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 A House For God

Sermon - 3/18/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Samuel 7:1-17

We come this morning to the fourth in our series on covenants in Hebrew scriptures.  We began with the covenant with all creation God made with Noah after the flood and then the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants to give them a home and to be their God.  Last Sunday we looked at the covenant with Moses with the Ten Commandments set in the context of liberation from bondage which provides the framework for a nation to continue living in that freedom given by God.  In each of these covenants, what is the heart of the covenant?  Relationship. 

Each of these covenants emphasize a different aspect of relationship.  In the story of the flood the emphasis is on God’s relationship with all creation.  In the covenant with Abraham and Sarah the emphasis is on God’s relationship with a specific people.  In the Mosaic Covenant, the covenantal relationship begins with God and then expands to our relationship with others.

The next covenant we come to in the story of God’s people is the covenant with David or the Davidic covenant.  As I read the text, note the wonderful word play in it with the word “house” and the relationship that this covenant addresses. 

At this point in the story, David has succeeded in uniting the nation under his leadership after replacing Saul in a divinely approved coup d’etat and has secured Jerusalem as the capitol city for the nation. Set aside for the moment the whole sticky wicket of any role God may play in selecting heads of state.  I mean if God was responsible for Jimmy Carter (left), then Ronald Reagan (right), Bill Clinton (left) , George W. Bush (right) and Barack Obama (right), I’d have to conclude that God is bi-polar and in serious need of medication!  Either that or God has one wicked sense of humor.  And a bunch of folk are not going to like the punch line of this next election, regardless who wins.

Back to David. He has built a palace or home for himself and seeks next to build a home or temple for God where the ark of the covenant will dwell.  In this story we are introduced for the first time to Nathan, evidently a prophet who is part of David’s court, a sort of religious adviser to the king.

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ 3Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’

4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ 8Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you.16Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever. 17In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.


David’s desire is to build a house for God and Nathan thinks it is a fine idea.  Study the history of any empire and you will find just as the power of the empire grows, so too the religious establishment alongside it.  Earthly rulers seek heavenly blessing whether to do the will of God or to manipulate the will of people and building enormous temples is usually perceived as  the means to do both.  Only God sees it differently.  “I don’t need a house,” meaning temple, God says to David.  “Instead, I’ll make you a house,” meaning dynasty.  And so it was for the next 400 years that a descendant of David sat on the throne of Jerusalem.

This promise to David of God’s steadfast love that will be with his royal descendants forever is the heart of the Davidic Covenant.  Even though the throne of David came to an inglorious end in Babylonian exile, the covenant remains one of the most important legacies of David’s reign as we will see in a moment.

First, with each of these covenants I have introduced an image.  The rainbow for Noah, Dorothy’s magic slippers for Abraham, the Wizard of Oz for Moses.  If you missed the last two sermons and wonder “what the heck?” well, that’s why we put sermons online, complete with pictures!  So my image for this week:  Along the back side of the capitol in Salem you will find State Street.  Perpendicular to that on the west side you will find Church Street.  On one corner of Church and State is the west lawn of the capitol building, on the other corner is First United Methodist Church. 


So here’s my image, for it is there, where temple and palace, cross and crown, church and state intersect that the Davidic Covenant resides and it is precisely the relationship of God and government that it concerns.  And that raises all kinds of challenges for us today.

The first challenge is monarchy.  What do we do in our age of democracy and representative government with this whole notion of kings?  I don’t know about you, but for me it conjures up either images of fairy tales, ancient history or J.R.R. Tolkien.  My actual experience of kings is limited to movie theaters.  So how do we relate to God’s will expressed through an ancient form of government that is so foreign to us?

The second challenge is history.  The promise of God is unconditional.  “I will keep your descendant on the throne forever,” God says.  “If they mess up, I’ll punish them but I will not abandon them as I did Saul.”  And God’s promise holds for 400 years, which is a pretty long time in anyone’s calendar, but it’s not forever.  So history would suggest a time limit for God’s promises.

The third challenge is political.  God’s promise is tied not just to a specific nation, but to a specific government.  That makes God very partisan and I don’t know about you, but that makes me very nervous.  Any theology that legitimizes political power should be highly suspect as serving the interest of that power rather than serving the interest of God.  And as we soon see in the incident with Bathsheba, David is not immune from using that power for his own self-serving purpose.  Of course we know no modern politician would ever use the name of God to further their own interests!

Again, as I have tried to do throughout this series, my point is not to lessen the authority of scripture or to debunk the history of ancient Israel in any way, but to simply be honest in our reading of these stories by acknowledging rather than ignoring the challenges they have so that we can all the better find the truth they have for us.  And I see at least five things we can take from this covenant that are just as powerfully true for us today as David 3,000 years ago.

First, the possibility of God’s unconditional grace.  Regardless of our understanding of “forever”, God promises not to abandon the descendants of David.  God may chastise them, but God will not withdraw support as God did with Saul. 

There had to have been times when that whole idea was hard to fathom. Job accuses God,

I cry to you and you do not answer me,
I stand and you merely look at me.
You have turned cruel to me
With the might of your hand you persecute me.
  (Job 30:20)


It is hard to believe in God’s unconditional love when our experience is rejection.  Job of course eventually discovers God’s boundless grace but in that moment of suffering, which is pretty prolonged for Job as it often is for many of us, that grace is hard to find.  The beauty of unconditional love is that it does not depend on how we feel. 

