Tent meetings have a long and honourable history in Christianity, especially in evangelical Christianity; a century ago, they were very common. A travelling preacher would come to town; he would find a public space, or perhaps a church would make some property available. The preacher would put up a big tent with room for perhaps two or three hundred seats, and he would post advertisements around town: “Tent meetings this week, Monday to Friday, at such and such a spot!” And people would come, night after night; hymns would be sung, and the preacher would preach the good news of Jesus and invite people to commit their lives to him. Some people would respond; maybe they would even come to the front of the tent to pray with someone and make a Christian commitment. After a week, the meetings would be over, the tent would be taken down, and the preacher would move on somewhere else.
Having the tent gave the preacher mobility. If he’d had a big auditorium, it would have been a lot harder for him to up stakes and move on to the next town. His tent was flexible; as long as he could find a patch of land, he could put it up anywhere. So a tent was ideal for the sort of ministry travelling evangelists were doing. However, most people would not see it as ideal for regular weekly worship, especially in North America. Imagine having tent services in Edmonton in the middle of winter! But even in warmer, Mediterranean countries, most congregations don’t want to worship week by week in a tent. A permanent church building seems to be something most people find appropriate.
So it comes as a surprise for us to remember that, for about four hundred years, from the time Moses led the people out of Egypt until the time of King Solomon, Israel had no permanent place of worship. When they were travelling in the wilderness for forty years, God told them to make him a tent. Of course, it was a bit more elaborate than an ordinary family tent from Campers’ Village! Most of it had no roof, because the priests were going to burn animal sacrifices in it, and it had to be big enough for them to be able to do their work. Right at the centre of this ‘tabernacle’, as they called it, was the place where they stored ‘the Ark of the Covenant’, the ornate box where Moses had placed the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, and there was also a ‘mercy seat’ where Moses and the priests went to offer prayers for the people, and an elaborate candelabra. All well and good – some of this stuff was made of gold, and pretty expensive, but still, at the end of the day, all this was stored in a tent! The people went to meet with God, and to offer sacrifices to God, in a flimsy, impermanent structure.
And God was entirely happy about this. In today’s reading, after King David proposes that he build something more appropriate for the God of all the earth, God reminds him that he’s never asked for anything more elaborate than a tent:
“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?’” (2 Samuel 7:6-7).
God, it seems, is quite content to live in sub-standard housing!
There are a couple of points to notice in these verses. First, what’s God been doing for the past four hundred years? He’s been ‘moving about among all the people of Israel’ (v.7). Temples, in the ancient world, tended to remove gods from the ordinary people; the gods were walled in, separate from the proletariat. And David’s plan to build a house for God in Jerusalem would no doubt involve God and David becoming neighbours; undoubtedly the house would be next door to David’s palace, and a long way away from the low-income housing! But God didn’t want that; God was quite content to slum it with the peasants! God has always been completely happy ‘moving about among the people’!
Second, what’s this about ‘a house of cedar’? Well, two chapters earlier we read that after David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his new capital city, Hiram king of Tyre sent him a gift:
‘King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to David, along with cedar trees, and carpenters and masons who built David a house. David then perceived that the LORD had established him over Israel, and that he had exalted his kingdom for the sake of his people Israel’ (2 Samuel 5:11-12).
David, in other words, had arrived! The youngest of Jesse’s eight sons, the little guy who used to look after his dad’s sheep outside Bethlehem, was now the mighty king over all Israel! Talk about a rags to riches story! And now Hiram, his neighbour king of Tyre, sends workers and materials to build him a house appropriate to his new status as King of Israel. You can be pretty sure that this house would be quite a bit fancier than the houses of the ordinary people of Jerusalem. David was the King, after all; God had exalted him over all Israel, and he needed a house that would emphasize that fact.
You see what’s happening here? David, a man after God’s own heart, a man the Bible calls ‘the sweet singer of Israel’, has been called by God to be shepherd of his people. But he’s in danger of becoming a false, self-serving shepherd, one who uses religion to emphasize his own status and power among the people. He even consults his pastor about it! ‘Nathan, do you think it’s appropriate for me to be living in a house of cedar while God puts up with that ratty old tent?’ Nathan, of course, has visions of preaching in a beautiful new building, and he smiles and says, “Go, do all that you have in mind, for the Lord is with you” (v.3). Preachers, you know, have a weakness for this sort of thing!
But during the night, things change. Like many pastors and priests since then, Nathan had made the mistake of speaking in God’s name without first consulting God to find out what he thought. Nathan thought he already knew what God wanted, and so he had no problem issuing the building permit in God’s name. But during the night, God speaks to Nathan, and the next day the prophet has to go back to the King with his cap in his hand and say, “Sorry, I made a mistake; apparently God’s got other ideas!”
What’s God saying to David, and what does it have to say to us today?
First, quite clearly, God’s saying, “Don’t get big ideas about yourself, David; don’t forget where I found you!”
“I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel” (v.8).
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when David says to Nathan, “See now, here I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent” (v.2), Nathan and David both apparently assume that it’s God’s housing situation that has to change, and not David’s! Nathan doesn’t say to David, “Okay, then – when are you moving out of the house of cedar?” David is in danger of becoming a king like any other king – one who thinks he’s entitled to live in a splendid palace, with a vast expense account, surrounded by yes-men who will perform his every wish!
