Monday, December 15, 2008

What's in a house?

In 2 Samuel 7, King David desires to build a house for God. This desire seems reasonable enough. It even seems good and holy on David's part. After all, the passage says that God has given David rest from all of his enemies and David himself dwells in a luxurious palace. So it only seems right that David would want to honor God in some way and one of the normal things a king could do in the ancient world in order to honor a god was to build that god a temple. We often speak with similar language today, believing that the honor we show to our church buildings, which we sometimes refer to as God's house, is one reflection of how highly we honor God. Even the prophet Nathan seems to agree that this is a good idea. God has been with David in everything else he has done so why wouldn't God approve of a pious action like this one? It seems that David can do no wrong.

But then the passage tells us that on that very same night God told Nathan to say to David "Are you the one who should build Me a house to dwell in?" God reminds David through Nathan that he has dwelt in a tent ever since he miraculously delivered the people from their oppression in Egypt and never once did he ask anyone to build a house for him. Furthermore, God is the one who has built up David. Why does David now think that he can build up God? God seems almost angry with David for having even considered the idea of building a house for God. Why does something that appeared to be such a holy and pious act now appear to be almost offensive to God?

Consider what a house represents: permanence, stability, settling down. Jess and I will become home owners tomorrow morning and when we do our fate as a family will be that much more closely tied to the fate of this community. Owning a home is a very physical and financial demonstration that we intend to be here for a while and that the problems and prosperity of Clinton, IL will be our problems and prosperity. We already had a vested interest in this town but now we will in an even more immediate and intimate way.

David knows of all this when he proclaims that he is going to build a house for God. David knows that if he can build a temple for Yahweh in his capital city then this will in some way bind God's honor with the level of peace and prosperity that exists in Israel. What may appear to be a purely sacrificial act to the glory and honor of God may, in fact, be an attempt to tie God down, to bind God's fate with the fate of David's kingdom, even to legitimate David's reign. And God sees right through it. On the one hand, this passage portrays Yahweh as a radically free God who refuses to be limited by a building.

On the other hand, in this passage God practically gives back with one hand what he has taken with the other. God repudiates David for even a hint of trying to manipulate God by building a temple. But even as God says that he will not be held captive by a temple, he makes David another promise. God tells David that he will build a house for David, meaning not a physical structure but a dynasty of descendants who will rule over David's kingdom forever. God has turned the tables on David and instead of allowing David to build a house for God, God is going to build a house for David. Furthermore, God promises that his loving-kindness will never depart from David's descendants. The irony is that in many ways, this promise to David may be just as or even more binding on God than if David had built a temple for God. All in the same word to Nathan, God refuses to be limited by a building but promises to be eternally bound to a people.

Certainly, this is one of the most beautiful realities of the incarnation, of the Christmas story. It is so much more than an adorable little story about a new born in a manger. It is the reality that the almighty God of everything has chosen to be limited by human flesh, to be forever bound to the fate of his creation by becoming one of us. Our radically free God who is capable and free to do whatever he wants, who refuses even the hint of manipulation by his own anointed king, who will not and can not be limited by any power other than his own free choice, freely chooses to be forever constrained by the birth of this child 2000 years ago. The boundless God has forever bound himself to the fate of his people.

What can we say?

other than a humble

"Thanks be to God!"

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