Scripture Readings: 2 Samuel 7:1-14a
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Many of us live busy, hectic lives. Our family, or our work, can take up lots of time. Even our ‘downtime’- the things we do in our leisure hours- can be very busy. Often retired people tell me that they find themselves busier than ever. Sometimes you come back from holiday exhausted, because you dashed from place to place sightseeing, or climbing mountains, or meeting all those family members you only occasionally. There are schoolchildren and students who arrive in classes half asleep, because they have been up too late, communicating with friends on the mobile phones. Our culture values doing things, being constantly connected, keeping busy. We find it hard to truly switch off.
Maybe that’s because we’re not quite sure of what life is really about. Once, schoolchildren in Scotland learned, from the Westminster Catechism, that ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever’. Even if that doesn’t entirely encompass the fullness of Christian life, and even if few people thought about it, nevertheless, it was something. What do we tell children today that the purpose of life is? Many of them find a purpose for themselves- but I suspect many are floundering.
For we Christians, life is given purpose by following Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of John, he is reported to have said,
‘I have come in order that you might have life- life in all its fullness’.
Jesus suggests that life has a purpose beyond hedonism, pleasure-seeking, or trying to get rich or drunk or stoned. For a Christian, a life well lived is one in which we put love our neighbour and of God at the centre of how we live. And we are thereby promised ‘life in all its fullness’ in this life, and the next.
But in our busy lives, how do we find the time to love God? Worship is one of those ways. When we come to church, it isn’t just to socialise with our friends, or to bring God our prayers, or even to listen to a sermon. No- the prime purpose of worship is praise. Praise is how we express our love for God. Praise is how we express our gratitude to God. So our worship should be enthusiastic. We should sing loudly and give God the glory with all our hearts. It’s one way to express our love for God.
King David was a man at times uninhibited at times in his enthusiasm for worshipping God. He managed to unite all the Israelites under his rule in one nation, and captured the fortress city of Jerusalem to be its capital. And then he decided to bring the most precious object the nation possessed into his new capital- what the Good News translation calls ‘God’s Covenant Box’ – the holy box which contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, which Moses had received on Mount Sinai, better known as ‘the Ark of the Covenant’. It was a powerful object, symbolising the presence of God among his people. So King David had brought the Ark into Jerusalem amidst much rejoicing, during which he danced almost naked in front of it. David (whom we also remember as a writer of Psalms) was hardly lukewarm in praising his God.
So it’s not surprising that, in today’s reading, we find David thinking about another way of honouring God. David wants to build a temple to the Lord- if you like, a national cathedral, which will be the religious centre of his new capital city. He wants a glorious building of which the centrepiece will be the Covenant Box, the Ark. After years of war things have settled down, and even his court prophet, Nathan, reckons that God will bless whatever David does now:
King David was settled in his palace, and the Lord kept him safe from all his enemies. Then the king said to the prophet Nathan, “Here I am living in a house built of cedar, but God’s Covenant Box is kept in a tent!” Nathan answered, “Do whatever you have in mind, because the Lord is with you.”
It’s quite dangerous when religious leaders tell rulers that God is going to be with them, whatever happens. For rulers are busy people, and they can lose track of what is really important. They may be blinded by selfish ambition. They may have given themselves up to narrow political dogmas. They might be serving, not all the people, but just one section of society, like their cronies. They may be putting into practice policies which utterly unacceptable to God. Yet I’m sure you can think of politicians today who have religious leaders around them who are simply yes men- happy to tell a powerful leader that his god is on his side. That makes for bad politics, and worse religion.
Yet Nathan, it turns out, is not a yes man after all. He sleeps on it, and God speaks to him in is dreams (as quite often happens in the world of the Bible). And so he has to go to the King and say to the king on behalf of God: ‘Sorry, David, you’re not the one to build the temple. That will be the job of your successor. And anyway, all through the Exodus from Egypt, from the time Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, the Ark of the Covenant was only ever in a tent, carried from place to place. I, the Lord God of the Covenant, have never asked for a temple built of cedar’.
There are two interesting aspects to this. First, there’s a reminder that none of us is always going to know exactly the will of God. God had raised David to King, given him all of Israel to rule, allowed him to capture Jerusalem as his capital- and David had shown his devotion to God by bringing the Ark to Jerusalem. But somehow, David had lost sight of what was really important. He had confused his own ambitions with the plans of God.
