The Meeting, Not The Place.

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2015-07-19 by George Kaplan

Preacher: Veronica Zundel
19th July 2015
Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a, Ephesians 2:11-22

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

1 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the LORD had given him rest from all his enemies around him,
2 the 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.”
3 Nathan 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:
5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?
6 I 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.
7 Wherever 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?”
8 Now 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;
9 and 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.
10 And 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,
11 from 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.
12 When 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.
13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
14a I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

Ephesians 2:11-22

11 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” –a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands–
12 remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.
15 He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
16 and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.
17 So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near;
18 for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God,
20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;
22 in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

When people ask me about the Mennonite church, they often also ask, “Where is your church?” I usually answer, “we don’t have our own building, we rent the foyer of a Baptist church near Turnpike Lane.” It always feels a bit like an apology, like saying ‘”we’re not a proper church, we’ve moved around all over the place, and we may move again.” And then I may have to explain that we’re not really a local church, people come to us from quite a distance because of our particular character. And that feels like an apology too, because so many study resources and courses meant for churches assume that a church has a local community and needs to relate to it.

For all these reasons, when I read the passages set for today, the passage from 2 Samuel stood out for me. King David has conquered all his enemies, he’s established as king, and now he wants to thank God by building a temple where the people can worship. But God tells him quite clearly that he isn’t the one to build it.

In a parallel passage in 1 Kings, David’s son Solomon, who is allowed to build a temple, gives a reason for God’s refusal to his father:

Solomon sent word to Hiram, saying, 3 “You know that my father David could not build a house for the name of the LORD his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the LORD put them under the soles of his feet. 4 But now the LORD my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. 5 So I intend to build a house for the name of the LORD my God, as the LORD said to my father David, “Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.” (1 Kings 5:2-5)

On first reading, it seems that the reason David couldn’t build the house is that he was too preoccupied with fighting his enemies. But we know from 2 Samuel that isn’t the whole truth: once David had defeated all his enemies, he was keen to build a temple. So traditionally this has been read as meaning that David is not allowed to build it because he has been, in the words of his enemy Shimei, “a man of blood”. And this view should be especially welcome to us Mennonites, who say that faith in God and the waging of war are incompatible. Perhaps God allowed David to wage war against Saul so that he could fulfil his God-given calling to be king in Saul’s place. But as we see throughout Scripture, what God allows is not always what God wants. God didn’t want the Israelites to have a king in the first place, but because the people wanted it, God allowed it and redeemed it.

Here in 2 Samuel, however, God gives a very different reason for David not building the house:

“I 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. Wherever 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?'” (7:6-7)

In other words, God doesn’t actually want a house – at least not yet. This is a travelling God, one who moves around with the people of God, a God who doesn’t want to be tied down. When the people were wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, God moved about with them in the Tabernacle, which if you like was the first tent mission, or even the first camping festival.

It’s us, not God, who want or need to encounter God in a special, holy, fixed place. And that place is never God’s only address. Even Solomon, who is allowed to build that place, recognises this when he prays at the dedication of the Temple:

“But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” (2 Chr. 6:18)

No one in ancient Israel actually believed that God lived in the Temple and nowhere else. They were no more naive about God than we are: they knew that God is everywhere. But they found it helpful to have a focus for their relationship with God, just as we may have a special corner we pray in, or a place where we feel the presence of God more than in other places. Human beings have a strong sense of place, and of the holiness of certain places; and God, who has made us this way, acknowledges this.

As I said at the beginning, however, this church has been a travelling church, a nomad church, or to put it more positively, a pilgrim church. We’ve had at least five different places of worship in the 39 years of our existence as a congregation. It’s an insecure way of living. I’ve had friends, and our dear Lesley Misrahi was one of them, who have moved around a great deal in their childhood, perhaps because their father was in the army, or because of housing problems. They all have a sense of insecurity, a difficulty in settling, and sometimes a difficulty in making relationships, though some like Lesley have overcome this incredibly.

At this moment our church is in a period of especial insecurity. Losing the London Mennonite Centre was a huge blow to our church life, and we are just coming out of a long period of grief for that and also for losing Lesley, not to mention Esther and Bernard. We are having to change our ways of doing things, and we don’t know where we might be in a year’s time, not only in terms of how we structure our church life, but perhaps literally in terms of where we meet. We’ve already experimented with moving home group to central London, to dip our toes in the water of finding out what it might be like to meet there. It’s not a comfortable time for us as a church.

But I think today’s main passage from 2 Samuel gives us hope. God is not a ‘staying in one place’ kind of God. In the Tabernacle, God moved about with God’s people. And that’s the whole point: the people, not the building, are the dwelling place of God. In Solomon’s prayer at the newly completed Temple, he asks: “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth?” The Christian answer is a confident, “Yes!”

The writer of our second passage, from Ephesians, tells us we are:

…members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. (Ephesians 2:20-22)

We are the living stones, the building God inhabits, and when we move, God goes with us. Indeed, God goes ahead of us, preparing a place for us, as Jesus promised to his disciples – and I believe that promise is not just about life after death, but about our lives before death, too.

We heard last week that great prophecy from Revelation 21:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (Rev 21:3)

This is not about waiting till we die and go to God; it’s about God coming to stay with us, and never leaving.

There is one other lesson we can learn from David’s experience. God tells David that he is not going to see a stable, fixed place to worship God in his lifetime. But his son Solomon will be allowed to build a temple. Sometimes we have to accept that we won’t see a dream fulfilled – this church full of people, for example – in our own lifetime, or our own time with this church. Maybe we are only here to build foundations, but it is the next generation that will see the roof put on. My old church in Waterloo was tiny when I left it, and perhaps looking at closure; but I’ve been back since, and now it’s thriving in all sorts of ways.

So as we face change in our church life, not necessarily change we have chosen, but which we have to make because of changing circumstances, we can be confident that our life together can survive a change of place and a change of routine. Because it is not in a building that God lives, but in the people of God. Let’s focus on nurturing our common life, wherever we meet. The Tabernacle was never called “the house of God”, but it was often called “the tent of meeting”, and that should teach us to focus on the meeting, not the place. As the writer of Hebrews puts it:

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another. (Hebrews 10:25)

Be encouraged. Amen.

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