In I Samuel 16 to II Samuel 6, we read the story of David’s rise from unknown shepherd boy to king; anointed by the prophet Samuel, at God’s direction; his defeat of Goliath in battle; gradually winning over the states of Israel, from supporting King Saul’s family to supporting him; conquering Jerusalem and making it his capital city. This was all possible because God had chosen David, a man, the Bible says, of “clean hands, pure heart, true faith, and true speech.” As our Scripture lesson for today began, David was finally firmly-established as king: “The king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him.”
So David settles down in his comfortable throne, and he looks around at his new palace, and he begins to relax and enjoy the surroundings and the perks of being king, when all of a sudden something occurs to him: “Wait a minute,” he thinks. “Now I, King David, the political leader, have my nice palace to live in – but what about our spiritual leader, God? Here I am in a beautiful house of cedar, but the Ark of the Covenant and all our other symbols of worship and of God are still sitting in a tent. We need to build God a house too.”
A house, a permanent structure, a “church building” to use our terms, would make it official and everlasting: that this is the home of the Lord.
So David calls a man named Nathan in to discuss this new idea with him. This is the first appearance of Nathan in Scripture, and he really isn’t properly introduced to us. He is, apparently, recognized as the prophet of God, the spokesperson of God – accepted by the court as the one who speaks for God. And Nathan believes David has come up with a good idea: “Go for it,” he says. “Build that house for God. For the Lord is with you.”
So David, as I imagine it, begins to plan God’s house. The next day, perhaps, he gets up and starts the preliminary arrangements – sets up a committee, maybe; to look into it; it is a church project, after all. Then his friend Nathan stops by again. “Good morning, Nathan,” says the king. “I just started working on that house for God we were discussing yesterday.” And Nathan opens his mouth to speak again.
Now Nathan’s first answer, “build the house,” was the one David would have expected. It’s the one we readers would expect, what I would expect; it seems like a good idea. It’s logical, to set up a permanent church structure now, now that the capital city has been established. It’s respectful, and properly motivated, by honor and devotion and humility: a king with the power to do whatever he wants for himself, thinking instead of God, not his own comfort. And the time is right: no more battles to be fought, no one else claiming the throne; David can give his undivided attention to the project. And Nathan, God’s prophet, has already approved it; Nathan has said “Do it.”
But today Nathan doesn’t say “The Lord is very pleased and graciously accepts your offer,” or “The Lord is grateful and renews the blessing upon you,” or even “God likes the idea, and would like three bedrooms, a large-screen TV, and a jacuzzi.” No, Nathan has a new answer from God this morning – not an angry answer, or a disapproving answer, but a firm answer: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Do you need to build a house for me? I’ve never lived in a house. I’ve never asked for a house. I’ve never wanted a house. Who needs a house?’” God, Nathan says, doesn’t want David to build for the Lord a house after all. Cancel the plans. Disband the committee.
So God doesn’t need a house; God doesn’t want a house. God, in fact, says, “Tell you what: instead of you making me a house, how about I make you a ‘house’; we’ll call you and your descendants ‘the house of David,’ a royal line, a family which shall always hold the throne. I will make you a sort of ‘house,’ and you and your kingdom shall be established forever.”
Instead of accepting David’s offer, God has made here another promise to David and to Israel: to be with them forever, repeating the promise that has been made several times before. It is the same promise we heard in more detail in Psalm 89 this morning. It is the same promise God has acted on, repeatedly, in the past. God had promised to make a great nation from Abraham’s descendants, and did; to rescue the Hebrew people from Egypt, and did; to care for them in the desert, and did; to bring them safely into the Promised Land and establish them as a nation, and did. God has been promising things to Israel all along, and always came through. Now another promise is made: to appoint a place for Israel, and give them a strong king, and to be with both forever. Based on their past experience of God’s faithfulness, the people of Israel and King David would have no reason to doubt this promise either.
God had a good point after all. Never before had God needed a place to live, when watching over the people. God had kept promises all over the known world – in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in the desert, in Canaan; God had not needed a fixed base from which to work. Never before had God needed an official “home” – not as the God of Abraham and Sarah, as God of Moses, or God of Joshua; not when in conflict with the Pharaoh, or providing food and water in the desert, or leading the people in battle with the Canaanites. God had never had a house, a structure, yet had always remained faithful, had always kept the promises – so why should a house be needed now? That faithfulness would continue.
The faithfulness which is a feature emphasized by our Brief Statement of Faith, which says: “Loving us still, God makes us heirs with Christ of the covenant. Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still.” God is faithful. God always has been faithful. God always will be faithful. So why change anything now, David? Who needs a house?
