Again, following Brueggemann’s basic interpretation of the passage.
For over 2000 years, the Tuareg people of West Africa have wandered in the Sahara desert, driving herds of sheep and cattle as they went. They have lived in portable tents made of animal skins. Spending much of their time through the regions of Mali, in West Africa, they were known to travel as far as Libya and Egypt in order to conduct trade. For over 2000 years, the Tuareg lived as a people on the move – they were defined by movement. Over the last 30 – 40 years, however, changes to the Saharan climate have led to changes in the culture of this people – the lakes at which the Tuareg would water their herds have dried up. The rains, limited as they always were, and on which the Tuareg depended, have also dried up. In the past 5 – 10 years, this ancient people has been forced to give up its nomadic ways. They have mostly put away their tents – they now live settled villages – in the same mud houses as other people in the region.
Perhaps we can imagine the difficulty of the blue-turbaned men of the desert in giving up their nomadic ways. Perhaps we can imagine the feeling of constraint and enclosure the Tuareg must feel. We can imagine that the idea of living in a mud house after living for generations in the open-sided tents, might have been almost claustrophobia-inducing. The Tuareg of West Africa are making the transition with some difficulty. From a nomadic people, to a people fixed in one place.
For a long time, the God of Israel lived in a tent in the midst of his people. Last week Sarah described for us the ark of the covenant – this mobile dwelling place of God. The ark was a box carried by men who had been set apart by God. Wherever the people went, or wherever God led them, the presence of God went with them in the ark. Where the people settled, here and there, a tent was set up within their midst – and in that tent the ark of the covenant.
But by the time of David, the wilderness wanderings of God’s people are largely a thing of the past. The people of God are settling down in the land of promise. They are by no means completely secure in their new homeland, but they are putting down roots, becoming established – this particular land is becoming their land.
And as this physical and mental and cultural shift to a settled existence takes place for God’s people, David begins to think that it is not appropriate for God to dwell in a tent. David himself is living in a house made of cedar – in that time cedar was a highly valued commodity – David is living in a house fit for a king. And David thinks to himself – if I am living in this splendid, fixed dwelling, shouldn’t we set God up in a place as plush and secure as this.
Upon hearing this suggestion of David, the prophet Nathan initially offers a positive reply. “Go for it, David. Do as you see fit”. Nathan sees David as someone who has been blessed by God in remarkable ways. Nathan can’t imagine that God would object to anything David wants.
It turns out, though, that God does object. Here is God’s reply: “Did I ask for this? I have never lived in a house, and I don’t want to start living in a house now. I have always lived in a tent. Since I brought you out of Egypt, through all your wanderings, I have lived in a tent. I have been mobile. And I’ve liked it that way. Do you think, David, that if I wanted to live in a house I wouldn’t have told you that?”
As we can understand the challenge to the Tuareg of West Africa in settling down in towns and houses after two thousand years of nomadic existence – as we understand the challenge of that ancient people in being fixed in one place – perhaps we can equally understand God’s objection. The tent symbolizes the freedom of God – the movement of God. The tent symbolizes that God is free to come and go as God pleases. The tent symbolizes the lack of constraint on God.
Throughout history, from the most ancient times to the most modern times, humans have attempted to domesticate God – humans have always tried to exercise some degree of control over God – control over the movement of God, the presence of God, and the ways of God. And here in reply to David, God says it loud and clear – “I am a God of freedom. I am a God who moves. I am a God free to come and go as I please.
David, don’t try to domesticate me.
David, don’t try and tie me down.
David, don’t try and fix me in this temple so you can use me to legitimize whatever you want to do as king.”
Through all of the books of the wonderful Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, you will remember that the lion Aslan represents the person of Jesus. In these stories the lion Aslan is Jesus – Jesus is Aslan. And as I was thinking this week about our sermon for today, a refrain from the Narnia series came to my mind. Through the seven books of the series, there is a beautiful refrain repeated. In reference to Aslan it is said time and again: “He is not a tame lion.”
In The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the second book in the Narnia series, Lucy and the fawn Mr. Tumnus are discussing their sadness at the departure of Aslan. Mr. Tumnus says: “Don’t worry. We’ll see him again.” “When,” asks Lucy. “In time,” replies Mr. Tumnus. “One day he’ll be here and the next he won’t. But you must not press him. After all, he’s not a tame lion.”
The God who created our world, who called David the shepherd as his servant – the God who has shown his loving face in Jesus, is not a tame God. Not a God we can tie down in this place or that – not a God we can safely define according to our rigid categories. Very often we want to domesticate God, to control God
We want a God who will take our point of view,
We want a God who will affirm our comfortable western values,
We want a God who will let us have our affluent lives.