Of course, this is so common today that we hardly notice it. We assume that people who have high political office have a right to six-figure salaries and a sumptuous standard of living. The President should live in the White House, the Queen should live in Buckingham Palace, bishops and archbishops should live in bishop’s palaces (as they do in many parts of the world). There’s a verse in the old hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ which we rarely sing today; it says:
‘The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate;
God made them, high and lowly,
and ordered their estate’.
Of course, the idea that the rich man has a right to live in a castle while the poor man begs at his gate may have been very comfortable for Victorian aristocrats, but you can’t find a shred of support for it the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. Jesus told his followers to sell their possessions and give to the poor; he forbade us to store up for ourselves treasures on earth, and he condemned the rich man whose approach to wealth was to tear down his storehouses and build bigger ones while he ignored the poor.
So God is warning David, as he’s warning us, not to get big ideas about ourselves. God is quite content to slum it with the poor, ‘moving about among all the people of Israel’ (v.7). And the Church of Jesus Christ ought to be like him in this. It’s interesting to me how much attention Pope Francis has been getting for this very thing: he’s moved out of the papal palaces and into a small apartment, and he’s doing his best to get rid of the trappings of wealth and power and emphasize simplicity and solidarity with the poor. King David was in danger of forgetting where he had come from, but Pope Francis hasn’t forgotten that. He hasn’t forgotten his call to live in such a way as to remind people of Jesus, who ‘humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death’ (Philippians 2:8).
The second thing God is saying to David is “Don’t get so caught up in what you’re going to do for me, as if I needed your help! I’m the one who’s going to do things for you!”
In verses 8-17 God spells this out to David. He says, in effect, “I’m the one who’s done all this for you; you didn’t do it for yourself. I took you from your dad’s sheepfold, and made you prince over my people Israel. I’ve given you victory over your enemies and made you secure on your throne. I’ve given my people Israel a place to live, and I’m going to protect them there and give them security, so that their enemies will trouble them no more. You want to build me a house, David? I’ve got a better idea: I’m going to build you a house!” (in Hebrew, as in English, the phrase ‘the house of David’ can mean ‘the house David lives in’, or ‘the family of David, including all his descendents’).
So God says to David,
“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. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (vv.12-14a, 16).
Christian interpreters of course have seen Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy. The royal line of David has disappeared today, but Jesus is a descendent of David, and God has anointed him, not just as king of Israel, but as Lord of all. David was messing about building houses of wood and stone, which one day would fall to dust, and all along God had this incredible plan in mind! “You think you’re going to build me a house, David? Wait until you see the house I’m going to build for you!”
Yes, of course we work hard for God, but it’s amazing how it’s often the things we don’t work hard at that come to fruition! One of the pastors I admire the most likes to say that the evangelism we don’t plan often seems to work better than the evangelism we do! We talk about working for the Kingdom of God, but if you read the gospels carefully you’ll see that the Kingdom is never talked about as something we build. We can seek it, we can pray for it, we can do our best to live by its values, but in the end the kingdom of God is something God gives. “Do not be afraid, little flock”, says Jesus, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom!” (Luke 12:32). And what does Paul say on the subject? ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13).
So God is telling David not to get big ideas about himself, and he’s telling him not to get so caught up in what he wants to do for God, so that he misses the amazing things God is going to do for him. Lastly – and this may be the most important thing of all – God is telling him that it’s not a house of wood and stone that God lives in – it’s a family and a people.
What is the house of God? Is it the Temple that Solomon will build in Jerusalem? What a ridiculous idea! Solomon knew how ridiculous it was, even as he was building it! When he prayed the prayer of dedication for the Temple, he said,
“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)
The whole universe cannot contain God, so how can a house built by mere mortals ever do such a thing? House of God? What an astounding idea!
But there was a house that could do that. John’s gospel tells us that after Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem, the religious authorities came to him and asked him for a sign from heaven to prove that he had the authority to do it.
‘Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”. The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body’ (John 2:19-21).
Jesus is the temple where God lives. Paul says in Colossians, ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’ (Colossians 1:19). And in Ephesians Paul goes even further than this. Amazing though it may seem, he says, there is still a temple of God on earth today, even though we no longer see Jesus in the flesh. In today’s reading from Ephesians he says that we, the Church of Jesus Christ, are the new temple of God.
‘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 the Lord’ (Ephesians 2:21-22).
Much as we love this church building where we meet, it is not the house of God. You are the house of God. In the New Testament God has never promised to live in a building; he’s promised to live in people, and especially in the people who gather together in the name of Jesus. Church buildings are fine as long as we treat them simply as convenient places where we can meet together for worship. But if we fall into the trap of making them more important than the people who gather there, then we’re in danger of the same error David almost fell into – treating the work of our hands as more important than the work God is doing among us.
God is building a house far more wonderful than anything we can imagine. It stretches through time and space; it’s made up of people of every tribe, language and nation. You are part of that house, and so am I. And as the psalmist says, ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes!’ (Psalm 118:23). Amen!