Some three thousand years have come and gone now, since the reign of King David; three thousand years since this little discussion about whether God needed a house, and since God’s instruction to not build a house. And how do things stand now? Why, we have at least four or five houses for God in every town! There are thirty-two houses for God with Paris addresses. We have Baptist houses, Methodist houses, a Roman Catholic house, a Lutheran house . . . what happened to God’s instruction not to build a house? We have here trustees, a custodian, a Property committee, use-of-the-house policies . . . we have trust funds that can only be used to maintain the house! What happened to God’s instructions not to build a house? Have we been disobedient? Are all these houses mistakes? Should we stop investing in the upkeep of this structure and let it gradually crumble away? Knock it down? After hearing what God said to David, who needs a house?
The answer, I think, is that we need a house. It’s true that God has been faithful over thousands of years, never breaking a promise, like a perfect father or a perfect mother; that God has no need of a structure in place from which to keep promises. God is always faithful, with or without a house to come meet us in.
But we don’t do as well, do we? We need a house, a structure, to help us stay faithful to God. We need a house.
Without this house to come to, would we be as faithful in our worship to God? Would each of us set aside one or two hours every Sunday morning and give our undivided attention to the worship of God if we didn’t have this house, this structure, to draw us together to do it? I don’t think so: there are too many other distractions in our individual homes, too many other projects we wouldn’t be able to ignore, too many other things that draw our attention. We need this house, this physical structure, to get away to, to focus our attention on the worship of God. God may have no trouble being faithful to us without a house, but we would have trouble being faithful to our worship of God without this house. We need a house.
And that’s okay with God. Notice that later in our reading, God mentions, through Nathan, that David’s son will build a house for God, the Temple, and that there’s no objection to it. God doesn’t prohibit the building of houses like the Temple or like this one. The point of the message to David seems more to be that God doesn’t find it necessary to have a house right away, that it won’t interfere with God’s faithfulness or blessing of David. It’s almost like, “I appreciate the thought, but don’t bother. I don’t need it.” There’s nothing wrong, however, with our using a “God’s house,” a structure, to encourage us in our worship, if we need it – though it is a shame that the weakness of our faith requires it. It’s okay for us to have built and to sustain a “God’s house” for our benefit, and out of our need. God doesn’t need a house, a physical structure, to remain faithful, but since we do, it’s good that we have one.
We have set up other “structures” too, to encourage ourselves in the worship of God, since we know our faith isn’t perfect; not all of them physical structures, but structures nonetheless. We structure our time and our worship service, our day and our week, to try to keep ourselves faithful: while our worship of God and our appreciation of God is something that can be expressed any day, any time, for example, we have structured our week in such a way as to make Sunday morning a special time to concentrate on worship. The structured week helps us to stay faithful. We have a structure to our worship service, so that we will remember to include the many important elements of worship and not leave any out: our order of worship reminds us to praise, to confess, to thank God, to listen to God’s Word, to give, to pray for others. The structured service helps us to be faithful. We have structured programs to lead us along in the things we consider important: Sunday School and Bible study to encourage us in our study of Scripture; Sunday School and puppet teams to lead us in the Christian education of our children. The structured programs help us to be faithful. And many people give a structure to their day to help them stay faithful in their discipleship: they pray at a certain time or times each day; they pray for a certain length of time; they use a certain devotional guide. Structured daily devotions help us to be faithful.
One amazing thing about God is that God needs none of these structures to be faithful to us – no schedule, no guide, no order of worship, no house. God is always faithful, without the various tools or devices or crutches we have. God always forgives, always loves, always is available, always hears. We can have great confidence in God’s faithfulness, which is so strong it needs no reminders, including a house.
In response, we try to be faithful too. And if certain structures like this house help us, if they make us more faithful, then they are good things; let’s utilize them well. The important point is to be faithful, however it’s done.
When I graduated from college, where I had a business major, I wondered how I would remember the things I had learned, and how I would keep up with new developments with which I should be aware. Then an answer occurred to me: “Well, just because I don’t have structured classes and assignments doesn’t mean I can’t keep on with my reading; I’ll just do it on my own.” But did I keep on with my academic reading without a college structure? NO; without the structure, it didn’t happen. When I stopped taking piano lessons, I reasoned, “It doesn’t matter. I can still practice every day and assign myself harder and harder pieces. My progress doesn’t have to stop just because structured lessons do.” But did I keep on progressing and playing, by assigning myself pieces to practice daily? NO; without the structure of lessons, it didn’t happen. When I graduated from seminary, I said, “I can just keep up with my pace of reading on theology and ministry myself. I don’t need the structure of assignments and exams to keep reading that many books.” But did I keep up that pace?
Our faithfulness isn’t perfect; we do need structures. God’s faithfulness doesn’t lapse; but ours does. God doesn’t need reminders, but we do. God doesn’t need a house of God. But we do.
Let us pray: God, thank you for your faithfulness; help us with ours. Thank you for this house of God; help us to sustain it and utilize it well. Thank you for your patience, and for all the ways you have provided by which we can enourage ourselves to be faithful; help us to use them wisely. Amen.