Did you ever have a parent say to you, “This is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you?”  Did you believe that as you limped away trying to hold back the tears?  Not until we became parents did we understand.  I once heard a story told by an inspirational speaker, a man born without arms, of how he learned how to dress himself.  About the age of 8 his mother one day came in to his room, through his clothes on the floor and said, “You can have breakfast after you get dressed.”  He immediately began to protest, he couldn’t do it.  He screamed and cried.  He begged for his mother to return.  No response.  After a couple of hours of tantrums and crying, sure his mother had abandoned him, hunger got the best of him and he finally figured out how to dress himself.  It was not until years later that he learned that his mother had been in the next room the whole time, crying.

Because we feel abandoned does not mean that we are.  Nor does our rejection of God mean God rejects us.  Paul notes in Romans 9 that God’s grace is not dependent on human will.  Thus he can conclude that even if his Jewish brothers and sisters rejected Jesus, God has not and will not reject them.  Nor us.

Second, this covenant speaks of the importance of place.  V. 10 says “I will appoint a place for my people… that they may live in their own place and be disturbed no more.”  Once again as we saw in the covenant with Abraham, the real power of a text like this comes much later in the story.  It means one thing for David who has acquired his own city to call home, but it means something also entirely for his descendants 400 years later when they lose that city and 600 years after that when they lost their country. 

When I went to Israel in 2008, our group met in the New York airport with a local rabbi who told us that Israel as the homeland for Jews is the most important value of 95% of Jews.  Their connection to the land, even for those who do not live there, is the one thing that unites them.  Never underestimate the importance and power of that connection to the land.

The promise of place is not something secondary to the covenant, it is the heart of the covenants from Abraham to David.  I take that promise not as something unique to one specific place and people, but as something that is universal.  We all need such a place that is home, hence Dorothy’s magic slippers for the Abrahamic Covenant.  “There is no place like home.” This is part of God’s design for all humanity. 

One of the things I learned during the Occupy Eugene encampment is that many of those who live on the streets refused to be called “homeless”.  They have a home, they say.  It is the earth.  It is the outdoors.  It is this community.  They may be un-housed but they are not homeless.  To characterize them as “homeless” and to make it illegal for them to sleep in public spaces is to discriminate against them only because they are without a building in which to live.  That is a whole different perspective on the issue.

Third, in comparison to the importance of a place to call home for people, the text downplays the importance of a place for God to call home.  Did you note the irony of God’s statement to David?  “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day” but I’ll make a house for you, says God.  Of course you can’t take such a text literally, as if God even could have a physical place in which to dwell. 

Maybe ancient folk did see God in such a way, though I suspect that even they understood temples more as one of those “thin” places to use the Celtic concept where the divine crosses over into the physical realm.  The point is that building a house of God is not about wood and stone, it is about a people who know and honor God, who follow God through the wilderness to the promise land.  It is once again about relationship.  God lives not in a place but a people.

Fourth, the whole concept of a “kingdom of God” originates with this text.  In making this covenant with David, God is doing much more than building a dynasty, God is investing heavily in the affairs of a particular human society and how they govern themselves.  The risk this involves becomes quickly evident when David abuses his power as king to kill the soldier Uriah so that he can claim his wife Bathsheba.  Nathan then returns to the throne to reveal the gravity of David’s sin with his clever story of the poor man whose single lamb is taken from him by a rich man who David then condemns to die prompting Nathan’s most famous line: “You are that man.”

For the next 400 years, virtually every king that sits on David’s throne continues that pattern of abuse in one way or another.  A few kings, like Solomon and Josiah, are remembered for their justice and righteousness, but most come off looking pretty bad.  Thus it is tempting to look at that history of God’s involvement with the kings of Israel and conclude that God has given up working through political regimes.  That is why God sent Jesus, right, to bypass political power.  But if that is true, why did Jesus talk so much about the kingdom of God, not as something that comes only in the next life, but precisely as something we pray to come to earth, as in heaven? 

We can’t talk about a kingdom of God on earth without talking about how we organize and govern our public life.  I am utterly convinced that the church has a vital role to play in the matters of public policy, that the values we represent are values that need to be heard and witnessed to in the public square and statehouse, from personal morality and responsibility to concern for the least of these as Jesus taught. 

As the body of Christ and people of God we must stand with the power structures of society when they speak for God’s justice and we must stand in opposition to those same power structures when God’s justice is violated. I am not talking about some social program for doing good, I am talking about the very essence of the Gospel, proclaiming Good News for and to all God’s people.

Lastly, this covenant reminds us of our hope in the Messiah.  It is remarkable that after the last of David’s descendants on the throne was blinded and led off in chains to die in captivity that the promise of an heir to the throne did not die with him, but instead continued to give people hope that God would not abandon them. In the darkest hours of the nation, the prophet rekindled that hope with such proclamations as Isaiah 9, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, …

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
    authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
    for the throne of David and his kingdom

He will establish and uphold it
    with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.

            (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)


Even when the political kingdom and its throne ceased to be, the hope of a new king anointed by God lived on.  Thus in a foreign land the people of God learned that the kingdom of God was not tied to any one kingdom or political regime, but to the Messiah who would transcend all kingdoms and would be recognized by all God’s people. The angel appearing to Mary reminds us the promise of God to David when he says of Jesus, “The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.” 

There it is again, that word house.  What house does Jesus reign over?  The statehouse? This house? Mine?  Yours?  So we hope and surely this too:  the body of Christ, the church, the Christian version of the temple, is in a very real sense the house David wanted to build for God but which God built for us instead.  This is the place where Jesus reigns.  This is the place where we dwell secure.  The house of God is where we work with Jesus to bring God’s dwelling place to earth.


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