final adjudication. So, the palace had to be a monumental, impressive structure; and by means of loans and trade, David had engaged the finest carpenters and stone masons in Syria-Palestine to build it.
But being king for the Son of Jesse meant something else too. David, ever impressed with all things Egyptian, believed that people should regard him as the son of the God of Israel, just as the pharaoh was the son of the god Ra. And the son of a god is, of course, a god in his own right; and David had no objection if his subjects wanted to see him as a living god, the son of the God of Israel. And there was the rub. What kind of God lives in a desert tent while his only begotten son lives in a house of cedar? As a modern politician might say, the “optics” of this scenario were bad. I don’t read David as feeling sorry for the LORD having to live in a dump so much as feeling sorry for himself being the son of a God who lived in a dump.
But David was messing with dangerous stuff here. Unlike Egypt where the king was the high priest in charge of the cult of Ra, neither Israelites nor Judahites were willing to recognize their king as a priest of any kind. In fact, they weren’t entirely sure they wanted a king at all, and the notion of this new-fangled king usurping the powers of the ancient priesthood of Aaron was enough to start a civil war. David knew this. He may not have liked it, but the king of Israel was not going to be the high priest of the nation.
Did I forget to mention the most important thing? I often do. It’s so like a preacher to get involved in the theology of things as to miss what everybody else sees. Why did David want to build a temple for the LORD? Three guesses, and you can stop at “money”: filthy lucre, mammon, das Kapital. National temples in the ancient world had two functions. One function, of course, was to serve as a residence for the national god. No self-respecting king would let the national god run loose for just anyone to claim but would safely ensconce the deity within a national temple. But the second function is to serve as the treasury of the realm—Ft. Knox—the Fed—whatever you want to call it, the temple is the repository of all value, the center of commerce, the wealth of the nation. And the priesthood constitutes the treasury department. Those gold and silver vessels in the temple’s service amounted to the gold bars in our national repository.
Is the plot clotting? Israelites wouldn’t let the king be the chief of the treasury. He couldn’t dial himself a loan to build a municipal building nor could he sell some assets to finance his next war. David, the consummate politician, knew that he would have to negotiate every aspect of his kingship with the priests who held his purse strings, but the king didn’t want to have to chase all over his realm from local temple to local temple to negotiate the funds he would need to pay his army, build his buildings, and bribe his neighbors. At least, King David could lock his assets all up in a single institution in his own capital city. To that end, the Shepherd from Bethlehem brought the throne of God, the holy ark, together with all of its priests, its tents, and its liturgical brass into the new City of David to make of the city Israel’s center of prayer and commerce at the same time. Only those tents were an embarrassment in the kingly splendor department!
David expressed his discomfort with the humble tent sanctuary that graced the top of Mt. Zion; and the prophet Nathan, sensing the importance of the king’s desire did the brave and principled thing cabinet officials always seem do for shortsighted rulers and placated the king with the usual obsequious political pabulum, “All that’s in your heart, go and do [it], for the LORD is with you.” (2 Samuel 7:3b)
Except the LORD of Hosts wasn’t good with the king’s plan at all and treated the court prophet Nathan to an uncomfortable night unlike the nights our modern political functionaries ever seem to experience. At the risk of the prophet’s standing in David’s court and at some possible risk to his own hide, the LORD wasn’t having any of this temple business and sent the prophet back to David to straighten out the king’s thinking: No glorious temple. If the LORD wanted some king to build him a temple, he’d raise up such a king to do so. More importantly, when had anyone ever heard the LORD command any prophet, any priest, any judge to build a house for God? You may feel the sweat beading up on Nathan’s forehead as he delivers his retraction to King David. In our day and time, perhaps the nervous holy man would explain that he had “misspoken” the previous day or “wasn’t clear” or had “intended a double negative.” God would take care of God’s own house, thank you very much.
But the loving God, who sat enthroned in the shabby tent sanctuary had another surprise for David the politician. While David was obsessively securing his throne and collecting all the trappings of royal power, the God, who didn’t want a house, intended, instead, to build a house for David—not a house of cedar but a living house, a house of David that would continue generation after generation, and, as we Christians reread this passage, a house that continued to the Son of David born like his ancestor in Bethlehem.
David was long on politics and piety, but he was sure that everything depended on his own abilities, on his own efforts. The prophet Nathan delivered a message that should have reminded the king that for all of his brilliance, for all of his power, he lacked one thing, the single thing that could make of his kingdom a kingdom of righteousness and hope. David lacked faith in the God whose son he professed to be. He lacked faith in God’s power to fulfill all of the ancient promises God had made to Israel. He lacked faith in God’s love for him and for Israel. If God wanted a temple treasury, then God would find a way to provide it. If the LORD of Hosts wanted Israel protected from its enemies round about, then the LORD of Hosts would provide that protection just as Israel’s God had done since the time of Moses. Kings would play the roles that God determined, and God did not need their pretensions to power and status to use them.
But trust was the key, faith in the God who had brought Israel safe thus far, faith in the God that had saved David from the hand of Saul. And perhaps you and I might learn from the prophet Nathan some version of the same lesson, learn the lesson of faith and hope, learn that God put us here for a reason—for God’s reason—and that God is perfectly capable of bringing that reason and that hope to its conclusion. There is no pastoral leadership that will enhance God’s call to Trinity Church and no brilliant program that will improve on the loving mission God has entrusted to this parish. God did not need a new high priest or a gleaming capital city to fulfill the promise of Israel’s mission to the hills of Palestine and to the world. What God asked David for was faith and love. Likewise, God does not sit on a far-off throne waiting for Trinity Church to find the optimal leadership or ideal demographics. God instead asks for our trust, for our hope, and above all for our love.