We want a God who won’t ask uncomfortable questions.
We want a God who will let us have our familiar religious practices.
He is not a tame lion. One day he will be here, the next he will be gone. He will come and go as he pleases. Don’t try to box him in. Don’t build him a house. He is not a tame lion.
At the centre of this important passage of scripture is a play on words – and with this play on words the text suddenly moves in quite a new direction. The play on words is around the word ‘house’. Even in English, the word house has different meanings – a house is a building, something you live in. But house can also mean a family. For example, we speak of the House of Orange, or the House of Windsor. And when we do so, of course, we’re not talking about the buildings these royal families have lived in – we are talking about the royal dynasties they represent – the House of Windsor, the House of orange. – historic royal families.
The Hebrew word for house in this text also has this double meaning. David wants to build God a house – a temple – a building. But in verse 11 of our passage, God says through the voice of the prophet Nathan: “David, the Lord will make you a house.”
God says: “When your days are fulfilled, David, 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.”
A few verses later: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”
David wants to build a house for God – David wants to build a royal edifice suitable for God. But God turns the tables and says, never mind a house for me. I don’t want a house, David. But, I will make you a house – in you I will create a dynasty.
Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar suggests that this is one of the most important texts in all of the Old Testament. Of course it is a text in which there is some ambiguity. Within the history of David and his descendants, this is the kind of text that could be used as an ideological weapon – a text used to defend the royal privilege. It is a text that is used to say: “Look, God made this covenant with the family of David, you better not mess with the royal line.” This text, and the covenant it points to, could be used for unsavoury purposes. It is a very human text.
So, yes, this text has this kind of ambiguity. And yet it is such a key text – because within a text like this, the messianic vision of Judaism and Christianity is born – the hope for one through whom God will finally give rest to his people. This is what God says to David: “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… and I will give you rest from all your enemies.”
Of course it will be partly in the time of David himself that God will give his people this rest, this peace. But then the text goes on: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom forever…”
When we hear this, we immediately think of Jesus, probably. But when it was written, this text did not make specific reference to Jesus – the author wasn’t thinking about Jesus. He may have been speaking of David’s son Solomon. Or he may have been speaking of a more distant descendant of David. But here is the messianic hope – the hope for one who would make things right – here the messianic hope takes on a wonderful life within the history of God’s people.
Now I confess that I am not someone who is terribly interested in genealogies. I can remember back in high school tracing a family tree back a few generations – alas, it was pretty mundane stuff – no hardened cattle thieves; no financial intrigues; no stories from intrepid world travelers. The best I got was some old pictures of great grandparents – and the picture of a house where great-great-great grandparents had lived in Holland. I confess I can’t get to interested in genealogy.
For the gospel writers, genealogy matters. In both the gospel of Matthew and in the gospel of Luke you find genealogies – these long lists of names. And as I suggested during our reading of Matthew’s genealogy, we pay particular attention this morning to the place of David. The genealogy concludes: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”
As he begins to tell the story of Jesus, Matthew gives us this genealogy. And at the heart of that genealogy is none other than David. Why David? Because of the promise made to David in our passage for today – because David represents the messianic hope.
When the followers of Jesus tell his story.
When the earliest followers of Jesus reflect on his life;
When they see what he did, when they consider his death, and when they explain his resurrection;
they remember the promise of God to David – a promise of peace, of blessing, and of deep human rest. And they say to themselves: “This is it.” Here is peace. Here is freedom. Here is the rest that God promised through David. Tracing Jesus’ lineage back to David is a way of affirming Jesus’ identity as messiah.
Here’s how the prophecy to David concludes: “David, your descendant shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I 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. But I will not take my steadfast love from him.”
“Your descendant will build a house for my name. This one from whom I will never take my steadfast love, he will build a house for me. This one whose kingdom will never fail, he will build a house for me.”
For the earliest followers of Jesus, there was no other way to read these words than as follows: “Jesus will build a house for my name.”
When we look at the gospels, there is a bit of ambiguity about the significance of temple in Jerusalem for Jesus. But about this there is no ambiguity in the New Testament: the people who gather in Jesus’ name are the house that the messiah is building. The house that Jesus the messiah builds is a community of women and men and children.
Jesus is building a house of those who know the forgiveness of God.
Jesus is building a house of those who walk in the love of God.
Jesus is building a house of those who live in humble service.
Jesus is building a house of those who walk in the way of his kingdom.
God said to David: “Your descendant David will build a house for my name.” It turns out that we are the house that David’s descendant builds – and it is the risen Jesus who builds us up in faith, and hope, and love, and service, to the glory of God’s name.
Thanks be to God, Amen.