Kings and rulers are busy people. It must be hard for them to find time to reflect and try to listen to what God might be trying to say to them. And too often, they are surrounded by yes men and women, sycophants who are only too willing to tell them what they want to hear.
But that is not just true of politicians- it is true of us all. None of us, probably, spend enough time in prayer and reflection and thought, away from our busy lives, surrounding ourselves with silence. So it is all too easy for us to think that what we desire for ourselves is what God wants for us. It’s too easy to mistake our ambitions for the will of God. And that can lead to problems in our lives, in our work, and even in the church. How do we know what we want is what God wants?
For King David, it must have come as a shock to hear Nathan tell him: ‘You are wrong. You have misread your own ambition for God’s will. You will not get to build the Temple- your successor will’. And that is what happened- King Solomon was the one who built the Temple, and not King David.
God grant us the time, the silence, the insight, to be able to know the difference between our great ideas, and God’s plans for us. And, when we find that our plans are not God’s plans, to have the grace and the faith to accept that we were wrong.
The second interesting aspect of this is where God gets really quite grumpy with God. God tells the prophet to remind David that he never really needed a Temple before:
‘From the time I rescued the people of Israel from Egypt until now, I have never lived in a temple; I have travelled around living in a tent. In all my traveling with the people of Israel I never asked any of the leaders that I appointed why they had not built me a temple made of cedar.’
This, of course, stands as a reminder to all of us who love our church buildings. We want to be able to worship God in special places. Surely our praise of God is better, fuller, mightier if we have a lovely building? But God reminds David that for years, the people had known the presence of God in a tent. The Ark, with ‘the Tent of the Lord’s Presence’ had moved with them from place to place, across the desert. The people did not really need a Temple to be the focus of their devotion.
And indeed, today there is no Temple in Jerusalem for the Jewish people. Since the destruction of the Temple in Roman times, the Jewish people have carried their faith in their hearts. Jerusalem might still be a special place for the Jewish people, but they have learned that God’s presence is still something which goes with them.
Christians, too have learned that. In John’s Gospel, Jesus gets into a discussion with a Samaritan woman whom gives him water from a well. Jews and Samaritans disagreed on the important of the Jerusalem Temple, but Jesus told her, and us, that true worship does not require a special building:
God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is.”
It’s not that buildings aren’t important to religious communities. But out buildings should serve our faith. For true worship is worship inspired by the Spirit of God- it comes from the heart, and can take place anywhere.
The very first Christians had no special buildings to worship in- they were too poor, and the Romans didn’t allow it- so they met in people’s houses. Yet the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians uses the imagery of the Temple to remind them, and us:
You, too, are built upon the foundation laid by the apostles and prophets, the cornerstone being Christ Jesus himself. He is the one who holds the whole building together and makes it grow into a sacred temple dedicated to the Lord. In union with him you too are being built together with all the others into a place where God lives through his Spirit.
The church is not a building- the church is its people. And, as the hymn puts it, Christ is the sure foundation, the head and cornerstone of this Temple.
So let’s be careful that, when we- rightly- get concerned about how to use our buildings, about the future of our buildings, we don’t confuse the stones of the buildings with the living stones of the people. And don’t let us confuse our preferences, ambitions and desires with what God wants us to do.
Consider the very beginning of today’s Gospel passage. Jesus had sent the apostles out to teach and heal…
The apostles returned and met with Jesus, and told him all they had done and taught. There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his disciples didn’t even have time to eat. So he said to them, “Let us go off by ourselves to some place where we will be alone and you can rest a while.” So they started out in a boat by themselves to a lonely place.
Jesus’ prescription for these busy apostles was to do what he often did himself- find a lonely place, to rest, to be refreshed, to leave our busyness behind. Even Jesus needed time off- a time which often included communing with his Father in silence and in peace.
It’s not long before the crowds are back- they more or less chase the boat round the lake, and Jesus and his friends don’t get much time to themselves. And that is the rhythm of the Christian life, and of the church’s continuing mission. There are time when we must be about our Father’s business, for the need is great. We are called to teach, to bring healing, to love our neighbours and do what we can for them. But there are other times when we must be refreshed, when we need a quiet place. Often that will be within the cool walls of our beautiful churches. Sometimes we might have to get in a boat, or head for the hills. Wherever it is, we have to sometimes go off by ourselves to some place where we will be alone and we can rest a while in the presence of God.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
 John 10.10
 2 Samuel 6.14-15
 John 3.23-24
 Ephesians 2.20-22