2 Samuel 7:1-17 | Luke 1:30-33
[My apologies that due to a technical error, there is no audio recording this week]
The Bible has a very ambiguous attitude to the emergence of the kingdom of Israel. When the people first start asking for a king, the prophet Samuel warns them – if you have a king, he will lead you into wars, he will take your sons and fight for him. And why would you need a king to rule you? You have your God, you have the Torah to show you how to live. What will a king bring you except grief?
But the people wanted a king “like all the other nations”. They had looked at the nations around them, those with whom they had fought and those they feared, and seen powerful leaders bringing security and strength, and they wanted to be like that. For years God had looked after them, raised up leaders when they needed them, but it wasn’t enough. Relying on God to provide for them when there was a need was scary; it wasn’t like having a strong figure, a powerful centre, something you could rely on.
All the other nations around them had kings that they could look to; in what seemed like dangerous, frightening times, the people wanted a powerful person to rule them and keep them safe, and if that person might, for his own glory, lead them to unnecessary war, reduce their freedoms in the name of national security, crush internal dissent and criticism, build great monuments to advance their own glory, well that was all a price worth paying.
How little times – or rather, people – have changed.
They asked for a king because all the other nations had them. And Samuel’s rebuke: you were not called by God to be like everyone else. You were called to be different. You were called to bring blessing to all the nations, to stand out as a beacon of hope and an example of what might be, what could be.
And God speaks to Samuel and says “they have not rejected you, their prophet; they have rejected me, their God. But I will give them what they ask.”
And so they get Saul. Who pretty clearly illustrates the whole problem. He’s a great choice of leader, for a while; he unites the people, and leads them to military victory. But power corrupts. Jealousy, paranoia, deteriorating mental health tear him down, bit by bit, proving every word of Samuel’s warning about what it can mean to have a powerful leader. In fact, one might even wonder if God – or Samuel – chose Saul to make a point.
But of course, once power has been centralised, it has a strong tendency to stay that way; the fall of Saul sees the rise of David. David, the great king, the shepherd, the poet, the man after God’s own heart. Also the adulterer, abuser of power, and murderer, but we’ll let that go for now.
And in today’s reading, David declares his intention to build a great Temple for God.
“I live in a house of cedar,” he says; his political power is absolute, and for the time being, at least, the nation is at peace. He has built himself a palace to reflect his success, his power, a symbol of his rule.
“But the ark of God is in a tent.” For all David’s faults, he has this sense that it was wrong for God to have a less inspiring, dramatic, powerful symbolic building than he himself had. And the prophet Nathan’s first reaction is to agree. Build God a Temple.
It seems right, doesn’t it? That God should have a place, a symbol, a house, at least as glorious as that of the King.
But God, it turns out, wasn’t interested, and speaks to Nathan. “I haven’t ever lived in a house, and I’ve never asked for one. I have moved around with the people, in a tent like theirs. Have I ever given any indication that my people needed to build a house for me?”
Just like when the people saw that the nations around them had kings, and said “how come we don’t have one”, David has made the fundamental error of looking at the nations around, seeing things that they are doing, that they have achieved, and seeking to emulate them. “All the Gods of the other nations have great houses, temples, statues; isn’t our God bigger and more important than theirs?” he asks.
And God’s rebuke is the same. “That’s not how it works, not how it is supposed to work.”
Look at how God’s words to Nathan repeat the same idea, over and again: “I have been with you … I will make you great … I will appoint a place for my people … I will build a house for you”
We don’t build houses for God.
And I don’t just mean that in the trivial sense that God doesn’t need a place to live. We have a tendency, sometimes, to look down on the primitive faith of the people of David’s day, to laugh at the idea that they thought God lived in physical place. But neither David, nor Solomon, who would finally build the Temple, believed that God needed a roof over God’s head; Solomon made that quite clear in the prayer of dedication: “Lord you do not live in houses made by human hands”. They knew that a Temple was not the true home of God, but a symbol. They wanted no more than those who set out to build the great cathedrals; to create a place that reflected the glory of God. Places which we need, not places that God needs.
And just as with the demand for a king, God’s response seems more one of sadness than anything else; as if God is shaking God’s head and saying “will you never get it? It’s not about having a king and power and being like the other nations (but better). It’s not about building me big houses, temples, great symbols of how mighty I am.”
“I will build a house for you. I will establish a kingdom for you. And the house I build, and the Kingdom I establish, will last for ever.”
I’m guessing that when the Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple, he, and all the people, believed that God’s promise had been fulfilled: that this house, this kingdom, were the ones that God had promised.
But of course it was not to be. The prophecy of Nathan, the promise of an never-failing house, an eternal kingdom, was yet to come.
But it wouldn’t be a kingdom of political and social power.
And it wouldn’t be a house of great stones, awe-inspiring and mighty.
And most people wouldn’t even recognise it for what it was.
Because people get so caught up in structures and buildings, place so much value on physical artefacts and political systems as evidence of our influence, our power, our agency, that we too often don’t know the kingdom when we see it.
The kingdom which came in the life of Jesus didn’t make sense to a people who understood kingdom in those terms. Those who judge the work of God according to the measures of humanity will never see it.
The people of God were already living as the people of God before they demanded a king.
They were already worshipping the one true God before Solomon built them a Temple.
The Kingdom of God is not made visible by buildings, but by lives.
The Kingdom of God is not advanced by the wielding of influence by the powerful, but by the sacrificial love of ordinary.
God does not need our power, God does not need our buildings. If the kingdom of God is to be advance, if the love and peace, justice and reconciliation, forgiveness and hope are to be real in the lives of all people in God’s world, then what God needs is for us to make them real in our lives.
Don’t find a king to follow – live like a citizen of God’s realm.
Don’t build a temple – build a faithful life.
For God’s dwelling place is not a house built by human hands.
God’s dwelling place is human lives.
I’d like to finish with a poem, written by Thom Shuman
a dwelling place for God?
with wayward thoughts . . .
look out on a world
lusting for more
and caring for less;
if any dare peek in,
they will see the same hungers . . .
with the ashes
of dusty dreams
and hapless hopes . . .
under the weight of loneliness,
by the storms of sadness.
i would build you